For a really long time (and maybe even now on a bad day) I think that “if I can just do _____ or finish _____, everything will be ok.”
Since I know I’m not the only person who can be hard on themselves, I’m guessing at least some of you have this problem too.
In 2016, I encouraged you to have self-compassion, to be patient and kind to yourself, to pay attention to how to you speak to yourself. That hasn’t changed. Self-compassion is really important.
But I also know that a lot of you crave change and this time of year, it hangs in the air. For a lot of people, a new year feels like a fresh start or a reset so I wanted to spend this month talking about HOW change CAN work so I’ve spent some time, reading and thinking about how to communicate how change works in the brain.
You may have heard this from me before but I think it is important to hear/see it again and again. Carl Rogers (a really wonderful clinician and researcher) taught us that real change only happens when someone is so anxious they cannot help but make a shift. Sometimes those changes are healthy and good for us…. And sometimes they aren’t. As an example, addictions are often show up to help us cope with a situation or a feeling that we don’t have a healthy response for so the addiction pops up as a defense or coping mechanism. Most addictions are unhealthy, so the addictions often cause more problems. (Yes, I did say MOST addictions; feel free to read “Positive Addiction” by Dr. William Glasser.)
Many of you may be surprised to hear that your brain is actually working against your change and it is definitely working against BIG changes.
I know, it sounds a little strange but it is totally true. Your brain is basically a big computer; it wants to run as efficiently as possible and doing the same thing over and over again is the most efficient way to operate. For example, have you ever been driving home and your pulled into your driveway and realized you didn’t really notice the drive home because your mind was somewhere else? That’s because your brain has created a system of connections about this trip you have made hundreds of times. You have driven that way home when you were tired, happy, mad, sad and your brain knows the map. You know what lane to be in, you can feel how long the light will take, without really thinking you know when to slow down because there is a stop sign around the corner.
Conversely, when you run a lot of errands that are not in your normal, daily routine, they can be more exhausting because your brain had to work a lot harder at making those maps because they are NOT part of your routine.
Our brains work against change in two basic ways:
Your brain wants routine. Even if it isn’t a routine you like or want anymore.
Cue => Routine => Reward
We have discussed the first one so let’s look at the second one because I think this where most people get tripped up.
The cue is the thing that starts everything in motion and it could be just about anything! It could be a sound, a place, a person a feeling, etc. For example, as soon as I get home from just about anywhere (even going to the mailbox) I want to do two things: take off my shoes and wash my hands. (Of all my habits, I’m not even a little embarrassed about this but feel free to laugh.)
So here the cue is walking in my front door, the routine is removing shoes and washing hands, my reward is to feel like I’m not bringing in as many germs into my home.
What is so difficult about this part is that a lot of us are totally unaware of the cue because a lot of them are unconscious. So what ends up happening to a lot of us is we find ourselves in the middle of a routine (like mindlessly overeating) without really understanding why we did it. And what often follows is guilt/shame/frustration because we are doing the thing that we promised ourselves that we wouldn’t do anymore.
In an effort to avoid that, let’s try and focus on cues and rewards first. If we can successfully identify the cues (or the triggers) and we can figure out/understand the rewards we have a much better chance of interrupting and changing the routine we don’t like.
Let’s use overeating (unwanted routine) as an example.
Let’s say you sat down and wrote down all the times you overate in the last week and you realized that each time was because you were board. BAM!! You have your cue!! So you kept thinking and writing and you realized what you get out of it is keeping your hands busy while you watch TV. So keeping your hands busy reduces your boredom and is your reward.
NOW you have a place to get started. So you know that you are vulnerable when you’re board and you know that your hands want to stay busy. Knowing this, you can start to experiment with a new routine. What is something else you could do with your hands to keep you from reaching for the snacks when your board?!
I dare you to sit down with ONE of the routines that is really bugging you. Write down any and all of things that could be cuing or triggering you to do it and all things that you get out of it in the moment (think immediate gratification). Then brainstorm some new routines. When you narrow the new routines down to 2-3 ideas try one!! It will not feel natural at first. Remember, your brain likes the old way but keep trying it and see if you get the same reward.