When you’re in a rut, unmotivated or stuck, it’s hard to see a way forward. But you can access big change through a path of small changes in behavior. Even seemingly insignificant behavior changes can affect how you feel. After some Googling I have determined that a concise explanation of how this works is hard to come by. I did find this, which was sort of instructive, but most information regarding the interplay of how we think, feel and act focuses on recognizing and changing our thoughts, usually in the context of therapy and mental health, rather than approaching change from different angles.

So, here I offer a basic description of how this can work. I apologize in advance, but it requires me to put on my dusty Marriage and Family Therapy hat and provide a little overview of Systems Theory and the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Triangle, and how they work together.

Graphic of the Cognitive Triangle

Image is from the Hudson Therapy group blog. I have no affiliation with, nor can I recommend or otherwise speak to, this company or any other content on their website.

The CBT Triangle, or Cognitive Triangle, as I’ll call it here, describes how our thoughts, emotions, and behavior all influence one another. It is a system, a way these things interact. As a system, they are all inextricably connected. So, if you change one element, like your behavior, the other two parts of the triangle will change in some way too.

To better understand systems, you can search “systems theory” for a simultaneously mind-blowing and mind-numbing exploration of the topic, but I don’t recommend that. Here’s the brief scoop:

All systems – families, organizations, communities, etc. – have different components that act independently and together. These different components rely on each other, interact, and contribute to different feedback loops that maintain the overall system. Let’s just say, they “dance” together in certain ways, to keep the “loop” rolling along. As long as they exist as an interacting system, if you change or interrupt just one part, the others will respond in some way. Every part is affected when one part of the system makes a change. You see this in families when you consider how one person’s behavior prompts a response (which may be negative, positive, or even neutral) from others in the family. If that person behaves in a new way, a way that is a different “dance step” from what everyone else is used to, the other people will react, make adjustments, or behave in new ways themselves (toes might get stepped on!). In individual people (a nicely, self-contained system that you alone manage), this dance/feedback loop is described by the Cognitive Triangle.

One can theorize about how other components of a system might respond to a change (like in, say, a weather system), but especially in families and individuals it’s not predictable as to exactly WHAT might change and how. Often, there’s a resistance, a cry from the other system elements to “change back!” or return to the familiarity and relative comfort (even if it was actually uncomfortable) of how things were before. In families, this can look like family members expressing displeasure, confusion or anger when one member engages in the dance differently than before (i.e., doesn’t respond to provocation angrily, or in some other “expected” way). Similarly, an individual might experience internal resistance when trying to implement a personal change, for example, identifying and trying out new thoughts, behaviors or routines. But this is where the opportunity for learning arises. This is where the growth happens. And that’s how the system’s dance evolves and gets better.

In conclusion, if you’re not happy with YOUR system, introduce change anywhere you can. Make note of what you are currently doing and making some small tweaks to your routine. It’s hard to imagine that could make much difference in the big picture. But as John Maxwell once said,

“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret to your success is found in your daily routine.”

So what small change you could make to your routine to get on the path to big change?

Some of my favorite resources for getting unstuck:
Positive Intelligence
Tiny Habits
Atomic Habits
Waking Up App

Also, see this post: For Big Change, Start Small.

Note: I am not a practicing therapist, this is a simplified discussion of these principles, and if you are experiencing persistent anxiety, depression or other mental health or physical crisis, please seek help through your primary care physician, or visit this website. There is good help out there.

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