When it comes to changing ingrained behaviours, it’s easy to beat ourselves up for every slip-up, but it’s time to cut yourself some slack. Taking a more compassionate approach will help you reach your personal goals and stick to difficult lifestyle changes
When it comes to changing our unwanted habits, we often approach the process as a punitive and difficult one, where we’re “white knuckling it” and constantly swimming against the current of a comfortable status quo.
In my work as a substance misuse practitioner, and now a behavioural change specialist, I’ve heard so many clients say things like: “Something’s got to change. I need to sort this out once and for all, and stop being so lazy about it. I won’t be looking back this time.”
They tend to be fed up with their cycles of behaviour, and fed up with themselves. They don’t understand why, when they want so desperately to change, it seems that they can’t. And if they do manage to change for a while, they always end up going off-track – and staying there.
From my experience, the key to success, more often than not, is kindness. Taking a kind, curious and compassionate approach to yourself, and the change process, can make all the difference.
In my book, The Kindness Method, I have laid out an easy-to-follow process designed to help anyone believe in their ability to achieve even their most ambitious of goals. Here are five tips and reminders that I, and my clients, have found useful when trying to start, and keep up, a difficult change:
1. Where did your habits come from?
When we’re fed up with ourselves and our habits, we are likely to think there are no good reasons to stay the same. In fact, it’s the reasons to stay the same that can give us the most insight into why our habits have developed, and what other activities may serve similar needs. By realising that, at least initially, our habits were the solution not the problem, we are better placed to forgive ourselves, and take a compassionate approach to ourselves.
This gets us to where we want to be more quickly, as beating ourselves up can put speed bumps in the change journey. By identifying the “positives” of your behaviour, you can also feel more resilient against euphoric recall, which is when you look back with rose-tinted glasses and conveniently forget all the ways things were bad.
2. Take your life off hold
Often when clients talk to me about their relationship with food and their struggle to lose weight, I get the impression their lives are “on hold” until that goal weight has been reached. This simply reinforces the idea that our worthiness of enjoying life is dependent on one single thing, like how we look, or what we weigh. Since building self-esteem is a big part of making positive changes, this attitude isn’t helpful.
Sometimes I tell clients to behave as though they have already achieved their goals. I ask them what they’d be eating to maintain their weight. How they’d dress, how their attitude will have lifted on a day-to-day basis. Often they say they would be choosing healthy foods to maintain their healthy body.
They’d be more spontaneous and less self-conscious, taking up opportunities professionally and socially. So I ask clients to spend one week behaving as if they’d reached their goal. Call it “fake it till you make it”, but many find healthier behaviour patterns.
3. How would you speak to others?
How do you speak to yourself? Many of my clients discover that they’ve been talking to themselves in a very cruel manner. Think about the things you’d say to someone you love if they came to you and said they were struggling to make difficult changes. What would you tell them? Presumably things like: “I believe in you, you deserve to achieve any goal you want, you can get through this and get straight back on track. Let me help you.”
Then, think about the things you say to yourself. If you’re anything like my clients, the messages you give yourself will be more like: “You’ve never had any willpower, it was silly to think you could achieve this. You always start things and don’t finish them…”
4. Why do you want to change?
Remember, your reasons to change are the most important, not the reasons of others. If you’re attempting to change a really ingrained habit, there will be times when you have to wait for an urge to pass, and it can help to remember why it’s important for you to stay on track. You don’t need to share your reasons with anyone, and don’t judge yourself or expect to have only the most noble of reasons during those testing moments.
5. Celebrate yourself
But don’t celebrate by allowing yourself to do the thing you’re trying not to do. This just reinforces the idea that you’re either being “good” or “bad”, and that you’ve been waiting to be “let off the hook”. If you’re changing because you want to, and because it will make your life better, there is no hook!