“I want to lose 10 pounds.” “I’d like to have the endurance to play basketball with my grandkids.” “I’d like to stop working 60 hours a week.” “I’d like to be able to run a 5k someday.” “I’d like to have the courage to speak up for myself.” “I want to be healthy and strong for my upcoming surgery.” “I’d like to feel my boundaries are respected.”
These are just a few of the desired outcomes stated by clients who were ready to invest in changing habitual, self defeating behaviors. What did they do differently than many of us? They acknowledged their feelings of dissatisfaction with their current state, asked for help, found their reasons and motivation for wanting the change, and committed to doing the hard work that would bring them lasting success.
A study by physician-researchers J. Michael McGinnis and William Foege, indicates that tobacco and alcohol use, and exercise and diet patterns, account for more than one third of all American deaths, typically by triggering the onset of terminal illnesses such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. So while obituaries report only the illnesses, the cancers or heart attacks as the causes of death, people are “behaving themselves to death” by choosing behaviors that put them at risk for premature death.
This research and others like it have prompted Edward L. Deci and Richard Flaste, authors of “Why We Do What We Do” to dig deeper into the understanding of self-motivation and behavior change.
Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are the driving forces behind change and the direction in which we sway decides our success in changing, or not. Intrinsic motivation is when the decision is yours and meets your values and needs. Extrinsic motivation is a reason outside of yourself; you don’t want your girlfriend to leave, or you want a discount on your health insurance, for instance.
There are many reasons we may have adopted maladaptive coping strategies (behaviors), the first step in making intrinsically motivated change is having an awareness of the coping strategy and the uncomfortable feelings it hopes to relieve us from. These behavioral coping strategies might be; abusing alcohol, smoking, overeating, under eating, lack of exercise, overtraining, emotional outbursts, withdrawal, etc.
If drinking alcohol dampens your feelings of loneliness, eating makes being at a party tolerable, or lashing out allows you to avoid fears of rejection, the only way through the maladaptive coping strategy is to sit in those feelings of loneliness, nervousness, and fear; we have to reach the point where we are willing to allow feeling whatever the behaviors are blocking for change to be possible.
When we’re ready to accept responsibility for the behaviors that are directly related to our wellbeing, the returns are enormous! This begins by taking a genuine interest in your own motivation; asking yourself what and why you want to change. The choice to change the behavior (or not) has to be salient and must belong to you. This means exploring the benefits you hope to get from making the change, as well as the benefits you get from continuing the behavior.
Sometimes, the behavior is to mask a threat to our ego. Being ego involved is contingent upon an outcome, such as being seen as powerful, intelligent or attractive. We become highly rigid and controlling in order to convince ourselves that we appear intelligent, powerful, or attractive to others. And when we’re ego involved, we also become easily threatened by others.
Ego involvement makes us pawns to our emotions, which leads to an inability to manage our behavior. If one needs to be seen a successful in order to feel worthy, then not receiving wanted adoration may be perceived as a threat. And what do we do when we feel threatened? The behavior that dulls the feeling; eating, drinking, lashing out at others, etc. Of course, the threat is only our perception of the interaction, and the choice to engage in behaviors to dull the feeling is also ours; as are the consequences of engaging in the behaviors.
Becoming emotionally and behaviorally autonomous involves developing integrated skills for managing behavior when emotions have been activated. In contrast, when our behavior is controlled by our lack of emotional management, we behave rigidly and programmed when particular emotions are experienced. The self destructive behaviors will continue to control you until you take an interest in the motivation behind your actions and make a deliberate, informed choice to continue doing the behavior or not.
When you’re really ready to change, for your own personal reasons and you’re willing to face the myriad of feelings that occur in life (anxiety, inadequacy, disappointment, loneliness, sadness, fear, etc.), there are various support strategies that may be helpful. However, you must have true resolve, with reasons that are personally important, otherwise there is no technique or strategy (diet, machine, pill, powder, patch, therapy, drink, or relationship) that will bring successful, lasting change.
Meaningful change occurs when we accept ourselves, take an interest in why we do the things we do, decide we are ready to do things differently, and commit to our vision of who we want to be.
What changes are you ready to make?
In a recent assignment, I was asked to answer this question; “How does your intention, motivation, or purpose energize your brain’s ability to focus, learn, and create.” The question came after learning about how the mind organizes information (or doesn’t so much organize) so that we can go about our lives doing the things we want to and meeting our expectations for completion, timing, accuracy, outcome, etc.
