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The Generative Game of Life

Heal

Sixty years ago Eric Erikson's great phrase "Identity Crisis" became the cry that baby-boomeranged around the world. But until recently it seemed our famous population bulge wasn't ready for the eminent psychoanalyst's more demanding charge: Generativity, or "a concern in establishing and guiding the next generation." Now, as data pours in on just what makes some people truly good for their communities -- what empowers the people who are giving shape to some slice of the future -- one idea is coming clear. Generative people tend to be those who have worked through their identity crises. Their life stories -- good or horrible -- tend to be coherent. They're dealing with their stuff, figuring out who they are. In other words, self-help isn't selfish. It's an ongoing first step in simply knowing that there are definite stages of change -- and that each stage takes its own time and dedication -- will help give you the strength and faith to keep moving forwards...

Remember how old you were when you got rid of your favorite childhood pillow? Be honest now. Think! Maybe it was so long ago that you don't remember. Then again, maybe it wasn't. Maybe you didn't. Maybe you're still...ouch!... sleeping on it now!

If so, you're not alone. Some years ago at a press conference for a new synthetic down- filled pillow, a DuPont marketing guru explained two uncomfortable facts of life: People tend to hold onto their favorite pillows for years, if not decades, no matter how worn out they become; and, worse (especially for those trying to sell pillows), the period of time between awakening to the need for a new pillow and the actual purchase of a new pillow is at least two years. Two years! Even when confronted with an obvious pain in the neck, we humans tend to sleep on it. And (of course) ditching your favorite pillow is nothing like shedding insidious security blankets such as nicotine or alcohol or gobs of fat. And those poisons are simply the most obvious forms of the obstacles we all put up to block going deep into our true emotions, our fears, our longings, our potential to live consciously, and to feel connected to one another and to God. Allowing ourselves to feel, to trust -- let alone to love deeply and to leap for our dreams -- ain't easy. We can't seem to get out of our own way.

And yet people manage to do it, on their own, all the time. We quit smoking, we stop drinking, we lose weight, we take rotten jobs and transform them. We create relationships that work. We leap for dreams. We save the world. Eventually, we even buy new pillows. The goal is to understand how these success stories happen, to see these acts of faith in our deeper selves as part of a natural strategy that we can all learn to use better.

Fortunately, James Prochaska, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Cancer Prevention Research Center at the University of Rhode Island, has been watching thousands of self-changers (mostly nicotine addicts) longer than most people keep their pillows. Over the years Dr. Prochaska and his colleagues have discovered clear patterns -- stages of change -- that successful self-changers typically go through. At each stage, successful changers tend to rely on different tools, information, and support to keep progressing to the next. Prochaska's theories -- detailed in his very fine book with John Norcross and Carlo Diclemente, Changing for Good (Avon) -- have been incorporated into major programs from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Drug Abuse.

Prochaska has found that at any given time the vast majority of us are not in any position to shed the stuff that's holding us back: We are blind to our problems (Precontemplation); we see our problems but cling fearfully to our old selves (Contemplation); or we are just beginning to put trust in a better future (Preparation). Right this moment, the number of people who are ready to leap into the Action stage is small, only about 20%, and only a fraction of those will pass without setback through Maintenance and be ready to tackle what we call Loftier Adventures.

Most self-changers are not conscious of their own stages. They often muddle along, trying this and that. By the time they succeed they've forgotten how they got there and the whole process often becomes instantaneous or even miraculous in the retelling. But, according to Dr. Prochaska, self-change is never spontaneous or miraculous. By knowing what questions to ask, one can tease out the stages in an "instant" transformation. More importantly, by knowing and accepting the stages in advance, one has a much better chance of actually making that "miraculous" recovery -- and getting on with the future one wants to have.

The hard news is that the game will knock down four out of five players four or five times. On the other hand, simply knowing that there are definite stages of change -- and that each stage takes its own time and dedication -- will help give you the strength and faith to keep moving forward, to continue opening to that connectedness we all seek. When you do get knocked down -- as we all do -- knowing the stages will help you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again -- often from a better position than where you fell.

Getting Started on The Generative Game of Life 2001

If just reading the intro to our game has sparked a craving for a smoke, a glass of wine, a cookie, a trip to Starbucks, an anxiety attack, or even the profound resolution to actually play this game...uh... tomorrow, well, then, congratulations! You now know what you have to work on...right now. Follow the arrow below to take the "Finding Your Stage" self-test. Keep in mind that bad habits often travel in packs. You may not be able to rid yourself of one without getting rid of the lot. Go for it! If you need more help setting your priorities, jump to Stage Six, then come back to Finding Your Stage.

FINDING YOUR STAGE

Follow the statement that applies to you.

