By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
People often wish they were different in their relationships in some important way. For instance, you might wish that you could be less quick to anger, remember important dates such as birthdays, or communicate more effectively. In whatever way you want to be different, you can learn to do it if you get in the right mindset. You must change from “I want to be different” to “I will learn to be different.”
If you doubt that you really can change, it might help you to know that scientists have, in recent years, found that we can truly change the way we think and act because of something called neuroplasticity. While they used to believe that human brains stop changing as people mature into adulthood, they now know differently. Studies have shown that people’s experiences restructure their brains so that they can learn new things. For instance, Maguire and colleagues (2000, 2006) found that London taxi cab drivers’ brains changed as they learned to navigate the city.
Similarly, you can change in how you interact with others, developing improved interpersonal skills. It’s not enough to wish for these changes, though. You must take active steps to make them happen. Here’s a basic guide for what to do:
Begin by deciding that you want to change. Again, this means that you choose to behave (or learn to behave) in a more positive and constructive way in your relationships – not just wish for your relationships to be better. If you are stuck in thinking that you are who you are, then this is a step that you will really need to challenge yourself with.
Imagine how much better your relationships will be for your efforts. You might find inspiration by thinking about someone who has more supportive and caring relationships. It could be someone you know personally or in any other way (e.g. through the news, character in a movie or book). Choose to be like him or her in this way.
Find out the skills that you will need to master. Consider what skills you need to develop. For instance, you might need to learn to really listen to another without being defensive; articulate your thoughts and feelings; or more frequently express your caring in ways that are meaningful to others.
Commit yourself to practicing your new skills. Remember that new skills take practice, which means that you can expect to make mistakes. The more you can accept your mistakes as part of the process, rather than criticize yourself for them, the more likely you will continue to persist in your efforts and stay focused on practicing the skills (rather getting caught up in self-criticism).
For instance, you might commit yourself to being more patient, but find that you still struggle sometimes with being easily frustrated. If you can accept that achieving your goal is the result of continued effort, you will hopefully be able to respond to such missteps along the way by being compassionate to your struggles. Comfort yourself after a mistake, encourage yourself to continue on, and seek forgiveness from others, as needed.
By choosing to change and repeatedly practicing a skill, you are essentially laying down new pathways in your brain. And by no longer engaging in old behaviors, you are letting those pathways fade. This process of neuroplasticity is a lot like what frequently happens in woods frequented by people: Hikers create new paths by walking across the same area; meanwhile old paths that are no longer used begin to fill in with grass and other new growth. So, if you are unhappy on your well-traveled path with friends and loved ones, take the brave steps of forging a new and better path.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.