In addition, we were introduced to exciting new research on mental and emotional states. Using brain scans, researchers are locating the parts of the brain responsible for our many emotional and mental characteristics. We are on the cutting edge of understanding more deeply what brain areas are active during states such as self evaluation, collaborating with others, building rapport, and open awareness. The potential for utilizing this information is mind bending!
Before telling you how I answered the question above, I’ll share with you some practical tools you can use during those moments when your anxiety spikes because you feel as though you’re being pulled in too many directions. Here’s a synopsis:
Tame your out of control emotions. When you're reacting emotionally, whether it be anxiety, sadness or anger, the emotional centers of the brain (amygdala) are in overdrive and this can interfere with more complex organization (like attention and focus). Conversely, as the emotional amygdala has the potential to undermine the rational prefrontal cortex (PFC), the rational PFC has the ability to distract and calm the emotional amygdala. This is done through naming the emotion(s) that are encroaching on your sanity and then reappraising the situation with the PFC. The task of stepping back and cognitively reinterpreting the situation activates the prefrontal cortex which can then assuage the amygdala. We have these two parts of the brain for a reason, it’s always best to meet in the middle, to not be lead by either one independently.
Sustain attention. The prefrontal cortex is the control node for attention, which probably isn’t surprising given its ability to tame our emotional outbursts. It helps us sustain attention over a long period of time, plan what to do with the information it’s receiving, and block out irrelevant stimuli. How can you leverage the abilities of the prefrontal cortex to be more organized? Being in the present moment is a paramount, also known as mindfulness. If you’re reading this blog, are you processing the words or is your mind wondering? While writing this blog, how successful and timely would I be if I were thinking about the run I want to go on when I finish?
STOP. This acronym stand for; Step back, Think, Organize your thoughts, then Proceed. It means applying inhibitory control or restraining and regulating your attention. Our ability to resist the competing demands of our lives, to regulate our responses, and to delay gratification are yet more building blocks of success and organization.
When we succumb to our impulses, we’re allowing our emotions to respond unchecked and drive our behavior without stopping to think about our options and make a thoughtful choice. Those with a lower ability level to STOP will succumb more often to impulses, making unhealthy choices like eating too many cookies, getting sidetracked by phone calls and texts, and lashing out angrily. The key here, again, is to use your thinking brain and your emotional brain together.
Leverage your working memory. Your attentional and memory brain networks are working closely together to produce the remarkable and valuable skill of working memory. Working memory is what allows you to access information that is no longer right in front of you so that you can create and work with it. Improving your working memory requires a number of considerations, things such as:
Shifting gears. This is the ability to be flexible in your thoughts and behaviors. In order to be organized, you must be able to effectively and efficiently shift your focus from one object, action, or situation, to another. This is not “multitasking,” which is one of the biggest culprits of late, incomplete, and low quality projects. This is STOPPING and using working memory to shift attention intentionally when needed. While this skill comes easier to some than others, two tips to practice when necessity calls for you to change direction are:
While writing this blog I’ve stayed aware of when my mind wondered (and I brought it back to the task at hand) and when I needed to get up, move around, and eat something (which did help me come back and organize my thoughts). I’m fascinated by the brain potential in taking information I’ve learned through reading (Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life; Hammerness & Moore) and classes and applying it in daily life. I’m also fascinated by the potential to activate certain parts of the brain, much like we do in strength training, to access and leverage things like mindfulness or patience when we’re overstimulated by stress.
So back to the original question above that I’m to answer: My purpose is to have a positive impact on those around me. My motivation and intention is seeing confidence and pride in others. I focus because I love the content (current curriculum) and I see potential in everyone. And I learn and create because I focus.
How does your intention, motivation, or purpose energize your brain’s ability to focus, learn, and create?
I walked out of the safety of the locker room and onto the pool deck and thought to myself: “What was I thinking?!”
That was ten years ago when I had a lofty dream to race in a sport called triathlon. I had been a recreational runner and biker for twenty years and most recently had become adept at pushing and pulling my three young boys on my daily workouts (actually, workouts were more like unpredictable adventures when I was graced with their presence). The only missing piece was swimming as I did not grow up practicing any sort of swim stroke. Swimming for me was really just lying on a floating air mattress getting a tan.
When I walked out of the locker room, I knew only one person on the masters swim club I had joined in hopes of bringing clarity to my very fuzzy triathlon dream. I love the smell of pools and the heat and humidity of the room they posses. I love the beauty, color and warmth of the water. This time, it was fear, excitement, insecurity, and determination that I carried with me as I walked along side the water searching out the one familiar face to connect with.
