Overcoming Obstacles to Change: Part 3
Become your ally, not your bully.
Posted September 18, 2018
It is part of the human condition that it’s really hard to change our habits. In part 1 and part 2 of this series we’ve seen that we can improve our chances of lasting change if we take into account the real (possibly obscure) role of the behavior we wish to change; and manage our brain’s tendency to revert to past habits, especially under pressure.
However, despite the best made plans, it is almost inevitable that we will fail to carry out our plans perfectly: How we respond is absolutely central to our likely success.
Let’s return to David, Suzie and Sanjiv from part 1.
David gets angry with himself as he is still struggling to do his exercises regularly (though he is going to the new naturalists group). He feels he is stupidly wasting his money on physiotherapy, and promises himself before every session that he’ll try harder.
Suzie stopped smoking entirely for a week on holiday, though joined the smokers at lunchtime on her first day back at work. She berates herself for having no willpower, and feels that having had a cigarette at lunchtime, she may as well start again.
Sanjiv committed to meeting with friends once a week, but feels he has nothing of interest to say. He’s decided not to waste his friends’ time anymore.
Despite their apparently smart plans, our trio are still struggling. What has gone wrong?
As well as dealing with all the inherent difficulties of change, THEY ARE BEING BULLIED - by themselves…
When our lives don’t go to plan, many of us are experts at kicking ourselves as we try to stand up. ‘You’ve failed again.’ ‘You’ll never change.’ ‘You’ll never amount to much.’ Beating ourselves up, or ‘negative self-talk’, is surprisingly common. One reason is that we are very poor at recognizing it when we do it, as we do it so much it seems ‘normal’ and ‘justified’ and ‘factual’...
Bullying - by anyone - creates stress which as we saw in part 2, directly increases the likelihood of falling into old habits… which can lead to more self-flagellation, and less capacity for change - creating a destructive cycle. To feel we are failures, with the associated shame, is the biggest demotivator of all.
How can we get out of this particularly destructive loop?
First - understand that it is part of the human condition that change is hard (and please re-read why in the previous posts if you think it should be easy). If you’re finding it hard to change, you deserve to be congratulated for trying to do something difficult, not punished for erring like a human. A reasonable plan for change may therefore need to consider how we support and reward our progress.
There are no quick fixes, so give yourself a break! Use the ideas from the previous post to reduce the hold our bullying thought habits have over us, by noticing repeated thoughts and their possible triggers.
To best support change, we need to cultivate self-acceptance and understanding. Any activity that builds faith in ourselves is good, even if it is not directly related to the change we wish to see. It has been said that ‘the best way to lose weight is to take up the piano’, and there is some truth in this.
Remember that the difficulties of change are temporary, whilst the benefits are potentially life-long. Remind yourself why you want to make the change - what are the benefits? How will your world be better? Keep the prize in mind. In general, we are more likely to make changes when we are moving towards a goal, rather than away from something unwanted.
On the other hand, an honest assessment may reveal that your heart is not in a particular change just now, and your energy might be best spent elsewhere. If so, congratulate yourself for your insight, and move on.
Understand that plans are not set in stone. If they are not working… re-examine the plan. Does it take into account what rewards your ‘bad behavior’ brought? Have you identified triggers, and habitual thought patterns on order to enhance your early detection and interception of old behaviors? Can you change your environment to support the changes you wish to see? Is your plan specific, measurable, and realistic enough?
More generally, what stressors are there in your life? As we know, when we are stressed, well worn paths tend to dominate and make change. Can you improve your lifestyle in any way? Is someone or something getting in the way of change? Can you introduce some fun or distraction? Sometimes, even without changing what is around us, we can become happier with what we have. If we choose to focus on what’s good (rather than dwelling on what’s wrong), we often find ourselves immediately less stressed.
If you feel really stuck - despite really wanting to change - subconscious defences may be at play. Allowing ourselves to hope and believe we can change, lets in the idea that we might fail and disappoint ourselves. Just the idea that we can change forces us to take responsibility for our actions, and this can be too much especially when we’ve done things we regret in the past.
Sometimes, at some fundamental level, we simply do not understand what a given change really ‘looks like’. Take Sanjiv who has been depressed since childhood… Whilst ‘not being depressed’ may be the ultimate goal, he has no map to get him there. What would ‘not being depressed’ feel like? How would he recognize the steps along the road?
Some serious soul-searching, or meditation, or a change of focus for a while, or books or workshops or professional help may be needed to really embrace change. What is certain is that continuing to do the same things that are not working - and expect change - is a recipe for making things worse by adding self-flagellation to the mix.
I hope the ideas from neuroscience and the therapy room that I’ve explored in this blog series have gone some way to explaining why change is so hard, and what we can do to improve our chances of making changes that stick.
The best chance for change comes when we:
1. identify what an ‘unwanted’ behavior does for us and find better substitutes,
2. work with our brains - increase awareness of existing triggers and patterns in order to break habits, and reduce stress where possible,
3. make specific realistic plans that are broken down into manageable and measurable steps,
4. see these plans as ‘works in progress’ to be learnt from and modified if required, and
4. are kind to ourselves!
Remember, our harsh judgements on our attempts to change, directly increase the difficulty of us changing... Good luck!