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Focus on Change, Not Your Problem


A colleague sent me this quote I hadn’t heard before which was allegedly said by Socrates. When I checked, it actually wasn’t his, but I love the idea behind it: The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. If you want to know one small way to succeed in recovery, there it is.

I spend too much time listening to people talk about their problems and how much they want to overcome them. Then, when I share solutions, they often give a perfunctory nod to them and go right back to talking about what’s wrong. This is a bad habit, nothing more. I know clients want me to understand how difficult their eating problems are. I know they’re frustrated and disappointed in their inability to change to date.

But how can complaining about a problem do anything to solve it? It can’t. Change doesn’t work that way. So, shift from thinking about all you’ve done and are doing wrong and focus on devising a plan to do things differently. Spend time developing strategies that seem doable. Write the plan down and revise it as necessary. Review it daily.

Here's what I mean. A client we’ll call Rosie talks about her bingeing every session. She goes into detail about everything she ate for what she calls “no reason at all.” I throw out suggestions for making changes in her life that might reduce bingeing, which she either says she’s tried and don’t work or ignores. Then she goes right back to expressing her frustration at how much she hates to binge.

Another example is a client we’ll call Paul who was laid off his job six months ago due to the COVID-10 pandemic. He’s been looking for jobs but hasn’t received an offer yet. He’s in a panic about paying bills and his self-esteem has tanked. Each session, I try to bring out his own hope and offer my own, but he can’t talk about things like networking and redoing his resume long enough to make a plan because he habitually returns to asking, “What am I going to do if I can’t find a job?”

Venting about your frustrations is an integral part of therapy, but it’s not all there is to it. Too much repetition about your problem only encodes that information more deeply in your brain. Be honest. Ask yourself if you talk more about your problems than their solutions. If so, ask family members or friends to gently remind you when you seem stuck on what’s wrong. Tell your therapist you want to focus more on solutions. This is up to you; no one can do it for you. As the quote says, stop fighting the old and focus on building the new.