The following article is from a talk that I gave on February 17 at my son's school in Austin, TX.
Do you have the audacity to trust that you have infinite potential and capacity to change?
Do you have the courage to commit to being rooted in the present moment, to question and challenge the automatic, unconscious and reflexive thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that have constituted the accumulation of your experiences and beliefs and what you consider to be your personality?
The more you think and feel certain things, the more you behave in certain ways, the more your attitudes and beliefs solidify, so much so that you don’t even have to think. If most of what you think and feel is based on your past experiences, habitual ways of thinking, feeling and being, then your future is already written by your past.
To step out of the habit of being yourself is to step into the present moment, commit to cultivating awareness of these habits, asking yourself what you want, who you want to be and awakening to the responsibility of creating a new present and a new future that is not just repeating the past. This means to be the change you want before it happens.
Our mind-body is a system. Our relationships are systems. We live in a system within a system with a system. There are countless variables that impact what happens on a given day in your micro system. We are all unaware of the vast majority of them and most are outside of our control.
The only true agency you do have is how you choose to respond to a given situation. This is such a powerful variable that it can easily have a dramatic effect on the outcome of a given day. Your reactions are often based on past experiences which, if you allow them to persist, will impact your systems accordingly.
Let’s take an example of a negative belief based on past experiences like “I’ll never get what I want”.
This is a belief that has developed over time and it has its associated thoughts (ie. I'm unlucky), emotions and feelings (ie. deprivation, sadness and anger) and behaviors (which often entail unwittingly doing things that serve to support and confirm the theory).
There’s even a vigilant little warrior inside you that is constantly on the lookout for things that will cause you to feel deprived. This little warrior provides you with a lens with which you see the world. We all have our own lenses that are based on the accumulation of our experiences.
So, if you think you will never get what you want, feel deprived and expect the world to react to you in kind, the chances that external circumstances alone will change that are slim, unless you realize and become aware of your habitual ways of thinking, feeling, behaving and believing that reinforce the same patterns.
But awareness ‘aint enough.
For the past 10 years, I have done a lot of work on training my mind, learning to stay present and mindful and not project into the future. That’s half of the equation. But the other half is about asking myself what I want my present and future to be. Seems straightforward, but that involves facing the unknown, letting go of my assumptions, my programming and creating new programs that will only function and override the old programs if they are more powerful and sophisticated.
The old patterns are comfortable even if they aren’t healthy. They’re familiar, like an old pair of sweatpants. They have a gravitational pull. Those little warriors are like soldiers with PTSD that are always ready to attack or defend because the war is still going on for them, even though the war ended years ago.
So, let's go back to the “I’ll never get what I want” example. You need to identify and understand your reflexive, unconscious, automatic thoughts, feelings, behaviors and beliefs that reinforce the old programs and challenge them by asking:
Why do you exist? Where do you come from? What is your evidence other than what you have contributed to creating? Are there alternative explanations and possibilities?
Now, I’ll ask you: Are you committed to staying loyal to your old programs? Is that what you want of your present and future?
If the answer is yes, then there is nothing to do. And I truly don’t mean that in a dismissive, proselytizing, you snooze you lose kind of way. Timing is important and incredibly subjective. It’s like sometimes when you start to read a great book and you can’t get into it and end up picking it up another time and loving it.
If the answer is no, this is not something that anyone can do or fix for you. Only you can take responsibility for your actions and interpretations. Only you have the power to do so.
As I said earlier, you cannot control what happens in the world, but you do have agency over how you respond and react and relate to what happens. You can only do this if you become aware and if you create intentions.
Copy everything I have just said, which is essentially about how one relates with oneself, and paste it onto how one relates with a partner. The same cache of automatic thoughts, assumptions, reactions and beliefs get stockpiled over time that can easily break down a relationship if they aren’t challenged and dealt with.
In the online course I created, I address what I consider to be the two opiates of relationships: complacency and assumptions:
Complacency is the passive act of not taking responsibility.
Even though it is passive and often outside of awareness, it is still ultimately a choice one makes to not deal with one’s relationship.
Assumptions happen when we feel we know our partners so well that we don’t bother to ask or express ourselves because we are certain about how they will respond.
Complacency and assumptions suck the life out of relationships and serve to maintain the status quo of the relationship system.
All of what I am talking about, it’s not one and done kind of stuff. It’s not linear. It’s not expected that once you are aware that you won’t mess up; of course you will. This is about cultivating a different way of being versus a quick-fix solution.
What if I told you that the person that you think you know so well you don’t know very well at all, that much of what you think you know is filtered through this distorted lens?
Then you'd have a choice to make:
Do you want to continue to view things through that lens, or are you willing to let go of the lens and let things get blurry for a while?
It’s easy over time to forget or move away from the reasons you fell in love and decided to be together, because as you likely already know, kids require such an immense amount of energy and that often means that the relationship gets put on the back-burner.
I’m reading a book on health care reform now with Eric for his school project. In one section, it talks about the need for state governments to balance their budgets. Naturally, when for whatever reason, resources are siphoned to one specific area, the other areas that require funding and support suffer as a result.
So, after having kids, your job with your partner is to engage with the challenge of balancing your relationship budget after an unprecedented occurrence has taken place that has thrown your economy into total disarray.
If you’re reading this and it’s resonating and making you think about the state of your relationship, you’re way ahead of the game.
These are some of the core concepts that are addressed in the Love After Kids Relationship Toolkit to break free from unhealthy habits. There’s so much possibility for change and growth if that is where you choose to focus your energy.
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, helping couples with their relationships since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couple’s therapist with a web-based private practice and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Thrive Global. David lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, two kids and toy poodle.