Photo: Diana Koenigsberg
It takes a little time for our group to get to the bottom of the anxiety that motivates each of us. Then Kegan and Lahey lead us through the last step. They urge us to reframe our fears in the context of the "big assumptions" that underlie them—ideas we take for granted about the way the world works and our place in it. Our parents convey to us their understanding of life, Kegan and Lahey explain, and we often take their opinions as fact. For Peter, the belief that needed to be challenged was: "If I want something done right, I have to do it myself." Kegan and Lahey throw out other examples to our group, assumptions like "If I say no, I'll lose people's friendship and respect" or "If I paid attention to my appetite, I'd never stop eating." We find this section easy to complete. Within ten minutes, each of us lists a number of things we believe to be The Way Things Are.
In some instances, Kegan and Lahey say, these fears may prove to be justified. But they usually aren't. For all its intelligence, our psychological immune system is not infallible. Like our physical immune system, it sometimes sounds the alarm in situations when it shouldn't. "When it rejects new material, internal or external to the body, that the body needs to heal itself or to thrive, the immune system can put us in danger," Kegan and Lahey write. "It does not understand that it must alter its code. It does not understand that, ironically, in working to protect us, it is actually putting us at serious risk."
Traditional psychotherapy trusts that the truth will set the patient free, that the power of insight will overhaul the behavior you're looking to change. But as any disillusioned analysand can tell you, arriving at some deeper awareness of how you're screwed up doesn't necessarily make you less screwed up.
That's why this final step of the process is a little demoralizing. Confronted with the evidence of why our past attempts to change had been doomed to failure, we sit, staring glumly at our X-rays. "This is a perfect system you've created," Kegan tells us, and we have to admit he's right. As much as we want to finally make that New Year's resolution stick, it turns out we are equally committed to another, previously hidden, agenda. So Kegan and Lahey ask us to devise "experiments," starting out small, to test our assumptions. Someone like Peter, who is trying to break a lifelong control habit, might choose to delegate a task that isn't life-or-death to the most capable member of his staff and see what happens. Someone else might decide to say no to a dear friend and see how he or she responds. The man who struggles with his Italian family might commit to 24 hours of eating only when he's hungry and see how it goes. Surviving tests like these, Kegan and Lahey tell us, puts you in a position to question ideas you've understood as universal truths, and with those changes in your mind-set come changes in your behavior. In their years of experience, Kegan and Lahey have seen people make enormous shifts—they've lost the weight, stuck to the fitness program, learned how to manage their temper, finally cleaned up their office.
To our group, this kind of transformation feels daunting, but more promising than another round of New Year's resolutions, that's for sure. For the first time, we understand what we are up against—not the evil within us but our own ingenuity, well-meaning but misguided. What a relief that turns out to be. Not a solution but a place to start.
Click here for more from Oprah.com's 2011 Feel Good Challenge
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