The first step is to decide if you want to give change a try. That’s because change is a choice that requires commitment and has consequences. (Of course, not changing is also a choice, with its own set of consequences.)
I can tell you that in more than thirty years as a therapist I’ve seen people of all ages, shapes, genders, colors, and cultures make small changes in their lives that have had important, positive effects on their relationships and their mood. You can do this — and you won’t be doing it alone. So ask yourself, “Am I Willing To Try Something New?”
If the answer is no, you’ll get no judgment from us. This isn’t a one-shot deal. If the only choice you make this week is to simply keep reading, that’s okay. If you’re on the fence, though, don’t opt for same old, same old before considering how you’ve been feeling lately.
Has anything you’ve tried helped you feel better? If so, ask yourself if you want more of those feelings. And if it’s been pretty much business as usual — behaving in the same old ways and having the same old feelings — how’s that working for you? We hope you’ll decide that making a change in your interpersonal world is worth a try.
What to Change
Once you’ve decided to make a change, the next step is to figure out where to focus your efforts. What old strategies don’t seem to be working for you anymore? What interactions or events make you feel anxious, hurt, angry, hopeless, or sad? How do you wish things were different? What small thing could you change to get there? Use your problem area and goals to narrow your options.
If you’re naturally self-critical — and many people who have depression are — you may be overwhelmed by the lengthy list of things you think you need to do differently. Remember, when we say “change,” we don’t mean “revolution.” We’re big fans of the small change, applied to a specific situation.
Maybe you have a conversation with your spouse in which you consciously try to listen to what she has to say instead of thinking ahead to your next point. Or you invite a family member to go to the cemetery with you after years of avoiding a visit to your loved one’s grave. Or you make an effort to identify a positive aspect of your transition. Or you try sharing one personal thing with a friend or family member to see what happens.
Sometimes the old thing you need to let go of is an emotion that isn’t serving you well anymore. One of my clients had just broken up with her boyfriend and came to me feeling very angry and suicidal. It was clear that the boyfriend was just a trigger for rage she still felt toward her ex-husband, fifteen years after their difficult divorce.
“If you stopped being angry at your ex, what would be bad about that?” I asked her.
She didn’t hesitate to answer. “If I stopped being angry, I’d have to forgive him for what he did to me and my boys.”
I asked if there was a new way she could look at things. “What if you separated the two? What if you stopped being angry but didn’t forgive him? How might that change things for you and your sons?”
The next week she tried out the new approach, and the change was remarkable. When she came back for her last session, she brought her boys. “What did you do to our mom?” one asked me. “She hasn’t spoken to my dad in years, but at my brother’s graduation she let my dad buy her a beer, and we even took family photos.” The other brother turned to his mother and said quietly, “That was the best graduation gift you could’ve given me, Mom.”
What Will It Be?
It’ll take some self-awareness and self-reflection to come up with your change. If you’re having difficulty, ask someone you trust. Set your “who” up for success by giving them some context. For example, you could say, “I’m working on feeling better, and I want to change something small that will help me ______ (for example, ‘communicate better with my spouse’ or ‘talk about my mom’s death’). What do you think I could work on? I want you to be honest — I promise I won’t get mad!”
Still stuck? You can try the approach of one of my teenage clients when I asked how she was going to solve the problem she was describing. “Cindy,” she told me, “I’m just going to Google it.”
The Bridge over Troubled Water
Does the idea of making your specific, small change make you feel uncomfortable? Good. Then you’re on the right track. We don’t do things the old way because it’s hard for us. We do them the old way because it’s easy and familiar, and there’s an immediate payoff.
Changing those things may result in short-term pain. But the long-term payoff will be worth it.
Ron calls the journey from old to new “crossing the bridge over troubled water.” Imagine you’re standing on one side of a bridge. It’s muddy. Your feet are cold. You’re uncomfortable, but you’ve been standing there so long you can’t imagine anything else.
This side of the bridge represents the old you. On the other side of the bridge is the way you could be. It’s far away. You have to cross over a raging river to get there, and you can’t really see what it’ll be like when you arrive. The mud could be worse over there. Heck, it could be raining. So you stay put.
Giving up an old way of doing things can feel uncomfortable. What if you open up to your friend, and she judges you? What if you give up drinking, and no one wants to hang out with you? What if you say no to your sister’s request and she gets mad? What if you recover from your illness, and people don’t pay attention to you anymore? What if you stop trying to be right, and everyone takes advantage of you? What if you ask your colleague for help, and he thinks you’re weak? What if you tell your wife how you feel, and she leaves you?
When we’re feeling depressed, we see things negatively. We think there’s only more mud and nasty rain on the other side of the bridge. But when we cross the bridge, we’re opening ourselves up to new inter-personal experiences. We don’t know what it’s going to be like, but chances are it’s going to be different. And different can be good.
Facing the Unknown
If you’re going to make a change, you have to face the unknowns head-on. What could you gain from doing, seeing, or saying things differently? And what could you lose? Can you live with disappointing someone? Having them get mad at you? Hearing them tell you no?
What’s the best that could happen? What’s the worst? And what’s the most realistic outcome? Anxiety and worry and fear are simply feelings, and the way to get over them is to do something.
In order to have different — and probably better — feelings, we have to discover what’s on the other side of the bridge. We have to cross that troubled water and, in the process, deal with the uncertainty and discomfort that are part of the journey.
The feelings associated with this uncertainty will be intense at the beginning; then they’ll get less intense and eventually disappear. If you stop running away from those feelings — shoving them down or trying to drink, smoke, or eat them away — what happens? Why not try it and see?
If you’re tired of cold, muddy feet, the only way forward is to cross that bridge — to make that journey from old me to new me — and find out what’s on the other side.
Printed with permission from
New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com.
Feeling Better: Beat Depression and Improve Your Relationships with Interpersonal Psychotherapy
by Cindy Goodman Stulberg and Ronald J. Frey.
Feeling Better offers a step-by-step guide using a research-proven approach called interpersonal psychotherapy, or IPT, which can help you deal with the issues that may be contributing to your unhappiness. Therapists Cindy Stulberg and Ron Frey have used IPT with clients for more than twenty years and achieved dramatic, lasting results after only eight to twelve weeks. They have now created this accessible, first-of-its kind guide. Feeling Better teaches skills and tools that will allow you to set and achieve goals, articulate feelings, and make constructive decisions. You’ll learn to identify and engage with allies and supporters, deal with difficult people, and, if need be, walk away from harmful relationships.
About the Authors
Cindy Goodman Stulberg, DCS, CPsych, and Ronald J. Frey, PhD, CPsych, are the authors of Feeling Better and directors of the Institute for Interpersonal Psychotherapy. Cindy is a psychologist, teacher, wife, mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother. Ronald is a former acting chief psychologist for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a registered forensic and clinical psychologist. Visit them online at http://interpersonalpsychotherapy.com.