Getting Started and Keeping Up; How to Make Lasting Change

There is a relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We know that the way we think affects the way we feel and act. And it is usually the way we feel that sounds the alarm that something has to change in our lives. Most often, in therapy, people complain about feeling too anxious or too stressed. At the same time, most people struggle with self-esteem and the ability to feel confident. It is beneficial to take the time to explore how our thinking is getting in the way of feeling more confident or calm. Though it may be overwhelming to admit, we will find through this exploration that we have to make changes in our actions, patterns, and routines to feel better and happier.

There typically exist two core problems when it comes to behavioral change: getting started and/or keeping it up. Some procrastinate and delay for so long that getting started becomes daunting and almost impossible. This is the “I can’t get started” group. Then some are very quick and efficient to get started but after that come to a stop. This is the “I can’t keep it up” group. To begin, I want you to ask yourself which of these groups you belong to. 

Upon reflection, you may find out that you have belonged to one or the other at different times in your life. Your situation could have impacted this at the time or by the change you were trying to make itself. Depending on your goal, it may have been harder to get started or have been harder to keep up. If your struggle was with mindset or your emotional state, something that might have seemed impossible at that time could be a breeze today, or vice versa. Mindset and emotion always have a role in how we act and show up.

The good news is that whether you struggle to start or struggle to maintain, our barriers and tools to and for lasting behavioral change are the same.

3 things that get in the way of you making a change:

1. Your faulty thinking:

Here are some common stories I hear about making a change: “I don’t feel like it” or “I will start when I feel ready.” Waiting until we “feel like it” or “feel ready” gets in the way of us taking action. Waiting to feel a certain way, whether that means feeling ready, feeling excited, or feeling calm enough to get started, is a behavior known in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) as emotional reasoning. Dr. David Burns defines this thinking error as reasoning based on how we feel. We let our emotions dictate our thinking and reality and conclude that our emotional state is our reality. For example, we may feel jealousy or possessiveness in a romantic relationship. Therefore, we can determine that our partner has done something to warrant our concern, despite their actions proving the opposite. Or we may feel nervous and thus determine that we are in an unsafe situation or location.

Other common obstacles in thinking that I hear when making a change are: “it is just easier for other people,” or “it is just not meant for me.” Our thoughts can be triggered by comparing ourselves to other people. We conclude that change is easier for other people or that they have some magical traits, resources, or strengths that make them more likely to make the change. We decide that we are not in the same position for success as others; we decide that we lack discipline, time, and talent. All of these comparisons make us feel discouraged and unmotivated, regardless of whether we perceive our or someone else’s circumstances accurately.

2. The way you feel about change:

When we entertain the faulty thinking described above, we also have feelings associated with it. We may start to feel fear, anxiety, and doubt around change. It is perfectly natural to have hesitation surrounding change. Having a routine, predicting outcomes, and planning all of these things contribute to a sense of stability and security. Visualizing how your day will look is a lot easier if you can rely on your day to be the same as the past several days. With a potential change of habits or routine, we introduce the unknown and the unfamiliar. These thoughts about change will inevitably lead to an internal analysis of perceived comfort, or the lack thereof. Stagnation, while not necessarily beneficial, can feel far more comfortable.

When we think of how uncomfortable the change in habits or routine might be, our tendency may be to avoid change to avoid discomfort. This discomfort can come in various forms: if we decide that we want to go for more hikes, we might imagine the physical discomfort of climbing steep slopes that we aren’t used to. If we decide that we want to set more boundaries, we might imagine speaking up in the break room at work when someone disrespects us.

No matter how much we want to improve our current situation and comprehend that change is a necessary component of doing so, the idea of the unknown may still be a deterrent. It may be helpful to substitute the word “change” for the word “improvement” or even the word “adjust” to soothe our mind enough to get started. “I am going to improve my ability to hike x mountain” is a lot gentler than “I am going to change my exercise routine”!

3.The way you expect the process to look:

At times, we have specific ideas about how we expect the journey ahead to look. Sometimes, these visualizations can be our road map and positively impact our ability toward our goals. However, if we stick to these initial ideas of what our process or journey should look like, we can become discouraged if the reality doesn’t match our expectations. We start to be so committed to the image in our heads that we are not able to make adjustments or adapt to any roadblocks that come from the process of implementation.

The reality of most changes is that their implementation and the results yielded are not linear, yet most of us chart our projected process so that it doesn’t allow for setbacks. If we are changing our behavior around budget, for example, and we foresee that we can save $100.00 extra per month, we plan to have accumulated $1200.00 additional dollars by the end of the calendar year. However, an unexpected expense may come up one month that sets us back $200.00. We did not expect this when we were planning. If we have only imagined consistent, regulated success in our goals, this setback may feel like an omen of failure. “Why bother?” we might think to ourselves. “I might as well just forget next month’s goals, too, because I’m behind now.” If we plan to experience variations in our journey, we can move past hiccups with more ease. “I will still have $1000.00 more than I would have without following my new budget.”

Allowing the idea of backslides also allows us to be realistic about our timeline, as attempting to take a shortcut can also set us up for disappointment. “I want to save $1200.00, and I’m going to try to do it in 4 months.” It may sound well and good in theory, but it may not be possible. If the reality is that it will take longer to achieve, then we have to come to terms with that and commit to the version of our plan that seems most logical. This rational visualization works best when our goals are broken into smaller pieces. We plan to enjoy our achievements along the way. We have cohorts and witnesses accompanying us on our journey.

