Encouraging personal change

All of us have experienced moments that have changed our lives, one way or another. Sometimes changes are positive (such as the discovery of an exciting new idea which changes our view of the world, or an experience that gives us a new goal in life) and sometimes negative (a trauma that undermines our security and confidence). How and why do these moments change us so much? Can we find ways to encourage positive moments, and to diminish the effects of the negative ones, in ourselves and others?
We can consider all of our thoughts and actions in relation to a hierarchy of personal beliefs and actions which can be represented as having seven levels:
• Social and cultural values
• Our family history (both truth and myth)
• Our self-image and personal history
• Ongoing social relationships
• Social episodes or encounters
• Our emotional and non-verbal behaviour
• The intended message in our speech

The levels constantly interact; but beliefs at higher levels will exert powerful influences on the levels below, especially our behaviour and speech within encounters. (If we view a relationship as a burden or obligation, we are likely to display a flat emotional tone and our speech is then unlikely to convey enthusiasm, no matter what we say. Conversely, if our usual interaction with someone involves having a fun time, we can miss hints that they want to discuss something more serious.)
When we discuss our personal problems, we are usually checking out our view of an event or encounter, and its links with beliefs at other levels, with our confidant. For example, “When we saw Sue last night she ignored me. I felt as if, deep down, she really didn’t want to see me. She probably thinks I’m really boring.” With this statement, the speaker invites his confidant to either agree or offer another opinion about Sue’s actions within that episode, or about how her perception of him shapes her relationship with him.
Personal change can result when we receive a reply that radically alters our understanding of what is happening within one or more of these levels: for example, “You’re not boring; you are the least boring person I know. You always speak your mind about things that matter. You know how conventional she is; she was probably terrified in case she said something that makes her seem stupid and makes you laugh at her.” If persuasive, this comment might cause significant changes in the person’s self-image and other relationship(s), thus changing his confidence and message in future encounters. The more levels are affected, the more significant the change. The most persuasive comments tend to be built on evidence (Sue’s conventionality) and also appeal to aspects of self-image that the person takes a pride in (speaking his mind).
This statement is an example of reframing: ie offering an explanation which places the action or event in a completely different context, thus changing its meaning in a radical way. Reframing can be applied to aspects of self-image (‘withdrawn’ as ‘thoughtful’; ‘miserable’ as ‘sensitive and compassionate’) behaviour (‘aggressive’ as ‘fiery’; ‘attention-seeking’ as ‘extravert’) and to beliefs (‘controlling’ as ‘believing in responsibility’; ‘opinionated’ as ‘seeking a debate’). It can also be applied to issues of blame or cause by referring to indirect outcomes (‘trouble-maker’ as ‘the family alarm bell’; ‘the cause of our arguments’ as ‘the one who brings you together’).
Metaphors, which act as symbolic representations of our beliefs about ourselves, others and relationships, are one of the most powerful types of reframing. For example:
He’s got you wrapped up in cotton wool, hasn’t he?
Her problem is, you know, it takes a bomb to disturb you…
Are you feeling trapped and imprisoned, by any chance?
Perhaps despite everything, she gives you a real sense of belonging…

A simple truth like this, wrapped in a metaphor, can cause ripples of change through the way we see ourselves and our world (up and down the hierarchy of beliefs) or empower a person to feel a new determination to problem solve.
A story can be viewed as an extended metaphor; for people who resist taking direct advice, suggestions or ideas from others, telling a story that symbolically represents their own dilemma can prompt them to find their own solution. The use of stories in therapy for children is well known, but they can also work for adults…
So…this is probably why we love good stories. They mirror our current or past life problems and choices, give us different perspectives, and allow us to consider different choices. We often learn many things from a good story; not least patience, and hopefully also some inspiration…

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