How to Change Habits

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I’ve got quite a few habits I’d like to change, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. From daily actions I take that harm me more than help me, to automatic thoughts that limits me in major ways, I have plenty of room to grow and change in positive ways. My inspired quest right now is exactly this: how do we change habits in a lasting way? Here’s my brainstorm so far:

1. Mindfulness meditation. This works especially for unconscious, compulsive actions or automatic thinking habits. We keep engaging in habits that don’t serve us because we are not thinking. It’s routine. It’s what we know and find comfortable. It’s a pathway that has been carved in our brain that is of least resistance, much like a river that cuts a pathway through rock and earth will not flow any other way unless a dam is built and a new pathway is carved. This takes a lot of work! Mindfulness meditation can help us wake up from the trance of habitual thinking and action. With practice, we can start to notice the moment we make the decision to act on a habit, or the moment a thought arises that does not serve us. If you want to know more about mindfulness meditation, ask me. It will inspire me to get off on my butt and write!

2. Monitor and change behaviors. This includes several steps.

  • Choose the habit you want to change, and state the habit you want to create positively. For example, instead of, “I am not going to eat crappy food,” you would say, “I am only going to eat healthy foods.” This is important, because your brain follows your thoughts, so if you state what you are NOT going to do, your mind will be more likely to fixate on the forbidden than to focus on the positive change.
  • Commit to creating this new habit. There’s no room for half-assed goals here. You need to make a decision, and it needs to be definite.
  • Consider accountability partners.
  • Break down the practical steps you need to take to actualize the change into your daily life, and make these steps measurable goals. Create a schedule to support these changes. For instance, if my goal is that I want to exercise more, I need to decide how much more, and what I need to do to make my schedule accommodate this. I will then have a definite plan, and it is more likely to become routine. Guess what? Routines become habit!
  • Track your progress. Keep a note of it in your scheduler. Check in with it every day. Feel good when you see yourself doing it more and more.
  • Reward yourself as you meet your goals, that is, if changing the habit and meeting the goals is not reward enough itself!

3. Take it deeper. Sometimes a purely behavioral approach doesn’t work. This is generally because we did not truly commit or because we have deeper work to do around the habit we wish to change. Here are some ideas that you may find fruitful:

  • Examine resistance. A lot of times when we try to change habits, resistance comes up. Looking at this resistance may give you some clues to the deeper issues that may be present.
  • Look at the underlying needs. People engage in bad habits to fill needs that are not being filled in other ways. Ask yourself what is the need you are meeting in engaging in something that you see as unhealthy. Find another way to meet that need.
  • Be compassionate and allow yourself to cheat at times. Rigidity can create a narrow black and white view that makes change impossible. Create some space for yourself to make mistakes. Let yourself breathe, relax, and refocus.
  • Go deeper still. Changing habits can bring core issues to light. Spend some time exploring these issues if you feel they are ripe for healing. Journal. Talk with a friend or counselor. Dream on it. Take time to truly tune into yourself. You are so worth it!

I’ve got a list of 9 new habits I want to create. Now I just need to choose one and take some of my own advice. What about you, readers? Do you have any useful strategies for changing habits that you can share?

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Positive thinking: Finding light in the darkness

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“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.” ~ Og Mandino

I’ve been writing a bit in this blog about my journey through a life-threatening miscarriage to the discovery that I had a partial molar pregnancy, which is basically a pregnancy that can become cancerous. After the miscarriage, I had to get weekly blood draws to follow my hormone levels, to know that the tissue from the pregnancy was completely gone and was not continuing to grow and spread. Really fun stuff, right?

This week, my doctor told me that my blood tests are showing me as officially not pregnant, which means I am in the clear. It has been eight weeks since I originally learned that the pregnancy was not viable, and the ordeal is finally over! It was a terrible, horrifying experience, and I am eternally grateful for it.

Why? Because I learned so much. My awareness grew in so many directions. You know the cartoon where the light bulb appears over the person’s head when he/she gets an idea? Well, this was like thousands of light bulbs flashing inside of my head, all at once, as the realization of impermanence hit me. I feel so much more spiritually connected right now, much less afraid of death. Right now, that Dark Mother is my ally. She holds my hand and that cold chill I feel on my skin wakes me up and reminds me to live each moment as if it is the last. 

One of the most powerful therapeutic tools that I know is the Reframe. As defined by wikipedia,Cognitive reframing consists of changing the way people see things and trying to find alternative ways of viewing ideas, events, situations, or a variety of other concepts.” I constantly use this with my clients when I see them getting stuck in complaining, playing the role of the victim, or getting stuck in anger and judgment. I constantly use it with myself when I get stuck (which is at least a hundred times a day).

The questions to ask: Is there another way to look at this situation? Can I turn it on it’s side, upside-down, or backwards? Can I turn myself over and look at it again? Maybe put it away, take a break, do something pleasurable, and look at it again, in new light?

The point of this exercise is to find the positive in an uncomfortable, painful, struggle. It is the realization that you have the power to choose how to see a situation. You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond, and the state of your mind will drive your response.

The experience: I absolutely abhorred going through the miscarriage(s). I hated my doctor, the way she was very jaded and clinical as she gave me the news both about the miscarriage and about the partial molar pregnancy. I never want to go to that office again. I don’t know if I want to try to get pregnant again. I am still grieving the loss. It continues to be a challenge to be present and happy for my friends who have new babies. I get extremely jealous of pregnant women.

The reframe: I value the experience so much, because it was a huge lesson. I learned from it. And I have so much more compassion for other women who’ve miscarried, a much deeper understanding for people facing life-threatening illnesses. I can be more present for people facing huge crises, including death. My struggles have given me more depth. I know my way through some dark places now, so I can walk with others, shining light. I am not afraid to be there anymore, and I will work hard to stay connected to this courage, to this peaceful knowing that pain is just a sensation and death is just the other side of life.

The cognitive reframe can be extremely useful in changing beliefs about oneself to gain more self-acceptance as well.

Belief about myself: I am lazy and unfocused (true, but…)

The reframe: I know how to relax. I am flexible and open to new ideas. I am creative, spontaneous, and an excellent brainstormer. I work well with deadlines (I feel sooo much better about myself now).

Try it. Every time you find yourself stuck in negative thoughts or actions, or if you are going through a difficult situation, stretch your vision. Stand on your head for a while. And tell me about it! Here are some wise parting words from Groucho.

Image“Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.” ~ Groucho Marx