Tools to making lasting Change:

1. Start Small

I know this has been said and done before, but, fundamentally, we start by making small changes. Because small changes are attainable. Small changes are inviting. Small changes are welcoming. They are not complicated, intimidating, or challenging. When the changes and the steps we need to take are small, we feel more open to pursuing them. We feel more motivated, interested, and ultimately more confident. It is much easier to visualize a small change and far more predictable. Imagine preparing to walk down a bath. The next step is clearly in view and about to happen; it is implausible that something drastic will happen to derail your journey the moment before you step on the next stone. There is no need to focus on what may occur several hundred miles down the line, only immediate and visible.

When you start small and identify the next action, I want you to be mindful of your mood. We often set goals when we feel excited and motivated. Because we are setting our goal in this energized state, we may be setting a bigger goal than we want or need to. This is often the case, where we have set such a big goal when our motivation is high that it gets too hard to keep it up when our motivation is low. In contrast to this typical pattern, consider setting goals and deciding what your next small step will be when you are feeling neutral, maybe even when the motivation is low. You will be much more likely to follow through on a set goal when your motivation was low than the one you set when your motivation was high. Good habits pile up just the same way bad habits do. We often start a bad habit by partaking in it a few times in a row or some sporadic frequency, and before we know it, it has become our habit. Well, good patterns work the same way. If you start small, it will create momentum.

2. Celebrate every win:

I know the critic in you is rolling its eyes when I say to celebrate every win. I know the inner critic is unsatisfied with, even dismissive of, small steps. It tries to belittle your achievements by calling them “baby steps” because it knows that an adult self couldn’t possibly feel satisfied and content by taking a step as small and simple. But I want you to stand tall and take action in opposition to that thinking. I want you to find ways to give yourself credit for any steps you take to start and maintain your change. The action of breaking our behavioral goal into smaller changes goes hand in hand with celebrating the milestones along the way to our ultimate destination. It is also far and away, more fun, and more rewarding to celebrate consistently.

Say your goal is to increase your daily water consumption from four cups per day to ten cups per day; you know you struggle to make time to drink enough water, and you’re nervous about having to take more bathroom breaks throughout the day. You begin by attempting to drink five cups of water per day, adjusting your schedule accordingly. Then you add another. Then another. This might take several weeks or months of practice to achieve. Are you going to wait that entire time to celebrate? You could, but why? Delaying celebration turns your journey into a punishment: “I’m not worth celebrating yet.” It also belittles your smaller adjustments along the way, making them harder to keep up. The first week that you’ve successfully added a cup of water per day to your habits, make sure to celebrate! “It’s only one cup,” you might say. But you still did it. And over the course of the week, that’s an additional seven cups of water! Rewarding yourself for accomplishments becomes a reward in itself. “I made a positive change, and it feels good!”

3. Team up:

Support is so important when implementing a behavior change. Whether you are training for a race, trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, planning to get more sleep, or wanting to shop less, a partner in crime can be just what you need to stay on track. Not only can this person accompany you on your runs, nudge you to add certain foods to the grocery list, remind you that it’s bedtime, or suggest an activity outside the outlet shops, this person can remind you why you started. This can occur by this support person reciting to you the reasons you have given, or it can happen by having someone to tell your reasoning to. Many people believe that if you can teach someone something, it means you truly understand it. An accountability buddy might only need to perform the function of receiving your words. In a moment when you’re wavering about going for a run, explaining to that person the reasons you planned to train for a race may offer you the clarity and confidence to re-commit to your plan. At the very least, if you and your accountability buddy are both working toward a similar goal, it will help stave off the feeling of being on your own in your process.

Having someone by your side in a change can also offer some consistency, making the change less jarring. If you want to shop less, but that is the activity you often do with your core friends, changing this behavior on your own could leave you without this enjoyable activity, but also without quality time with your friends. If you can involve one of your friends in your goal and continue to spend quality time together in a different environment, it doesn’t feel like such a dramatic shift. The fact of the matter is: humans need support. We are social creatures who rely on a network of people to get through our days. A person who can and will be by your side, reinforcing your behavior and reassuring you, is going to be invaluable on any sort of journey toward different activities or a different lifestyle.

Remember, lasting change is an investment.

Anything we do in life requires maintenance. Even a change that can be made relatively quickly, like a new hairstyle, will require repeat visits to the salon to keep up. When looking at our behaviors and planning to adjust them, it is helpful to focus on why we want to make this change and find a source of motivation attached to a core value. Quick fixes get weeded out this way; something we decide to do because we’re frustrated with a temporary situation may inspire us to find a quick fix but will likely not yield any lasting lifestyle adjustments. A change that has a long-term impact will probably be an ongoing process as we invest in the future we are building for ourselves. We must always remember that we deserve to have the kind of life we want and that even working toward that life improves our current situation. It is always better to do a little bit of something than a whole lot of nothing.

Embracing You Therapy Group Practice

Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, EMBRACING imperfections to create a gentler place for CALM in your life.

At our mental health practice in Woodland Hills, CA, we offer individual therapy and couple’s therapy. Both Dr. Menije and Cindy Sayani, AMFT offer virtual therapy to treat mental health concerns include Anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and stress; Mood disorders including depression; Relationship issues, both in couples therapy and with individual clients; Perinatal mental health issues such as postpartum depression or anxiety.

Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress, and then let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way.

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