MCP, Registered Clinical Counsellor
It’s early February and I thought that this might be a timely period to write about change. Many of us view the New Year as a time for change, whether we make formal New Year’s resolutions or not. One month later we can feel defeated if there have been delays or setbacks in implementing our goals, sometimes leading us to give up on the goals altogether. I find the following points to be useful for clients, and myself, to remember about the change process:
- Conflicting feelings about change are normal: Sometimes we beat ourselves up because we think the decision to make a change should be easy or that we ought to know better. We’ve all heard that exercise is good for you or that smoking can lead to poor health outcomes. However, all changes in life, including healthy ones, can involve strong conflicting feelings.
There are benefits and costs to making any decision. We can get stuck when we don’t explore these ambivalent feelings. Writing out a pros and cons list about making change can help us more clearly see both sides of the ledger. Sometimes this can feel like a dry exercise though. What I find helpful is looking at that pros and cons list and exploring the values and emotions behind the items written down. We tend to feel more motivated by a statement like “I feel more confident, energetic, and like I’m investing in myself when I exercise and eat a balanced diet” as opposed to “eat your vegetables because they’re a good source of vitamins”.
- There is never an ideal time to change: Have you ever had the thought that “I will make that change when life isn’t so busy next month”? The next month comes and life is still busy. The same happens the following month and the one after that. One day you realize it’s been about a year and you’re still thinking about that same change. Life is almost always busy. We are rarely in a sustained place of perfect Zen-like calm (though please let me know if this is you because I’d love to know your secret). There is always going to be the next work commitment, family crisis, important anniversary, etc. If you have decided that a particular change is important for you, it can be helpful to take some steps in the here-and-now so that you don’t fall into the trap of repeatedly delaying change and then feeling discouraged and stuck.
- Motivation often comes after behaviour change, not before: This one is similar to the previous point. Sometimes I have thought to myself “I will go to the gym when I feel motivated”. However, this isn’t the way our brains are wired. Motivation rarely hits us like a lightning bolt from the sky. We have a chemical in our brains called dopamine which is released after we engage in an activity we find rewarding. Dopamine then encourages us to do that behaviour again. Using the gym example, I will usually find myself feeling more motivated after I have put my gym clothes on and I’m heading towards the gym.
Making small, concrete steps towards our goal can help fuel a positive cycle of increasing motivation. It can be helpful to start small to avoid your motivation getting defeated by being overwhelmed. “Today I’m going to the gym” is usually more motivating than “I commit to go to the gym 5 days a week for the rest of my life”. The first statement sounds doable while the second statement makes me want to curl up on my couch with ice cream.
- Positive reinforcement is usually more sustainable than negative reinforcement: Often it is some sort of crisis that brings people into counselling. For example, clients who struggle with substance abuse are often motivated to seek out support because of feelings of shame, health consequences, financial difficulties, or conflict in their important relationships. Crises can cause us to look in the mirror and realize some sort of major change is necessary. These crises can be important short-term motivators. In the long-term though, our memory tends to start playing tricks on us. We often minimize the severity of our previous struggles and instead reminisce about the positive memories. It’s like breaking up with a partner and then a few months later thinking “that wasn’t so bad. I kind of miss them”. This is why it can be helpful to focus on the positive things you hope to gain by making the change.
Focusing on goals and values gives us hope and a direction to move towards. Running away from negative consequences can feel like a stressful and exhausting way to live. Whenever possible I encourage my clients to frame their goals about what they want in their lives instead of what they don’t want. “Not drinking” is a goal that could be achieved by locking yourself in a room, but that sounds like a rather limiting and miserable way to live. What is the “not drinking” in service of? Focusing on the emotional, interpersonal, medical, or financial benefits can feel more motivating.
- Setbacks are common: When making a change, we can become discouraged and defeated when experiencing a setback or relapse. A setback can be accompanied by “all-or-nothing thinking” that a person has failed which leads to self-blame and shame. It can be helpful to remember that the vast majority of people experience at least one setback or relapse along their journey. It does not mean that you weren’t trying hard enough, you’re weak-willed, or that the change is impossible.
A setback can provide very valuable information about unforeseen obstacles in your life and how to overcome them. A sense of resiliency can develop through learning from challenges. If you have ever watched a toddler learn how to walk, you’ve seen them experience numerous setbacks. Through persistence, trial-and-error, and loving encouragement they grow more confident in their ability to walk.
I hope this has been helpful for fostering hope and self-compassion during the challenging change process. In our work together we can explore complex feelings around change, collaborate on achievable and time-sensitive goals, connect your goals to your authentic positive values, and process any challenges along the way.