Hope is not a strategy when it comes to change. Commitment is what is needed to make real change happen. Can people change? Absolutely, but exchanging your excuses for commitment is necessary to get started.
Human nature leans toward habits, which can become ingrained over the years, but that doesn’t mean habits can be undone.
What Impacts People’s Ability to Change?
Breaking unwanted habits can be extremely challenging, especially if a person has been engaging in that behavior for a long time.
The most important factor that affects your ability to change is your support system. With the help of supportive friends, family members, and professionals that provides medical advice diagnosis or treatment, you can navigate the path to changing for the better more easily.
Even if you make mistakes, these people will remind you that your efforts were not made in vain.
Aside from a support system, you also need to have a strong sense of personal accountability. By holding yourself accountable, you can recognize negative behavior patterns easily. It will also ensure you remain focused on your goal and stay in control of your actions.
Conscious awareness is truly essential for your mental health. If you want to sustainably achieve change, surround yourself with like-minded people as much as possible.
So can people change?
Can People Really Change?
Before you go through treatment, you’re probably wondering can people change or not. The short answer is yes. People can indeed change. However, change requires hard work and opening up yourself to new experiences.
There have been millions of success stories of people overcoming bad habits and turning their life around. However, simply telling yourself or a loved one to change instantly won’t work.
Lasting change takes time and effort. It also entails exploring the different reasons for your bad behavior.
Once you have made the decision to change, it is integral to remember that the path is not linear. It’s still possible to slip back into your old habits, but the important thing is to recognize when this happens and commit to continuing your progress.
Why Changing Can Be So Difficult?
Our Past Affects Our Behavioral Choices
Our well-worn habits and behaviors are a result of our past experiences and the decisions we have previously made.
We may have seen, heard, or felt something, and because of this we decided to believe something about ourselves and the world. Some of the most limiting of those beliefs we form between the ages of 0-7.
All beliefs serve us in a positive way to a point. However, eventually when we want to change or evolve, they start to limit us.
This is because our beliefs drive our behavior. If we want to adopt a new habit to drive change, those beliefs start to get in the way.
Our belief system usually drives our behavior from our unconscious mind. This means we are unaware of it and can automatically fall back into the old behavior.
People have even described this is a feeling of being blocked. They know what they need to do, but they do the opposite instead.
The easiest example to give here is with weight loss. If you unconsciously believe you are “not good enough,” it may mean you will choose the piece of cake when you go to the fridge instead of a piece of fresh fruit. This supports the belief and keeps you in your comfort zone of health related behaviors.
Taking this belief into the work environment, you may choose to get lost in social media instead of making those follow-up calls. Again, this helps you avoid potential rejection where that belief may be exposed, keeping you safe.
The key to change here is consciousness: becoming aware of any limiting beliefs you do have and making a conscious decision to change them.
Our Core Identity Drives Behavior
There are also those ambiguous things we call core values. These are embedded with a whole range of different beliefs.
Our values are the things that are important to us. They are our “why” for who we are and what we do.
A recent study found an important connection between core values and self-control, stating:
“[I]t is possible that expressing one’s core values facilitates self-control regardless of the construal level at which values are expressed.”
Furthermore, the study found that affirming core values worked to counteract ego depletion, leading to a more complete sense of self.
It’s easy to see how this can influence one’s ability to work on successful behavior change. With a higher level of self-control and a more complete view of who you are as a person, your ability to change increases significantly.
Most of the time, core values operate on an unconscious level, meaning they will affect any decision we make automatically. The above study suggests that making them visible through positive affirmations affects our decisions in a more obvious, positive way.
Applying this to the weight loss example earlier, imagine you valued a sense of belonging, which led to concerns about being with people who act similarly to you. Having a glass of water out socially with friends might mean you feel like an outsider. Because of this, you choose a glass of wine instead.
In the work example, maybe you value support, and it’s about being there for people who need you. You want to achieve greater things, but someone needs a hand, and you prioritize their request instead of making those essential calls.
The key here is having awareness and working on consciousness raising. Remember our values sit in our unconscious, and not many people have a full understanding of them.