The pool had 8 lanes and was 25 yards in length. It looked mammoth to me! I quickly learned that the one person I knew was one of the top dogs of this club, and I was not. He introduced me to who would become instrumental in my success, my first swim coach. In this coach I immediately placed all of my vulnerabilities. He returned them with warmth, patience, empathy, listening, and guidance. He explained his role and the workouts he provided on each of the four days per week the club met. He explained that there are skill expectations and etiquette to determine in which lanes we were each to swim. For instance, the former “swimmers” (those who swam in high school and college) swam in the upper lanes (6-8), and everyone else fell into the lower lanes, whether or not they were talented swimmers. I also quickly learned that there was arrogance and entitlement amongst the “swimmers” and they protected their lanes. Certain “swimmers” let me know that I was not welcome, apparently because I was not one of them - a swimmer.
Although I had insecurities about being there, the aura of unwelcome and entitlement stirred up my competitive nature and I became more determined than ever to conquer my swimming challenges and to move to the higher pool lanes the “swimmers” owned. It was because of their negativity I wanted to prove that I had plenty of strength and perseverance to become good enough to swim right next to them.
I climbed into the pool the first time and could hardly swim one entire length (25 yards) without stopping. I felt mortified and embarrassed! Barely making it the first 25 yeards, I then had to turn around and swim back to where my new coach was waiting for me. Ugh! You can imagine my humiliation at my flailing arms, inability to catch my breath or stop myself from sinking, and no apparent coordination of my body as a whole. He could only have been wondering what on earth he was going to do with me.
My commitment at that point was to continue showing up and give my very best effort. And I did. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday for and hour and a half at 5:15 in the morning I showed up to get in the water and follow the guidance of my coach and anyone else willing to lending a helping hand. I showed up despite the constant, ongoing insecurities and unwelcome messages some people oozed. I showed up when I was tired. I showed up when my body hurt from the previous day’s workout. I showed up as my marriage was ending and I became a single mom of three young boys.
Learning to swim became mediative as the warm water was someplace to escape reality. It also became a place I could laugh; at myself and with my new friends. A piece of advice my coach once gave me as I begged for a solution for my tendency to swim “uphill” (I was a sinker) was to eat more Twinkies. Although I did not take that gem and make a practice of it, I appreciated the humor and willingness to admit defeat (every conventional coaching strategy had apparently been lost on me…)
In spite of the great wisdom I received, my swimming improved! And with my improvement in the pool, I felt stronger and more capable to handle things that might have otherwise felt impossible to manage outside of the pool. I felt a new confidence in setting goals and finding the courage, support and coordination to make them happen.
Sixteen months later I completed my first triathlon. I had prepared to the best of my ability and gave my very best effort. That first triathlon gave me confidence that if I set my mind to something, I can achieve it. It also highlighted the many facets of triathlon I still needed to learn - things like; lakes have weeds and green water and no black lines to follow. But hey, I had come that far, I wasn’t about to give up! Three years later I became a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and began teaching others about the things I didn’t know before that first race. My hope was (and still is) to give them an edge I didn’t have when I first began.
Swimming and everything that it represented became the cornerstone of who I am today. I learned I can count on people and that I can stand up to people who bully me. I learned I can master a new skill by trusting in the process of showing up and doing the work. I learned that being vulnerable in pretty much every sense of the word (walking out on a pool deck full of strangers wearing a swim suit is not easy) provided countless opportunities to trust and grow into a stronger person. I learned that with commitment comes the reward of learning and growth. And I made invaluable friendships that endure today.
And for the record, I did move to the higher lanes. I had opportunity to swim in lane 8, the lane reserved for the “best” swimmers but I didn’t like it. It just wasn’t what I thought it would be, it was cold and lonely. In the end, I preferred the middle of the pool best, lanes 5 and 6. That’s where the warm, supportive, fun and motivating people swam.
A week ago, as I frantically prepared for my trip to Florida, marking the beginning of my professional coach training, I couldn't shake feeling unprepared. I felt certain that everyone else in the class would have more education, practice and success (whatever that means…)
There were 24 students and 2 instructors. I walked into the nondescript room and looked around for the safest chair to sit in. There were three round tables in our large room and about half of the class was already present. My instructor Kate Larsen was the first to greet me. She had taught me during my previous Wellcoaches class that prepared me for certification. I also had opportunity to connect with her after my certification. Though I had never met her, she became a mentor as her background shares some similarities with mine; she lives and works in the Twin Cities, has a background in chemical dependency counseling and personal training, and has three sons. She was enthusiastically and authentically inviting and immediately eased some of my jitters.
