Let’s face it — changing behavior is difficult. If it were easy, we wouldn’t find ourselves coming up with the same New Year’s resolutions year after year, we would probably all be a lot more enlightened by now, and us self-help folks would be out of business. But it’s important to recognize that this difficulty to change behavior is a universal struggle, not a personal failing. Many of us are taught to believe that if we just work hard enough, push ourselves enough, and drum up enough willpower and self-discipline, we should be able to change (and what’s wrong with us anyway when we can’t!). But what we often aren’t taught is that willpower and self-control have some surprising ingredients that we may not be aware of.
Stanford University psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal is an expert on the neuroscience of change and offers us some wonderful insights based on the latest brain science research, as well as on teachings from the wisdom traditions. She explains that it is as if each of us has two competing and conflicting parts of ourselves: the impulsive self that wants immediate gratification, driven by the midbrain, and the wise self, that knows what is best for us, controlled by the medial prefrontal cortex. When we want to change a behavior, whether doing something that we haven’t been doing but we know is good for us (like going to the gym), or stopping a behavior that we know is bad for us (like overeating, procrastinating, or yelling too much), these two brain systems are in conflict. So what can we do to help the wise self-win out?
Three Hidden Ingredients For Change
I want to highlight three key ingredients that Kelly McGonigal discusses in her teachings and ones that I have seen first hand to be effective in both my clinical practice with my patients, and in my own life.
1. The first thing is that we need to be willing to experience discomfort and lean in toward it. This is not something we often focus on when we try to change behavior. In fact, sometimes we think that we should be able to get rid of our discomfort in order to “just do it.” We miss acknowledging that most change is uncomfortable, even scary at times, and takes not just a can-do attitude, but an element of courage. It often doesn’t feel good in the moment to initiate something new, and no matter how much willpower we have, that discomfort may still be there. This is where mindfulness skills can come in handy. Mindfulness helps us to accept whatever we are experiencing as it arises – whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It helps us observe and tolerate the discomfort without needing it to be different. If you are trying to resist picking up that second piece of cake, or that cigarette, or if you are trying to start something you have been putting off for a long time, no doubt you will experience uncomfortable cravings, urges, fears or anxiety of some kind. Bringing discomfort along for the ride, rather than trying to get rid of it, can be a very helpful skill, to allow us to get a longer-term reward.
For You to Try: Learning to lean into (rather than away from) the discomfort, and getting curious about it, can actually help you take a step towards changing your behavior, even though this may at first sound counter-intuitive. As an experiment, the next time you are facing some resistance to a behavior change, see if you might pause for sixty seconds or more and notice any discomfort in your body with some curiosity and friendliness, and see what happens. Psychiatrist Judson Brewer, in his book The Craving Mind, writes about how cultivating this kind of mindful curiosity, attention and observation can ultimately help you choose more helpful behaviors. If you like, you can try listening to this Five Minute Mindful Pause meditation that I created to help people become mindful when they come up against cravings, resistance, and impulses that may lead them to act in unhealthy ways.
2. Another key ingredient to help us muster up this willingness to tolerate discomfort is to hold out in front of us what we most value, and identify why this behavior change matters to us. The field of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy emphasizes that when we identify what we most value, we are more willing to experience being uncomfortable for a long-term, greater good. I have patients who have been afraid to fly, or get up and speak in public, or have been unable to resist powerful and unpleasant cravings. But when they focus on the loved one they will be able to visit if they get on the plane, or the opportunities that might open to them if they give that talk, or how they will be able to run around with their child if they eat healthier, it helps them to face their discomfort and still do the behavior that brings them closer in line with what they most value.
For You to Try: Take a moment and think about what behavior you want to change and ask yourself why is this truly important to you? How will changing this behavior align you with living the kind of life that you value? How will engaging in this behavior help you align today with the parts of you that you most value about yourself? How will it help you be that best version of yourself today? Now write this down on a notecard and carry it with you as you read it repeatedly throughout the day, focusing on the feeling that this calls up in your body.
3. Both of these above ingredients are important, but the place where I most see people miss the mark and stray from their goal (myself included) is when they handle setbacks with self-criticism, and then give up entirely because they “blew it.” Success is often not linear. We all experience setbacks, and the more we can build this into the process of change, and approach our mistakes with self-compassion and kindness, McGonigal explains, the more likely we will have the motivation needed to reach our goals. It isn’t eating that second piece of cake that I see stops people from success, it is beating themselves up for it and letting this feeling of failure and shame stop them from going back at it the next day. What we say to ourselves matters far more than we may realize, and often we don’t even pay attention to this harsh and self-critical voice.
For You to Try: The next time you find yourself falling short of a goal, think of how you might sit and talk with a good friend who is in the same predicament. Chances are you wouldn’t berate your friend or tell them they are a loser or a failure because they veered from their diet, or fell back into an unhelpful habit. Respond to yourself the same way that you would respond to that good friend, likely with compassion. That doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be accountable for your behavior, it just means that you are on your own side and have our own back when you get up tomorrow to try again.
McGonigal, K. (2017, March 21). The Neuroscience of Change. Sounds True Neuroscience Training Summit. Retrieved from: https://www.soundstrue.com/store/neuroscience-training-summit-2017?sq=1#jumplink-presenters
McGonigal, Kelly. The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Program for Personal Transformation. Sounds True, 2017. [Audiobook]
Brewer, J. (2017). The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smart Phones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
Originally published on Psychology Today