How do I change my behaviour?

You’ve tried to change but it doesn’t work!

Have you ever made a New Year's resolution? Maybe the first week of January you were super motivated. You went to the gym, ate healthily and stopped drinking but by February (or maybe earlier), your enthusiasm started to wane. Or maybe you resolved to stop fighting with your partner but somehow you always seemed to end up arguing yet again despite your good intentions.

How did you react? Were you disappointed? Did you write yourself off as just another failure, someone who just can’t get things done or ‘doesn’t have what it takes’. Or maybe you resolved to try again, but find yourself stuck in a pattern of doing well, making a mistake, quitting and starting again?

There are many mental health issues that affect motivation and cause people to attempt to change their behaviour. It’s common for sufferers of depression to struggle with motivation and because depression can come as part of other conditions it can affect many people. Those who struggle with poor self esteem, including people from dysfunctional family backgrounds, people who have been in abusive relationships or who suffer with CPTSD or complex trauma can also fall under into the ‘I’m not good enough’ trap. Who’s going to feel good about themselves when their internal voice is a mix of that teacher who always put you down, your ex who was quite frankly emotionally abusive and that relative who always manages to make you feel about two inches tall?

Does it feel like you’ve tried everything?

People who experience mental health issues in one way or another have often struggled for years before they reach out for help. By the time people end up at my office, many have spent years trying to figure thing out alone (and sometimes decades). I speak to people who have set themselves targets they couldn’t meet, made long lists of all the things they should be doing (and aren’t) read numerous self help books, worked on their motivation and tried affirmations to help raise their self esteem. Most people have done these things alone and all of them are confused about where they’re going wrong. Sometimes these tactics help in the short term but sometimes they don’t help at all. These people may end up wondering what is going on and feeling like a failure, comparing themselves to people who always seem to do better than them and then ending up on a downward spiral.

So what’s going on? Why are some people finding it so easy to change while others feel like they’re wading through concrete? What’s the difference?

Changing behaviours is only part of the issue

What many of these goal setting approaches have in common, is their focus on changing behaviours. Eat better, do more exercise, be more positive, be more patient. What they miss out is that underlying these behaviours are the driving force behind them; emotions.

If we ignore the emotions we miss out on vital information we need to understand in order to change.

Paying more attention to our emotions can help

A lot of people find emotions tricky. We don’t get taught about them at school. There is an assumption that our emotional selves are fully formed as adults when for many people they are winging it. They carry the legacy of emotional lessons learned from school, family, friends, their culture or religion. Families who ‘don’t do’ emotions and sweep them under the carpet, people who feel like they must always be cheerful and positive and smile while they tell you their heartbreak, another person who just ‘doesn’t get angry’, people who replace their relationships with more work and another promotion.

These messages start young: ‘Don’t cry it’s not worth it’, ‘don’t worry it doesn’t matter’, ‘it’s not a big deal’. We build invalidating messages into our vocabulary without even noticing their effects on our emotional wellbeing or considering how deep they might reside in our unconscious.

But where do the emotions go? If I tell you to stop feeling sad, can you turn it off? Or might you try and distract yourself, talk yourself out of your sadness and feel guilty if you’re still sad when you clearly should be done by now and over it. Now instead of being sad, you’re sad and guilty. And you still don’t know what to do with your sadness. If you find it hard to cry, or find yourself apologising when you do you have already picked up unhelpful ideas and expectations about how sad you’re allowed to be.

Why emotions are important when changing your behaviour

Emotions are often the driving forces behind our behaviour. If your eating is driven by a sense of shame or not being good enough, you might struggle to make good choices when this feeling is triggered. If you are angry with your partner, your resentment might spill over into seemingly harmless discussions about the washing up or taking the bins out. Our emotions are not neatly contained or easy to control as we might like them to be, and when we ignore them or squash them down, they pop up in unexpected places like unwanted moles on a garden lawn.

We often need to pay more attention to our emotions not less! And this can be problematic, if you have hang ups about being seen as melodramatic, over emotional, unmanly, erratic, unstable, crazy or any of the other judgemental words you might associate with having ‘too many feelings’ or ‘being too much’. Education and workplaces focus on intelligence over emotional intelligence but our emotional intelligence affects everything we do and accompanies us everywhere, seeping into all aspects of our lives. It colours our communication, our self talk, our decisions and our behaviour whether we like it or not, whether it’s convenient or not.

Acknowledging emotions and trying different behaviours

The answer then, is to learn to recognise our emotions, to tolerate them and express them so that others can understand and relate to us. Our emotions provide information about what’s important to us, it can provide us with energy to change or invite others to empathise and comfort us. That’s not to say that we need to get stuck in our emotions; there’s a fine line between feeling our emotions and becoming so stuck in them that we never get to do things differently, but pretending they aren’t important leaves out an important part of the puzzle. There should be a balance between our thinking and behaviour and our emotions so that we can move between the two, gathering information as we go so we know what’s going on.

When we learn to work with and accept our emotions as part of us instead of sorting them into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, or ‘allowed’ and ‘forbidden’ we allow for more depth and connection with ourselves and others. It’s important to consider both our thinking and feeling when working on changing unwanted behaviours to avoid getting stuck in an endless loop of self judgment. And if telling yourself you did a terrible job was an effective motivational strategy, chances are it would already have worked for you by now.

Want to find out more about how I can help? Contact me for a free 20 minute phone consultation to discuss your requirements

Sarah Lee