1. I solved my problem more than six months ago.
Go to Stage 5: Maintenance Dept.

2. I have taken action on my problem in the past six months.
Go to Stage 4: Wild Action Adventure.

3. I intend to take action in the next month.
Go to Stage 3: Preparation Outfitter.

4. I intend to take action in the next six months.
Go to Stage 2: Library of Contemplation.

5. I recently tried to solve my problem and didn't succeed.
Go to Stage X: Recycling Bin.

6. My problem is being nagged by people who say I have a problem.
Go to Stage 1: Pillow of Eternal Precontemplation.

STAGE 1
Pillow of Eternal Pre-Contemplaton

Typical Time: "As long de flow of de Nile"
Optimum Time: Wake up gently, today

This is a hard pillow to sleep on -- and yet we do, sometimes all of our lives. It's stuffed with the likes of Denial, Rationalization, Displacement, Internalization -- all the myriad schemes we employ to avoid the hollowness, the disconnectedness we feel at our core. Yet the pillow also has wake-up alarms built in. Some have fairly gentle music, like the turning of 2001, or turning 40 or 50. When those don't work there are cries and nudges from spouses, children, and friends. And then there are the sirens like divorce, heart attack, losing a job, or going to jail. The louder the alarm, the more likely we are to leap unprepared into Stage 4: The Wild Action Adventure, only to be recycled back here.

STAGE 2
LIBRARY OF CONTEMPLATION

On their own, most people spend 24 months here in the Library of Contemplation before they take action.

Following these steps will cut your time to the optimum, which is one month.

Step 1: Defense Strategies Self-Test: Where You Hide
It's a rainy day and you're waiting on a street corner for the light to change. Suddenly a taxicab sweeps through a puddle in front of you, splashing you with mud. You react by:

wiping yourself off with a smile as if it didn't happen.

shrugging it off as unavoidable in the city.

yelling curses at the taxi driver.

mentally kicking yourself for standing too close to the street.

Now match your reaction (above) with your Defense Strategy (below). Learn to cope with your strategy.

Denial (Refusing to face painful or dangerous thoughts or feelings). You can cope with
denial through concentration. Set aside painful thoughts and emotions to concentrate on task at hand.

Rationalization (explaining away problems). You can cope with rationalization through logical analysis of the problem without being overwhelmed by emotions.

Displacement (taking out your problems on someone else). You can cope with displacement through sublimation. Use exercise, chores, sports, or music as acts of creative aggression.

Internalization (blaming yourself for everything). You can cope with internalization by spreading the blame appropriately.

Step 2: Share first test results with spouse, close friends: Realize your clever defenses never fooled anyone else.

Step 3: Add daily diet of psych-up movies, videos (See Help From Hollywood, below).

Step 4: List internal and external events that precede and follow the behavior you want to change.

Step 5: List statements you use to justify your problem behavior. Acknowledge the payoffs.

Step 6: Take Consequences and Reactions Self-Test

List consequences of change to self (pro and con).

List consequences of change to others (pro and con).

List reactions of self as a result of change (pro and con).

List reactions of others as result of change (pro and con).

If pros feel more powerful than cons, proceed to Library Checkout.

Step 7: Library Checkout Self-Test
Rate each statement using the following scale:
1 (Never) 2 (Seldom) 3 (Occasionally) 4 (Often) 5 (Repeatedly)
___ I consider that my family and friends would be better off without my problem behavior.
___ My tendency to give in to my problem makes me feel disappointed in myself.
___ I acknowledge the fact that being content with myself includes changing my problem behavior.
___ I get upset when I think about giving in to my problem.
Add your score. If you total 14 or more, go to Preparation Outfitter.

STAGE 3
Preparation Outfitter

Most people skip this stage
Optimum Time: 2 weeks

Step 1: Redirect your energies. Buy new exercise wardrobe. Seek out exercise classes, walking partners, or dance program (if you haven't already).

Step 2: Prepare for stress. Buy and begin to use music and meditation CDs.

Step 3: Write Action Plan: Allocate time, money, and energy.

Step 4: Rehearse new behaviors with friends.

Step 5: Reality Check Self-Test
Rate each statement using the following scale:
1 (not important) 2 (slightly important) 3 (somewhat important) 4 (important) 5 (extremely important)
___ Some people would think less of me if I change.
___ Change requires a lot of time.
___ I'm concerned I might fail if I try to change.
___ Changing takes a lot of time and energy.
___ I would have to give up something I enjoy.
___ I get some benefit from my current behavior.
___ Some people benefit from my current behavior.
___ Some people would be uncomfortable if I change.
___ I would be healthier if I change.
___ Some people would feel better about me if I change.
___ Changing would make me feel better about myself.
___ I would function better if I change.
___ I would be happier if I change.
___ Some people could be better off if I change.
___ I would worry less if I change.
___ Some people would be happier if I change.

If the pros are 28 or more and the cons are 17 or less, go to Step 6.

Step 6: Set Date -- to quit/stop/start/be reborn/whatever.

Step 7: Go Public! Shout your intentions from rooftop (emailing your list works, too).

