There you are, at the starting line. You’ve realized, maybe because of some very painful experiences, that you need to change. It’s humbling to admit it, but you now see that you have acted in ways that are considered to be domestic violence or abuse.

The cost to you is staggering. You may be facing the loss of a relationship that you really valued. Perhaps you are in trouble with the law. Maybe you just don’t feel good about yourself because you never thought of yourself as someone who was abusive. I get it.

Now what? You’re motivated to change, but you’re just not sure how change happens. At this point, it’s common to feel a sense of confusion, frustration, and helplessness. Those were my emotions a few years ago when I was in the same spot.

Right cause, right cure

Like any problem, fixing it requires us to identify the right cause. Otherwise, we’ll never come up with the right cure. Regrettably, much of the information about domestic violence is likely to get you off track.

Many resources claim this is a gender-based issue. Furthermore, they say a sense of entitlement and a desire for power and control is driving the abusive behavior. You should know these statements are based on ideology and not research.

I’ll acknowledge thinking that you’re superior or entitled because you are a man (or woman) is going to create problems. Also, domestic violence and abuse can look like a play for power and control on the outside.

On the inside, however, we know most people causing harm are doing so because they are feeling threatened. Their bad behavior is a desperate attempt to protect themselves from perceived dangers. They’re convinced they need to stop these threats to preserve their own well-being.

How change happens: the process

Lasting, permanent change requires us to unpack what’s happening beneath the surface. Fortunately, psychology has developed a model for doing this: cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. Unfortunately, this process requires time, effort, and a fair amount of self-awareness.

The central concept of CBT is that our thoughts create emotions, which drive our actions. To change our behavior, we need to know the thoughts at the source of that behavior. For those of us working to change, it helps to follow the equation backwards.

The process goes something like this: we begin with the actions that we want to address. Then, we ask ourselves what emotion(s) drove that behavior. From there, we can more easily identify the thoughts or beliefs that created the emotion.

Once the thoughts are identified, we can challenge those thoughts, looking for untruths or distortions. By thinking about the circumstances differently, in a more truthful, authentic way, we create a different emotion. The new feeling allows us to respond to the event differently.

Let’s unpack how change happens in more detail.

Regrettable behavior

All of us can remember times when we’ve said things we regret or done things we wish we hadn’t. Those actions that most upset our partner or got us into trouble are prime examples. Examining these events is a great starting point for how change happens.

By the way, we’ll often see patterns in these incidents. For example, if we regularly feel upset at times when we’ve been left out or ignored, it’s a good indication we have an underlying issue to address. The circumstances may change slightly, but our feelings and actions—or overreactions—are similar.

Emotions behind our actions

Strong and irrational behavior is usually driven by very powerful negative emotions. Oftentimes, we’re not aware of our feelings in the moment. It may require some reflection afterwards to identify them.

We may know that we felt angry, irritated, or frustrated in that moment. These emotions are about someone else and what they’re doing, however. The real emotion is deeper and about how we are personally affected. For example, anger may be the surface emotion, but deeper down, we might feel hurt, fear, or shame.

To verify that you’re identifying the right emotion, ask yourself if it makes sense that emotion would lead to your behavior. If you yelled at your partner for coming home late, but labeled your emotion as “worried”, the behavior doesn’t match the feeling. Feeling hurt, scared, or jealous better explains your reaction.

Thoughts at the source

Finally, we can explore what thoughts or beliefs we may have had that created the strong emotion. Again, most of us are unaware that we had these thoughts—they happen quickly in our subconscious. It’s only by taking time later to reflect on the situation that we discover what we might have been thinking.

Ask yourself what story you were telling yourself about what just happened. Using the earlier example, did you tell yourself that your partner doesn’t want to spend time with you? That your partner was in an accident? That they were cheating on you?

Again, test by seeing if that thought would lead to the emotion you identified. Probe further and consider what the situation meant to you. Or what does it say about you? These reflection questions may reveal buried beliefs, which is the first part of how change happens.

For example, if your partner criticized you, did you tell yourself a story that the criticism is more evidence that you don’t measure up? If someone cut you off in traffic, did you tell yourself the story that their disrespectful act means you don’t deserve to be treated with respect? It’s only when we think that circumstances affect usthat we build strong emotions. Otherwise, it’s just information.

