Becoming Determined To Change Behavior

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Meaningful Change Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Patterns of behavior that start to negatively affect life tend to fall into the ‘entrenched’ category. They’re not usually one-off screwups but rather typical, relied upon ways of being meant to cope with anxiety and other environmental stressors. This is why a lukewarm, ‘it sure would be nice if I could make this happen’ kind of attitude towards change is destined to fail. It’s like hoping to put out a raging fire by sprinkling a few drops of water on it. Going up against longstanding patterns of behavior that have become so much a part of the fabric of life that they’re enacted almost thoughtlessly requires a total commitment. Becoming determined to change behavior is the foundation of the house of change. The house will collapse without the foundation.

Working Out Ambivalence

The number one deterrent to unwavering determination is ambivalence, which is the phenomenon of holding simultaneous conflicting thoughts and feelings about something or someone. When you’re ambivalent you’re hot and cold, up and down, here and there. In the case of making an important life change you might know you’d be better off with this change but at the same time there’s comfort in the familiar, even when the familiar holds you back in some way. Change means moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, it means a leap of faith since you can’t know for sure what all the rippling effects of enacting your life change might be. Maybe you or someone you care about will end up being worse off as a result.

A good place to start for sorting out ambivalence is to make a simple cost benefit analysis where you have a + column that you might call ‘benefits of my change’ and a – column that you might call ‘detriments to my change’. You can make another cost benefit analysis where you have a + column that you might call ‘benefits of remaining in my entrenched patterns of behavior’ and a – column that you might call ‘detriments to remaining in my entrenched patterns of behavior’.

Try to be as honest with yourself as you can, without any censure or judgment around the authentic thoughts or underlying motivations as they bubble into conscious awareness. Try to be honest with yourself even if this honesty doesn’t make you look great, even if it goes against societal or cultural norms and values. The list is just for you, it’s not an exam, you’re not getting graded or judged. You can tear the thing up once the exercise is over.

The bottom line is that you want to bring all of your hidden ambivalence into the light of day so that you can see more of the relevant information. Only then can you decide if enacting your change is worth the hassle, and only if you decide it’s worth the hassle will you become determined to move forward.

There Are Going To Be Setbacks

Even people whose determination level is at a 10/10 experience setbacks on their path of change. Going against those entrenched patterns of behavior is like swimming into large waves. Sometimes you’ll get under them or power through them, other times they’re going to crash into you head on and send you reeling back despite your best efforts. What you want to do is be prepared for setbacks and not let them interfere with your underlying determination. Instead of letting yourself become deflated, act like a curious investigative journalist or a dutiful scientist. Try to figure out what went wrong, and what you did right, so you can better avoid a similar trap next time. Go back to your cost benefit analysis to remind yourself that your reasons for your change remain sound and that continuing to move forward is worth it. You’ll be better off if you can just make this new pattern of behavior stick. Any meaningful change is supposed to require a lot of time, effort, patience, and perseverance. You would have changed a destructive behavior that isn’t working for you or added a productive behavior that would be working for you a long time ago if change were easy.