Becoming conscious of your values and the belief system that lies behind them will help you see what needs to change internally. Making those inner adjustments will, in turn, shift your behavior.
You Don’t Know Your “Why”
Assistant Professor of Psychology Elliot Berkman PhD calls this your “Will.” This isn’t so much about willpower, but he refers to it as “the motivation and emotional aspects of behavior change.”
It’s about understanding your “why” for change and why specifically it’s important to you.
Because a friend has done it, you think it might be a good idea for you, too. Or you think it’s something you should do or need to do. Perhaps you are even doing it because someone else wants you to or has asked you to.
Doing it for someone else can cause what I call the see-saw, stop, and start effect. You start off motivated, and then you lose interest and stop. You see their disappointment, and then you start again.
If you haven’t personally connected to your “why,” your motivation will quickly fizzle out, and you will sabotage your attempts at success.
Knowing why you personally want the change and why it’s important to you here and now will fire you up. This is about connecting your desire for change to your values so you can emotionally connect to it.
You Walk the Path of Least Resistance
Clinical psychologist Dr. Soph focuses on making neuroscience simple and easily understood. She refers to walking the path of least resistance as “homeostasis,” which is keeping things the same.
It’s about staying within our comfort zone, where we feel safe and secure and where we can get by without using a lot of energy.
She explains: “When your brain is repeating a habit (the feeling of ‘running on autopilot’) it doesn’t need to use much energy because it doesn’t have to engage the prefrontal cortex.”
She likens this process to creating a new path in a field. It will always be easier to walk over a path that is already well-worn from use.
Starting a new path in a field of tall grass is much more uncomfortable and requires significantly more motivation and energy. Most will naturally choose the well-worn path.
It is the same with any change, and for those of us with a preference for sameness, it will feel hard to make those new connections.
This is probably where the rule of 21 days comes in, although 90 days may be more realistic if we’re talking about long-term, sustainable change. During those three months our unconscious mind keeps trying to revert us back to the old neural connections because it feels easier.
It’s kind of like a sled on the top of a snow slope. The track that the sled has used numerous times will be much deeper and solid. The sled is steady in that track. Wearing in a new track will take time, and the sled will try to veer back to the old one until the snow becomes bedded down.
Again, conscious awareness is key. Remind yourself that you are in the process of embedding the new neural connection. Be aware of when you try to revert back to the old track and steer yourself away again.
We Are Wired to Mirror Others
Another reason we might find behavior patterns change so hard is that we are naturally hard wired to imitate. This is because of a small circuit of cells in the brain called mirror neurons.
Neuroscientist Marco Lacoboni explains,
“The way mirror neurons likely let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to “simulate” the intentions and emotions associated with those actions.”
These neurons are ultimately key to socialization. In fact, these are the neurons that help us build our social skills. They are the exact same neurons that lead a baby to smile when we smile. This may help to explain why we often get in our own way.
While trying to fit in with a specific social group through imitation, our brains may lose focus on specific changes we want to make to be different.
If we have a closer circle of friends or loved ones who have habits that can derail our change, we are likely to revert back. That’s why if we attempt to give up smoking, and our partner still smokes, it can be really hard to stay committed.
The good news is that your negative behavior patterns and personality traits can be changed, but it is up to you. Below are some tips to help you get started with change.
How to Start to Make the Change You Want
1. Figure out What You Need to Change
If you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware of something you would like to change. That’s great! The first step toward change is acknowledging that you have something you need to change.
Look at the repeated problems in your life, the issues that seem to come up time and time again. Do you keep gravitating toward the wrong relationships, but you blame the people you are choosing, rather than looking at your problem in the selection process?
Do you jump from one job to another, yet blame co-workers and bosses, rather than look at what you may be doing to cause problems and dissatisfaction on the job?
We are creatures of habit, so look at the negative patterns in our life. Then, look inside to see what’s causing these repeated life problems to occur.
If you can’t figure it out on your own, consider going to a counselor for better understanding. Once you recognize the area that requires change, you can move to the next step.
