Gay men making real life changes goes beyond making new year’s resolutions. While “resolutions” are a bit a of cliche, where for many of us, the motivated and desired changes you make January 1 fade by the time February comes, making necessary changes is a hard process, even when we realize it’s important to make and sustain real changes in our lives. Facing today’s challenges with your mental health, health, fitness, diet, job responsibilities, domestic chores, and finances requires a lot of flexibility at any moment. As the year progresses, we have to be ready to make minor (and sometimes major) changes that will improve our mental/physical health, or well-being in other ways. This kind of adaptability (and what’s called “neuroplasticity” — meaning, our brain’s ability to make changes, even on a neurobiological level) is important for healthy long-term aging and for overall stress management. Drawing from my long (over 25 years) career as a therapist and coach specializing in gay men (and gay male couples), I’d like to offer some ideas on how January’s resolutions can be sustained throughout the year, or for a lifetime, drawing from some important psychological techniques from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy:
The secret to successful changes is in having a systematic approach. Saying that you’ll lose 10 pounds of excess weight or that you’ll stop smoking is just the beginning; actually achieving your goal involves breaking down the goal into smaller steps, into what Jack Canfield, in his classic book, The Success Principles: How to Get From Where You are to Where You Want to Be, calls “chunking it down.” In 1986, Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente published a book (Changing for Good) about how people change. In this, they listed the five Stages of Change, which are:
1) Precontemplation – meaning a person isn’t really wanting to change, they just “do their thing”;
2) Contemplation – meaning that people are thinking about the pros and cons of changing; it could go either way;
3) Preparation – meaning a person has decided to change and is planning a strategy to do that;
4) Action – meaning the person follows the plan of change they set out – this can be the real hard part; and
5) Maintenance – meaning that a person needs ongoing support for their change, or they revert back to an earlier stage and then have to move forward again.
If you’re trying to change a habit, practice, routine, or pattern in your life, which of these stages are you in currently?
Another key factor in making any “new year’s resolution” effective is to do some practical problem-solving around it. In my psychotherapy practice, I primarily use Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In using various CBT techniques, I teach my clients that problem solving includes a series of steps. To paraphrase these techniques, try these steps:
1 Identify the problem – what is negative that you want to see less of, or what is positive that you want to see more of in your life?
2. Determine a goal. If the problem is that your dog pees in the house, is your goal to train your dog or just pull up the carpets?
3. Brainstorm, very creatively, all the different options you have, no matter how wild. Make a long list, starting with, “I could _______”. With the dog example, you could consult a veterinarian, ask the salesperson at the local pet store, or buy a book on training dogs.
4. Evaluate those solutions. List the pros and cons of each option: You could ask the salesperson, but maybe they don’t know. You could consult a vet, but maybe she’s expensive. You could buy a book, but the book can’t actually converse with you.
5. Choose the best and most appropriate option. Given all the pros and cons, which would you choose – the salesperson, the vet, or the book?
6. Develop an action plan. If you chose the vet, what do you do next? Google “veterinarians with good reviews” and call one? Ask your friend for his dog’s vet’s phone number? Drive by a local vet near your home?
7. Act. Just, act. Call the vet, get an appointment, and then see what happens.
Another important part of the process involves making changes by developing and implementing a series of goals. Ideally, a goal should be realistic – not flying to the moon by flapping your arms, but something you can actually do, even if it would take time to learn or be challenging. It should be clear – not just “I’d like to be healthier this year”, but “I’d like to quit smoking by March 1st.” It should be not too easy and not too hard – say, “My goal is to quit smoking by March 1st”, not, “I’m going cold turkey as of yesterday and will never smoke again.” It should also have a clear endpoint: If you say, “I’ll stop smoking really soon”, how will you know you achieved “soon”? By March? By June? By next December 31st? Make it clear in your mind and visualize it happening. Do some mindfulness meditation. Have a clear view of how you would feel and function if you were smoke-free.
Think about the resources you need to reach your goal. Do you need money? Time? Advice? Professional consultation? Support from friends or family? Learning? Networking? Confidence? How can you get those resources? You might need the help of others to reach your goal; to quote the Stephen Sondheim song, “No One Is Alone.”
Finally, it’s important to reward yourself for small steps in your goals. If you go without smoking for 2 days, reward yourself with a special event or celebration. If you smoked two packs a day, maybe you can use your savings to buy something you’ve been wanting from your Amazon Wish List. Rewarding yourself for small steps is an important part of what mental health professionals call behavioral conditioning; behaviors that are rewarded with something pleasurable will tend to increase in frequency.
So for this New Year, why not make not just “resolutions” that dissolve quickly, but a specific behavioral plan for meaningful life changes. If you follow the steps this year, you might get closer than you ever have before. If you do this year over year, you grow as a person, as a professional, and as someone with strong interpersonal relationships.
If you need support for making changes to your life, or the changes are large in magnitude, consider having therapy or coaching. A course of Cognitive-Behavioral, supportive, goal-oriented therapy can make a difference.
Ken Howard, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and life/career coach who has specialized in working with gay men, as individuals and couples, for over 27 years. He helps many gay men (and others) resolve the issues that undermine your quality of life.
For help with making life changes, or other challenges, consider sessions with Ken for counseling, coaching, or therapy sessions, at his office in Los Angeles/West Holllywood (near Beverly Center mall), or via phone, or via webcam, anywhere in the world. Call/text 310-339-5778 or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information.
Ken is also available for expert witness work on legal proceedings involving gay issues, all LGBT issues, HIV issues, and issues concerning psychiatric illness or disability, as well as organizational consulting for non-profit organizations, corporations, college campuses, and conferences.
To get your copy of his self-help book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, click here. It’s your “portable therapist” for the challenges you face today in your mental health, health, career, finances, family, spirituality, and community.