Yesterday, on the last day of 2017, I was encouraging my teenage daughter to clean her room. (If you asked for her version of the story, she might use the word “nagging”, but I’m the one telling this story, so let’s stick with “encouraging”.) She had been avoiding it for the better part of the day, despite repeated “encouragement”.
“I think I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow,” she said. “You know… new year, new me?”
“So… you’re thinking that 2018 will transform you into the kind of person who keeps her bedroom clean?” I asked.
“A girl can dream.” And then we both laughed, because we both know there is no magical turning of the calendar that will transform her into a different person.
We keep hoping that will happen, though, don’t we? Even if we turn up our noses at new year’s resolutions, we create these little fantasies that “maybe THIS will be the year that I lose weight, get my finances in order, stop procrastinating, start exercising, stop self-sabotaging, pay my taxes on time, stop worrying, stop smoking, stop getting into unhealthy relationships, etc.” There’s just something about an as-yet untarnished year stretching in front of us that feels like a good opportunity for a fresh start.
But… just as my daughter already knows, at 15, that it will take more than a calendar change to motivate her to keep her room clean, we all know, deep down, that real change takes a great deal more effort and commitment.
This past week, while I was off work and taking a hiatus from social media, I had some time to think about what it takes to make meaningful change. Just like anyone else, there are areas of my life that I’d like to change. I’d like to lose weight, exercise more, keep my home more consistently clean, be more organized about my finances, etc. I ate too much over the holidays and was far too stationary, choosing the couch over the gym, and I could recognize the temptation to slip into that old familiar spiral of “I’m fat and too lazy and can’t seem to change that about myself, so I must be a bad person and therefore not worthy of love.” (I didn’t slip too far down that spiral, but could see it looming on the horizon.)
I’ve also been thinking about meaningful personal change on a broader spectrum – in those areas of our lives where we may be even more destructive (to ourselves and/or to others) such as addiction, abuse, etc. In this wave of accusations of sexual misconduct that’s resulted from the #metoo movement, for example, we’re discovering more and more men who’ve been guilty of deviant, destructive behaviour. Some have apologized and promised to do better in the future, but I can’t help but wonder… will they really change, or will they simply take their destructive behaviour further underground? Isn’t “getting caught” as ineffective a means of impacting meaningful change as the turning of the calendar? The high rate of recidivism in our prisons would suggest that getting caught and being punished rarely results in real change.
So what DOES result in meaningful behaviour change? How does a person become more healthy or less destructive to themselves and/or another person?
I haven’t found a magic cure, like a calendar change (if I had, I’d be 50 pounds lighter), but I do believe that these are some of the contributing factors to meaningful behaviour change:
1. Start with self-compassion and self-acceptance. This I know to be true… self-loathing and shame are never effective motivators for meaningful change. If you hate yourself and you’re wallowing in the shame of your unhealthy or destructive behaviour, you’ll keep behaving in the same way because you’ll believe that you’re incapable of anything better. You may, subconsciously, want to destroy yourself because of your perceived lack of worthiness, and you may even believe that you deserve to get caught and be punished.
It’s a vicious cycle – when I overeat, for example, I feel badly about myself. When I feel badly about myself, I don’t think I’m worthy of anything better and I want to bury the shame, so I eat some more. I have to break that cycle and it starts with extending love to myself so that I can begin to believe in my own capacity to do better. That requires that I first love myself unconditionally, EXACTLY as I am RIGHT NOW, at the weight I currently am, with the flaws I currently have. And it means committing to that kind of unconditional love EVEN IF I never make the change I’m longing for.
How do I do that? By committing to it on a daily basis, by extending kindness to myself whenever I can, by looking at myself in the mirror when I can and not flinching, by changing my self-talk from “I am useless” to “I am worthy”, and by forgiving myself over and over again when I slip up, and by not blocking the intense feelings (ie. grief, fear, shame, etc.) when they threaten to overwhelm me.
In the book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer says “Change comes naturally when we open ourselves up to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves (or someone else, or the whole world) when things go wrong and we feel bad, we can start with self-acceptance. Compassion first! This simple shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.”
