As a psychotherapist and life/career coach for gay men for over 23 years, the question I hear most frequently from new clients, “How do I change something about my life?” They want to add something they want, get rid of something they don’t want, or change something so that it better meets their needs. This can be about many topics: yourself, dating, relationships, career, finances, home setting, health, and certainly mental health.
Despite my long-term specialization in therapy for gay men and life coaching for gay men, each client’s needs are unique, and each client needs his own special approach to support. But I’ve come to realize that if you follow these seven steps, real change – lasting, valuable change – is possible through the therapy or coaching process. Here are those steps:
- Change Your Thinking – In order to change your life, you have to change your thinking and your attitude. Particularly your attitude. You need to drop any sense of negativity or hopelessness that that it can’t be done. Lots of things can be changed, even if you just change your mental approach to it. Before you say anything with your voice, or use your hands, or move your feet, you need to change your thinking – which can be done in an instant. You can make up your mind to change any millisecond in life that you want to. Isn’t that empowering? Despite it being so simple, many of us forget to do it. But all major life changes (or even minor ones) start with taking a different approach to your thinking, usually from a negative outlook to a positive one. When you make up your mind to change something, you have to make a serious commitment to yourself. You can’t be wishy-washy or you won’t achieve your goal; you’ll procrastinate and pussyfoot around and your goal will remain unattained. You have to be clear in your mind on what you want, and be willing to make sacrifices to get it. You have to make the commitment that you’re going to devote the time, money, and energy that’s required to reach your goal, once you decide that the goal is worth having.
- Change Your Behaviors – There is a saying that I like to borrow from Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “If you always do what always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” As cutesy as that is, I think it’s powerful. You’ve got to change how you talk, to yourself and to others. You have to change how you prioritize and spend your resources of time, energy, and money. You have to adjust behaviors like when you are working and when you are playing. You have to change at least some of what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with. Think about your goals, especially the ones you (frustratedly) haven’t reached yet. If you haven’t reached that goal, you’re either doing something that you shouldn’t that’s keeping you from your goal, or you’re not doing something that you should. For example, if you’re demoralized because you’re overweight, you’re either doing something (like eating too much) or not doing something (like eating better and exercising) that’s keeping you from your goal. Think of this to say to yourself: “If I’m to reach my goal, what do I need to do with my voice, hands, and feet? What do I need to say, to whom? What do I need to do with my hands (call someone, type an email, etc.)? What do I need to do with my feet (drive someplace, walk someplace)?
- Get Social Support – It’s very hard to achieve MOST goals in life without help. Think to yourself, who are the people who can help me with this? You can’t be “shy” or “avoidant” about speaking up and asking others for help. If you’re intimidated, too bad; get over it. Adults need to ask others for help; if the other person says no, that’s on them; find someone else to help you, who will probably end up being more help in the first place. Who can inform you? Who can encourage you? Who can be your worst critic to challenge you when you need it? Who can you gripe to? Build an entire army of people who somehow support you in your goal.
- Sustain It – Attaining your goal, or making the changes you want in life, is a process, not an event. It’s not something you do one day, and it’s done, and forget. At least for most lasting changes. If your goal is to get in better physical shape, and then you eat better and exercise, ask yourself, “How do I sustain this over time?”. It’s not a one-time thing; you are giving up eating badly and not exercising for good; it’s the “new normal”. Same thing with paying off debt, and staying out of debt. Same thing with cleaning up your home, and keeping it clean. Same thing with being clean/sober in addictions. Sustaining your changes over time are key to not yo-yo-ing or relapsing into “old” behaviors or failing to sustain your life changes so that you’re in the same complaint all over again. Learn to grow in ways that are permanent, with no “going back” or regressing.
- Evaluate It – After you’ve made the change you want, or attained the goal, evaluate it. Was it worth the cost? Does it bring you the joy you wanted it to? If it doesn’t, and you feel frustrated again, make a new set of goals or changes that you think would help. We are always “works in progress” in this life, and we are empowered to make life changes up to the day we die.
- Take a Break from It – My favorite personal fitness idols all recommend a “cheat day” to their pristine diet plans, just because. They need to indulge in fattening or sweet or not-very-nutritious food once in a while. Or someone who saves money diligently the vast majority of the time might need to spend on something frivolous, fun, and self-indulgent once in a while. If your habits are generally sound the majority of the time, you can have brief “cheat times” and you’ll be fine; in fact, “cheat days” help you sustain your more goal-directed behavior the rest of the time. Everything in moderation – sometimes including moderation.
- Refine/Recommit/Reevaluate – As you make changes, continue to refine the process with still more, perhaps smaller change. Recommit to what you want those changes to be, and make up your mind that they are worth pursuing. Re-evaluate from time to time about what’s important to you, because you change as you get older, and the world changes, too. Once a desired change is complete, repeat the cycle by identifying other changes and goals that would make you feel good.
Think about your life, career, relationships, finances, health, etc., right now. What changes really come to mind as desirable? See if you can apply these 7 steps, and how they make you feel. My hunch is that they make you feel validated, dignified, and worthy of pursuing important life changes. It’s important to be serene with what we have – that’s important, too. You’re “good enough” and you don’t need to be perfect. But you’re also an autonomous adult, and you have the power to make the changes you need and want anytime you decide to make it happen. You have the adult prerogative to make changes as you see fit.
For help with your resolve, your thinking/behaviors, or the resources you need to succeed, consider therapy or coaching. Sustained (weekly) sessions and guidance from a professional can put renewed energy into your goals and increase their likelihood of coming to fruition, while probably decreasing the time they take to achieve. The time is now to start making the changes you want.