If you live in New York City, you’re aware of our rat problem. They’re everywhere. It often seems that newspaper articles about rats in New York City (like this one) are almost as ubiquitous as the rats themselves. It turns out there’s been considerable research on the matter of just how to reduce the number of rats, and the conclusion is, perhaps, surprising. It turns out that efforts to reduce the rat population that employ various methods of exterminating rats aren’t at all effective. Why not? Because rats adapt to just about any method designed to kill them. They learn to avoid traps. They develop resistance to poisons. The only reliable way of reducing the population of rats in a given area is to make the environment less hospitable to rats, which generally means eliminating sources of food and water.
Too often we take a head-on approach to creating changes in our lives. Want to loose weight? Eat less, and head to the gym. Want to get your anger under control? Change your thought patterns and alter their relationships to certain problem behaviors.
Only most of the time, these methods don’t work, for the very same reason that trying to reduce the rat population simply by killing rats just doesn’t work; if you want to create lasting change, you’ve got to re-shape the environment.
How do we re-shape the environment?
For one thing, you’ve got to look at yourself and the world around you as a totality. Your overeating, your anxiety, your anger, and everything else just don’t exist in isolation from the rest of you and from the world around you. If you want to loose weight, for example, you’ve got to look at the circumstances that helped make and help keep you fat. Is your relationship with stress providing just the right environment for weight gain? Do your friends, co-workers and loved ones encourage you to eat poorly? How do you handle difficult emotions? Are even pleasurable emotions occasions to eat poorly? What do you need to add to your life to change this environment?
All too often someone comes to me for therapy and says, “I’m really happy with my life except for this one thing. I want you to help me fix this one thing but I don’t want to change anything else.” Often they say it without even realizing they’re saying it. And the fact is, we’re not built that way.
Group therapy and changing environments
This is one reason group therapy is so powerful; at one and the same time, when you begin group therapy you’re both adding to your life an environment that’s built for growth (i.e. one that’s conducive to making serious changes in your life) and an environment that needs building (in other words, it’s a great place to learn how to build environments that are conducive to growth everywhere in your life).