Sue Nally on the Secret of Change

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

Are you always working on something? Striving to improve yourself? Do you frequently experience waves of anxiety, whispering to you that you aren’t working hard enough?

It starts as a small and irritating mood, a little voice reminding you that you’re not eating right, you’re not exercising; that all the incomplete projects in the basement sit waiting and unfinished. You question yourself—why haven’t you been able to save more money this year? Is it already time to clean the garage again? Now work is pushing me to get another physical! My car, wow, it should be way cleaner. I need more intentional time with my kids. Why do I always feel so impatient? When was the last time I went on a date night with my spouse? Did we forget to winterize the lawn mower? Did I really have to yell at the dog for that?

Are you tired of trying, and trying and trying, in some way, to change your habits or behavior or attitude for the better? There’s an endless supply of self-help materials on changing bad habits and on improving personal effectiveness; I knew that like everyone else. But I got lost in the endless litany of arrogant psychologists who babble on and on about wasted “life energy.” It all reads like another big gulp of bitter drive-thru guilt. Expensive, boxed, shrink-wrapped, shiny, but guilt-ridden all the same.

Guilt is not an effective motivator. When I realize this, it’s because I’ve thought about the quote from Socrates above. When I think about changing myself, it resonates with me. Generally, I begin to wish for change when something from past choices haunts me in my current situation. This latent pain, when it fully hits someone, jerks them into uncomfortable awareness—let the guilt begin!

Pain can be emotional, physical, or mental—nevertheless, it hurts, and because of that, it can sharpen our sincere desires for change. But is it a good motivator for change? Pain usually causes me to start listing everything that brought me to the unhappy place I am, and a mountain of negative self-lecture dumps on my head. No one can lecture me more harshly than I lecture myself. I know best what my bad habits look like.

Guilt is a good thing, right? Isn’t that why we all make New Year’s Resolutions? No. Using negative emotions to spur on self-improvement and self-discipline rarely ends well. How many of you have already given up on a 2016 resolution? Try and try again, right? Wrong. This is where negative motivation goes seriously wrong. While guilt is fresh, so is our commitment—but once we get over the moment’s pain, we lose our motivation, in the same way that even the blackest bruise only hurts when pressed. When things get tough, we revert back to old habits—the standard modus operandi.

Old habits die hard. Without fail, we keep thinking about what we don’t want to be, while trying to start a new journey to become what we do want to be. These diverging thoughts don’t allow us to release old, bad habits. Habits, after all, help us; subconsciously, we hold onto them, even save them for times of extreme trial. The part of our identity that disappoints us is temporarily hushed, but not removed. Repeatedly focusing on the negative causes us to victimize, to look around for people to blame, even to turn on ourselves and think ugly thoughts—these are mental habits, like any others, and they prevent proactive and positive growth.

I think Socrates had it right: focus on building the new in place of the old. Instead of fighting the old you—hating the old habits, loathing the diet, cheating on the budget—figure out what the new you will look like. What does it truly want? What will it feel like? What will it bring you? How, overall, will it feel? Then, act accordingly. Make choices that are in line with where you are heading.

Start small, self-reward, and self-encourage. Don’t come from the negative perspective of NO and self-deprivation—no chocolate, no spending, no couch potato time. Instead, frame it as YES—yes to nutritious food that stops disease, yes to financial security, yes to more exercise because it’s fun, yes to family time because it will mean something for your children.

How to build better habits that replace the old? This is a secret worth telling.

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