Our first assignment, broken down into three parts, was to share with the class a five minute story of who we are. The three parts brought us to an understanding that what we share must have depth and some dirt. In other words, we had to get vulnerable. Ugh… We had time to prepare and were given colored markers and a large sheet of paper to draw whatever sort of picture or timeline might illustrate our story. I created the most boring one color timeline anyone has ever seen - so no one saw it. I presented near the end, about number 22.
The first thing I shared was that I very much enjoyed hearing all the stories and that it was a gift to (re)learn that when we meet or see people we assign meaning and our own stories to them. And that they’re probably always wrong! Of course we were all feeling the same way: afraid, uncertain, insecure, excited, curious, happy, eager, and open. I so much enjoyed and appreciated hearing all of these people share the happy as well as the unhappy moments they felt shaped them - all crammed into 5 minutes.
Next I explained that I would not illustrate my story with my drawing because the simple timeline I created was incomplete. Who they saw before them was created within the last ten years. This transformation included swimming (to be told in my next blog), financial liberation via divorce, and emotional liberation via emotional autonomy (ending for good an unhealthy relationship).
So with that icebreaker assignment we began learning and practicing the art of coaching. We came from all over the world, including Brazil, Mexico and France! We brought with us different areas of expertise and some of us volunteered to share our expertise with the class. I lead the class in a short training exercise to get moving after a full day of learning. Another classmate shared laughing meditation and another Zumba.
I practiced coaching with someone who uses English very little, she speaks primarily Portuguese. We had to get creative about our conversation! Through her eye contact and deliberate word choices, I could feel her commitment and interest in learning about me and sharing with me. What we both hoped to get from the class did not vary; patience, compassion and authenticity.
I took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. My type turned out to be ENFJ which means I’m extraverted, intuitive, feeling, and judging. The brief descriptor for my combination is: Warm, empathic, responsive, and responsible. Highly attuned to the emotions, needs, and motivations of others. Find potential in everyone, want to help others fulfill their potential. May act as catalysts for individual and group growth. Loyal, responsive to praise and criticism. Sociable, facilitate others in a group and provide inspiring leadership.
Each day we broke for lunch giving us the opportunity to explore the campus in search of desirable sustenance. We passed palm trees and ponds with fountains in them. We relished in the heat and humidity after being in cold air-conditioning all morning. With the help of native students, we located the hub of fast food on day one. On our way back to class from an exciting array of college food choices, we passed a sushi shop which became the destination of lunch on day two. Of course that meant we had to navigate our way back to that location the next day. The desire for sushi was strong and we found our way amid the chaotic campus dwellers!
Through a practice coaching experience where I was the coach, I learned I can get too invested in the outcome of the conversation. I want so deeply for the client to feel and have success that I sometimes try too hard to paint that picture. Sometimes people want to feel unsuccessful. I don’t understand it, but I can be patient and allow the space for another person to get uncomfortable enough to find their own motivation to change. It was unpleasant and embarrassing to be corrected, but how will I learn if I don’t make mistakes in a safe environment with people that want me to succeed? And I surely won’t forget that lesson as it’s engrained with the emotion it elicited in me.
I was fortunate enough to learn yet more about neuroplacticity and the capacity of the adult brain to physically change as a result of experience and focus (attention). We learned that social cognitive science has proven that our brains are wired to connect socially. We learned about the executive function of the prefrontal cortex and the hijacking of the amygdala. It is because the brain prefers social connection that we all joined together in Florida to kick off our ten months of coaching practice and learning.
I also had the opportunity to visit the beach each evening. I had a lovely companion that allowed me the time to decompress after each day’s class and listened while I regurgitated everything I was excited about. We even ran along the long Jacksonville beach one evening! It was humid, cloudy, and windy. Perfect! We met a young man riding what looked like a skateboard with huge wheels and using a kite to propel himself. He showed us some very basic facts about wind direction and jumping over piers, so of course we signed up to try it out. Not!
It was wonderful to feel supported and to be able to maintain some sense of routine amidst the palm trees and warmth with someone who cares about my interests. I could not have asked for a better travel companion to compliment the intensive training I received.
I’m looking forward to learning and growing in my coaching abilities with the amazing people I had the honor of meeting a week ago. Over the next ten months, my instructors and classmates will be an integral part of my life. I can’t wait to see how I evolve and what I’ll say after we all meet again next June. I love this journey!
Learner and sharer of all things healthy, active, esteem building, growth promoting, witty and Hawaiian