At the start of a new year so many of us are full of good intentions: to spend more time outdoors, relaxing or kick-starting that running regime; to cook more plant-based healthy meals that include a rainbow of colours, or de-cluttering our clothes collection to reveal the capsule wardrobe that lies within… The theme of change is one that is familiar through my work as a therapist – helping people, once they’ve identified unhelpful patterns in their life, and seeing a path forwards, to know how to make positive changes that really stick.
The key is to break change down into manageable, bite-sized chunks: think of a huge, juicy steak, sat alone on a plate before you. Although you might enjoy this dish, if you were told to eat the whole thing, and were forced to eat it as fast as possible, you would baulk at the notion of ever digesting the huge chunks you’re probably trying to carve it into. Your body would respond by rejecting the meal. However – serve it with other enticing accompaniments – crispy fries, a bright side salad and a good, sharp knife, a relaxing atmosphere and a glass of wine and bite by bite, the meal could be savoured, slowly digested and the nutrients efficiently utilised by your body.
This metaphor helps us to understand that if we try to ‘force-feed’ any kind of new practice, way of thinking or behaving, it’s probably not going to stick. We need to be both creative and kind. As if we are a good friend to ourselves. Notice how you talk to yourself about your new intention. Beating ourselves up is punitive, and only makes us dwell on our fears, failures and unhelpful, negative self-beliefs – or ‘scripts’. Talking to ourselves about how we might make our new challenges attainable, in a kind, supportive way, then making a point of rewarding ourselves at each milestone is far more likely to motivate us to want to continue.
Consider losing weight. Diets are all about restriction and denial. This makes us miserable so, even if we do lose weight in the short-term, a longer-term regime of restricted eating can’t be sustained and we are back to old habits before we know it (yet another reason to beat ourselves up again!). Focusing instead on encouraging ourselves in a kind, supportive way by thinking about what we can eat, and trying to explore small ways in which we can start to make changes that feel more doable has a much higher chance of success. Feeling that we have succeeded provides a rush of feel-good chemicals that inspires us to want to keep going forwards.
Think about the rungs of a tall ladder, leant against a high wall. You want to reach your goals on the other side but there’s a long way to go. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by seeing the whole picture, try to focus on one rung at a time; what could I do to climb just one step up that ladder? Many people do not realise that they have already made small changes, because it’s become a familiar pattern to dwell on the negatives. Those voices may have been the dominant ones inside our heads, so it can be helpful to try to cultivate a new, kinder voice of grown-up, logical reason – that has your best interests at heart, and is ready to argue back with what you have done.
You might have got as far as making a list of new recipes you want to try. Consider that step one on the ladder. What could move you to the next step? Asking a friend to join in the challenge with you? Finding someone who might want to start a new class or go running with you? Encourage this new voice to be creative – and try writing your intentions down. Capturing thoughts and plans on the page in black and white adds weight and permanence to your intention.
Keeping lists of our successes, daily things that bring joy, no matter how small, and new ideas all contribute towards filling our head-space with positivity and motivation to keep going rather than allowing our negative inner-critics to hold court. One rung at a time, you can climb upwards, until eventually you will find that the new changes are sticking – because they are realistic and you are encouraging and supporting yourself – you have reached the other side of the wall and incorporated some lasting changes to your life.