We all have things in our life that we want to change—our eating habits, our hair color, our productivity, etc. But change is hard! That’s because these things you want to change serve an important purpose—consciously, you may despise the behavior, but on a deeper level the behavior you want to change is a protection or a pattern that helped or helps you meet your needs. If we were robots, change would be easy (and I’d be out of business). But, because we are logical and emotional creatures, change is complicated: no matter how badly we logically want it, we have to find the emotional balance in order to get it.
Whatever it is in your life that you want to modify—whether you know it or not—is part of a larger self-organized system that keeps your life going for you. For better or for worse, it’s a system or pattern you know and trust. Somehow, this behavior has helped you. Now it hurts. And you’re stuck.
Until you identify and understand the purpose of this behavior, change will be extremely difficult. Here are strategies that can help you change:
1. Change Only One Thing at a Time
If you’re looking to change one area in your life, keep it to one area—especially if what you’re looking to rework is a major part of your current life. Trying to change many things all at once can be a set-up for exhaustion and defeat.
2. Identify Why You Want to Change
Everyone always wants to brush over this step with a glib answer. I suggest you think it through a bit more. I often ask folks to pretend a magic genie is offering to grant the change they seek. Only first, they have to explain why they deserve and need this change. This provides the opportunity to articulate to themselves some in-depth reasons why they are making this commitment to begin the difficult process of change. When it feels challenging to stick to your commitment, you can often reflect back on these reasons to help you hang in there.
3. Understand How the Behavior Serves You
We hinted at this in the opening—whatever behavior you’re trying to change, it does, in fact, serve a purpose for you. This can be difficult to believe, as it’s hard to imagine that an unwanted behavior could actually help you in some way. Keep in mind that “helping” you does not mean it’s good for you. It means it’s helping you to survive day-to-day. Understanding how this behavior works for you can help you understand the discomfort you experience during the process of change.
4. Sit With the Discomfort
This one can also help you with #3. When you’re feeling the discomfort of change, try not to run away from it so quickly. See if you can let yourself feel the discomfort and try to understand what it is that is so intolerable. Yes, I know you don’t like discomfort and I know it doesn’t feel good. Believe me, I don’t like it either. But quite often when we let ourselves fully experience our difficult feelings, we can learn some very important things about ourselves that can help us change.
5. Take Baby Steps
You can often break the behavior you’re trying to change into smaller, more attainable goals. If you’re trying to eat healthier foods, start with adding a vegetable and a fruit to your regular meal plan every day, rather than revamping your entire menu all at once. Slow and gradual modification, rather than huge abrupt change, gives you the opportunity to take things one step at a time, which can be more productive and more likely to result in permanent change.
6. No Time Limits
This goes along with #5. Many people hate this one because in our society, we want results now. True, lasting change usually happens slowly over time. Trying to rush the process of change usually results in going to an extreme only to eventually burn out and have the pendulum swing back to the other extreme. Let change happen at a pace that feels right to you.
Shifting our behaviors can take time, practice, and patience with ourselves. Remember that change doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be in process.