We all say we have something we want to change in our lives…
“become a better person”
“lead a healthier life”
“limit the amount of times I hit the snooze button”
But, it’s one thing to want change and another to actually change.
Every year, I make a verbal commitment to do something different. I genuinely want the change. But… alas I fail. Why?!?
Why do we struggle with change?
Throughout our lives, starting in childhood, we learn behaviors and skills that we use to get our personal needs met. These behaviors become habitual and automatic responses. Once we begin to sense that the behavior or thought is no longer working for us; whether on our own or through the suggestions of others, we start thinking about change.
For example, if we learned in childhood that sharing our feelings and thoughts can make others upset and/or created feelings of fear due to someone(s) response – we may have realized that hiding our true thoughts and feelings could allow us to avoid conflict, judgment, and potential rejection.
Despite the initial pleasant outcome that can come from avoiding these consequences, low self worth and feeling “less than” can ultimately result from not feeling that one’s own feelings, thoughts, and needs are important to others. It often only increases your own fear of what people would think if they knew what was really going on inside you.
This fear keeps us using the same behavior of hiding our true selves for a very long time. As we begin to sense that our needs aren’t being met or potentially when others point out that behaviors are causing us problems, we decide that we need to do something different. Problems may include issues in our relationships, jobs, maybe even substance use. At this point, we realize that we want a change that will increase positive outcomes such as feeling understood, feeling trusted, healthy relationships and reduced financial and legal issues.
But, change is hard…
And, every time we try to change and fail to maintain the change our self-worth can be affected. We may tell ourselves, things like I just can’t do anything right. After several failures to change the same behavior, we may lose hope that the change is even possible for us. Recognizing that these “failures” have a positive lesson to be learned and if utilized are one step closer to creating long lasting change.
What’s the Key to Change?
A key to change is having a good plan. Many times people skip the planning stage and go straight to trying to change. But, as the saying goes… if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Failing or relapsing to old behaviors is more likely to happen if you aren’t prepared for potential setbacks or triggers. A good plan takes into account how to cope with the potential negative consequences of the change, as well as how we will meet our needs that will no longer be met by the old behavior. Using the example above concerning hiding one’s true feelings and thoughts, not allowing someone to know your thoughts and feelings does in fact reduce the potential negative consequence for the person to judge you and can indeed decrease the anxiety that results from the fear of judgment. However, a good plan would account for how one will tolerate the potential anxiety in a positive way as well as how to manage hurt feelings if the person they share with does indeed judge them.
Most, if not all, behaviors have some sort of either real or perceived positive consequences along with the negative consequences. If the current behavior wasn’t meeting at least some real or perceived need for us, we would have changed long before the moment we decide to change. For example, although drugs and alcohol have numerous negative consequences, many people continue to use substances as a coping skill to negative situations in the moment. Someone may abuse heroin to have a sense of relief from extreme anxiety. Although they may in fact reduce anxiety in the moment, the use of heroin can cause extreme negative consequences such as legal, financial, and relational issues that continue long past the use of heroin. There is a short term gain despite long term negative consequences. If there wasn’t a short term gain, people wouldn’t continue to use substances as a coping skill.
How do I plan for change?
- First, make sure your plans for change are realistic and achievable.
- What works for one person, may not work for another. Plans should be individualized, gather information and identify steps that will work for you.
- Be a detective on self; try out new skills, continuously monitor and adjust based on what is working.
- Take a leap back in time, identify whathas worked for you and what has not.
- Start out with small steps to change. As you gain confidence in achieving the small steps, larger steps can be implemented into the plan.
- Build a support team. Not only will this help you hold yourself accountable, but it can also provide you with a team of cheerleaders when times are tough.
- Commit! Once you work out a solid plan, truly commit to the steps you have decided upon that will aid you in your change.
Ready, Set, Go!
Once a specific and individual plan has been formulated and the person takes the first steps, change begins to occur. The change requires consistent use and re-working of the plan as needed. For example, although someone who is hoping to change/ stop their use of substances may have a current plan that involves attending daily support group meetings after treatment, it is possible that their work, family, and other outside obligations may require the reduction of these meetings to three times per week. The plan would need to reflect this change. The individual would be wise to look at what need the support group attendance was meeting. Care and support to keep him/her feeling grounded for the rest of the day? Maybe he/she replaces the missed meetings by utilizing their breaks at work to call their sponsor and practice 5 minutes of deep breathing/meditation.
Although relapses may occur, this does not mean the person should give up. ALL that it means is that the plan needs to be re-worked to include the new wisdom.
Once the person seeking change is able to successfully avoid returning to the old behavior, the goal is to maintain the change. Just because someone has been successful at not returning to an old behavior, it does not mean that they do not have thoughts of returning to the old behavior. People in maintenance must remain mindful and be consciously reframing situations, planning for situations that could trigger a relapse to the old behavior, and acquiring and practicing new skills until these new skills are their new habits.
Change can be positive, life changing and exciting. On the other hand; change can be scary, stressful and difficult. Change is a process. Be gentle with yourself. While change is hard, it is possible. Bottom line, it’s not simple … I’m often reminded of the quote; ‘Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy’.
Author: Dr. Stacy Lott; Footprints to Recovery – Executive Director