“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Lifestyle change calls on us to abandon the status quo, to step out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. We embark with high hopes and positive intention, but more often than not, find our lifeboat adrift, getting tossed about in a choppy sea of setbacks. Why does this keep happening, and what can we do to navigate our ocean of transformation with greater ease?
“Perhaps I just need more willpower,” I used to say to myself. With more willpower, surely I could overcome these urges to override negative emotions with food. Or, if I were a more confident, disciplined person, I could prevent these thoughts from undermining my good intentions. Why did I feel so powerless to change my life?
Once the unaware queen of self-sabotage, these are the kinds of things I used to say to myself, over and over until my inner critic had eroded my positive, can-do frame of mind. I got quite good at it, this misguided, draining self-talk. Why was it that I was better able to allow my kids and others their “learning space,” but denied myself the same latitude of imperfection? How was this self-judgment serving me? Eventually, I realized it was just a cleverly disguised hiding place that wasn’t serving me at all. In fact, it consistently undermined my best efforts and felt exhausting. I needed a new approach.
After more than a decade of exploring, learning, and practice, a set of guideposts is emerging in my life. While not all of these ingredients may work in your recipe, a few of them may resonate or inspire your own discovery.
1. Observing Myself with Kindness and Curiosity
Our mindsets frame our ongoing inner dialogue, which influences how we interpret and inventory our day-to-day experiences. Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and a leading motivation researcher, teaches us that a “fixed mindset” presumes that our character, intelligence, and abilities are static and unchangeable, and our success is measured against these innate qualities. In this fixed mindset, avoiding failure preserves our sense of being smart or competent. In contrast, a “growth mindset” invites challenge and views failure as an opportunity for practice and expansion. It kindles an ongoing appetite for compassionate learning instead of a hunger for outside approval. With a growth mindset, our creativity and intelligence can be cultivated and integrated through effort and practice.
A “progress over perfection” mindset sets the stage for our learning to thrive, and this has become my new mantra for wholehearted living. Self-monitoring and self-compassion enhance my growth while self-judgment does not. There is a fine line between sitting with a negative thought and allowing it to take over. To thwart this “takeover,” I am becoming the Curious Observer in my own life. If I notice myself moving into self-blame, I simply ask myself, “How does this self-talk serve me?” If I discover a space filled with fear or anxiety, I do my best to acknowledge, label, and reframe any distorted thoughts. I can also physically move to another place, or go for a brisk walk to help change the channel in my mind. Growth mindset is a choice.
2. Practicing Tiny Habits
Stanford behavior scientist BJ Fogg’s format for Tiny Habits reminds me that, rather than relying on willpower for long-term change, we adopt new mental shortcuts one small step at a time through identifying existing triggers (or anchors), repeated practice, and celebration. Starting with a small, achievable goal allows for gradual integration and incremental feelings of success and well-being. Using his format, “After I (existing habit), I will (new tiny behavior),” I decided to add tricep dips to my daily routine by anchoring them to my existing habit of using my laptop. Now, each time I close my laptop, I do 5 tricep dips, followed by a little fist pump, “Yes!”
A “cousin” of S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Rewarding, Time-bound) Goal Setting, connecting new tiny habits to existing ones feels effortless and gratifying, and supports my overarching goal of improved fitness. Brick-by-brick, they reinforce the foundation of my new healthier lifestyle. Breaking up a macro goal into achievable micro goals creates bite-size pieces that enable me to feel successful one step at a time. And, each time I feel successful, my confidence and can-do mindset expand.
3. Normalizing Ups and Downs
Anticipating that my mood and mindset may shift beneath my feet allows me some wiggle room as I continue learning ways to shift my lifestyle. To be resilient and set myself up for success, I expect hills and valleys, mentally rehearse common scenarios (places I’ve slipped before), and use my Mindset Rescue Toolbox. It contains tools like:
– Creating a Purposeful Pause: Stop, Breathe, Reflect, Choose
– Doing a short body scan, meditation, or some yoga to shift the energy in my mind and body
– Cultivating positive thoughts by being in gratitude
– Asking someone I trust to be my Mindset Monitoring Co-Pilot (lending some objectivity to my subjective experience)
4. Embracing the Vulnerability of Identity Change
Let’s face it – stepping outside our comfort zones doesn’t feel so good at first. Most of us prefer the routine and familiarity of the regular habits we already have in place. So, how do creatures of habit like us get better at adapting to change? First off, by accepting that temporary discomfort and identity shift are normal, vulnerable parts of human development. From a biological standpoint, our primitive brains interpret stress as a perceived threat (like running from a bear). And, because we’re still hard-wired to avoid stressful situations, we often operate in a state of red alert. However, if we can learn in some situatinos to either reframe or transform negative stress into positive stress, or “eustress,” we could instead benefit from that extra burst of adrenaline to boost mental alertness and help us accomplish our goals.
Years ago, a coach mentor shared with me, “Be curious – find what’s right about what’s wrong.” With this in mind, I look to discover the opportunity in any challenge and embrace this eustress – to take a risk. Learning to distinguish the beneficial from the toxic stress not only softens my risk averse tendencies, but also fuels my motivation and gradual acceptance of New-and-Improved-Me. While it may be easier to sidestep the risk of change, I’m curious enough to move forward and find out what New-Me feels like.
Managing my mindset with wholeheartedness and practical strategies (self-compassion, tiny habits, realistic expectations, and vulnerability) enables me to recognize my primal instinct to run from the discomfort of change and decide to stay anyway. They provide my lifeboat some buoyancy to help me weather the ups and downs of living. Where is your compass pointing you? Are you curious to find out?
Dweck C.S. Change Your Mindset: First Steps. Mindset. Published 2006.
TED. Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability [Video]. TED. Published June 2010.
TED. David Steindl-Rast: Want to be happy? Be grateful [Video]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en Published June 2013.
TED. Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend [Video]. TED Published June 2013.
TEDx. Forget big change, start with a tiny habit: BJ Fogg at TEDxFremont [Video]. TED. Published August 21, 2013.