by Jaron Steffens
P.G.Dip Sci (Psychology), B.App.Sci (Psychology), Dip Child & Adolescent Psychology, Dip Tch (PE & Health), Cert Personal Training, Holistic Lifestyle Coach
Kiwis are doing an amazing job of completely changing their lifestyle to stay at home and beat Covid-19. What has made this easier to do is that we know that the change is temporary, and we can return to normal(ish) in a few weeks or months. But, what if normal is not something that you want to return to?
What if there are other aspects of your life that you have been trying to change for years, but, like the lock-down, changes don’t last any longer than a few weeks before falling back into old patterns. Many of us have habits that we want to change permanently. We want to exercise more, eat better, lose weight, improve a relationship, let go of unnecessary guilt or anxiety, or any of a number of changes that take us toward our ideal self. We’ve all proven now that we can make extreme lifestyle changes stick for a few weeks. So how do we take this evidence and use it to make healthy lifestyle changes stay as a permanent part of who we are?
First, we have to answer the question: Why is it such a struggle to make the changes stick and become a permanent part of our life?
Some would suggest that a fear of failure, or fear of success could drive us back to old habits. Others simplify it to, we return to what we know best when times get tough, which is all the time. Whatever it is, it would seem that fear keeps us stuck with habits we don’t want. I would suggest that the core belief of who each of us is as a person is so strongly set that once we change habits we are deviating from who we believe we are, which is scary as it challenges our identity, so we return back to our old dysfunctional ways. Almost like we keep ourselves in an uncomfortable comfort zone, rather than challenging how we identify ourselves.
To give you an example
If a person has always held the belief that they are overweight, and will always be heavy, a part of them will understand this as being their identity, and it is scary to think that they may be losing their identity if they lose weight. When this person sticks to the diet and exercise for a couple of weeks, they may start to sabotage their efforts by allowing the food and behaviour that maintains the weight to slip back into their diet. At the same time, they find all the perfectly valid reasons to avoid exercise sessions. – Too much work, kids got sick, I got sick, can’t afford the gym membership, I read an article, etc.
Does this sound familiar? If so, what seems to be happening is, once the lifestyle changes started to work, a part of us gets scared. Fair enough too, it is scary when the person you know yourself to be is being threatened with a change. Who are you if you are not that? Our primal instinct is to maintain homeostasis. This would mean that we strive to remain as we are, even when the world around us is changing. This powerful instinct is usually an unconscious one, so not something that you will even be aware that you are doing.
Okay, uh… How can we change something if we are instinctively holding onto our habits as a part of our identity?
The good news is that we can develop an awareness of when these are kicking into drive. Once we are aware that we are slipping back into the unwanted behaviour we can challenge the behaviour with all the evidence from our past and make the healthy changes we strive for stick. Huh?
Let me break this down a bit
When we want to challenge behaviour, we need to challenge the thought that is associated with that behaviour. Most creatures in this world live a simple existence of stimulus-response. Something happens, and there is an expected behaviour that follows. Humans are different. Our behaviour is more stimulus-thought-response. The pesky thought that is associated with behaviour means that when something happens, we observe it and throw it in the blender with all our previous experiences and knowledge of how the world works and make decisions accordingly. This is followed by varied, and completely unpredictable behaviours. Simple right? Not really, these thoughts that dictate our behaviour are driven from deep down in our sub-conscious.
The behaviour determining thoughts you can access are your automatic thoughts. This is where someone can ask you, “What were you thinking?” or “What was going through your head?” and you can tell them.
Underneath the automatic thoughts are underlying assumptions. These are the sub-conscious rules and attitudes we hold about the way things should or shouldn’t be in the world.
Driving the underlying assumption, at the deepest level of thought, are our core beliefs which are extremely difficult to access. Core beliefs are at the heart of what we know about ourselves, and our place in the world.
