Khana Lacewell, therapist from My Mom is Obsessed, talks about the path to changing your unwanted behavior.
5: Know Yourself
Explore the possible origins of your unwanted behavior, as well as your motivations for change, through keeping a journal, mindful awareness or with a therapist or counselor. Be realistic about who you are and how you operate.
We cannot change every little thing about ourselves, so a little self-awareness can save us a lot of stress and frustration. Pick your battles, and know what motivates you - and what doesn’t. Don’t do a 30-day fast if you’re someone who wilts like warm lettuce and becomes homicidal if you don’t eat every three hours. Work out with a friend if you’re more motivated by spending time with others than going to the gym alone. Feeling competent reinforces healthy new behaviors, so do what works for you. Work with, rather than against, your strengths, abilities and natural disposition.
Now that you know yourself a little better, learn to anticipate your triggers - and avoid them! The easier you can make it for yourself to succeed, the easier it will be to create new behavioral pathways in the brain. Be prepared for obstacles and challenges. Avoid places and people that may sabotage or tempt you.
If you’re trying to curb compulsive shopping, don’t go to the mall or look through magazines or spend hours on eBay. Don’t hang out with the friend who always wants to go shopping. Instead, suggest a different activity for the two of you to do, such as going to the movies, grabbing some coffee or taking a class together (like yoga or cooking).
Explore positive, new replacement habits for unwanted behaviors, and be prepared to do them the moment you notice the urge to do the old behavior. Go for a walk, read inspirational books, take a bath, meditate or call a supportive friend. Always be prepared!
Unfortunately, biology doesn’t always help us. Our ancient predecessors who were on the alert for negative signals in their environment (saber-tooth tigers, dangerous rival tribes) survived a lot longer than the folks stopping to smell the Flintstones-sized roses. We can’t get rid of all negative signals - we need some for survival - but us modern humans can minimize our negativity bias by intentionally focusing on the positive.
Write down three positive things that happened to you this week (or have happened in the past), and call them to mind often. Keep a gratitude journal. Be your own cheerleader. Become aware of negative self-talk and counteract it with positive affirmations. Then, post them around your house, or put them in your wallet.
Create a network of supportive friends and family (even one or two will suffice), or find a group online or in your community who share the same goals as you. Create new pathways in the brain by starving negative habits of time and energy while reinforcing new behaviors with positive rewards.
Train yourself like you would a puppy. Put the shoes out of puppy’s reach. Give treats for good behavior, and give them soon or the puppy may lose attention and motivation. While long-term rewards such as healthy relationships, more energy and happiness are strong motivations, sometimes we need the quick chocolate or spontaneous movie to get us there.
Unwanted behaviors are usually attempts to manage stress, anxiety and overwhelming emotions. Sometimes our attempts turn into problems rather than solutions, but guilt, shame and self-punishment do not help. In fact, they usually create exactly what we are trying to avoid: stress, anxiety and discomfort.
Stress-reduction and good self-care are essential components to long-lasting behavior change. Become aware of your mind-body vulnerabilities. Most of us resort to unhealthy behaviors when we are tired, hungry or emotionally triggered. Reduce your stress by slowing down, doing yoga, meditating, gardening, exercising, laughing, helping others or seeking support from positive friends and family.
Throughout your day, practice simple yet powerful stress-reduction tools like stopping to take five slow, deep belly breaths. Count out each breath or think of a word such as “calm” or “let go”. Importantly, learn to balance the need to change with acceptance and self-compassion: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change” - Carl Rogers.
Change takes time and persistence. It took a long time to entrench your unwanted behaviors, so it takes a little while to undo them (perhaps 30 days for lasting change, but you can start to feel a healthy shift sooner, if you’re consistent). Sure, change can be painful - much like the pain you feel when you start working out. When you are consistent and persistent, though, the muscles get stronger, and it becomes not only easier and less painful to work out, but part of your muscle memory.
However, it will be far more effective to go slow and take baby steps than to overdo it. How many times have you charged full force into a New Year’s resolution or workout regimen only to burnout, guilt-trip yourself and feel like a failure (which causes the guilt and stress that can trigger unwanted behaviors)?
Rather than starting to work out three hours a day, six days a week (then quit after a week), start with one hour a day for two days a week. Then, slowly increase to three, four or five days a week, depending on what works best for you.
Give yourself permission to go slow, and know that setbacks are part of the process (but less likely if you pace yourself). We may have to do the opposite of our urges for a while, and fake it until we make it, but the human brain is much more plastic than previously believed.
Know that if you patiently and persistently practice your new behavior and neglect the old behavior (use it or lose it!), your brain will create its own “muscle memory”, and the change you sought is now automatic and stress-free!
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