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Learn to forgive

You can’t go back in time and change the past, so feelings of regret and guilt are, in my opinion, a waste of energy. Most people handle situations in the only way they know how, or as best they can at the time, so blaming them makes little sense.

Instead, use your precious energy to deal with the present.

Build on the positive ….

…rather than only trying to eradicate the negative

When you get rid of a problem or a bad habit, you will be left with free time. If you have not thought about how to fill that time productively, the chances are high that your difficulties will recur. Therefore, when you’re formulating a plan to deal with what’s troubling you, make sure that at the same time you choose and build up some positive behaviours and new constructive activities. That way you will be busy in fulfilling ways, so the old habits and attitudes will be less likely to regain a foothold.

Seek role models to inspire you

The most powerful role models in our lives will almost always be our parents or main carers. This is because we depended on them for our very existence when we were young, so we observed carefully and valued hugely everything they did. However, for reasons I don’t fully understand, later in life we tend either to behave just as they did, or reject their approach totally. It takes time and effort to examine your attitudes and behaviours in order to adapt what you saw as a child – that is, to make it appropriate to your life as an adult – and few people manage to do this.

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Furthermore, even if you do, it’s unlikely that your parents would have shown you how to deal with every situation you will encounter, so it’s wise to look out for other good role models to inspire you. Therefore, when you’re feeling stuck, try to think of someone who’s faced a similar situation and handled it well. What can you learn from that example? Don’t limit yourself only to people who are “real” or present. Some of my best solutions have been inspired by characters in great novels or individuals who lived long ago.

Consider the role you are playing!

This is extremely difficult, and to do it you must be very honest with yourself. Try to step back from the situation and ask yourself if there’s any way you can behave differently to make things better.

The power of this technique was brought home to me years ago, when an extremely experienced relationship therapist and I were working together with couples who were having severe difficulties. A young woman had come to see us on her own, and spent the entire session complaining bitterly about all manner of faults in her husband. My colleague asked her why he hadn’t come along with her, and she replied that it was because “he’d never do such a thing”. My colleague’s response surprised me: “And why won’t you let him?” he asked. This simple but powerful suggestion allowed the unhappy woman to realise that she was inadvertently encouraging her husband to maintain his negativity.

Clarify your aims

It’s difficult to remain motivated to do the hard work involved in making life changes – in fact, I’ve found it to be impossible – unless you have a clear picture of how you want your life to be when that problem is sorted out.

That’s why I always ask my patients early on in therapy how they imagine their life will be when they no longer have the problem they’ve come to see me about.

If they have little or no idea how to answer that question, they’re not yet ready for the hard work that lies ahead.