Let’s say you want to make a shift in your life. You want to get more sleep, eat in a way that is more supportive of your health, effectively manage your stress or anxiety, or get to the gym more often. More than likely, you have some information at your fingertips about strategies to make these shifts happen. Maybe you’ve read some books, listened to podcasts, or have done (endless!) internet research. I bet you could rattle off a list of three to five ways you could get closer to your goal. In fact, I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess you’ve said the following a time or two:
“I know what to do, now I just need to do it.”
I hear this phrase ALL the time — from clients, friends, family members, strangers on the internet, you name it! For me, this phrase is a clear signal that a person is missing some key ingredients when it comes to making change, because plain old information has not gotten the job done. Change is an emotional process! We are called to address that aspect of it if we really want to make a lasting shift in our lives. Data alone usually doesn’t get us there.
Why information isn’t enough to create change
Culturally speaking, we are bought in to the narrative that if we’re strong and worthy enough, we should be able to make changes on our own. This notion is so sabotaging because, if we can’t? We must be weak and unworthy. We blame and shame ourselves until our internal narrative is dominated by these thoughts every time we get less sleep than we want or drive past the gym instead of into the parking lot. I hear a lot about willpower in my work, and when a client is talking about “not having enough willpower,” they are often approaching the change they want to make from a place of force, aggression, and deprivation. All of us—me included—spend an awful lot of time talking about the things we “should” do when we want to make change (and then beat ourselves up when we suck at follow through). We get to shift focus from guilt, shame and self-judgement to curiosity about “why” it’s so difficult to enact.
Change is a personal journey. It involves a deep dive into our unique habits—our habits of thought and behavior— both are the result of our emotional reactions. We do things habitually because it creates a sense of comfort. Habits are often outward expressions of our attempt to manage our emotions, to stay in control of our internal terrain—to keep our sh*t together!
And change? Change is all about shattering and expanding that comfort zone. In other words, we are asking ourselves to feel unfamiliar things and have new responses to our thoughts and feelings when we want different results in our life. Changing habits calls us to reconnect with vision and commitment, which, from my perspective, requires us to look deeply at our limiting beliefs and the way we suppress, mismanage, and/or avoid uncomfortable emotions.
For example: for years, I would go to parties and feel anxious about being judged. Liquid courage was perfect for boosting my confidence! Suddenly I had all the social skills I’d been missing earlier. Perfect solution! Until the next day, when I’d feel like garbage physically, and second-guess many of the conversations I’d had, wondering if I’d offended anyone or said anything out of turn. Immediately I’d vow not to drink so much at the next party. Then, that very night, at another gathering, anxiety would set in…and I’d repeat the same problematic habit.
Knowing that this behavior created results I didn’t love wasn’t enough. I needed more than the knowledge to make a shift.
So what are the key ingredients for lasting change?
We create what we are committed to, whether we are conscious of it or not. (See your comfort zone for details!) In the example above, I can clearly see how my subconscious commitment to numbing anxiety and insecurity with alcohol prevented me from creating authentic connection with myself and others. Another example: for most of my life up to now, my commitments to comfort and convenience kept me far away from the world of exercise and fitness. Then I joined a gym at age 36. I found connection and community—two things that I’m even more dedicated to than comfort and convenience! Seeing my “workout friends” at the gym is much more motivating than sweating, performance improvement or physical discomfort to me. I’ve seen so many positive side effects: I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, I have muscle definition for the first time in my life, and I can even do several pull-ups, all because I love showing up in relationship with the fabulous athletes at my gym more than I love my comfort zone.
To create change, ask: What am I committed to right now, and what can I commit to differently that would shift things in the direction of my goal?
Vision is critical in creating that which we most desire. We need to know where we want to go in order to get clear about the path that will get us there! We have a tendency to jump into action or want the magic bullet before spending time in getting clear about the dream and connecting to our core motivations. I see vision as the deep desire to create that which matters most. One of my longstanding visions is to be a connected, loving, and worthy mother, wife, daughter, and friend, and to help people feel validated and worthy in who they are. When that concept acts as my north star, I can more clearly see what choices and habits pull me toward my vision and which ones pull me away. I know eating sugar, gluten, and eggs in excess as well as drinking alcohol on a regular basis makes me inflamed and physically imbalanced, leading to irritability, disconnect, and feelings of unworthiness. Take some time to really let yourself imagine what it will look like and how good it will feel to make the changes you crave. If you only ever have a vague sense of where you want to go, then you’re only going to kinda-sorta get there, at best.