2. Believe That Change Is Indeed Possible
There are people out there who believe that personality traits are unchangeable. When confronted with their problem, such as constant negativity, they lash back with “that’s just who I am.” It may be who you are, but does it need to be?
Change in personality traits and behavior patterns is possible. Nobody stays the same from one year to the next, let alone across a decade, so why not move change in the direction that is best for you?
Be proactive about the change you want in your life, including the belief that change can occur.
Look for success stories and people who have changed and done what you so deeply desire to do. Seeing that others have been where you have are and have accomplished the change you desire will help you in your process to accomplish that change.
3. List the Benefits of This Change
In order for people to change, they need to buy into the premise that the change is necessary for their betterment. For example, maybe your goal is to be more productive at work. There are many benefits that could come from this, including:
- Getting more done in a shorter amount of time.
- Having more time for your family.
- Getting a promotion
- Being liked and appreciated by your boss.
- Being part of the success of the company.
One of the best ways to help yourself stick to the commitment of change is to make a list of the benefits that the change will bring in your life. Make one list of the benefits for your life and another for your loved ones.
Recognizing the full spectrum of benefits, including how your change will affect those closest to you, will help you stick with the process of change.
When you have moments of weakness, or fail on a particular day or time, then getting back on track becomes easier when you review your list on a regular basis.
Posting your “benefits of change” list somewhere where you see it often, such as a bathroom mirror, will help you be reminded of why you are doing what you are doing.
4. Make a Real Commitment to Change
Make a commitment to the time frame needed for the change to happen. If you want to lose 50 lbs., then set out a realistic plan of a few pounds per week and a timeline that reflects those goals.
It will take you a lot longer than a month, but setting realistic goals will help you stick to your commitment. Change happens one day at a time. It is not immediate, but over the course of time because of your dedication and commitment to the process.
It also helps if you make your goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.
An example of this would be a person who wants to become an active runner so they can tackle a half marathon. The first step would be to research what other people have done for training plans to achieve this goal.
Runners World lays out specifics for a beginner to train for a half marathon:
“Target the Long Run: Every other week, increase your long run by 1.5 miles until you’re run/walking 13 to 14 miles.
On alternate weeks, keep your long run to no longer than three miles. Your longest long run should fall two weeks before your half-marathon. Plan to take about 15 weeks to prepare for the big day.”
These kinds of specificities will help you create a personalized plan that is achievable and time-bound.
You can learn more about writing SMART goals here.
5. Create a Plan of Attack
You need a set of steps outlined to succeed. This is why 12-step programs are so successful. You can’t simply walk into a meeting and be cured and changed. You need to mentally process the change in order for the change to be lasting and effective.
Create a plan for your change. Be realistic and investigate what other people have done to change.
For example, if you are dealing with anxiety and want to change that, then seek out therapy methods to address your problem. Stick with the therapy plan until your change process is complete. Simply hoping the anxiety will someday go away is not a plan.
6. Commit to Action
It is wonderful to set a goal for change and to write it down, but if you don’t act, then your mental commitment means nothing. There is no actual commitment unless action follows.
To best kick start our change, the key is to act now.
For example, if you committed to lose 50lbs, then now is the time to go join a gym, hire a trainer, and walk into a weight loss clinic to get support.
We can make up our mind to be determined to change, but if action does not follow soon thereafter, then you will likely fail.
If you wait until later that week, you will get caught up in doing your daily routine, things for works, taking care of others, or whatever it may be; there will be distractions that will derail you from taking action later. There is no better time to take action than when you make the decision to change.
For example, if you decide you want to finally write that book that is in your mind, but you don’t have a working laptop, then go and get a laptop today. Then, set aside an hour each day after work (and on your calendar) so that you can write.
Instead of going out with friends after work, you are committing to achieve this goal, and you have time set aside to make that goal happen.
7. Find a Support System
When people want to change, finding a support system is key. A great way to find support is through group therapy or support groups.
If you have a substance abuse issue, for example, you can find groups that specialize is supporting you through recovery and change.
