The first two months of the year are always interesting to be a therapist. It is the time when everyone is taking a look at themselves and attempting to see things in a new way and/or trying to change something about themselves, which is what I do with others on a year round basis. My twitter feed was chock full of articles and messages about new this, resolve that, change now, and it fills me with both joy and frustration. The joy comes from feeling that everyone is out trying to get closer to their authenticity, which is my goal as a therapist, to assist others in finding their truest self. I also feel frustration because come February most of those hopeful souls will have already gotten back to old patterns and away from the stream of change and resolution. In the spirit of lasting change, here are my three steps on how you can make sure to stick to keeping those resolutions.
Step 1 – Figure out WHY the action you are trying to change is actually serving you.
Remember Dr. Phil’s famous line, “How’s that working for you?” He used it in sarcasm more times than not, but if you answer this simple question truthfully you will be halfway to eliminating the bad habit or tendency. Ask the question. How does eating a plate full of dinner, Oreos, and ice cream at night work for me? Well, maybe you stayed to your diet all day long and had that green juice smoothie from your new Vitamixer, but then at the end of the day, you fight with your husband, your child does not cooperate while doing his homework, and when everyone goes to bed you are drained. You fill your heart and numb out the stress and frustration with a plate full of pork, beans and rice and then treat yourself with Oreos and ice cream, taking care of yourself emotionally. This is because at one point in your life your mom took care of you while feeding you. When she did that you felt comfort and safety. Now as an adult after a night like that it makes sense that you would choose to comfort yourself with food. This takes care of the need to feel safe and comfortable. Also, blame the brain because that message of food as comfort is an old emotional memory held in your right brain. So the overeating is working for you because you are stressed, lonely, tired, and hungry and food makes you feel safe and comforted.
Step 2 – Once you know why the old action works for you figure out HOW to replace it
It is almost impossible to change behavior or old habits without replacing them with a new one. The piece that a lot of people forget is that the behavior is linked to a need and/or an emotion. If you did Step 1 correctly then you have figured out the need and the emotion attached to it. In our previous example the need was to be comfortable and the feeling was safety. So the question to ask yourself is if I want to be comfortable and safe and I have a long stressful day, what do I have to do besides eat to feel comfortable and safe? This is not an easy task, coming up with an answer to that question can be excruciatingly painful and sometimes feel daunting. That is why most people just want to change the behavior by ignoring the need and emotion. But I promise you, if you can know the why, the how will come slowly, and soon you will have an answer, such as replacing the food with a soothing, comfortable bath. That leads us to:
Step 3 – Change of any kind comes in bursts and regressions –sticking to your new action WHEN you fail is what brings the greatest change.
The statistics say that 60% of people stick to their resolution past the first month. This is because change is not linear. Once you decide to change and you take step 1 and step 2 I guarantee that you will have good and bad days and that is the human experience. One more time we have to blame the brain. In times of stress or high emotion the neurons that fire quickest are those that have been there the longest. For example feeling safe and comfortable when we eat has probably been in the neural pathway since you were an infant and breastfeeding. Taking a long bath and reading your favorite novel to feel comfortable and safe has been in your neural pathway for only two weeks. Be gentle with yourself when once more you overeat. The task at hand is to start over when you have a regression or “bad day”. There are very few people that can change cold turkey. Think of neural pathways like a path in the grass, the one that has been walked on the longest has no grass and it’s easy to see and take. The new path you are walking on still does not have a clear way; it has hidden rocks, snarling weeds, and unseen roots. That being said if you keep going on the new path eventually it will wear in like the old one. Simultaneously, the old path will grow grass and lose visibility. That’s how the brain works.
Take these steps. Give them a go. If you find that even when you figure out the HOW it still seems overwhelming, get some assistance, call a therapist or a good friend, and keep at it. Change takes time. Here’s to following through on your new way of being and to keeping at least one, if not all of your resolutions!