“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?
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