Making Change Possible

Everybody talks about change and there is an implicit assumption in all the workshops I present that people know what it takes to change and have the skills to do so. Although the change process is woven throughout the material, I thought it might be helpful to focus on a generic change process that can be applied to any behavior you wish to change or eliminate.

The first and most important (and maybe the hardest) part of the change process is dealing with the mental/emotional aspect of change. This is true for many reasons: we need to overcome any failure messages we have incorporated, we need to deal effectively with the setbacks that are likely to occur when making major changes, we have to cope with the distractions of daily life and the lure of our longstanding ways of doing things. We may even need to change our self-image (when I stopped smoking, I had to change my self-image from someone who had a cigarette in her hand!) So we need powerful strategies to cope with all that and manage our mental state to our advantage.

An effective approach to managing the mental/emotional aspect of change needs to incorporate several elements:

  1. intention – we need to keep our reasons for wanting to change constantly in front of us. This requires being very clear about our reasons. 

Another point about reasons for change: they must be our reasons and not someone else’s, but…denying ownership of what is objectively in our best interests can be a self-destructive defense that gets us nowhere. Better to be receptive to input and feedback and include everything that fits into our understanding and goals.
Our intentions are most likely to influence our behavior when we write down our plans, goals, hopes, dreams and commitments. Putting our reasons to paper gives them another level of reality, helps us stay on track, and creates more of a feeling of accountability. (If you’re really strongly committed, posting your reasons for changing on the wall where friends and family can see them and help you remember them will greatly aid your change process.)

  1. Clarity – we need to make sure that our reasons for wanting to change are issues that will really motivate us to act, and do not create intolerable hurdles or burdens. For example, saying we want to overcome hoarding to make the world a better place is unrealistic, highly burdensome, and likely to perpetuate the behavior. Saying we want to overcome hoarding to improve the quality of our lives, improve our social and family life, or free ourselves of the burden of worry over eviction, fire, or the other common hazards of hoarding will improve our chances of success. A big part of clarity is to identify all the ways that changing will benefit us and our loved ones (the flip side of this may also be important – to identify the ways that our present behavior hurts ourselves and our loved ones.)
  2. Motivators – we need to identify all the little tricks that will prompt or encourage us to act in the way that we want to become. Rewards, environmental cues, withholding treats, and finally, penalties for not doing the right thing are all methods we can customize to suit our particular psyches and find the support we need for giving up the comfortable and familiar for the better but maybe a little stressful and definitely unfamiliar new behavior (the technical definition of stress is adaptation to change)
  3. Strategies – based on what we learned about ourselves in Steps 1, 2, and 3, we are ready to create a plan for the actual techniques we will use to ensure that we move forward with our behavioral change and prevent backsliding. Using losing weight as an example, we need to create a plan for healthy eating, for handling temptation, and for getting more exercise. Like any behavior change plan, we need to make sure that our surroundings do not undermine our determination, so we likely need to do things like throw out all the food that prevents weight loss, and make sure that it includes things that do support our goals such as lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. As with our reasons and benefits, writing out our plan greatly increases our chances of success.
  4. Feedback and evaluation – we need to be continually looking at what is working and what is not in our strategies and adapting our plans as needed or adopting a totally different plan if that’s what is needed to achieve the kind of life we want and deserve.

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