On one hand, we want to move forward and grow, which is a fundamental principle of life. On the other hand, the prospect of change (or actual change) can cause us to feel anxious and as if we want to crawl into a hole or escape by another means. Devouring an entire pizza, going back to bed, having a third (or fourth) beer, or simply continuing life on autopilot might suddenly seem more attractive than forging a new path.
Why do we often get in our own way, clinging to habits and situations that no longer benefit us? Can you relate to any of the following myths about change?
- Myth: I need to know and understand every step of the process before I begin to make a change. Truth: We are all walking (or crawling or running) down a winding road in life. There are many blind curves. It’s impossible to know how things will play out beforehand, in part because the decisions you make today will help to determine your options tomorrow. Muster the courage to move forward, and the path ahead will reveal itself as you proceed.
- Myth: I’ll start tomorrow. I’ll feel more like it then. Truth: Every time you procrastinate, you reinforce the habit of giving in to short-term gratification, rather than delaying gratification in the service of your desired change. For instance, if your goal is improved physical health, choosing to binge-watch House of Cards and putting off that two-mile walk until tomorrow will feel more pleasurable in the short run. However, the more frequently you make this choice, the more engrained the binge-watching habit becomes. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force. It’s going to take some extra effort to do things differently than you have been doing them. Nevertheless, practice starting today. We can be willing to do something even when we don’t want to.
- Myth: I can change other people. Truth: Members of Al-Anon (for family and friends of those with alcohol or drug problems) are taught that “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it”. Other people’s behavior is their responsibility. Your focus is best placed on your own actions and attitudes. Some people may be inspired by your choices and decide to move in a compatible direction. Other people may not, which may mean that some relationships will dwindle or even end. Sometimes we avoid change in order to stay in relationships or situations that have become familiar, even if they are destructive. Change can come at a cost – but so can staying the same.
- Myth: I can’t change until other people in my life change. Truth: You are the only one with the authority and ability to alter your patterns and choices. Please do not sell yourself short and hold up your own growth by hoping or demanding that other people do things differently before you are willing to budge. This gives your husband, child, parent, friend, or boss, so much power – this could end up being a life sentence for you, if the other person continues to remain the same. You are capable of making changes, regardless of other people’s behavior.
- Myth: I can and will change this habit/behavior when I get a “sign” or have a crisis. A crisis will scare me into making a change. Truth: While sometimes a crisis can give us a wake-up call, it’s not likely that this alone will keep us on a new path. Yes, the fear and anxiety often associated with a crisis might result in an adrenalin rush that could temporarily motivate you, but it’s not feasible to live in such a state over the long run. Significant on-going reasons, social support, and a clearer vision of your desired life (rather than focusing on what you don’t want) are more likely to keep you on a new path.
- Myth: I have to hit bottom in order to change. Truth: If you practice being mindful of your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors, you’re more apt to discern where you might be tripping yourself up. You can then choose to alter your course before you’ve gone far afield. There does not have to be a lot of drama, either within yourself or with others, in order for you to make shifts in your habits or life direction.
- Myth: If a situation or relationship isn’t going exactly according to my expectations, I have to change it or leave it. Truth: Life can be beautiful even if we don’t get everything we think we need. No person, job, or opportunity will come without its thorns. Be careful that you don’t give up on someone or something because he, she, or it isn’t perfect. Perhaps what you’re being challenged to change is not the situation but rather your attitude.
- Myth: I’m too old to change. It’s too late to change. Truth: It’s never too late. I’ve seen people do enormous turnarounds in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond. My grandfather became significantly happier in his 90s, which lasted until his passing just before he turned 102. Change often begins with the belief that it is possible. Start with this premise, remember your past successes and your associated character strengths, and reach out for the help you need. As Stephen Covey said, “We become what we repeatedly do.” Determine who you want to be and what you stand for, and begin to live as if you already are this person. You will falter, make mistakes, and choose unwisely at times, but that’s all part of the growth process.
- Myth: This is just the way I am. Truth: While it’s true that about 50% of our happiness set point is genetic, and 10% is thought to be due to circumstances, that leaves 40% that is up to you and your attitudes. Not to underestimate the effort it can take to make shifts in your belief system, communication patterns, ability to tolerate discomfort, and behaviors, but you have more influence in the matter than you may give yourself credit for.
Ultimately, making a change is a courageous act.
Too often we feel that adjusting this or that isn’t worth the effort, when by doing so we might contribute to making a significant difference to the bigger picture. To quote Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
Believe that your willingness and decision to grow and transform is part of a bigger picture that encompasses your family, community, or the world – because this is the truth. You may never know all the people you affect in positive ways.