- Change is often slower than we like
- Mistakes do not mean you’re broken
- Our brains take time to re-wire
- It helps to practice self-compassion
“Damn, I did it again.”
Ugh. Behavior change is hard. It can be so frustrating when we catch ourselves doing the old thing when we desperately want to be doing a new thing. Often we are painfully conscious of our patterns, watching them play out like a movie we have seen a thousand times before. It might be something mundane like compulsively checking your phone, or something complex like the way you express emotional reactivity in a relationship.
This painful awareness is a normal part of the process of change. This article explains the six Stages of Change, a widely accepted model (by Prochaska and DiClemente) for how we all move through habit change. In this model, “action” is the FOURTH stage. And when we finally do decide to take action, it’s not a one-and-done decision. Inevitably, we screw something up, and that’s often when we give up. The thoughts like, “I should know better,” “I am such an idiot,” or some other self-abusing tirade come pouring in, and we don’t challenge them. We take the misstep as evidence that we are not capable of lasting change, and that belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So what do we do? Well, I’m not here to say you should “just think positive,” or that you need to “manifest” your change. Sure, it helps to have a little faith in yourself, and to challenge your automatic negative thoughts. But it’s just not that simple. We also have to be patient. Because change is sometimes So. Damn. Slow.
Let me tell you a little story about slow change.
My wife and I used to keep all our socks in one big dresser drawer, as we had for years. (One of the underrated perks of a same-gender relationship is the sharing and commingling of the socks.) Over time, the size of our sock collection grew to fit the size of its container. And for two people who live in San Diego and wear flip flops 70% of the year, there was simply no justification for a sock collection that took up 1/6th of our dresser drawer real estate. So we sorted and donated, and cut our collection in half. We relocated the remainders to a bin in our closet, and the big drawer was freed up to hold my wife’s assortment of black guitar-related t-shirts. All of this was based on a mutual decision that we both felt made sense, and it seemed easy enough.
So why am I telling you this boring story about my lesbian sock-hoarding situation?
Because it then took me at least SIX WEEKS to head to the sock bin in the closet without first opening that dresser drawer. And I know I said we wear flip flops most of the time, but it must have been winter, because I went to the old spot at least two or three dozen times. Does this make me a brainless failure, a broken person, or incapable of change?
Of course not. It was simply my brain acting out of habit. My sock-finding neurons all pointed to that stupid drawer. In order to automatically go to the closet, I had to forge a new neural pathway, and that takes time. Neuroscientists call this “self-directed neuroplasticity,” which is a fancy way of saying we are consciously working on rewiring our brains. (Read more here about neuroplasticity and the science of habit.)
How did I handle this? Well, I did not give up, and I did not attach a value judgment to my mistakes. I did not evict my wife’s t-shirt collection because I had accidentally opened that drawer 30+ times. Each time, I noticed what I did, I reminded myself of the change, and redirected. I didn’t beat myself up, and I didn’t tell myself I’ll never get it. Was I mildly annoyed with my brain? Sure. But I also knew it was just a matter of time before the new brain habit was in place. How much time? I didn’t know. But I felt confident that I wasn’t going to be opening that drawer in a year or two.
Do you see where I am going with this?
In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg wrote, “Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” Change is slow; it is a mess that we gradually clean up over time.
I know the changes you’re trying to make carry far more importance than sock storage. You may want to journal more, eat more vegetables, quit smoking, or show your partner more appreciation. And even when you’re 100% in that action stage of change, you WILL screw up. In this way, we humans are all alike. None of us get to be the one perfect unicorn. No one gets to fast-forward through the change process. You are not sinful, broken, or bad when you have a setback or slip up. You are just being a person. And you are capable of change. It just goes slower than we like. Religious indoctrination or family narratives may have you feeling like your mistakes mean something is inherently wrong with you, or that you’re unworthy of love. But all those mistakes just mean that you are a human being like the rest of us.
So, I hope you will be kind to yourself when you’re practicing a change. Think of yourself like a toddler learning to walk, or a music student learning to play the cello for the first time. You’re probably going to suck at first, but you will get it eventually. You will have good days and bad days. Expect mistakes, and practice patience. Decide ahead of time how you will kindly talk yourself through your missteps.
And not to get too meta, but please be kind to yourself when you forget to be kind to yourself. Because self-compassion takes practice too.
Want to learn more about developing this kind of self-compassion? Are you struggling with “original sin” mentality or feeling like you’re never good enough? Let’s talk.