So, our core beliefs drive our underlying assumptions, our underlying assumptions drive our automatic thoughts, and these thoughts drive the negative behaviours we are wanting to change. This little equation, however, can work back the other way too. If we challenge our negative automatic thoughts which drive negative behaviour, we are also challenging our underlying assumptions and our core beliefs. Challenge your negative automatic thoughts enough with contradicting evidence, and you can eventually change a negative core belief you hold. With the current lock-down situation, you will be gaining plenty of great evidence of your ability to adapt and change quickly. Take a moment to think about all the changes you have made in the last few weeks and give yourself some credit, well done.
A true story
By now, you may need an example, so, let me tell you about Peanut Butter Lady. When I first started to talk with people about behaviour change, I was based in a gym. Because of this, the target behaviour most clients wanted to focus on was health and fitness based. A client I knew through the gym came to see me wanting to talk to me about issues she was having with her diet. She told me that she would get to the end of a working day, open a jar of peanut butter, and eat it with a spoon.
“Okay” I shrugged, “What’s wrong with peanut butter?” Thinking a crushed legume can’t be all that evil.
“I’m afraid I’ll get fat” answered the 48-year-old woman in front of me who looked as though she had very little genetic chance of becoming overweight in any way.
So, I approached from a different angle, “What would gaining weight mean to you?” I asked.
“It would mean I couldn’t reach my goals”
“Okay, so what are your goals?”
As she listed off her goals, all of which were well thought out and realistic, I noticed her flinch, so stopped her, “Right then, something went through your mind, what did it say?”
At this moment we managed to access a negative automatic thought that perhaps gave a clue to the drivers of the peanut butter eating behaviour, “It said I can’t reach my goals.” This told us the negative automatic thoughts that Peanut Butter Lady was living with. Knowing that there were underlying assumptions and core beliefs we unpacked this a little further. “What makes you think you can’t reach your goals?” I asked. She answered, “I fail at everything I do.” This is a life rule, therefore, an underlying assumption.
This last statement was clearly untrue to any observer, she was very successful in many areas of life. When challenged on this, Peanut Butter Lady broke into tears as she discovered her core beliefs, “I’m a failure.” and “I’m useless.”
What this showed us is that when this talented, successful person had a good day, her core beliefs about herself were telling her it was all wrong, so she would unconsciously eat a jar of peanut butter to prove to herself that she was still useless, and still a failure.
What was important at this point was to recognise the negative automatic thoughts Peanut Butter Lady was having that were reinforcing the negative core beliefs. Once the thoughts were recognised, we could then challenge them with evidence against the thought. For example, if she made a mistake at work and caught herself in a negative “I’m so useless” cycle, she was instructed to find examples from the rest of the day or week that proved that there was a lot more success in her life than failure. She also started to think about who she is if we could prove that she was not useless and a failure.
We can all follow this process, and like any new habit, it takes time and practice. The more you repeat the positive, challenging thought process, the stronger the positive becomes, and the negative thoughts have a lot less strength. The change is gradual, so keep practicing. Peanut Butter Lady later told me that she still eats peanut butter, but rarely straight from the jar, and she enjoys it as a food now, rather than a symbol of failure. Her core beliefs have changed from “I’m a failure” to “There are some things I don’t fail at”. This seems like a small change, but it is enough to change the way she views herself and treat herself with the respect she deserves.
It can be hard but you can do it
It is hard to change habits of a lifetime and make the changes permanent. First, we need to recognise the negativity we are carrying around. Second, challenge it using all the evidence of successes you have had that contradict the negativity, no matter how small. Repeat this practice enough, and eventually your thought patterns will instinctively find the positive in situations, allowing the desired behaviour to simply be a part of who you are.
A lock-down opportunity
While you are stuck at home for another couple of weeks, use the time to:
- Make a plan for what you want to change in your lifestyle.
- Become aware of the negative thoughts that are driving the behaviour you want to change.
- Gather evidence against the negativity driving your habits.
- Finally, picture how life will look for you when you have succeeded in making the change, so you are can develop an awareness of your identity without the negative habit.