3. Personal Change
The Master said, only the wisest and the most stupid do not change.
Confucius (early Chinese philosopher)
This area is not about changing your job, wallpaper, country or partner – it is about changing yourself; in other words, your habitual cognitive, emotional and behavioural patterns.
What do you want to change?
Being able to make a personal change is essential. So this chapter will be very practical and to get the most out of it, it may be a good idea to start by thinking about something that you would like to change. Choose something small because this increases your chances of success and confidence. Define what you want to achieve in simple, clear and positive terms (for example, rather than aiming to lose weight, aim to be fit or to look good).
Prerequisites for successful change
‘I can’, ‘I want’ and ‘I like’ are three conditions for successful change. If all three are present, you can hardly fail!
‘I can’: we are all capable of both failing and succeeding. If you believe that you can’t change, it is true; if you believe that you can, it is also true. To strengthen ‘I can’, think about successful changes that you have made in the past. If you can’t remember any, just consider that if others can change, you can change too.
‘I want’: you need to believe that the change is worth your time and effort. Filling in this table can help you make it clear:
|Old pattern||New pattern|
However, if wanting to change is only in your head, it may not be sufficient – the resolution needs to come from your gut. A half- hearted attempt is unlikely to succeed, so make sure that you really want to make a change. The stronger and deeper the feelings associated with the change are, the more profound the change will be. The following interventions can help in this respect.
Wanting change: imagine what your life will look like (in a few days, months or years) if you continue in the same direction. Then imagine vividly that you have changed. What will it look like? How will you feel? Which one is better? Nurture a sense that you can live well without the old habit by seeing life after the change in a positive light.
‘I like’: We can learn to like and dislike something. Nobody likes their first cigarette or first glass of vodka but some persist and learn to like it. If we can learn to like what is not good for us, we can learn to like what is. We can do so by associating a change with a good experience. For example, rather than forcing yourself to eat healthily, find a way to enjoy it: prepare a nice meal and/or add to it something that you already like (e.g. bacon bits, grated cheese, good company, or nice music – be creative!). You can combine this with growing a dislike for the old habit: associate it with unpleasant feelings. ‘But’, you may ask, ‘what can I like if I just want to give up something (e.g. smoking)?’ You can like being in charge and free (from the old habit); the benefits of the new (e.g. smelling good, breathing well); the company of likeminded people; yourself, your body, your mind, your life!
The stages of change
It is widely accepted that there are several stages of change(1). Here are some suggestions for each of them:
Learn about your habit
- Its causes: to examine the causes or reasons why you have a particular habit, imagine that you no longer do what you usually do – how do you feel? How can you address the underlying feeling that causes your habit?
- Its triggers: to locate its triggers, observe your habit without any interference. A trigger can be your state of mind, other people or certain events. Consider how they can be neutralised –what else could you do in a trigger situation?
- Set an achievable, realistic goal. Bear in mind that a small change is better than a big failure.
- If you have succeeded in making a change in the past, recall what helped you then – the same or similar may help you now.
- Your old habit may be part of a larger picture (e.g. staying out late may be a part of your social life). In this case, you may need to do something about other parts too (e.g. friends who encourage you to stay out late).
- Be prepared for the fact that some people around you may not be supportive: think about who may want (perhaps unconsciously) to sabotage the change and what you can do about it. By the same token, consider who you can talk to or rely on if you are in danger of relapsing.
- Go back to the above table that compares the old pattern and the new one, and consider how you can compensate for the advantages of the former and the disadvantages of the latter.
- Decide if you will make a change gradually or in one go.
- Consider the timing (e.g. if you are taking exams next week, it may be better to make your change after that) and set the date.
- Attempt to make a change only when you feel ready. Are you 100% ready? If you are not, go back to the prerequisites.
Go for it
- Announce your intentions and ask others to support you.
- Stop negotiating with yourself (or you will lose it). Just do it!
- Dis-identify with what needs to be changed and identify with the new (e.g. if you wish to be more outgoing, stop thinking about yourself as a shy person). You can even mentally identify with an image that symbolises the change (e.g. a rock if you want to be more firm with your choices).
Persistence is essential in this process because old patterns tend to return out of habit. This may be the hardest part (as somebody once said: ‘It’s easy to stop smoking, I do it twenty times a day’). However, persevering is worthwhile: in addition to the specific benefits, every successful change also increases your sense of personal power and control. This can help you to persist:
- Use a tempting situation as a reminder to stick to your goal.
- Catch yourself when tempted, acknowledge your feelings and thoughts, and then remember the consequences of backsliding (e.g. how you will feel tomorrow).
- It is much easier to relapse when excited, so be especially vigilant if you notice that you are getting keyed up.
- Use your imagination to put yourself off a temptation (e.g. imagine slime dripping on and covering a cake you fancy).
- Enjoy the new as well as its benefits, and appreciate your achievement (no false modesty, making a change is a big deal!)
If you relapse
If you experience a relapse, accept it as a temporary setback – you are defeated only if you give up! Be aware of what is going on though, as this may help you in the future. Establish why it has happened and develop a strategy for similar situations in the future. For example, if you had a cigarette because you were annoyed, think about what you will do instead the next time you get annoyed. A frequent reason for relapse is forgetting what you have decided. So, remember to remember!
(1) Prochaska, J., Norcross, J. & Diclemente, C. (1994) Changing for Good. New York: Collins.