2. Go deeper. A negative behaviour is never just a behaviour – it’s a mask for hidden shame, it’s a way to get a need met, it’s a response to past trauma, and/or it’s a way to avoid pain. If you can’t figure out why you can’t let go of an unhealthy pattern, it’s likely because that pattern is deeply rooted in your past pain, shame, trauma, grief, etc. It’s quite possible, that you developed that particular behaviour as a coping mechanism and there’s a subconscious part of your brain and/or body that believes that if you let go of the behaviour, you’ll be inviting back the pain or you will no longer be protecting yourself from danger. I have considered, for example, that the extra weight I carry may be my body’s way of protecting me from the kind of sexual trauma I’ve suffered in the past.
Unless you work to heal the wound that the behaviour is masking or protecting (and it may be multiple wounds rather than a single source), it will be next to impossible to make sustainable change to that behaviour. You might change the behaviour for awhile, but there’s a very good chance it will return or another destructive behaviour will move in to take its place. Our wounds have a way of getting our attention, one way or another, until we peel away the bandages and expose them to the air. I suspect, for example that many of the perpetrators of sexual abuse that we’re hearing about in the news have been victims of some kind of trauma in the past and their unhealthy use of power and their sexual deviance is really an unhealthy cry for help.
Healing of these wounds may require the support of professionals – therapists, counsellors, body workers, grief coaches, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
3. Recognize the forces at play beyond yourself. In much of modern day self-help literature, there is an underlying belief that you, and you alone, are in control of your own life. “You make your own choices, your thoughts control your outcome, you attract what shows up in your life, etc.” While there is some truth to these beliefs, they are all only partly true.
You are a product of your environment. You have been socially conditioned by the culture and system that you grew up in. You have a fore-ordained place in the social hierarchy that exists, and no matter how much you resist it, you will always be impacted by it. Your value in society is, at least in part, determined by your social status. If you are disabled, for example, you lack some of the privileges that non-disabled people enjoy. If you are a person of colour or transgender, you will likely suffer the effects of oppression and bias that others never face.
These factors limit our ability to make meaningful change in a number of ways. For one thing, a person with limited financial resources, or someone who lives in a rural location, may not have access to therapists or healthy food options or social support networks. A person who’s been ostracized for their gender or skin colour may have a harder time accessing the kind of help they need.
For another thing, there is often internalized oppression at play, even when no external force is limiting us.
A person of colour who’s grown up in a white supremacist culture will have received so many messages that they are less worthy than a white person that those messages will persist in their internal narrative. A woman who’s grown up in a patriarchal system might be a die-hard feminist, but still carry the residual shame of being a woman that she’s always been taught. Recently, while choosing a Netflix movie to watch, I realized that, though I have been overweight most of my life and believe that I am unbiased toward overweight people, I had a hard time believing that a movie with an overweight lead actor would be as good as one with a thin person. I still have internalized oppression toward fat people that’s been conditioned in me over fifty years of viewing the thin ideal on TV screens and fashion magazines.
This kind of internalized oppression makes self-compassion exponentially more difficult and therefore leaves meaningful behaviour change even more out of reach. Fifty years of internalized belief (that’s backed up by society’s standards) that fat people have less value is a pretty big boulder to push out of the way, especially when it’s complicated by the wounds that have been inflicted on this overweight body.
What can we do about this? We can educate ourselves about what forces are at play beyond us, we can choose, little by little, to release and challenge the shame and oppression inflicted on us, we can be kinder to ourselves and others who’ve suffered, and we can choose to contribute to a more just world. This knowledge does not excuse us of personal responsibility, but it does help us to be more self-compassionate when we recognize the additional burden we carry.
4. Make connections. Social isolation is one of the most significant contributors to unhealthy, destructive behaviour, whether it’s addiction, abuse, or simply poor choices. According to this article in Psychology Today, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. Addiction, the writer says, is not a substance disorder, it’s a personal disorder.
