By Amanda Deverich Huffpost
Some say change is hard. Quitting smoking, dieting, exercising and even flossing regularly are health-habit changes that can be hard to make. Learned helplessness studies show the reason people do not succeed is that they attempt change in ways they think should work, but don’t. Logic tells people facts and fear should inspire and motivate people to change. Sometimes this is true, however, motivation is often lost due to the fundamental belief that it won’t really work this time because it never has in the past.
Information alone is not enough to change behavior. Sometimes people do act on the knowledge they have and others do not. There is a word for the illogical failure to act upon knowledge: akrasia. Akrasia is a Greek term for knowing we should do one thing, yet we do another. I know if I eat that extra slice of pizza I will not lose the weight I would like to lose. Knowing this fact and knowing I should act in accordance is not enough for me to choose not to overeat. Relying on information alone to spark change is insufficient for many people.
Fear of consequences is not a perfect motivator. There is a true saying that nothing happens until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change. The consequences of not changing gets some people to change, but not all. Some people remain unchanging in painful situations. They are frozen in fear. They deflect the anxiety of the problem by ignoring, minimizing or making fun of it. “I’ll go out in a massive heart attack rather than spend years doing crunches and eating cardboard food!” People are well aware that the ultimate risk of smoking or not losing weight is death. Yet, the fear of death is too overwhelming to act upon. Some people internally panic and go into flight-or-freeze mode. They must make death a remote possibility. People thwart change by suppressing anxiety which would otherwise move them to act.
Finally, some people do not change because they are resigned. They believe they are doomed. No matter what efforts they make, they believe they will not be able to change. They suffer from learned helplessness, a condition where they believe they have tried everything and that nothing will work, even if they do try. This is a false belief. To alleviate the frustration, they disown their true desire to better themselves and as a result become depressed, angry, or outright self-destructive. Sadly, many medical professionals also believe people will not change. Too many times they have seen patients fail to make the effort to instill new health habits. They, too, can lose faith and hope in their clients. Medical professionals ethically dispense the tools and advice with little confidence it will actually be used and applied.
Information, fear of death and feigned hope cannot inspire people to change. There is a way to overcome the akrasia, the frozen overwhelm and the learned helplessness. The catalysts for growth are relationship, hope and ongoing repetition of doing what works.
Relationships can be found in groups or with individuals. Being part of a group has powerful benefits. A group provides a behavioral standard and support. Groups have a culture and a spirit that helps shape its members. In its positive form, this culture can help people make changes by offering support, expectation, encouragement and accountability. Formal healthy-habit groups may be focused on weight loss, exercise, quitting smoking, recovery or other lifestyle change effort. Informal groups such as friends, family, school, work or church can also be very effective. The key is that there is a positive culture of sustained change. If you want to be a non-smoker, hang around non-smokers. If you want to be a runner, hang around runners. We need our small wins validated and celebrated — even if it is in a quiet way. We need someone to actually care that we did not go to the gym that day and who knows how to listen, encourage and believe we will get back in the swing and go tomorrow. Individuals can also be powerful change motivators and sustainers. Finding a guru to lead you is a good idea. A guru is someone with knowledge and charisma. A guru exudes confidence in their methods and that the method can work for you. This can be a fitness guru, a spiritual guru, a parent or friend or an accountability partner.
Groups and gurus can instill hope. They are living models that change can be made and they care about you. When we rely solely on ourselves and our long-standing history of bad health habits, we have no framework, no evidence to believe change is possible. We must chose relationships with others that offer hope. If some of the very medical professionals who are supposed to be able to help us are hopeless that we will change, why should we try? After all, they know more than we. We need someone who evangelizes. We need someone that can lead us on the path that will pay off if only we keep trying. Hope is a powerful motivator. Hope gives energy to try again, to believe that what we are doing actually is going to make a difference in our life.
Hope is sustained with results. Results come from a method that works. When you suffer from learned helplessness, believing you have tried everything, you need someone to show you what you haven’t tried. You have a false belief that no matter what you try it will not work. If your current method does not work, get another method. There are many ways to diet and exercise that work. The trick is to pick one that gets results, that has a culture, group or guru and to keep applying the method. Make a plan and measure progress. Do not be dissuaded by small steps forward followed by failure. Examine and identify where you may have went wrong. Reapply. Get more information. Repetition is important. Repetition not only instills the method, but moves you closer to results. It also compensates for the days you lose hope or fall off the regimen. If you plan to floss every day and only floss to five days, you are far better off than zero. You have begun to change your habit. Repeat your process the next week, stick with it using accountability and family support. Your wife, dentist and self will love you for it! Over time, a new habit will take root.
Change is a process, not a moment of transfiguration. At first, change takes focused attention to become a habit. Be purposeful, get relational support, identify methods that work and continually apply the strategies. Once a habit is formed, it will give the budding change momentum and add a helpful inertia that makes it easier and easier to maintain the change. Soon then, the change will take root, transforming into a healthier, new you.