Many people describe their vision in terms of what they don’t want, which is natural when you consider that I work with so many folks experiencing autoimmune symptoms. “I want to feel less fatigued, I don’t want to worry about diarrhea, I want my skin to stop feeling itchy and inflamed…” you get the idea. Here’s the thing: rather than a laundry list describing a life without the things we don’t want, vision is deeply connected to our inner truth and desires. It is usually deeper than the physical outcome, and it can be a guide for your next hour, day, week, year, or lifetime. Doesn’t, “I want to feel clear headed and have sustainable energy so I can do the things I love and connect with my friends and family with joy and peace,” sound like a vision you can really get behind?
To create change, ask: What is most important to me (today, in the next week, and in the long term)? How can I make choices that honor those priorities?
Take the time to grow your awareness of your emotions, beliefs, and thoughts. How are your habits running you, and are they moving you in the direction you desire? We build habits over time, with repetition, mostly subconsciously. They evolve naturally from some combination of our beliefs and our emotions. I make my bed because my mom ingrained in me that you NEVER start the day without a made bed. Somehow I developed the belief that if I don’t make my bed I am sloppy, disorganized, and unworthy (yes, even unworthy!). If you asked me not to make my bed for a week, I think I would go crazy. I would be tormented with feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and unrest. It is not the bed being made or unmade itself that stirs this, it is my belief and emotions that trigger and validate the habit. Making a bed everyday is a habit that works in my favor. However, we have countless sabotaging habits that are hard to change because they are entrenched with limiting beliefs and associated emotions that can be scary to look at:. Comfort eating! Addiction to stress and chaos! Co-dependent relationships! Self-aggression! Social media bingeing! People pleasing! Poor boundaries! The list goes on.
The practice of awareness can help us discover why we do the things that don’t work for us. I find it’s helpful to look for clues below the neck—what are the emotions that rise in your body that are calling for attention to be acknowledged and worked through in a new way? Anxiety is a really common emotion that comes up for me (often related to not really having it together but having to pretend that I do!) Many of my unhelpful habits are a response to wanting to numb, avoid, and suppress the anxiety so I don’t have to feel it. The awareness practice for me is to be present with my anxiety in new ways so I don’t have a knee jerk reaction to numb it. When I feel the discomfort of anxiety and fear in my body, I say, “This is only energy. You are fine.” When I invite it in and give it space to exist, it comes and it goes without too much drama. I also get to be curious about the thoughts that initially stirred the anxiety “Is that really true? Why do I believe that? What else is possible?” I can then consciously choose thoughts and beliefs that lead to behaviors (and habits) that align with my vision and commitments.
To create change, ask: What are my thoughts and sensations right now? How can I shift my choices to align with how I want to feel?
This final one just might be the most important. I’ve come to learn over time that if a change is important to me, I need to seek support right out of the gates. Seeking support is about so much more than accountability! You get to listen to yourself describe the change you want to make to another person, solidifying your vision in the process. You get to have someone to reflect back to you what they’re hearing, helping you figure out places you might be stuck and growing your awareness along the way. I love to bust the myth that asking for support equals weakness. In fact, I believe it’s the opposite. It takes strength and courage to ask someone to be in your corner. I can’t tell you how many clients have told me, “Oh, I knew all these facts before, and I had tried for years and years to make a change. I’d come to believe I was a failure—that I was weak and had no willpower. But once I asked for your help, following them became so much easier!” Support is how it all comes together.
To create change, ask: Who can support me right now, and how can I connect them with that fabulous opportunity?
Finally, don’t get discouraged! When you’re changing habits, you’re literally rewiring your neurology and finding new ways of responding to the world. If you feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, pick something smaller that’s still aligned with your bigger vision and work on that. And if you find yourself straying off the path, reconnect to one of these four guidelines and see if change doesn’t start to come more easily.
I’m curious: what’s been the secret sauce when you’ve worked to create change in your life? Have you used any of these strategies? What’s worked, and what hasn’t? Share in the comments!