Emotional Health

A Blueprint for Change: The Four Rs

We all have characteristic ways we react to events and people. This is the kind of reactions often called “second nature,” feelings that psychologists call “ego syntonic” or “harmonious” with your sense of who you are. Feelings and behaviors that do not feel like “you” are called, in contrast, “ego alien,” or ego dystonic—they are “not me.”

Even though feelings that are second nature are usually deep-seated and often hard to change, understanding them in this way can be the first step. There are four stages of change, called the 4 R’s:

  1. Reacting—a typical, unquestioned response
  2. Ringing the bell—noticing your reaction and questioning it
  3. Reflecting—examining your feelings and challenging your typical response
  4. Reframing—changing the way you view the situation and/or circumstances

Here’s an example:

Julia is often worried that her boyfriend Dan will cheat on her. When they are out, she notices other women and assumes he does too, and thinks he is attracted to some of them. This happens so often that she often prefers to stay home, and it causes conflict between them.

(This is reacting: Julia’s worry and jealousy are ego harmonious. She does not question her feelings or her assumption that her boyfriend wants to stray.)

To change this process, Julia begins to notice when she feels this way and question her assumptions.

(Now, Julia is ringing the bell, setting off an alarm in response to feelings she has always taken for granted as true.)

Though she still reacts in her usual way, Julia lets her feelings ride, while she looks at them from a more objective, questioning way until they subside.

(This is the process of reflecting, akin to the idea of mindfulness, based on Zen practices, which advises observing her feelings without judging or fighting them. In this process, Julia reminds herself that while she is experiencing an intense feeling, it is just that: a feeling. Feelings, though painful, are not necessarily truths, and they cannot harm you if you don’t embrace them.)

Next, Julia tries on alternative explanations for the situation. She questions her assumption that Dan wants to cheat and that all attractive women are threats. She reminds herself of her chronic insecurity based on the damaging self-critical thoughts and remembers that she has felt this way with other boyfriends regardless of how they behave. She also reminds herself that even if Dan thinks someone is attractive, he will not act on it, and he has always been faithful.

(Here Julia is reframing—she is challenging her typical assumptions, explaining them in a more accurate manner, using the insight that she often feels jealous without reason.)

This process must be repeated, often for a long time. Pathological jealousy is an example of a problem that has deep roots in chronic insecurity, sometimes requiring therapy. But it also an example of something that it based on inaccurate thoughts, and thoughts can be changed before feelings.

The 3rd step, reflecting, can be difficult, as your feelings are likely to remain the same for a while and be painful to experience. But by loosening the connection between automatic reaction and response, over time it can weaken. Reframing becomes easier the more you practice it, and you can begin to say to yourself, as you ring the bell, “there I go, having that damaging feeling again.”

Eventually, you can learn not to take the feeling so seriously, not to assume it is “real” and the alternate explanation (the reframing) begins to become a habit.

The ultimate goal is not to have inaccurate feelings that are damaging to you and your functioning. Depending on the problem, this can take more or less time, but by challenging our assumptions about ourselves we can eliminate even those that feel like second nature, because, for better and sometimes for worse, we are all built with capacities for a wide range of responses. And, with mindfulness, we can learn to choose our responses.

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