“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy
When we begin new habits and routines, we are often simultaneously letting go of unwanted habits. Many people have realized firsthand that when you remove something unwanted from your life (e.g., a self-destructive habit), it is quite helpful to replace the unwanted event with something healthy and desirable. Imagine what happens when suddenly there is a large void in your life where an unhealthy habit used to live. Until you fill that void with something healthy, adaptive, and purposeful, something else unwanted will slowly grow in that empty space.
Let’s imagine that you have, with much effort and deliberation, extracted (or are in the process of extracting) an unwanted habit or behavior from your life. You are feeling confident and successful in your abilities to avoid the unwanted behavior, but there is still a nagging sense of doubt and anxiety over whether or not this “new you” can stand the test of time. How can you begin to feel safe in the knowledge that your new lifestyle choice(s) will last?
How to Make Lasting Changes
(1) Set a Date
Set a clear and realistic date for when you intend on engaging in your new behavior. Perhaps this means arranging a specific day to spend more time with family, friends, or children. It could also mean setting up a clear and realistic schedule for your new running, meditation, or yoga practice. Or maybe it means setting up a clear time frame within which you plan to avoid alcohol before returning to it with moderation. Whatever it is for you, the point is that you set a clear date/schedule that you are willing to commit yourself to, which can be maintained over the long-term, and is realistic.
(2) Be Still
Now that you have made a clear and realistic time/date commitment to yourself, notice when the prearranged time arrives for you to engage in your new healthy behavior. When the time comes, be still and open your mind, body, and soul up to what thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise. Take a seat or lie down as you adopt an open, curious, and mindful stance in the present moment.
(3) Open Up to Your Body
What physical sensations are you experiencing in your body at this point in time? Perhaps you are experiencing a tightness in your throat, tenseness in your jaw, or queasiness in your stomach. Many people experience a deep inner experience of fear and anxiety during times of creating lasting change. During the times when you have committed to yourself to act in a new way, it is natural to witness your internal anxiety manifest itself through physical sensations. Rather than fighting whatever your physical experience may be during this time of change, notice what you are experiencing with openness, acceptance, and compassion.
(4) Practice “Urge Surfing“
No matter how powerful your desires may be, you do not have to act on them. The idea is to tap into your urges and desires and stay mindfully connected to the experience rather than “giving in” by choosing to take action. Really notice exactly what urges you are having and allow yourself to feel the accompanying discomfort or turmoil… tolerate the distress. Engage in cognitive defusion as you mindfully disentangle yourself from the thoughts that are “telling you” to act in ways that are counter to your values. Take away the power of those thoughts and urges by seeing them for what they are: images and words created by your mind. Ride out the urge without action in this moment and realize that you are capable of having distressing internal experiences without running away from them.
Take a moment to place your hand on your heart and direct lovingkindness and compassion toward yourself. Thank yourself for caring enough about you to engage in this process of self-exploration. Give the kindness and love to yourself that you would give to a friend or loved one who was struggling to maintain lasting change in their lives. Accept and nurture the vulnerability that you may be feeling inside during this time of change. Be kind to yourself as you recognize that you are in the process of letting go of something familiar (but painful or self-destructive) and moving towards the unknown (which may be healthy and life-affirming).
As you reach the end of this process, choose to actively engage with the new task or event. Now that you are feeling more in touch with your inner feelings and vulnerability, take the next step towards engaging in the new healthy behavior. Perhaps this means that you are now ready to go into your yoga class with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning of why this new lifestyle choice is important to you. Or maybe this process of engagement means beginning to cook dinner for yourself or your family with the choice to not drink alcohol. Whatever it is, engage in your new behavior completely, with full mindfulness and willingness. As long as part of you continues to hold back and not truly immerse yourself wholeheartedly in the new behavior, it is more difficult to create lasting change.
Just as with all new habits and changes, you must make the commitment to practice what is new until it becomes automatic. Take a moment to go back through the steps listed here and perhaps go to a deeper emotional or psychological level of understanding the depth of what this process of change means to you and the deep struggles you may be having to maintain it. Allow yourself time to integrate this new change into your life and do not wrack yourself with guilt or self-imposed punishment if you make a mistake. Learn from mistakes made and recognize at what point in the chain of events things went wrong. Change takes time, repetition, patience, and commitment.
Change will happen when the pain of holding on becomes greater than the fear of letting go.
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Goldstein, E. (2011). 7 steps to making real change last [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindfulness/2011/09/7-steps-to-making-real-change-last/
Featured image: Just Dandy by basheertome / CC BY 2.0