How to Change by Working on Ourselves
David Richo, Ph.D.
When unresolved issues are writing our life story, we are not our own autobiographers; we are merely recorders of how the past continues, often without our awareness, to
intrude upon our present experience and shape our future directions. —Daniel Siegel, MD
The heart of any psychological
work is addressing, processing, resolving, and integrating the issue at hand. These words form the acronym APRI Italian for: “You open.” As we understand this central and necessary four-part plan to complete our unfinished business, transference and projection, for
instance, may not have to kick in so fiercely anymore.
We address a problem when we call it by name. We admit to ourselves what is really going on and our part in it, i.e., we own our
behavior and feelings. In addition, we are willing to look at our wounds and how we may have wounded others. We see our issue in a friendly way rather than critically. Thereby we coax it to reveal more about itself. This means staring into an experience rather than rushing
past it, glossing over it, or minimizing its impact. For instance, we admit that we have a drinking problem or a problem with anger. We acknowledge that our partner does not excite us because we are actually attracted to people of our own gender. We put our cards on the
table. We let the truth come out and remain open to feelings in ourselves and others. When a child has been locked in a closet, he will come out angry. Revelation about a truth or freedom to move releases the lively energy of feelings.
We may notice two ways of addressing an issue with someone. We can size up what someone has done or said with a kind-hearted
sophisticated response or with a primitive retort. Someone seems pushy. We can see that as missionary zeal and compulsion and feel compassion without, nonetheless, letting that person control us. We can also see it as persecutory and aggressive and want to judge and punish
the other. In childhood we reacted to life and events mostly at a primitive level. That may still be our style, one that leads to judgment rather than focused addressing. As adults we can practice socializing and spiritualizing our ways of perceiving. Then we see with
loving-kindness while not letting the wool be pulled over our eyes.
When our partner refuses to address an issue that affects our relationship, we are being given information that we might not want to
face. We might say: “I need this to change,” or “I hope this will change.” If the issue is recent, those statements can help us mobilize toward working on a change. If the issues are long-standing and non-negotiable, these statements can be evasions and self-appeasements. For
instance, a spouse who has refused to have sex for years and refuses to discuss it or go to therapy, has already made her statement. For us to address the issue means getting the message and asking: “Now what for me?” not “Maybe it will change.” It is important to notice when
transactions are over and personal action is the suitable alternative. As we become more courageous, getting on with life becomes more valuable than the narcotic comforts of the status quo.
When two people have an issue between them, the unique timing of each person certainly has to be respected. One person may be ready to
deal with an issue while the other needs more time. At the far ends of the healthy spectrum of timing is compulsion to face and finish something and procrastination. Couples and friends can come to terms with these differences by together addressing the issue of timing before
the issue itself.
Addressing, processing, resolving, and integrating are responses to issues in relationship. Divorce is defined in the dictionary as the
official ending of a marriage by complete separation. Divorced people have implicitly agreed to end their emotional transactions, though child-caring or financial transactions may continue. Once we are no longer engaging emotionally with someone, as a divorce is meant to
signify, there is no need to process feelings together. Some partners want to bring up the past and reopen sensitive issues after a divorce is final. There is no obligation to respond by addressing, processing, resolving, and integrating in that instance. The transactions
have ended though emotions may still be lively. A exception happens when old resentments are getting in the way of appropriate child care or financial settlements. Otherwise, the issue of the still-emotional partner is the province of individual therapy.
To process is to express the feelings associated with the experience we are working on. We do this non-aggressively, not losing
control. We take responsibility for our own emotions without blaming others. We then may see the hook-up of our experience with our past and our feelings do double-duty as we feel for both the past and the present. Processing also includes looking at what we have been getting
out of our predicament or feelings. For instance, we might feel angry in a relationship and be using that anger for its secondary gain to us, that of avoiding intimacy.
Such feeling and consciousness lead to a resolving, which includes taking action. A resolution happens as a healing shift, a
grace that comes into play. We do not make it happen; it simply results because addressing and processing lead to dissolving of the problem. In this alchemical process, our expression of feelings leads to the evaporation of them and of all the unfinished business behind them.
We resolve actively when we take the steps that lead to change. We join a twelve-step program if addiction is our issue. We break the old cycle and find new ways of behaving and new ways of seeing life and relationships. Resolving a problem in a relationship entails making
agreements and keeping them.
