Mindfulness & Behavior Change

A friend of mine, who is a lecturer at an MSW program, asked me to give a talk in her graduate class on behavior change. Specifically, what makes change so difficult and what it takes to make change happen. I responded: If I knew the answer to that, then I wouldn’t be working anymore!

While I do not have the magic pill to make all your behavior changes happen overnight, I believe there are some essential qualities/attitudes that you need to start on the road to change.

First and foremost, is Mindfulness. I don’t mean meditation, although that is very helpful in practicing Mindfulness. I mean Mindfulness in its most basic definition: 

“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” 

So Mindfulness is the moment to moment awareness of what is occurring right now. This includes our thoughts, what’s going on in our bodies, our emotions and even our impulses towards habitual behaviors. 

The reason we need Mindfulness is because if you don’t know what you’re doing or thinking, and experiencing emotionally at any given moment, how can you find the opportunity to change? That moment to choose something else or to respond differently has long passed by the time you realize that you wanted to do something other than react in the same ways that have outgrown their usefulness to you.

The second quality is Self-Compassion, because making changes is hard! Self-Compassion allows us to understand that the difficulty of change is a universal human experience and reminds us to give ourselves grace when our efforts seem unsuccessful. It is also there to help us keep trying, because the only way to change something, is to actually do it. Wanting doesn’t create change, action does. If we don’t allow ourselves the ability to make mistakes without deep shame and self-flagellation then we are unlikely to keep trying. And for a new behavior to take root, we need to keep trying. You have to do it.

And finally, you will need a reasonable willingness to go inwards and to take a different perspective. To plumb the depths of your interior to see where the roots of your behavior comes from. Sometimes your behaviors come from a script that you tell yourself. Sometimes your behaviors come from your learned responses to a certain emotion or thought. Ultimately, a large part of your (now maladaptive) behaviors developed as a coping mechanism or as a protective behavior. They’ve done a great job at getting you to this point, but now you are noticing that they no longer help you. 

While it all seems quite daunting, over time and with consistent reinforcement, you’d eventually see that it works. Sometimes the changes are so subtle that you don’t even notice. But if you take time to reflect, you can see that what you once thought was impossible, is now the way you live. In my practice, this is where we start on the road to making changes.

Gift Chowchuvech, LMSW