Eve da Silva Msc, PgDip
How to make a new habit stick. Strategies psychologists want you to know.
As I write this post it is 1 January 2022
and I am contemplating the significance of the New Year. As one of my clients said to me as we planned our work for the new year “new year, new start”.
Meditation teaches us that new moment new start. The slowing down of attention to the present moment gives us a unique window into the constant, ever changing nature of experience. Life is change.
Yet, sadly, we are all subject to the changes life exerts upon us and can find that, like a person swimming against the tide, the demands life places on us can make it feel impossible to make the changes we truly want for ourselves. This is of course, partially, because we do not exist in isolation; our choices are not the only thing that matters. We are bound by the circumstances of our social context, our health, the politics of the day and the many identities we inhabit. Whether we experience regular discrimination and prejudice impacts on us greatly. Whether we experience the stress of worrying about basic financial need impacts on us greatly. Whether we are managing difficult relationships or experiencing abuse impacts on us greatly. If we have survived trauma the after effects can impact on us greatly. There is so much that influences the fundamental nature of how much stress we are under and how we are equipped to respond to that stress.
So what does that have to do with personal change? Well to make the changes we want to make in life we benefit hugely from reflecting compassionately on our circumstances. Looking back, and forward, using the wise, kind and courageous inner voice that we would use instinctively with a dear friend.
In my work as a Therapist and in my training as a Clinical Psychologist I draw on the work of Paul Gilbert, author of ‘The Compassionate Mind’ and Deborah Lee, author of ‘Recovering From Trauma Using Compassion Focussed Therapy’. It is from this work that I take the approach of compassionate mind training.
In his introduction to ‘Experiencing Compassion Focussed Therapy from the Inside Out’, Gilbert writes
Compassionate mind training also shares many features found in Eastern contem- plative traditions, such as mindfulness, groundedness, bodywork, and the cultivation of the compassionate self (in Buddhism, it’s called cultivating bodhicitta).
Deborah Lee teaches on the power of compassion to combat the debilitating nature of shame. As Brene Brown teaches in her ongoing work on shame: shame stops us on our tracks. If we are in shame, that horrible feeling that makes us feel like hiding ourselves from the world and indeed from our own awareness; changing a habit or sticking to a new plan can be almost impossible because we will simply return to habits and thoughts that help us shut down. Missing out on those meaningful changes we hope to make can sadly be a casualty of this. It’s not what we set out to do, it’s just that in shutting down, we miss the cues to do what we had committed to.
One way that many of us have developed to overcome this side effect of shame induced shut down is to switch into perfectionism. Unhelpful perfectionism can have it’s own downside, I talk about in my review of ‘The Anxious Perfectionist’.
In that book the authors take readers through a step by step approach to using techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to reduce anxiety and toxic perfectionism, whilst still getting what really matters to you done. Stephen Hayes, pioneer of ACT teaches the importance of discovering your values, reconnecting to these and becoming committed to them despite what negative thoughts or your inner critic has to say. ACT is a great approach to reducing perfectionism and still developing the discipline needed for habit change.
In both of these ‘third wave’ therapeutic approaches, we find techniques that can equip us to go about making that new start we hope for in 2022.
We learn to be courageous in our compassion, being willing to acknowledge suffering and tap into our own inner wisdom. We learn also to connect with the why of the change we want to make to make it easier to stick with it.
With any process of habit change there can be a return to previous habits or a drop of routine; that is the natural process of change. It is common and expected to pick up discipline and then stick with it. We go back and forth. A compassionate, wise mind takes an equanimous approach to setbacks; in the end detours are an inevitable, rich tapestry of the journey.
Also, the changes don’t have to happen now. They can happen at any time of your choosing. Let’s remember that the festive season can be one of the most mentally and emotionally draining times of the year. This is a time in which grief, loss, trauma and the pressure to be merry and bright coalesce in a devastating way for many people. For this reason, the pressure for New Year New Start can undermine the changes you feel are for your best good. One of the best pieces of advice I can give you, is one I took from my own Therapist when I asked her what I should do for “homework” in aid of my self improvement. “There is no homework. You told me you like to write - just write”. My advice is: there is no homework, there is no pressure. Perhaps go and do a little of what you enjoy doing.
Happy New Year