Challenging thoughts

Once we uncover our thoughts, we’ll often discover they’re untrue, or not completely true. Ask yourself what parts of your story might be wrong, distorted, or illogical. Is there another way to think about what happened that leads to a different conclusion, a less powerful emotion, and a less harmful reaction?

One line of alternative thinking is to consider what might have been going on with the other person. Sometimes we’ll see they were upset, hurried, or stressed, which helps us see their actions were about them, not us. This helps us not take matters so personally.

If you can’t imagine how you could possibly think differently, remember there are always more constructive options. How do others, who would not be bothered by what happened, think? Look for these replacement thoughts.

When we see other ways of thinking about the situation, it leads to smaller, easier emotions to handle. And experiencing these diminished feelings means we are far less likely to respond in a destructive way. We’re less emotionally charged and more capable of rationalizing what our best response should be.

Unpacking emotions and thoughts: an example

An example might be helpful. Let’s say you are meeting a friend for lunch and they are late. Ten, 15, 20 minutes go by and your friend still hasn’t arrived. You’re upset, so when your friend walks in, you tell them off: “I guess you don’t care about me or our friendship.” Later, you wonder if you over-reacted and regret what you said.

Let’s unpack this incident using the process described above. We can’t take back our harsh words, but we can learn from it and make it less likely that we’ll lash out next time we find ourselves in a similar situation.

What emotion led to you saying this? As you consider different emotions, you determine the main one was probably hurt. It’s deeper than just saying you were angry. Likewise, “confused” or “disappointed” probably wouldn’t have caused you to make such a strong statement.

Next, what thought likely produced that hurt? Perhaps you thought that your friend’s actions were disrespectful of you and your time. They knew what time lunch was scheduled, but they disregarded it out of a lack of concern for you. The thought, “My friend doesn’t value or respect me” certainly would generate hurt feelings. But is this really true about your friend?

Processing the incident: the example continues

What if you would have thought differently about your friend being late? Instead of assuming they disregarded you, let’s say you wondered if your friend had been in an accident or had a family emergency. That thought likely would have created worry, so when your friend walked into the diner, you would have expressed concern for their well-being. “Is everything OK? I was worried something happened to you.”

Another way you might have thought about the situation is that extra 20 minutes gave you some badly needed quiet time. Maybe you would have had a chance to catch up on messages or plan meals for the coming week. Perhaps you could have used the opportunity to meditate or pray. This line of thinking will lead to feeling grateful rather than hurt or worried. You may have greeted your friend by saying, “Thank you for giving me an unexpected but welcome rest in my busy day.”

A third line of thinking could include assuming that your worst thoughts are true—but then you challenge the meaning of their actions. Maybe your friend was intentionally disrespectful. So what? What does that say about you?

If true, it would mean that your friend was inconsiderate, but it wouldn’t say anything about you. You were simply a by-stander to their rude behavior. You might feel pity for your friend’s poor character, but would feel unaffected by it yourself.

Past trauma and time tunneling

I should mention: many people discover they’re over-reacting because the incident reminds them of something painful from their past. They’re responding as much to the old wound as to the thing that just happened. This is called time tunneling and is how past traumas, when unaddressed, continue to shape our perceptions and behavior.

If you were frequently ignored by caretakers as a child, for example, you could be highly sensitive to being stood up as an adult. You’re more likely to perceive no-shows and tardiness from others as intentional slights.

Your mind will quickly create the story, “It’s happening again—my friend doesn’t value or respect me, either.” Other people wouldn’t necessarily tell themselves this horrible story, but our past can prime us for it. Identifying those past hurts and healing them will stop the over-sensitivity.

How change happens is a process

Processing incidents once will make it a little less likely that we will have distorted thinking the next time something similar happens. Typically, we’ll need to repeat this practice over and over until our brain develops new neural pathways—a new way of thinking.

Our distorted thinking did not develop instantly, so to reverse it, it also takes time. Identifying the emotions and thoughts behind our bad behavior, then challenging them, is not fast. It is, however, how change happens—and it’s definitely worth the effort.