It’s the beginning of July, and you may be wondering where all of those New Year’s resolutions went. You thought that you really meant it when you vowed to never again eat an entire chocolate cake at one sitting, drunk-dial your ex at 2 a.m., or fall behind on your credit card payments. Yet here you are, repeating the same behaviors that got you into trouble time and time again.
And what’s more, you devote hours a day to bemoaning your lack of progress, instead of developing and practicing wiser options. Why do you remain stuck in behaviors, obsessions, and self-condemnations that do not benefit you?
The reasons vary from person to person, but one aspect common to just about everyone is that initially change takes more effort, emotionally, mentally, and physically than does repeating familiar habits.
Our brains develop neural pathways that strengthen each time we repeat a specific action or thought. It’s simply easier (in the short run) to travel down that same pathway again. In order to initiate change, in effect we have to forge an entirely new path, fighting our way through the proverbial brush and rocky terrain.
Is it any wonder that we often revert back to old behaviors, even if doing so entails pain? At least we “know how the pain goes”. It’s almost as if we fall into a trance. Once we decide to dive into that chocolate cake, we can predict how it will taste, how it will smell, and how we will feel – it’s a ritual. No surprises there. Same with contacting an ex. Even before you pick up your phone, the anticipation of hearing their voice or just seeing their name in your phone’s Contacts list sets off a familiar cascade of hormones and feelings (the good, bad, and the ugly).
With rituals such as these, we can almost go on automatic pilot, taking our hands off the wheel, which (as in the case of self-driving cars) requires less work on our part than actually steering ourselves – but the latter choice gives us a lot more autonomy and room for creativity and growth.
We may also find change in a specific area to be difficult if we blame other difficulties in life on the problem.
Addiction recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous suggest that members introduce themselves with, “I’m Cindy, and I’m an alcoholic”, the premise being that identifying as such will strengthen the common bond that members share with one another. Doing so can also help remind people that they are not alone and also cultivate humility.
All of these are worthwhile goals, and 12-Step programs can provide powerful tools to address not only addiction problems but also relationship and general life issues. However, at times people can use the label of “alcoholic” (or addict, compulsive overeater, etc.) to rationalize behavior in other areas of their lives. For example, someone might excuse their quick temper by saying, “I have a short fuse because I’m an alcoholic”, or stating, “I’m overly emotional because I’m a compulsive overeater”. In this way, for some people, an active addiction can become an excuse to continue other problematic behaviors, rather than working on anger management or emotion regulation.
A more constructive and accurate statement might be, “I drank too much because I have trouble controlling my temper”, or “I binged on a bag of cookies because my fear of being abandoned overwhelmed me”. Going this route would involve taking responsibility for one’s actions, getting some help with the personal tendencies or situations that contribute to the addictive behavior, and, if truly working a 12-Step program or alternative type of recovery, making the appropriate amends.
In other words, making a decision to address and manage the alcohol problem might involve uncovering and addressing other issues, which can be scary. Some of us might choose not to open up Pandora’s box. We may find that after letting go of the alcohol we still struggle with depression or anxiety, are unhappy in our marriage, or hate our job – and we can no longer blame this on alcoholism. However, the good news is that we can then take steps to address these situations, and the chances are that we’re in a better position to do so than when we were struggling with alcoholism.
Making changes can also evoke fear if we base a lot of our identity on the problem.
For example, if we’ve had trouble with alcohol, we may have reached the point where getting our hands on it, being drunk, being hungover, or dealing with other undesirable aftermath of drinking consumes most of our time and energy.
Consequently, we may have wandered away from other things that once made life fulfilling. We may have neglected or destroyed personal relationships, burned bridges in our chosen career, or developed health problems related to our drinking.
So, moderating our drinking (or quitting it altogether) may entail not only our getting the appropriate help for the alcohol issue but also getting a handle on who we actually are without it – and we may have only a very vague idea of who that person is.
Who will you uncover when you take away the alcohol, drugs, food, compulsive shopping, or other behaviors which you had been using in attempts to alter or erase your feelings?
Learning who we really are, rather than who society, our parents, friends, or colleagues expect us to be, is a crucial component of emotional maturity and a fulfilling life. We will always be discovering new things about ourselves, and this knowledge is gained through trying out a lot of roles, not all of which will fit us well. So, developing a stronger sense of self is a matter of experimentation.
However, since we all want a sense of identity, if we’re confused, sometimes any sort of identity will do. Herein lies the danger.
We may create statements about ourselves that are limiting, such as:
“I’m a quitter.”
“I can never make up my mind.”
“I always mess up relationships.”
What self-limiting statements do you use to describe yourself? Or what statements have other people made about you, that you’ve begun to believe? How do you know for a fact that these statements are true? Who would you be without them? Try to imagine how your present and future life would be without them. If you’ve bought into these beliefs for a long time, you may struggle to visualize a different sort of scenario.
Some ideas for managing your fear of change:
Learn to detach from your thoughts. Rather than thinking, “I’d fall apart if I didn’t drink a bottle of wine a night”, try “I’m having the thought that I’d fall apart if…” Or, rather than thinking, “I can’t decide,” substitute, “I’m having the thought that I can’t decide…” By doing so, you learn that you are not your thoughts, and that your thoughts don’t have to determine your behavior nor your future. Observe your thoughts as if they were leaves floating down a stream (a popular mindfulness exercises), but don’t believe that they are necessarily true.
Notice when the problem is not a problem. In what instances have you been able to manage or even thrive? When have you been anxious and had the urge to avoid someone, but you held an important conversation with them anyway? When have you wanted to raid the frig instead of accepting your feelings of sadness and loneliness, but you chose nutritious food, ate moderately, and called a friend for help? Accumulate a list of examples when you have escaped the problem’s perceived stranglehold on you.
For every minute that you spend thinking or talking about the problem, try spending at least two minutes thinking or talking about potential solutions.
Spend time imagining your life free from the problem. What could you do that you believe you cannot currently do? To what would you devote your time and energy? How might your friends and family notice that you’ve changed? What would be your priorities?
If the answers to these questions don’t come readily, don’t be discouraged, as the responses may take awhile for you to formulate. The point is to practice opening your mind to alternate ways of being. You might keep in mind respected friends, colleagues, or members of your community or in the news for inspiration. Start sketching that image of your preferred character and life, knowing that you can modify these as you move forward.