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Family Focus

Change: It’s Always a Possibility!

By Wendy L. Watson

Change is always happening. Change requires much of us, and change changes us. Some changes are invited and anticipated, others anticipated yet never realized or uninvited yet marvelous. Still others are uninvited and soul wrenching.

For 25 years I have had the privilege of working with seekers of change–they go by the title of “clients”: individuals, couples, and families who want something to be different in their lives.

Are you a seeker of change? What change would make the biggest difference in your life? A change in your thinking, your behavior, your feelings? Would you want a change in a relationship or a change that would allow you to have a relationship? A change in the way you see yourself or in the way you believe others see you? Or do you most desire a change in your nature, or a change of heart?

As we struggle through our lives, waiting and working for change, we may, at times, wonder if real change is truly possible. My teaching, clinical, and research experiences have shown me that change is possible, change is always occurring, and, what’s more, each of us can be facilitators of change–in our lives and in the lives of those we love.

Beliefs and Change

Through my research with families, I have come to believe that therapeutic change occurs as the belief that is at the heart of the matter is identified, challenged, or solidified. Ancient Hebrew tradition held that the heart could think. It is the heart-generated and heartfelt thoughts, those affectively saturated cognitions, that I am interested in distinguishing, challenging, or solidifying.

These are the beliefs that matter, the beliefs of the heart that are at the heart of the matter. These core beliefs provide the greatest leverage for change and can either constrain or facilitate change. Facilitating beliefs increase options for solving problems. Constraining beliefs decrease options.

Let me share with you some beliefs that inhibited change. The first was held by a couple who spent years building walls to protect their hearts, which had been hurt in the midst of an affair. They wondered why they felt so lonely and unfulfilled in their marriage. The constraining belief that prevented them from reaching out to each other was “I am not loveable and am not worthy of love.”

In another case a man, ruled by anger, oppressed his wife, his children, and himself. He held to the belief “I am the holder of all truth and light.” This constraining belief invited frustration, anger, and unrighteous dominion into his relationships.

Lastly, a couple struggled to find new ways of relating with each other after years of silence and suffering. Each felt misunderstood and underappreciated, and each believed “My spouse doesn’t care about my feelings and what life in our marriage has been like for me.”

Each of these constraining beliefs prevented solutions from being found. What beliefs about yourself, others, or life constrain you from making the changes you desire in your life?

Invitations to Reflection

Through clinical research, I have found that change is most likely to occur when we are invited to reflect. Through the process of reflection we can become aware of ourselves and others in a whole new way.

When I read Alma, I experience him as a man who is passionate about change and expert in the art of inviting others to reflect–reflections that facilitate change.

Just how does Alma invite these change-inducing reflections? One way is through his persistent questions–questions like “Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” and “If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:14, 26).

Perhaps you have invited yourself to reflect through questions that are on your mind. What questions are you asking yourself? What reflection would allow you to see yourself and perhaps someone else in a different way–a way that would add to your desire for change?

One husband was invited to reflection and experienced a major wake-up call when he listened to a portion of an audiotape of my therapy session with his wife. She had offered the tape to him because in the session she was able to articulate some of her core beliefs: The belief that he did not see her as equal to him and the belief that nothing she had contributed to their marriage had made a difference to him.

He telephoned me in deep grief–a grief born of a deeper understanding of his wife’s pain.

“I never knew,” he said. “I never knew I caused her this much pain.”

His voice is a voice of authority in her life. His words can heal her pain or induce more pain.

Voices of Authority

Who are the voices of authority in your life? Which voices really matter to you? Which voices constrain change in your life? Which voices support and sustain the changes you desire? Are the present voices of authority in your life voices that help you be who you really are? Voices that help you step up and speak right into the microphone about what’s really in your heart? Voices attached to ears that really want to hear your voice, your ideas, and encourage you to listen to the voice of the Lord in your life?

Or are they chiding voices, mocking voices, strident voices? Voices that move you away from who you really are? Voices that silence your inner voice? Voices that make your voice a stilled, small voice?

And what if you are the voice of authority in someone else’s life? It matters to that person what you think about them. Are you the keeper of some words that would make all the difference in someone’s life? What would need to be different for you to offer those words–honestly and from your heart?

As the voice of authority in someone else’s life, have you unwittingly been silencing their voice–through your sermonettes, through your over-explanations and defenses of your actions, through inviting them to defend themselves by asking, “Why did you do that?” and yet never accepting their explanations or apologies? If you are the voice of authority in someone’s life, you are also the ears of authority. You need to listen.

Listen and ask: “Tell me about the pain you experienced because of what I did. Tell me. Tell me more.”

Ask and listen: “Tell me about the joy you are experiencing because of the decision you made. Tell me. Tell me more.”

There is an extra level of healing that occurs when ears of authority are able to hear the exquisiteness of a loved one’s pain and joy. Change is accelerated!

Structural Coupling

In whose presence do you really get to be your true self? Who is your closest companion? And does your time with your closest companion enhance or diminish your ability to have the Holy Ghost as your constant companion? Whose views are influencing you the most these days? Through repeated interactions, whose image are you receiving in your countenance?

Structural coupling is a biological term that describes a process through which living systems change. Structural coupling involves two entities interacting with each other over a period of time. Each interaction triggers changes. Over time the two distinct entities become more alike, and there is an increas-ingly better “fit.” Like feet and shoes, like two stones rubbed together, they change in concert with each other.

When you interact with someone or something repeatedly over time, it changes you. Those recurrent interactions change your countenance. Our interactions with others trigger changes in our biological structures, our psychosocial structures, and our spiritual structures. Eyes change, hearts change, cells change, and souls change through structural coupling.

So, who would you most want to be like? Who would you most like to think like? Whose image would you like engraven upon your countenance?

A sociological principle states: Increased interaction leads to increased sentiment. The more we interact with someone the more we feel for them. The biological principle of structural coupling indicates that repeated interaction makes us increasingly like the person or thing we interact with.

The Ultimate Change Agent

The Savior entreats us to come unto him. He wants us to have increasingly repeated interactions with him and to really get to know him.

According to the sociological principle, our increased interactions with the Lord will increase our feelings for him–which will lead us to want more interactions with him. And, according to the biological principle of structural coupling, our increased interactions with the Savior will make us increasingly like him.

The ultimate change agent is the Savior, although he, himself, never changes. Don’t you love that seeming irony: The only true change agent never changes! And he loves you. And he loves your desire and your efforts to change.

He wants you to change, to have a change of heart, a change of nature, and, over time, to completely cast off the natural man. He did all he did so you could change!

We need to actively, persistently plead for the power of his infinite and atoning sacrifice. And as we do, his ultimate healing will bring to each of our lives the ultimate change.

Wendy L. Watson is a BYU professor of marriage and family therapy. This article is adapted from a devotional address given April 7, 1998, in the Marriott Center. “Family Focus” appears in each spring and fall issue of Brigham Young Magazine