If you prefer to find support in the comfort of your own home, then you can look for online support forums and Facebook groups that deal with whatever change you are looking to pursue.
Your ability to be successful in change is dependent on your ability to dive in; support systems help you with the initial dive and staying committed thereafter. and will help you stay committed to the process.
Don’t underestimate the power you have by partnering with others who are seeking the same change.
8. Get Uncomfortable
Change should be uncomfortable. You are entering new territory and stepping out of your comfort zone. Your mind and past habits will be resistant to the change, as it is uncomfortable and difficult.
If you give up because of the discomfort, then you are destined to fail in your pursuit of change. Embrace the discomfort associated with change and recognize that it puts you one step closer to accomplishing your goals.
9. Stick to the Plan
When people decide to change, sticking to it is difficult. If you get derailed from your plan, don’t berate yourself. Instead, allow yourself some margin of error and then get back on track.
You can’t expect to go on a diet without splurging sometimes. The key is “sometimes.” The sooner you get back on track, the more successful you will be in accomplishing your change goals.
Other researchers on the topic of change believe this process is about dedication and commitment to the change desired in our day to day lives, as Douglas LaBier from the Huffington Post so aptly stated:
“Change occurs from awareness of what aspects of our personality we want to develop, and working hard to “practice” them in daily life.”
10. Engage in Self-Reflection
Reflect on things that have derailed you in the past and problem solve them before they happen.
Jot down those things that tend to get you off track. Now, list ways to combat the derailments before they happen. For example, if you are wanting to lose weight but you work late hours, then commit to morning workouts.
If you know that in the past you would continually hit the snooze button and subsequently miss the workouts, then hire a trainer for early morning workouts. You are less likely to miss your workout if you have real money attached to it and someone counting on you to show up.
You could also schedule morning workouts with a friend, so you know there is someone showing up and you don’t want to let them down.
Brainstorm solutions for your past derailments so that this time around you are ready to stick to the plan and the commitment you have made to change.
11. Define Your Commitment
Commitment is a daily mental and physical plight when it comes to change. If your commitment is to lose weight, then be specific about how you are going to achieve your change. For example, you decide you are going to stick to 1,800 calories a day and a 1-hour workout every day.
Then, write those goals down and chart your daily progress. Hold yourself accountable.
Types of Therapy That Can Help You to Change
If you are wondering if can people change, you need to know the different types of therapy.
When choosing between any of these, consider your main goals and what you what to get out of them. If you are living with any mental health conditions such as substance use disorder or depression, you should also keep this in mind.
The major focus of this type of therapy is to eliminate your negative personality traits and replace them with positive ones. There are various techniques that are part of this approach.
One of the most popular ones is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This therapy centers on how thoughts affect your behaviors, feelings, and mental health. This way, you can easily identify negative thoughts and examine whether or not these are true.
Another type of behavioral therapy is called Dialectical Behavior Therapy. This psychotherapy focuses on the importance of mindfulness and teaching people how to come up with a healthy response to negative triggers such as thoughts and feelings.
This type of therapy aids people to develop the best version of themselves so they can reach their full potential. The major principle behind this therapy is human beings are good, and they are able to make the best decisions for themselves.
An example of Humanistic Therapy is Gestalt therapy, which encourages people to examine their present situation. It also involves techniques for medical purposes only such as reenactments, guided fantasy, and role-playing.
Another therapy is called Client-centered Therapy which aims to make people focus. Therefore, they can express themselves freely without fear of being judged.
The third example of Humanistic Therapy is Existential Therapy. This is based on the same philosophical approach, and it is driven by one’s unique meaning of life. The key purpose of this therapy is for professionals to give medical advice diagnosis or treatment, and guide you make rational choices to improve yourself.
Integrative therapy takes a more holistic approach when it comes to making yourself become better. It uses various techniques to give you a more comprehensive treatment. This is a great option for people with complex mental health disorders.
Can people change? Hopefully, by now, you believe that they can. If you have a sense of commitment and persistence, change is possible with any life experience.
Start small, create specific goals, and don’t wait to get started. You’ll be amazed how far change will take you.
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