Stage 4
WILD ACTION ADVENTURE

Four out of five people fail at this stage
Optimum Time: 6 Months

Step 1: Assert Your Rights
You have a right to be heard, to influence others, to make mistakes, to bring attention to yourself, to change your mind, to judge your own thoughts and feelings, to resist other people's judgment, to not have to justify yourself, the right to have limits (limited knowledge, limited caring, limited responsibility for others, limited time), the right to have your limits respected.

Step 2: Three Self-tests
To know your adventure is over, you must pass the following three self-tests. Then you can to go to Stage 5. Tip: bring half the clothes, twice the money.

Test 1: Temptation
Rate each statement on the following scale:
1 (Never) 2 (Seldom) 3 (Occasionally) 4 (Often) 5 (Repeatedly)
___ I engage in some physical activity when I am tempted to engage in a problem behavior.
___ When I feel the onset of my behavior, I try to relax.
___ I find that other activities are a good substitute for my problem.
___ When I feel my problem behavior coming on, I go into my feeling, understand why, and do something else.
If you score 12 or more, you're ready for Stage 5, Maintenance Dept.

Test 2: Environment
Rate each statement using the following scale:
1 (Never) 2 (Seldom) 3 (Occasionally) 4 (Often) 5 (Repeatedly)
___ I remove things in my home that remind me of my problem behavior.
___ I leave places where people encourage my problem behavior.
___ I put things around the house and workplace that inspire me not to engage in my problem behavior.
___ I relate less often to people who contribute to my problem behavior.
If you score 9 or more you're ready for Stage 5, Maintenance Dept.

Test 3: Reward
1 (Never) 2 (Seldom) 3 (Occasionally) 4 (Often) 5 (Repeatedly)
___ I do something nice for myself in return for not giving in to my problem.
___ I beat the need to punish myself.
___ I reward myself for small self-change steps.
___ Other people try to make me feel good about changing.
If you score 9 or higher you're ready for Stage 5, Maintenance Dept.

Stage 5
Maintenance Dept.

Step 1: Write down all the steps you took to get here.

Step 2: Write a crisis card and put it in your wallet (this will remind you why you're doing this and lists the names and numbers of people you can call for support).

Step 3: Join a support group.

Step 4: Redo the pros and cons exercise.

Step 5: Help someone else. For some people (like alcoholics) maintenance is a lifetime struggle, but for other challenges it may take only six months.

Stage 6
Loftier Adventures

Optimum Time: The rest of your life

1. Write in detail how you dream of living at age 80.

2. Fix that description in your mind. Now write down how you dream of living at age 75, at 70, at 65, at 60, at 55, etc.

3. When you're within five years of your current age, describe how you dream of living each year.

4. When you're within a year of your current age, describe how you dream of living each
month.

5. List the things you need to change right now to achieve your dreams.

6. Take them to the Library of Contemplation.

7. Have a glorious adventure!

RECYCLING BIN

Four out of five drop in.

How long you stay and where you come out depends on you. Here's a quick exit strategy.

Write down how and why you dropped in (that is, dropped out of your adventure).

Create specific, action-oriented processes to handle those situations and emotions.

Plan to make change one of your highest priorities for the next three to six months.

Accept that a slip (lapse) is not a total fall (relapse).

Prepare yourself for the possibility of complications and for more than one change at a time.

Get back in the Game.

Help from Hollywood

Change -- whether freely chosen or thrust upon a person -- is a popular theme in movies. Such stories prep us for transformation by showing us how lives can be turned around. The following films -- all available on video -- proclaim that no matter who you are and what has happened, it is still possible to be and do something new.

Regarding Henry is about an aggressive, successful, and amoral New York lawyer (Harrison Ford) who, after being shot in the head by a thief, has to relearn everything he does at home and at work. His vulnerability opens him up to the positive values of love, play, intimacy, tenderness, and conscience, which were all absent in his previous existence.

28 Days revolves around a fun-loving, hard- drinking, pill-popping New York writer (Sandra Bullock) who is sent by a judge to a residential rehab program. When she finally recognizes that she has led an irresponsible life, she makes a valiant effort to become a new person.

In Passion Fish a paralyzed soap-opera star (Mary McDonnell) and her nurse (Alfre Woodard) begin a shared journey toward recovery. Writer and director John Sayles calls this drama "a probe of what people do when they think they're on one path and then get blown in another direction." Sometimes change is not possible without the help of others.

Groundhog Day is a comic parable about a repugnantly self-centered Pittsburgh TV weatherman (Bill Murray) who travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the Groundhog Day Festival. Bored with his life and holding most people in low regard, he finds himself trapped in reruns of this day until he gets his encounters with others right. This film reminds us that the seeds for personal change lie dormant in the choices we make during ordinary -- even terrible -- days.


Stephen Kiesling is editor in chief of S&H. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.


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