A Strategy for Sustainable Change
New Year, New You?
It’s that time of year again, when we all think about the things we want to do, the ways we want to live, the people we want to become.
New Year’s Resolution time!
Have you set any this year?
Have you managed to stick to them so far?
I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions per se, but I am working on becoming the person I want to be more and more each day.
This is what resolutions are isn’t it? We identify the parts of our behaviour or ourselves that we dislike, and try to change them.
We think it is going to be so easy. We list all the thing we want to change, and set a date to change, and expect that we will change.
So many people do this every year, and approach each year thinking that this year is going to be the year that everything changes, they will finally break that habit, and embrace that new one.
Why are so few people successful in achieving these goals?
The Power of Habit
Looking at the types of resolutions in the list above, most of them are connected to habits. The top goal, to lose weight, is connected to a combination of lifestyle, habit and emotional management.
For some people, making the decision to lose weight is easy. If the weight gain has been the result of simply ‘taking your eye off the ball’, and letting things slip a little, you simply increase the amount of exercise you do, and ensure that you eat better.
For some, quitting drinking or reducing the amount of alcohol you consume is easy, you just say no a little more often.
But for others it is a far more complex issue that will require a carefully planned strategy and a great deal of inner work to maintain.
There may be emotional reasons for over eating and excessive drinking, there may be lack of knowledge about healthy eating, there may be addiction issues. There is almost certainly a great deal of unconscious behaviour around eating and alcohol consumption.
In this case, it will not simply be enough to say ‘I am going to restrict my food or alcohol’. This will be unsustainable as the habits and emotions will be far more powerful than the resolve. This inability to stick to the resolution can lead to feelings of failure that can exacerbate the emotional nature of the relationship with food and make the problem worse.
The same is true of any big life change that you may think you can fix with New Year’s resolution.
I think when I was drinking, most years I would resolve to drink less, then find a reason to justify drinking within a few days and then give up on my resolution completely, and compound the sense of shame I already experienced. The problem was that I was trying to change a behaviour without looking at the emotional reason for that behaviour. Our actions are dictated by our thoughts and emotions, not the other way round. So it may be worth looking at the emotional causes of the behaviour while we try to change it, Journalling, time alone just being with our emotions, meditation,talking therapies such as counselling, an really help you get to the heart of the problem and help you work through the issues.
If you have deep seated emotional issues and/or addictions, then this is something that needs to be looked at separately. If you are concerned about your drinking, drug use, or weight, then you should consult a doctor to see if you need any specialist support. Yoga can be tremendously helpful on the recovery journey, and was, in fact, the only tool I used to my own recovery. The principles I teach here will be able to help you, but I am not medically qualified, and you will need to make sure that you are getting the right help for your individual situation.
We are Human, not Vulcan
Star Trek’s Dr Spock was famous for his logic and reasoning, as opposed to the emotional, illogical responses of humans. His views give us great insights into our nature as humans
“Curious how often you Humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.”
Is there a better analogy for how are sabotage our own resolutions than this? It is painfully true, but why is it?
We are not logical creatures. We may be able to see a situation logically, we can take information and make logical decisions with it, and we do, this is the origin of our resolutions.
But our habits are not born out of logic unless we consciously create them. And the habits we are seeking to change in our resolutions are not likely to be such consciously created habits.
Consciously Creating New Habits
One of the main benefits of Yoga is that it brings our unconscious behaviour into the realm of our consciousness. Through the many practices and behaviours it teaches us, we learn to better connect with our true Self, and learn to understand the behaviours, thoughts and emotions we experience. It leads very well to conscious habit change.
There are many different approaches you can take to create new habits and eliminate the old, a search on the internet will bring up a wide range of strategies and models.
I have created a model called The Circle of Change which is based largely on Yogic principles (not really surprising!)
How the Circle works
One thing at a time
This model works on the basis that you are making one change at a time. I think one of the reasons that we fail to make the changes that we seek is that we try to change too much at once. I know we do this because I do it myself. I will often try to implement several new habits at once, then wonder why I can’t succeed. The secret here is, like in all things, to focus on one thing at a time. When we put all our energy into one thing, we have a far greater chance of success than if we spread that energy thinly across several things.
So pick your one change to make, and let’s move forward onto step one.
When we are embarking on a great change, we cannot hope to get to the finish line straight away. We expect far too much of ourselves sometimes, and set ourselves up for failure by setting unreachable goals from the start. When we break a challenge down into small steps, we have a far greater chance of success than if we shoot for the overall goal first.
When I stopped drinking in October 2014, I knew myself well enough to know that if I went straight to the thought of giving up forever, my addiction would fight back and would sabotage my efforts. Instead, I made a decision everyday that ‘I am not drinking today’.
Eventually I made that decision when attending a wedding with good red wine freely available, and I knew that my baby steps had paid off, I was now able to face a different sort of future.
Baby steps are always important when we are facing change, and is a useful metaphor for how we should approach change in our lives.
When a baby is learning to walk, we don’t criticise them for falling over, or encourage them to think they have failed. We encourage them constantly, laugh lovingly and encourage them to do the same when they fall over, praise the smallest achievement.
More importantly, they keep on trying and trying until they get it right. They are not defeated by ‘failure’’. They don’t think ‘oh well, that didn’t work, I’ll just carry on crawling’.
Be gentle with yourself. This is linked to the baby steps stage, in that we must make sure that we are setting ourselves achievable goals, at least in the early stages of change. Anything too big will lead to overwhelm, fear, and a kickback from the subconscious.
We must accept that we might stumble along the way. We must give ourselves credit for the success we have so that when we can remind ourselves of them when we encounter difficulties. We must acknowledge that we are trying to do something pretty big.
