No one can deny that making changes, even small ones, that take us out of our comfort zone can be very challenging. People oftentimes engage in a variety of self-destructive patterns of behavior, consciously and unconsciously, for years and sometimes for a lifetime. They hope and dream that their lives and relationships will somehow magically change and improve without a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Einstein was right when he defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The men and women who I see in therapy typically present with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Many drink too much, take too many prescription and over-the-counter medications, have poor diets, refuse to exercise, and engage in and enable disappointing and oftentimes toxic relationships of all kinds. It’s no wonder that they feel depressed and anxious. Many initially hope that their problems will disappear on their own simply because they decided to see a therapist once or twice a week. However, my patients soon discover that coming to the decision to try and make positive changes in their life and behavior is only the first step. Taking action, which will initially feel very uncomfortable, requires self-discipline, motivation and the willingness to move out of one’s comfort zone. It’s the necessary next step if we are serious about improving the quality of our lives and relationships.
DOING WHAT COMES NATURALLY
“Laura” is a 45-year-old, divorced, very attractive, well-known Broadway actress. Despite her professional successes, she has struggled throughout her life with depression and substance abuse. She has been in and out of therapy for most of her life and has yet to be able to put a stop to her destructive and self-destructive behavior.
Laura grew up in a wealthy Upper East Side family with parents who were more concerned about amassing wealth than parenting Laura and her two younger siblings. She told me that she always felt that she was in her parents’ way. Despite the fact that she was a well-behaved, obedient girl and did well in school, she never received the love and affection that she craved from her parents. At a very early age, Laura began to believe that she was not worthy of love and came to believe that there was something wrong with her. She watched how other parents treated her friends, and no matter how hard she tried to get her parents’ attention, they always seemed to be more interested in their numerous charity events, travel and friends than they were in their children.
Both of Laura’s siblings have suffered from depression and low self-esteem. In their efforts to feel better, they too turned to a destructive path of drugs and alcohol.
Laura contacted me a few months ago. She and “Joe” had been living together for the past five years. He was a struggling actor with a very serious alcohol problem. Like her parents, Joe was unavailable to her emotionally, physically and even sexually for most of their relationship. She supported him financially and routinely would introduce him to directors and producers whom she hoped would be able to help him in his career. Try as she might to get him to really notice her and appreciate her generosity of spirit and love, Joe was typically too busy going to auditions and spending time with his friends to give Laura the time and attention that she craved and deserved.
LAURA’S COMFORT ZONE
After doing an initial in-depth evaluation, it was clear to me that Laura was simply playing out the familiar family dynamics of her childhood. In discussing all of her previous relationships, her pattern of choosing and staying with the unavailable man was Laura’s theme song. We discussed how she unconsciously chose partners like her parents, who were incapable of meeting her needs.
There are lessons to be learned. In Laura’s case, her comfort zone — the zone that she was used to, the zone that caused her pain, the zone that made her feel unlovable — is the zone that needs to be buried. For this to happen, Laura needs to begin to emotionally come to terms with her parents’ unavailability and their lack of nurturing when she was growing up. She then needs to honestly assess her past relationships and determine whether there are people in her life today who have little or nothing to give her. Moving forward, she needs to do a better job, as we all do, in assessing who is worthy of being in her life. And finally, she needs to give herself permission to exit any and all loveless and painful relationships as soon as possible.
Laura asked her boyfriend Joe to move out and is focusing on micromanaging herself and the people who she may or may not invite into her life.
Beatty Cohan, MSW, LCSW, AASECT is a nationally recognized psychotherapist, sex therapist, author of For Better for Worse Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love, national speaker, national radio and television expert guest and host of the weekly “Ask Beatty Show” on the Progressive Radio Network. She has a private practice in NYC and East Hampton.
Beatty would love to hear from you. You can send your questions and comments to her at [email protected]. For more info, go to beattycohan.com.