Canadian psychologist Brian Alexander discovered that rats that were placed in large cages with other rats, where there were hamster wheels and multi-colored balls to play with, plenty of tasty food to eat, and spaces for mating and raising litters, were much less likely to develop an addiction to heroin than those rats living in isolated cages. Given a choice between pure water and heroin-infused water, those in isolation quickly became addicted to the heroin, while those living in community ignored it. Even rats who’d previously been isolated and sucking on the heroin water left it alone once they were introduced to communal living.
Humans are much the same – those who have families and/or support support networks are much less likely to become addicts than those who are isolated. We are social creatures – our relationships help us cope, help us heal, and help us make good choices.
Healthy relationships are those in which we can fail and still be loved, we can speak of our shame and not have more heaped upon us, we can change without being held back by their fear, and we can learn to trust even if our trust has been broken in the past. In healthy relationships, our stories matter and we are not judged for the colour of our skin, the sizes of our waists, or the limitations of our disabilities. Healthy relationships allow us to be our best selves and forgive us for being our worst selves.
In an interview on CBC radio, Alan Jacobs, the author of How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, talked about the value of amplifying constructive voices. “If we can just stop amplifying the worst voices in society, and instead, try to promote the more constructive voices, it really would make a difference,” Jacobs suggested. He goes on to suggest “looking for people who are like-hearted, not necessarily like-minded – people who you don’t always agree with but hold the same virtues like generosity, charity, and honesty.”
These healthy, constructive relationships may be difficult to find, especially if you are already mired in shame and self-loathing, but they are not impossible. You can start by taking a course in something that interests you to find people with similar interests, or join a group on meetup.com. If you happen to be in my city, you’re welcome to join our women’s circle – we meet twice-monthly for a sharing circle where nobody is judged, no advice is offered, and friendship is freely offered.
5. Find spiritual/creative practices that support your intentions. Any time I’ve made a meaningful change in my life, and/or done deep healing work that contributes to the behaviour change, it has been supported by some form of spiritual/creative practice, whether it is a mandala journal practice, a journal practice (that might be supported by something like my 50 Questions), a labyrinth practice (ie. The Spiral Path), a body practice, a mindfulness practice, or an art practice. I recently participated in an online photographic self-expression (ie. creative selfies – offered by Amy Walsh of the Bureau of Tactical Imagination) course that surprised me with some of the ways it healed past wounds.
It seems each time I uncover something new that needs healing or changing, I find a different practice to support it. Different personal growth work seems to respond to different practices. I’ve signed up for two art-related courses for early 2018 because I know that the more time I spend in creativity, the more healthy I am in body and mind. There is something about engaging the creative part of my brain that unlocks a deeper part of me and heals what’s been hidden in the past. I also have an intention to find a body practice that works for me (once my injured shoulder heals).
One of my favourite journal practices is to have conversations with myself and to write those out as dialogue on the page. It might be a conversation between my current self and my younger self that helps uncover an unhealed wound or an unmet need. Or it might be a conversation with my fear to discover what message the fear is trying send me. Or it might be a conversation with my future self that helps my desires and longings to come to the surface. Feel free to experiment with this in your own journal – you might be surprised by what comes to the surface.
6. Take small steps and start fresh each day. “How do you eat an elephant?” asks the familiar proverb. “One bite at a time.” Don’t overwhelm yourself with unrealistic goals that may doom you for failure before you’ve even begun. Instead, set small, manageable intentions. And when you fail to meet those expectations, forgive yourself and start again.
Decide, for example, that “just for today, I will make healthy choices.” And then when you wake up the next morning, set the same goal again. And again. And again. A day of healthy choices is much more attainable than a life-long change. It’s also less to forgive if you’re simply forgiving yourself for failing today rather than for being a life-long failure.
Yes, meaningful change is possible, but remember that it may also not be necessary. Ask yourself if the change you’re seeking is genuinely what you want, or is, instead, the result of cultural norms imposed on you. Perhaps, instead of setting an unrealistic goal to become a new you, your only goal should be to practice self-compassion and acceptance of yourself just the way you are. Maybe it’s the norms of society that need to be changed rather than you?
Perhaps the most radical change you can make is to believe that you are doing the best that you can with the hand you’ve been dealt and that that’s good enough.