The strategies I shared in the post about dealing with relapse offer some helpful tools to help us practice self kindness.
Pratipaksha Bhavanam is a great Yogic device that can help us change the negative thoughts we might experience into positive. Instead of thinking, for example, ‘I can’t have the drink I really want’, we can turn the thought into a positive by thinking ‘I am so proud of myself that I am choosing not to drink and am looking for other ways to deal with my stress right now‘. It is not easy at first, but with practice, time and self compassion, it becomes easier to flip negative thoughts.
I DID IT!
This stage is twofold. At the most obvious level, it is about celebrating the small wins, celebrating every day that you achieve your goal. Every small win is to be celebrated, as well as the big wins. So if, for example, your drinking usually mean that you rush the children’s bedtime, but tonight you take it slowly, read them an extra story, and give them extra cuddles before they go to sleep, then celebrate not only the day without drinking, but the extra time you gave to your kids. That isn’t even a small win, that is huge, but it is something you might not think about if you are only focused on the drinking.
Every decision we make has its ripple effect, so celebrate the ripples as well.
The second aspect of this stage is an acronym
Do It Daily
Any new habit or behaviour change we wish to implement needs consistency to grow and develop. Swami Gitanada and his wife Amma used the term ‘The 3 R’s’ – Repetition, Regularity, Rhythm, to describe how one needs to live to reap the benefits of a yoga practice. The new habit or behaviour you wish to bring into your life must be a part of your daily life, it can not be something you do when you feel like it, or that you abandon when you feel like it.
In ‘The Slight Edge‘, Jeff Olson talks about how our lives are not decided by the grand gestures or big experiences, but by the things we do every day. Those little things, such as a glass of wine at dinner, may not seem harmless, and indeed, as isolated events, are not harmless. But the cumulative effect of these adds up to harm – in the case of the wine, tolerance will build up and the one glass becomes two over time, and so on. While ‘bad’ habits over time can lead to harm, ‘good’ habits over time can lead to good. So, 10 minutes of exercise every day may not seem like much, but if that is manageable, and you are consistent with it, you will see benefits over time. You will not develop a 6 pack in a month, but you will slowly, consistently increase your health and lead to a far more sustainable habit than a ‘short sharp shock’ approach
We are far more likely to be successful in making changes in our life if we have some sort of support. For people with deeper issues such as addiction, this may require professional support, but we can all use support in making changes.
Enlist the help of family, friends, colleagues, children, partners, whoever you need to have at your side as you embark on this change. These people can hold you accountable to your changes, can support you when you struggle, can keep you motivated when you struggle and can help you find the reasons to celebrate, as well as being able to celebrate with you.
In addition to the resources and support that you can get from those around you, learn to listen to the insights, intuition and support that you have within yourself. Through practices such as journaling, self study, meditation and Yoga to name but a few, you can access inner resources and strengths that you didn’t realise you had.
Gratitude can be linked to the celebration of the I DID It phase, but gratitude goes much deeper than that. Gratitude is closely linked to the Yoga concept of Santosha, which is contentment. It is appreciation for where you are now, what you have now, the way your life is NOW.
Gratitude can help you find positivity and optimism about your life where you may not have found it before, and the more you seek it, the more you find.
If you make a point of noticing and celebrating the small things to be grateful for, you will soon end up noticing lots of bigger things to be grateful for!
I struggled with where to put this point in this circle, or at least when to talk about it – should it be first or last, or somewhere in the middle? You may think, logically, that it should be at the start, but from my own experience I think it fits best here, can only be here, and I will tell you why, using my own experience of giving up alcohol as an example.
How I completed my Circle of Change
or how I went from this………………to this………………………………..
When I began my sober life, I didn’t really plan it to happen. When I woke up on October 12, 2014, the day I now mark as my ‘soberversary’, I didn’t think I was never going to drink again. I knew only that I never wanted to feel the way I currently did, and that in order to make sure that never happened again, I needed to never drink the way I had.#
At the time, although I knew I needed to reduce the amount I drank, I was still deep in denial about the full extent of my drinking problem. Indeed, it was only after I stopped that I could clearly see how much trouble I had been in.
Had I decided then that I was giving up alcohol permanently, I would have been in the same state again within 3 days. It had happened before. Historically I had very low resilience to change. Visions of a future free of my crutches had been the undoing of my efforts to give up smoking and drinking in the past.
I needed to take baby steps towards even creating the goal of sobriety. I had already been doing this in my yoga practice, but now that I had an idea to make a very difficult change in my life, I needed a new plan. I simply told myself every day ‘I don’t need to drink today’.
I did this with kindness rather than an attempt to force the issue, being aware of the self sabotaging element in my personality that would make me kick back even against myself.
I Did It Daily, and celebrated every small win, every time I dealt with a situation without finding myself with a glass of wine in my hand, every time I didn’t immediately react with anger to a situation, every time I smiled instead of snarled.
I had support in my family who were very happy with the changes I was making to my life, the friends I was choosing to spend time with, the new circle of support I had on my training course, and the support I was giving myself through my Swadhyaya and yoga practice
I practised gratitude, seeing lessons in so many of the things that had previously tested me and brought me down, making a conscious effort to see the good in the world instead of the bad, no longer looking for reasons to be angry and ‘need’ a drink. I was grateful every day that I went to bed happily sober and slept well.
Eventually, after a couple of months of living like this and recognising how much happier and healthier, I, and my family were, I was able to look at an alcohol future as not only possible but desirable.
I was then able to return to the start of the circle of change with a vision of a future I was working towards, and take baby steps towards building a future with sobriety at its core, increasing my personal resilience with every step.