Many of us play out some version of this cycle most of our adult lives. And let’s face it: this approach has a short shelf life. We get the temporary and hopeful high of “I’m doing something about this!!” followed by the swift slap of disappointment when it turns out maybe it wasn’t realistic to think we could wake up to work out everyday at 5:45 AM when we haven’t A) worked out or B) gotten up before 8am in literally months.
Insert self-berating comments and disparagement here that inches us towards the “F it’s” where we abandon the initiative all together and submit to our Cheeto eating ways before cycling back to “the decision” to get it together...lather, rinse, repeat.
My job is to help people be realistic and successful in their change attempts and yet I find myself over and over again getting caught in the enticing quick fix fantasy of a self finally improved. And through trial, error, and repetition I’ve been able to recognize this delusion more quickly and steer myself towards an approach that actually helps me to make changes that stick. This is where I turn my head manually away from self-improvement that plays itself out in a ideal perfectionism land, toward self-acceptance and self-compassion in the face of the realities, messiness, and resistance encountered by all of us in the process of changing anything.
So what does this mean? It means taking your goal list and cutting it in half. It means being realistic in your expectations of what you can do. It means baby steps that, when made, you applaud with fervor. It means offering self-compassion and validation when you slip. It means holding ourselves in high regard even when we only make it to day 2 of Whole 30 (wow the examples just flow, not mine of course). It means surrendering - not to our bad habits but to our humanness and the fundamental truth that basically I’m good enough. Could I get a little better? Yes. Am I going to be a person who (insert complete opposite personality and traits here)? Likely not.
I use the “good coach” metaphor a lot with my clients. When I think of some of my best coaches I recall that they pushed me hard but within reason of what I was capable of based upon my current skill level at the time. I knew they believed in me and kept an eye on and belief in my full potential. Perhaps most importantly, their support and encouragement wouldn’t waiver when I messed up. We need this inside of us when we try to grow and change and yet many of us have a brutal internal critic that pounces on us the minute we even try, the minute we mess up, the minute we don’t sustain for as long as planned. It makes it super duper hard to take the risk to change when under such intense critical scrutiny.
But I don’t want to get complacent. I want to keep improving myself you say. You can. The fact of the matter is that a foundational bed of self-acceptance creates the conditions in which these changes, hopes and dreams are most likely to come to fruition and take. Furthermore, knowing that we have our own self support no matter what creates a safe emotional environment to risk in the first place.
6 Things You Can Do To Approach Change Differently:
1) Set Yourself Up To Win - Just like asking a 2nd grader to read high school material would be a set up for failure- asking ourselves to perform, complete, achieve, sustain something that is several steps ahead of where we are currently just sets us up for failure. For most of us, change happens one teeny tiny inconsequential step at a time directly in front of where we currently are.
2) Enter Radical Self Acceptance - The thing is. Sometimes it’s really hard to accept where we currently are. We don’t want to look at our budget or our weight or our job or our social life because it’s loaded with regret, or shame, or loss. Radical Acceptance is a concept that I come back to again and again as it does not mean we like something it just asked that we accept it radically (it has to be radical because it’s so challenging to do) so that we can move forward. Try something. Think about something you are really struggling with right now. Bring this to mind and place your open palms on your lap facing the sky. This gesture symbolizes that you are open to the reality of your present situation (you may still hate it so hard) but you can nonetheless be open..and see if your chest doesn’t open a little. If a bit of lightness enters. Now repeat this a million times as you stay with yourself each baby-step of the way.
3) Turn Your Actual Head - Okay maybe not actually. But imagine a forked road ahead of you. One is the typical path of self-improvement the other is self-acceptance. Actively choose to accept yourself while still holding your best interest and goals in mind. Keep re-directing yourself back to that path over and over and over again.
4) Be Realistic About the Change Process - On average people have a messy and repetitive route through the stages of change. It takes time and circling through. It’s not a light switch were we just decide and it happens. It’s a process- and not a linear one. That’s how it is for all of us. Oh, and the amount of time you think you should be able to accomplish or achieve x,y,z--double it--at minimum.
5) Expect Resistance - Resistance to change is natural, expect it, embrace it, work with it. Remember that cornstarchy gak we made in 3rd grade science? How when you applied force it was hard and unmoveable yet when you’d relax your hand it would melt through your fingers? Treat resistance like gak in your own change process. Loosen your grip and let it come and go. The harder you fight and force the more likely it will stay stubbornly unmoved.
6) Connection Helps - Whether you are trying to change a habit or heal a long-standing wound. Don’t go it alone. Gather your supports and accountability buddies to help you through whatever you are facing. This could be a best friend, a therapist, a journal, an on-line forum or a group such as the one I am beginning in May focusing on this very topic.
Dr. Anna Roth is a Holistic Psychologist and Registered Yoga Teacher passionate about integrative and embodied treatment approaches to mental health. She thrives at identifying root causes and providing strategic intervention that is as multidimensional as the humans she helps. Heartfelt and holistic, Dr. Roth’s method folds in the best of psychology, somatics, spirituality, mindfulness, functional medicine, and yoga to bring about deep and lasting healing. She obtained her PhD from the University of Minnesota and is currently working in private practice in South Minneapolis.