One of the most important things we can do when we want to move forward is to first take a look backward.

I know that sounds counterintuitive, so allow me to explain.

Any time you want to improve something in your life, you’ll need to understand how things got to the point they’re at in the first place. Sometimes it’s a slow spiral that took years to develop and sometimes it’s a systematic habit that needs to be broken. Either way, you can’t fix the issue until you have an understanding of what got you there.

I have a friend (we’ll call him Simon to protect his identity) who has a tough relationship with his dad. The few times a year they’re in the same room, everyone around them can feel the tension. And when they’re on the phone, the long silences are filled with a million unspoken words.

Simon is a successful professional with a lot of friends and is always a thoughtful, analytical, and excellent communicator. But with his dad, he acts like a pissed-off, short-tempered child who’s completely unable to express his feelings.

Simon began seeking help from me because he couldn’t figure out how his dad could get him so agitated. He was simultaneously annoyed with himself while also feeling angry with his dad for causing him to become someone he didn’t like. Simon wanted to stop the cycle.

Though this repetitive cycle infuriated Simon, I saw it as an opportunity. Since he knew what would happen, he had the power to keep it from happening again.  

I talked to Simon about responding instead of reacting and using the 5-second breathing exercise to keep him from getting too worked up. This would give him a chance to think before he spoke. Then, to make the phone calls better, Simon and I created a list of topics to discuss with his dad, and he decided to enforce a time limit on the calls. Both steps would prevent lengthy, awkward pauses.

After discussing these habit changes, Simon and I talked about his role in the relationship with his dad. I reminded him that even though he couldn’t change the past, he could use what he knows about how things went in the past to create a strategy for moving forward. By being mindful of the patterns, he could take control of his behavior and act in the ways he wanted to, rather than in the ways he had always defaulted to in the past.

Finally, I asked Simon to consider his dad’s feelings – to empathize with the pain, frustration, and embarrassment his dad had endured through decades of a difficult relationship with his son. Clearly, those emotions were a huge part of the tension, and Simon needed to process how his dad’s inability to change or fix things between them must’ve made him feel.

Today, Simon and his dad are in a better place. Things are far from perfect, but Simon was able to move their relationship forward by looking back at his own role in the dynamic and working on strategies to replace emotional reactions with logical and empathic responses.

No matter what you’re struggling with, you can’t fix it until you fully understand how the struggle began in the first place. Give yourself the time to pause, reflect, notice the patterns in your behavior, and try to figure out why the patterns developed. Once you do that, you can create a strategy to change the patterns moving forward. The first strategy might not be your forever strategy, but it’ll help you take a step in the right direction! As long as you keep trying and keep learning, you’ll get there.

Want to learn more about the first step to take to improve…anything? Read all about it here.