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Tools to change your life

Experts share methods they believe can shift obstacles into opportunities

Jen Weigel

July 31, 2012

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Do you feel stuck and you don't know why? Perhaps your challenges leave you feeling hopeless? Psychotherapist Barry Michels and psychiatrist Phil Stutz believe our biggest obstacles can be shifted into opportunities, and the first step for getting results is to ditch the traditional therapy methods.

"For years therapists have been taught to say, 'You want to get better? Well you've got to do the work,' but they never defined what the work was," said Stutz, who — along with Michels — co-wrote the new book "The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence and Creativity." "We don't want to dig into your childhood and focus on the problem. Our method is about finding a solution."

Stutz and Michels, who have been teaching "The Tools" together for 25 years before writing this book, say they are "obsessed" with helping people get out of pain. One of the ways to do this, they said, is by embracing the "shadow" side of yourself, which are all the things you dislike or wish you could hide.

"We are so terrified that people will see our flaws, but until you really stand side-by-side with your shadow, you won't be able to move forward with confidence," Michels said. "Traditional forms of therapy want to discuss the past...but going over the past again and again, this doesn't remove the pain."

Our fears paralyze us into sticking with what we know rather than taking risks, but "you can't reap the rewards of life if you don't deal in," Stutz said.

Here are some of the tools you can use to feel empowered and move forward.

EMBRACE YOUR SHADOW

"You have to love the part of you that you hate the most," Michels said.

"If you look at the shadow, which (is) all the parts that you wish you were not — the parts you're hiding — if you can love those parts, then you have fully accepted yourself and that's actually when the magic happens," Stutz said.

DITCH THE AFFIRMATIONS

"I had a patient who would get up in the morning and say 'I love myself, I accept myself, I'm going to be successful,' and I said 'How does that make you feel?' and she said it makes her feel great for like a minute or two and then she goes back to 'I hate myself, I suck, I'm ugly,'" Michels said. "What it revealed to me is not just the bankruptcy of just using affirmations, but that deep inside of us there is a part of us that we loathe — we hate — and unless we are willing to acknowledge that, self-love won't mean anything. Affirmations have no meaning if you are using them to mask pain without embracing all of your flaws."

ACCEPT YOUR LIFE AS IT IS

"You're not going to be able to change your outer circumstances — they are what they are. If you fight that, you're in a losing battle," Michels said. "As hard as it is, you have to accept the conditions as they are configured. Yes, we're going to try to change them in the future, but accept them for as they are and see what issues they invoke inside of you so we can deal with those issues more effectively."

EXPECT THE WORST

"You need to be prepared and willing to deal with (negative circumstances) for the rest of your life," Stutz said. "You have to build up the will to go through imperfections no matter how bad it gets."

"I tell people to picture the absolute worst outcome, and when they can sit in that space in their mind, it lessens the intensity and helps build confidence," Michels said. "This is a different way to motivate, but it's very effective."

LET GO OF APPROVAL OF OTHERS

"The more you need an authority figure to validate you, the more frightened you will be to assert yourself and ask for anything from that authority figure because you're risking that validation," Michels said.

"You have to make it a point of pride and a goal not to be validated," Stutz said. "People freak out when they hear that at first — but life will be much better if you focus on the lack of validation and how will you deal with that."

(Jenniffer Weigel will host an event with Barry Michels and Phil Stutz on Aug. 8 called "TribU: The Tools". For information and tickets, visit chicagotribune.com/classes.)

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel