Two essential elements for positive, long-term change
The Family Drug and Alcohol Court system has been in the news recently, with evidence of its efficacy in working with extremely troubled families being reported. One news item on Radio 4’s Today programme I listened to was of a mother helped by FDAC to keep her children and overcome her heroin addiction. During an interview with the mother, she said two things of real interest to anyone looking to change even the most difficult of circumstances. The first was her motivation, the second was her ‘strategy’. Obvious points, but there is more to them.
Finding the right level of motivation can often be an elusive search. So what did this mother do to find a level that meant change happened? In my Human Givens Therapy training, I learned about one of the most useful bits of knowledge I have ever learnt, namely a psychological law called the law of the dominant emotion. This law states that dominant emotions displace weaker ones, for good or for bad.
If we want to change negative circumstances the law means that unless and until we find more dominant, positive emotions to displace negative counterparts, long-term change can’t happen. One of the best ways of understanding this is through reference to new year resolutions. Anyone who ‘caves in’ around mid-March will not have used the law to their advantage. The mother above did. Changing her difficult circumstances just became too important, too emotionally persuasive. Whatever negatives emotions were ‘on top’ for this mother had to give way when she found more dominant ones to replace them.
However, making this law work is not enough on its own. It has to be combined with a realistic, achievable strategy to achieve whatever goals you are working towards. In the mother’s case, it was strategies put in place with the help of FDAC that resulted in the inspiring story she told in her interview. For example, regular two weekly FDAC appts with an FDAC judge during which her efforts were constantly monitored, responded to and supported were crucial.
Successfully combining the law of the dominant emotion with the right strategy allows someone to reach a ‘tipping point’, a stage beyond which change is sustained in the long-term. Even if we experience a desire to fall back into old, negative ways (and who hasn’t?) so the emotional persuasiveness of these ways will be too weak to overcome our new, dominant emotions and effective strategies.
No one is pretending such a process is easy. Sometimes a lack of practical, social support makes it impossible for someone to find the right strategies even if they are motivated. However, this knowledge about human functioning can make a huge difference. Sometimes a family is saved as a result.
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About Mark Evans
I work as a therapist and coach in business, higher education and private practice. I am interested in how people change even in the most difficult of circumstances.