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A project to change long-term interpersonal patterns: building & maintaining commitment

"Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was but vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible."    T. E. Lawrence

Our lives are littered with unfulfilled intentions.  I wrote at the end of February about wanting to work on a loosely linked set of long-term interpersonal patterns where some friends say they occasionally feel I may judge them as "not good enough", that I can sometimes come across to them as too in control/not showing my vulnerability enough, that every so often I seem to act too dominantly or too competitively, and that sometimes my caring can feel a bit patronising to them.  Happily the feedback project that threw up these comments also highlighted qualities that many people said they often particularly appreciated in me ... a sense of warmth, generosity & love, a good deal too about fierce, rigorous, intellectual curiosity, and an appreciation of a courageous, self-determined path.

I'm very fortunate.  Mostly my life goes very well and it would be easy to let any intention to work on these patterns disappear into the "dusty recesses" of my mind.  Looking at and possibly changing longterm interpersonal behaviours can be pretty challenging work, especially if they are only intermittently a bit troublesome (see my comments at the end of the post "A project to change long-term interpersonal patterns: post-group reflections"). This is "my business" though.  I've been a psychotherapist and health professional for decades.  Change work (and acceptance) are my bread & butter.  It feels like it would be interesting, worthwhile, and helpful for my work as well as for me personally to explore these kinds of issues "from the inside".

More importantly I genuinely want to change ... at least the aspects of these occasionally difficult interactions that are "my responsibility".  I guess we all trigger reactions in others all the time, and some of these responses are more about them than us.  I can't do an awful lot about helping friends change (unless they want to), but I can try to react to their responses as adaptively as possible.  So how do I want to react?  There's an exploration that I often encourage clients to try called the "Respected figures exercise".  It can help to highlight what we personally really stand for ... how we most want to live our lives and walk through the world.  There's that beautiful William Penn quote "If there is any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow human being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again."  And this open-hearted quality is at the centre of how I want to walk through the world.  

I'm not alone.  When people across many countries are asked the values that most matter to them, these qualities of "benevolence" and "universalism" routinely emerge as central aspirations ... see the post "Most people agree on the healthy key values they want to live by and this is real grounds for hope".  I find it deeply fascinating that the third quality that people regularly mention as of central importance is "self-direction" in thought & action.  Me too ... autonomy, courage, curiosity, questioning, self-determination ... are also at the heart of how I want to live. Sometimes living the life that feels most right for me (the "self-direction") can seem to clash with "benevolence" and "universalism".  Some of this potential clash is touched on in the third section of the post "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - possible adverse effects".

Returning to the title of this current blog post though ... how can I build & maintain commitment to this project to change longterm interpersonal patterns when mostly they don't produce much difficulty in my life?  Well one way is by using mental contrasting ... see the post "Mental contrasting: a way to boost our commitment to goals we care about" that I wrote four years ago.  Just last year Gabrielle Oettingen, the researcher who developed these ideas, published a helpful book "Rethinking positive thinking: inside the new science of motivationwhere she has rebranded the carefully researched "Mental contrasting plus implementation intentions (MCII)" package as the more memorable "Wish, outcome, obstacle, plan (WOOP)" technique.  Despite the name change, the approach is still of course just as effective.  I have also written about her colleague Peter Gollwitzer's implementation intentions in "Implementation intentions & reaching our goals more successfullyand put together an upgrade to SMART goals in the handout "Skilful goal setting: ACT WISeST".

So, as I wrote in the mental contrasting post "MC has been shown to be effective in a whole series of research studies producing improvements in health behaviours, relationships, academic studying, and general goal attainment.  What does ‘mental contrasting' involve?  Simply fantasizing about a desired future ("indulging") or just thinking about negative aspects of one's current reality ("dwelling") each only produce moderate commitment to achieve wished for goals.  If however one both imagines the desired future and then also thinks about one's current more negative reality ("mental contrasting"), the present reality tends to be seen as "standing in the way" of the wished for future ...    How does one do 'mental contrasting'?  Mental contrasting is a delightfully effective and simple procedure.  Specific MC instructions vary a bit from research study to research study, but all instructions follow the same general format.  First one is asked to imagine, talk and/or write about personally valued aspects of the wished for future.  Secondly one imagines, talks and/or writes about obstacles that currently get in the way of achieving the wished for future.  Typically this ups one's energy & commitment to tackle the obstacles." 

OK.  This sounds good.  How would it be for me (and others) if I didn't occasionally come across to some people (especially in therapy groups) as a bit judgemental, somewhat 'invulnerable', over-dominant, and caring in a condescending way?  How would I most want to be (remembering my commitment to personal variants of "benevolence, universalism & self-direction") ... especially with friends, but maybe there is some "leakage" occasionally into my work with clients or even to how I am with family.  Both "mental contrasting" and "skilful goal setting" suggest that there's potentially considerable value in really thinking about, imagining, and writing/speaking about what these wished-for futures would involve.  And Oettingen & Golwitzer's WOOP approach then highlights clarifying what the obstacles to these changes are likely to be and how I intend to surmount them.  Hmm ... time to roll up my sleeves!

More to follow ...

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