How to Change Habits with Kindness

Shahroo Izadi
By Shahroo Izadi,
updated on Apr 20, 2020

How to Change Habits with Kindness

It’s easy to focus on the negatives and what’s wrong with our behaviours, but to ensure real, lasting change, perhaps it’s time to allow kindness to lead the way...

It’s natural to give a lot of thought to the negatives of our habits – after all, they’re often the reason we want to change. But focusing on how our behaviour patterns are serving us to stay the same, can help us to gain far more useful insight.

It can be helpful to reframe a habit that’s become a problem for you as a solution, instead. That way, you can not only understand (with compassion and forgiveness) why you’re finding it so difficult to change, but you can also consider what other habits you’d like to introduce, that could do a similar job for you.

As a behaviour change specialist, one scenario I’ve seen a lot is when someone isn’t happy with their habit of drinking a couple of glasses of wine in an evening, and beats themself up for not having changed, despite knowing it’s not good for their health. Instead of imposing punitive, harsh new drinking rules, which rely on you staying motivated to avoid the negatives, I instead recommend first asking yourself why you’re drinking it in the first place? Consider how it serves you, or has served you in the past. You might identify that it helps you to mark the end of a working day, or serves to release stress in the short-term. Without judgement, consider what other long-term coping strategies could help with stress, and practise turning to those more frequently instead.

If you’re looking to change an ingrained habit, here are six tips to help you take a more compassionate, and successful, approach.

1. Take your life off ‘hold’

So many of us have got into the habit of deciding that we’ll wait to be kinder to ourselves as a reward, once we’ve achieved our goals. Working with people who want to change their eating habits especially, I’ve learned that it’s very common for them to think: ‘I’ll book that holiday/wear bright colours/go on dates/ask for that pay rise once I’ve tackled this.’ Our worthiness to believe in ourselves has nothing to do with achieving specific goals. Overall, self-kindness, self-care, and self-belief should be something we feel we deserve, without any conditions. Plus, starting to be kinder to ourselves regardless of goals actually makes them easier to achieve. Whatever the habit, making changes is difficult. Doing difficult things is easier when you feel capable, strong, and positive. So do the things that make you feel capable, strong, and positive!

2. Take your own advice

I’ve heard a lot of people describe themselves as ‘all or nothing’ types, who treat a blip from any plan as a catastrophe. They can be doing really well for weeks, staying ‘on track’ with their new behaviours, and as soon as they deviate from the plan, they throw in the towel. Before they know it, they’re back where they started. They tell themselves that they’ve ‘blown it’ now, and can’t start again until Monday. Yet, if someone they cared for asked them for advice after deviating from a plan of change, they’d encourage them to treat the blip as temporary, and get back on track. If you can give kind, sensible, and useful advice to others, you can give it to yourself, too!

3. Do it your way

Make your plans work for you, in order to create the path of least resistance when making changes. If, for example, you want to integrate exercise into your routine, but you hate gyms and early mornings, then stop signing up for gym memberships and classes at dawn. What works for someone else, won’t necessarily be the best path for you. Explore other activities that you don’t mind doing after work, and hopefully might even enjoy. First, set yourself initial challenges that are difficult enough to make you feel proud of yourself, but realistic and bespoke enough to your real life that you don’t doubt your capacity to see them through.

4. Speak to yourself like someone you want to succeed

Often when we’re embarking on a plan of change, we’re fed up with ourselves and the fact we haven’t changed yet. It’s common (especially in the initial stages when things can get tough), to speak to ourselves in the complete opposite way to how we’d speak to someone else if our task was to encourage them.

When I first started delivering workshops on self-talk, I would often ask attendees to think about the difference between the way they speak to a loved one, and the way they speak to themselves, when something difficult needs to get done. This helped them to check-in with their inner dialogue, and learn the value of rooting for themselves lovingly.

But the exercise works even if you had to motivate someone you didn’t like at all! If you wanted them to do well, you’d still speak to them in a motivational, encouraging, positive manner. You’d remind them of their capacity, especially when they’re finding it hardest, and give them the kind of upbeat, positive feedback that you know is helpful.

The next time you realise you’re beating yourself up in any area of your life, ask yourself: 1) Is this how I’d speak to someone else?; and 2) Is this the kind of soundtrack that helps anyone to achieve a difficult goal?

5. Treat yourself, in every possible way, like a loved one

Try one week of making decisions for yourself throughout each day, that you’d want someone you love to make for themself. You may well notice so many opportunities to make your body and your environment a little bit better – from drinking more water, to getting more air, forgiving yourself for a work-blip more quickly, or making the kinds of choices for yourself that you’ll be happy you made tomorrow.

Instead of just isolating one habit you’d like to change, you may notice that you’re more inclined to pepper self-care and self-kindness throughout your day, as an investment in your overall wellbeing and quality of life. Not only do you deserve to treat – and speak to – yourself like someone you love, but you’ll be reinforcing that you matter, your goals matter, and you’ll create an inner and outer world, where acts of unkindness are the ones that stick out.

6. Remember how capable you really are

Make a list of everything you’ve done in your life that has demonstrated your capacity – every example of when you’ve achieved a goal, done something difficult, or got through a challenge. Write it all down in one place, and when you’re finished, take a photo of it to keep on your phone. The next time you’re faced with a challenge during your plan of change, commit to looking at it and telling yourself: ‘This may be difficult, but I can do difficult things.’

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Shahroo Izadi

By Shahroo Izadi

Shahroo is a behavioural change specialist, who started her training in the NHS, and later worked for the charity Turning Point before setting up her own practice, and writing books on habit-change.

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