Each January, as the kids go back to school after winter break, after we have watched the ball drop in Times Square and rung in the new year, most of us can’t help but think about the ways we want the next year to be different–and better–than the last. What about you? Are there any bad habits you want to break or new goals that you have set for yourself?
If you are inspired to make some changes in yourself, your family or in other relationships, remember that even change for the better is stressful and discombobulating. As creatures of habit, we get used to the way things are–even when the status quo is no longer very appealing or sometimes downright awful.
Unfortunately, many people make New Year’s resolutions, fail to keep them, and then beat themselves up for failing. Sound familiar? Here’s some hints that may make you more successful in accomplishing your goals…
Do you remember the children’s story, The Little Engine That Could? When a red train full of cargo breaks down on the track, a little blue train takes it upon herself to attempt the difficult feat of pulling a load of toys over the mountain. She succeeds only when she tells herself, “I think I can, I think I can, and then delights in her success by saying to herself, “I thought I could, I thought I could!” The little engine models an empowering self-concept, fostering perseverance in the face of hardship.
When you are taught to believe in yourself, confronting an obstacle pushes you to try harder rather than giving up. If you think less of yourself, you will have trouble even getting started let alone persevering when the going gets tough. If you anticipate failure, why bother?
One way to change your attitude is to think about problems, setbacks, or obstacles as situations demanding attention and new strategies. When you hear yourself using the word “problem,” try substituting the word “situation”. This situation is worth facing to see what else might be done about it.
Or for an even more positive spin, you can think of the “problem” you are facing as an “opportunity” to learn some new ideas or tools or as a “compelling challenge” or as a hurdle to be jumped. The words won’t change the problem in and of themselves but they will help to open the door to possible new strategies for change and growth.
In one of my favorite movies ever, What About Bob?, psychiatrist Dr. Marvin (played exquisitely by Richard Dreyfuss) instructs Bob (the inimitable Bill Murray) to stop trying so hard and to take baby steps towards change, setting small reasonable goals one day at a time. Although the movie takes this idea to a hysterical level, the principle is sound. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Throwing in a dose of humor will also help. Watch What About Bob? if you haven’t seen it (or any other film that makes you laugh at our human foibles) or just be reminded by watching a three-minute clip here.
Another reason that most of us make numerous attempts to change, but then revert to old behaviors, is because the new behaviors don’t always get the desired results fast enough. We live in a culture that likes quick fixes–crash diets, pills for pain, instant messages, everything short and sweet. Most important changes–like confronting dysfunctional patterns of relationship, emotional baggage, or life style habits–take a long time.
John Steinbeck once queried, “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.” This favorite quote of mine can serve as a touchstone during times of rapid and radical change. Given how easy it is, in the face of change, to feel that everything around you is being destroyed, we all need something to bolster our courage to hang in there.
I remind others (and myself) that whenever we embark on a new path, things usually get worse before they get better. When parents decide it is finally time to begin to set limits, kids often act out even more than before. When partners decide to be more assertive with one another about areas of disagreement, bigger conflicts are usually the first sign of change.
Many couples report how when they finally get away alone together–sometimes after years because of having babies and young children–all they do is fight. Does this mean they are no longer in love? Usually the opposite is true. The renewed closeness can bring up old stored-up resentments, fears of abandonment, and the longing for more intimacy. As any change begins, old habits must die first–which is why progress often looks a bit like destruction.
Almost all bad habits start with a cue (or stimulus) that leads to the behavior that has some reward attached to it. If you can follow this sequence of events and make a tiny change to disrupt the pattern, voila!–change can begin, one tiny step at a time.(Watch this three minute clip from The Power of Habit to get the quick version.)
It helps to substitute a new behavior when trying to eliminate an old destructive pattern. Once you have examined thoroughly the habit loop you are trying to break, change the time, the place, or alter the sequence that leads to the undesired behavior.
Imitate the behavior of someone you admire and ask them how they maintain their positive routine. Give yourself lots of pats on the back or gold stars for every little step you take. This is why AA gives people chips as they accumulate weeks, months, or years of sobriety.
Track your progress on your calendar or with an app on your cell phone. If your goals were not realistic, go back and set new intermediate steps that you can more easily accomplish. And always remember that the road to success is always paved with failures. You are not alone.