To integrate our experience means re-shaping our lives in accord with what we have gained and learned from addressing,
processing, and resolving. We implement what we have worked on. This is consistency between what we have worked on and how we live our lives. We now live and relate differently from before. Our choices were based on unconscious issues; now they have come to light. A
light shining on our world makes it look new and we are free to live in accord with our true deepest needs, values, and wishes. To use an analogy, our kitchen experience is automatically different when we use a sink rather than a pump or a dishwasher rather than a sink.
Everything changes when an upgrade occurs. Was this what we feared all along?
In brief: Addressing leads to a release of energy in the form of feelings. Processing these feelings leads to a shift so that they
finally evaporate. Processing also leads us to resolve things by making agreements to bring about changes. This resolution leads to letting conflicts become matter-of-fact rather than ego-invested. Then we re-design our lives to match our newfound changes.
We notice that each of the four steps is a pause. To address is to pause to contemplate the fact, impact, meaning, and inner
workings of an experience. To process is to pause long enough to feel all that goes with the experience and to explore its connection to past patterns. We resolve for the future to pause between a stimulus and our usual immediate reaction. This pause is freedom. We pause in
every day that follows so that we can practice what we have learned.
We might not go the route of the four steps. Instead, we might resist completions preferring the familiar behavior of repetition. Then
that resistance becomes the issue to address and we can go through our same four steps. They really work and they help us trust ourselves as able to handle what life and relationships toss our way. Our “Oh no, I can't face or deal with that!” becomes “I can do this.”
The fourfold plan above may not be a truly skillful means if it is rushed to the scene of our wounding so that we can “get over it”
quickly. Some events teach us so much when we allow them to work themselves out in their own time and way. Some experiences have to be lived with for while before they can resolve themselves. Time is required between problem and solution, question and answer, issue and
resolution. We grow from resting in the ambiguity of that between-space. We gain an opportunity to feel our feelings all the way and to recognize our projections and transferences quite profoundly.
In the between-time, we may find our ego becoming destabilized but that can be a path to a firmer sense of our adult powers. We can
become stronger for the next time something challenges us in a similar way. Pausing respectfully in our between-ego state becomes a form of Buddhist tantra, the practice of using what is most negative and neurotic to find enlightenment. The between-pause can expand us,
balance us, deepen us. Those three benefits are more valuable than the remedy we locate when we address immediately, process too swiftly, resolve too suddenly, and integrate prematurely. The compulsion to clear things up too facilely does not honor the timing all things take.
As we mature in spiritual consciousness we act more like farmers tending their crops than generals ordering their troops.
We keep coming back to timing an essential ingredient of transformation: A persimmon, when it first appears on the tree, is astringent.
With time to ripen, it becomes sweet. As we honor the timing of events and people, even our questions soften and change: We no longer ask: “What has s/he done to me?” but “What can this be for me?” We do not ask “Why did this happen to me?” but “How has this helped me grow?”
In fact, every “Why?” becomes “Yes, now what?”
We put effort and discipline into our practices. We deepen our work when we acknowledge our need for help from assisting forces,
transcendent powers that exist beyond our ego and help us go beyond our ego. We can begin each practice in this book with an aspiration to a higher power, in whatever way fits for us. We can ask for help while we practice and then offer thanks when a practice is complete. All
this acknowledges the role of grace in our progress and can move our psychologically oriented steps into spiritually healing shifts.
Copyright © David
Richo, Ph.D. When the Past Is Present: Healing the Emotional Wounds That Sabotage Our Relationships (Shambhala, 2008)
David Richo, Ph.D., M.F.T., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and writer in
Santa Barbara and San Francisco California who emphasizes Jungian,
transpersonal, and spiritual perspectives in his work. He is the author of:
The Five Things We Cannot Change (Shambhala, 2005), How To Be An Adult (Paulist, 1991), When Love Meets Fear (Paulist, 1997),
Unexpected Miracles: The Gift of Synchronicity and How to Open It
(Crossroad,1998) , Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power and Creativity of Your
Dark Side (Shambhala, 1999) and Catholic Means Universal: Integrating
Spirituality and Religion (Crossroad, 2000). For
a catalog of David Richo’s tapes and events, please