Sometimes we need to make a change. A behavioural change, in order to improve our lives. In an era which (in the West) prizes individual authenticity, behavioural change is hard to talk about. We are used to saying ‘be yourself’. It can seem cruel to force upon ourselves changes in behaviour which the mind and body find difficult to take on board.
However, this is what education is all about. The principle of education is that a ‘raw’ candidate arrives at a place of improvement. They then submit themselves to a process or exploration and discipline, until they have acquired new habits, new skills, new knowledge, and new behaviours. If we want to develop ourselves, then we should expect to make changes that are difficult.
When a new therapeutic client comes to me, I ask them, as part of our assessment, what they would like to be different about themselves in the future. Some identify behavioural traits – inner thoughts, feelings and habits – that they would like to develop. Some want to reduce their anxiety. Some want to eliminate negative thinking. Some want to become more productive.
But, as the conversation goes on, it’s the most difficult changes that seem intractable, hard to make. What characterises the most difficult changes we make, and what can we do to help ourselves make them? The hardest changes are perhaps those which:
- Challenge our strongly habitual behaviour. For instance, we may undertake a new course of study or activity that requires us to spend time learning and working patiently. This can severely challenge the part of ourselves that habitually avoids boredom and seeks distraction.
- Challenge our strongly held beliefs about ourselves. For instance, we may want to undertake a change in career focus, but have trouble seeing ourselves in the new role. Our identity and self-esteem may be wrapped up in other roles.
- Challenge our existing social structure. For instance, we may wish to change our lives, but our existing life is already full of commitments to others which we can’t get out of. It feels like we’re on a factory conveyor belt we can’t get off.
How can we help ourselves to make the change anyway?
- To challenge old habits, we can be methodical in developing our new habits. This means incremental, small-step changes each day and each week. Don’t expect to have your habits totally transformed within a week or two. Sculpt your diary. Put in little changes. Start with 15 minutes of new-style learning. Schedule it in to the same time each day. Then start to expand to other, longer sessions.
- To challenge old identities, we can be methodical in taking on aspects of new roles and identities. What new clothes might be consistent with your new approach? Which groups, clubs and societies might reinforce you with a new social network?
- To challenge existing social commitments, we can be methodical in reasserting ourselves. Diarise a long way ahead. Block off time, over the next year, for new-style activities. Start clearing space in your week, month and year. Make that time unavailable for anything except your new change project.
You will notice I recommend being methodical. This helps you to be steady in your change management. It is how good employers make changes within a business. They plan changes, and then implement them carefully and systematically, to maximise acceptance and minimise problems.
The responsibility for making change will always be yours, but the help of a good counsellor or psychotherapist can make it a lot easier. That’s partly because, at a regular time each week or so, you are checking in with someone who wants you to succeed, and who is trained in helping you to overcome psychological obstacles.
Above all, your diary is your friend when it comes to change management. If you want to change, but your diary doesn’t, you will be frustrated. Colour-code your entries. Know what colour your new-style activities are, and look out for an improvement in the frequency of those.
Good luck in making changes, and get in touch if you want a therapeutic companion in your endeavours. I work with all types of improvements in clients’ personal lives, and the first session is always free.