As a psychotherapist here in Los Angeles I often have clients who come to me seeking help for a wide variety of life problems and personal difficulties. Anxiety, depression, financial insecurity, drug addiction and marital problems are just a few of the issues that I see people struggling with. Often, by simply revealing and discussing their issues with me these clients start to see a reduction in their difficulties, such as less anxiety, improvements in both their mood and their relationships, less struggle with their addictions, and more. But sometimes the problems don’t seem to get better and I often see that what is needed is a deeper commitment to making changes in one’s life and the willingness to take action. Those who can acknowledge their problems, can be open-minded towards trying something new and who are willing to commit and take action invariably begin to feel better and function more efficiently in their lives. I am continually amazed at how quickly and successfully people start to heal mentally, physically and emotionally.
This has lead me to often ponder the question: What are the factors that lead to growth and healing in people and a reduction of their problems? What I’ve found is that a person must exhibit three qualities for real and deep change to occur in them. Those three factors are reflected in the acronym HOW: Honesty, Open-mindedness and Willingness. *(I must confess that I in no way originated this idea. These three factors are often mentioned in the 12 step recovery programs and appear in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as The Big Book.)
In this blog post I would like to explore these three qualities and discuss how they are essential in helping people overcome their difficulties in life.
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
― Aldous Huxley
Let’s begin with the first letter, H, i.e. Honesty. Since we were children we’ve heard idioms such as “Honesty is the best policy” and “honest to goodness” and it is my belief that most people believe that honesty is better than dishonesty. Such things as lying, cheating, stealing and slander are all forms of dishonesty that without fail have negative consequences for a person who engages in them. But in the context of overcoming personal life problems honesty can be looked at in a particular way. Unless a person is able to acknowledge that a problem exists, i.e. admit to themselves and to another person that they have the problem, very little attention or help will be directed towards the problem and thus rarely occurs. Another way to state this is that often people are in denial that a problem exists, or they minimize the severity of the problem to themselves or others.
The need for honestly admitting one’s issues in order to be able to change and overcome life problems is nicely encapsulated in the book Alcoholics Anonymous at the beginning of the Fifth Chapter “How It Works”. “
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”
I have witnessed this many times my clients. If a person is able to be unflinchingly honest about their problems and can begin to be more honest in all aspects of their life, they invariably begin to feel better and their problems begin to decrease.
“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.”
― Frank Zappa
I must be clear that Honesty is just the initial factor needed and without the second factor, Open-mindedness, progress will surely begin to falter. One definition of open-minded is a willingness to hear and consider new ideas. (www.yourdictionary.com)
Why is it important to be open to hearing and considering new ideas in order to overcome one’s problems? I might state it simply in this way: It’s difficult to learn anything without having an open mind. And I strongly believe that in order to fix serious life problems a person must learn possible solutions to their problems and be willing to enact those solution.
If a person is open-minded to making changes in their life and for trying new things, they are well on their way to improving their lives and seeing their problems decline. However, many people are resistant to being open-minded. Various factors can contribute to this lack of open-mindedness. Prideful obstinance, denial, trust issues, over reliance on self-will, fear of change, and many other forms of resistance can lead to a person being close minded to hearing and considering new ideas.
I would like to share an example from my own life to highlight the need for open-mindedness. When I was a boy growing up in South Louisiana, I came to believe, by observing the other boys and men around me, that a “man” was not supposed to share his feelings with other people. If a male was sad or upset the societal belief that I tuned into was that they should “suck it up” and “drive on.” I can remember hearing phrases like “boys don’t cry” and “crying is for sissies.”
Looking back I understand now how unhealthy these ideas were for me and the extremely negative consequences that resulted in me as a result. Fearing that any expression of negative feelings would be met with judgement or disdain from other males, I learned to bottle up and bury any feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear, etc. You can probably guess where this headed to. By not “processing” my negative feelings in a healthy manner, over time these normal human experiences such as angst, anxiety, depression, fear, and such became worse and worse. My solution to these issues was to often self-medicate and numb these feelings or avoid them altogether.
Now what does this have to do with open-mindedness? Well, quite simply, I had to learn and practice a new way of engaging with these negative and toxic emotions. It was suggested to me that I start to talk about these feelings with others and to start to get more “vulnerable.” This went against my social conditioning and definitely was outside of my comfort zone. Luckily I was desperate enough to try something new and my road to emotional healing began.
“The future depends on what you do today.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
The last component in our three part formula HOW is willingness. A definition of willingness that I particularly like is “The quality or state of being prepared to do something; readiness.” This suggests one’s being willing to take action. And “action” is the key. Without taking some form of action a person, in my experience, will not change. A person can be honest about their problems and open-minded to possible solutions but without taking action in all likelihood no real change will occur. What types of action are we talking about? That depends on the person and their problem. However, for emotional and psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, anger and the like, activities such as meditation practice, going to a therapist, prayer, exercise, yoga, EMDR therapy, equine therapy and others have all been shown to have therapeutic benefits for people. But without the action of participating in these activities, they can’t help a person change.
In closing I would like leave you with perhaps my favorite quote of all from the writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”