Updated: Dec 7, 2020
That wonderful, infuriating roller coaster of motivation and disappointment from falling short when you’re trying to change behaviors can be enough to drive anyone crazy. Being able to pursue and maintain behavioral changes can be quite the undertaking. So how exactly do people do it? How do people change their lives daily? I could give you some of the cookie cutter answers about motivation theory and different models of change. However, those frameworks don’t work for everyone and can lead to some massive frustrations. A synonym for change is “reshape”. Here’s your moment. You’re a blob of clay in your own hands. What do you want to turn yourself into?
Congratulations! If you kept reading, you have the Superpower: Acceptance. So let’s kick it old school for a second, to the father of Western Medicine himself, Hippocrates. One of the famous quotes from Hippocrates is “Before you heal someone, ask him if he’s willing to give up the things that make him sick.” The sentiment behind this is a recognition that we all contribute to our own issues in some way or another. We have to be willing to give up the things we are doing that contribute to us being sick. If you have depression, you have to be willing to give up the temptation to escape and lay around. Trust me, I know how fucking difficult that feels. You have to want it badly enough though. You have to feel a certain level of discomfort with the way you are living. You have to sit in that discomfort, instead of running from it.
You have to decide that you would rather face the fear of trying something new and failing than staying the same. You have to decide day in and day out that you want it more. You have to be willing to forfeit the comfort zone of behaviors that are feeding into your illness. Sometimes, you have to be desperate before you are willing to give up the things that are contributing to your mental illness. Sometimes, you have to feel a certain level of self-disgust in order to feel the motivation to be different, to behave differently. It's not pretty. It feels like the end of the world.
That’s why they say people have to hit rock bottom though. When you hit rock bottom, you start to realize the ways that you’ve been the one digging your own hole with your shovel called Avoidance. You start to realize that the world around you won’t change if you don’t. You realize that the discomfort of staying at rock bottom is worse than the discomfort of giving up whatever is making you ill. Rock bottom doesn’t have to be everyone’s story. If you’re here and not at rock bottom, I congratulate and celebrate you on your growth journey. It still won’t be pretty. If you are at rock bottom. I get you. You’re not alone in these feelings, and there is a way out. Recognizing that you need to sacrifice certain behaviors in order to change is a part of everyone’s story.
Recognition isn’t the full package either. I have plenty of clients that say they are ready and willing. Yet, they continue to come in with reason after reason why they continue to engage in the patterns that made them have mental health concerns in the first place. Part of this comes down to the difference of saying it and feeling it. Anyone can say they’re willing to sacrifice behaviors, but on some level a person needs to feel it. They need to feel fed up with how life is going. They need to see how they contribute to their problems and feel fed up at how they are contributing to them.
So how do you do it? How do you really change?
Step 1. Develop insight into whatever you might be doing that’s feeding into your issues.
If you are depressed, do you spend hours laying around or trying to escape through video games or Netflix? Do you socially isolate because you think everyone will reject you? If you are anxious, do you insist on controlling as much as you possibly can to make yourself feel better? Do you think your anxiety is a safety feature of your brain and entertain it because you think it prepares you? If you have difficulties in relationships, do you do any behaviors that might push people away?
Step 2. Assess whether or not those behaviors are helping or hurting you.
Truly. Sit with yourself and think about how they could worsen things when you are thinking they are protective behaviors or survival mechanisms.
Step 3. Want it badly enough. Push yourself to want it badly enough that you take the active steps to change.
Make the commitment. If you’re depressed, make your couch off limits until after you’ve done certain activities (like exercising or doing the dishes) and make yourself interact with people. If you are anxious, stop planning, give up some of that control. If you have relationship difficulties, ask others what you can do differently and do that thing. Whatever your issues may be, choose to do the uncomfortable, and maybe terrifying, thing.
Step 4. Contingency plans.
I’m a huge back up plan person. I normally tell clients that I have at least 2-3 back up plans for our work together. It’s a little less overwhelming if you have plans for things when they don’t go according to plan (people with anxiety: this does not mean you get to plan ALL the details, just have a loose plan and a willingness to go with the flow). Normally my back up plans for motivation to change come down to old school reinforcement systems. As adults, we can totally do star charts with ourselves to reward changes. Give yourself the damn M&M’s, just make yourself earn it first, and be honest. If you’re the weirdo who doesn’t like chocolate, work up to that treat your self moment you’ve been jonesing for. Sometimes, the external rewards are what keep us going when the behaviors we are changing are not intrinsically rewarding. Rewards are part of most habit changing techniques, and are encouraged, as long as they stay limited and within the scope of healthy for any conditions you might have. Please see a professional if you’re unsure.
Step 5. Be gentle with yourself.
Please, please, please, recognize that growth is not on a straight, perfect trajectory. Sometimes we have setbacks. Sometimes we fail. A lot of people have to go through a process of change numerous times before it sticks. Positive behavioral change doesn't always have a fast impact. Shaming yourself if you fail or if you have a setback, will really only be another barrier in your way to getting back to where you want to be. Shame is an insidious element that can stop you in your tracks. So recognize that you're human, accept that it's a process, learn what contributed to the setback, and get back on the damn wagon.
Step 6. Read more
about Behavioral Change here.
Step 7. For the truly eager
to change folks out there, check out our book list.
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