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Why is Christmas so bloody hard?

Finding Christmas challenging LucyHydeTherapy

Bah, humbug! A friend tagged me on a Facebook post – a video of Fascinating Aida performing their song which goes “Try not to be a c*nt at Christmas” (their asterisk). My response was that my own song would be more along the lines of “Why doesn’t Christmas just fuck off?” ……….so what is about Christmas that brings out my foul mouth and my prickly side?

Over the years, I’ve definitely developed more of my bah humbug side, and if the thought of Christmas fills you with nothing but joy – or if Christmas simply is irrelevant to you – then this may not be the blog for you! Having said that, reading it may help you understand why some of us struggle.

I’ve noticed in recent years it’s become more socially acceptable to say that you don’t look forward to Christmas, or find it difficult. Personally, I’ve veered between extremes of love and hate over time and I’m surprised – AGAIN – when I realise I’m not sure how I feel about it.

There’s part of me, that in the last few years has simply wished that Christmas would Go Away, or that I could fall asleep for a  month and wake up when it’s over so I don’t even have to decide whether it’s Good or Bad, and I recognise that these – along with the occasional “I HATE CHRISTMAS” running through my head – have much of the child about them, so there’s clearly something triggered in me at this time of year, even if I don’t know what it is!

But what I’m also noticing is that somewhere in this I seem to have moved towards an acceptance that Christmas is Difficult. As if instead of pretending it’s wonderful, I’ve decided that it’s awful, and I suppose I’m wondering if I – and those of you who struggle a bit at Christmas – can choose a different response.

What is it that makes Christmas a challenge?

Here are some of the reasons that seem relevant to me for why this can be a difficult time of year, and I’ll explore them more below.

  • Guilt over how one ‘should’ spend the festive period
  • Family dynamics are intensified
  • Financial stresses are increased
  • Juggling work pressures
  • SAD or winter blues
  • Expectations of self
  • Figuring out how to keep everyone else happy (and forgetting about self care)
  • Grief for lost loved ones intensified
  • Being out of usual routines
  • Balancing consumerism and environmental concerns

Guilt over how one ‘should’ spend the festive period

There are lots of assumptions around Christmas. Even while we know that it’s not all about roasting chestnuts round an open fire while dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, and that the reality is more about the oven breaking down just as the packet of ready-made roast spuds is being opened, on a day that is too-warm-for-this-time-of-year and never gets properly daylight through the grey………….even while we ‘know’ that cognitively, there’s often a part of us that still holds the dream of a Christmas card within.

This can be equally so if you grew up with the perfect Christmas gathered round the tree and are always seeking to return to that, or if your Christmasses were full of arguments and broken families, because chances are that you have a very vivid picture of what you missed out on, and part of you still wants it. So Christmas has some weight riding on it and there’s a good chance that it’ll disappoint – and you might blame yourself in some way for that.

Family dynamics are intensified

Ah, Christmas…….it’s all about family, right? Getting together and feeling the love……at Christmas there’s a good chance that many of us will be seeing family, and often a large number of family members in a relatively short period. Even with people who we have an apparently harmonious relationship with, spending time in the family setting can trigger historic patterns of behaviour, perceived injustices, slipping back into family roles (black sheep………favoured child….).

On the other hand, we may also be more likely to see people out of a sense of ‘duty’ who we’d really rather not. It may be the one time this group of family members gets together! This all takes its toll on our emotional energy, and can lead to us feeling shitty for reasons that we may not understand, especially if they’re pushing buttons from a time when we were very young.

Arthur Rackham Christmas 1 Prawny from Pixabay

Financial stresses are increased

It can be a particularly hard time for parents, if we think that Christmas should be a time of excess and generosity, and we’re struggling as it is week to week. Of course you want to give your child the best Christmas possible, everyone’s sharing the latest bloody John Lewis ad.

Parent or not, there’s often Christmas nights out to pay for on top of presents and we expect to eat more luxurious food than normal. And again, whilst we might be consciously thinking “but I know the most important thing is that I’m seeing the people I care about” we can still often be carrying expectations of ourselves and believing that those people will think we don’t love them if we don’t get them the right gift.

Juggling work pressures

The financial aspect feeds into this one too…….for people who are self-employed the festive period can be a tight time with everything closing down or clients’ holidays meaning that they have less work. And, for people who work in industries that keep going right through without a break, there can be the added pressure of fitting shifts around getting together with friends and families who don’t have the same commitments, and for potentially working out childcare arrangements while children are off school.

SAD or winter blues

Whose bloody idea was it to make Christmas at this time of year? Yes, culturally we associate Christmas with snow and dark starry skies, but winter can be a tough time for people with the reduced daylight hours, and some people also have low energy levels because of the cold. Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder can include low energy, trouble concentrating, fatigue, increased appetite, desire to be alone, greater need for sleep and weight gain. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with SAD, you may be affected by low mood more in winter than the rest of the year.

Winter blues counsellor Lucy Hyde

Expectations of self

These can be hard to notice – we often assume that we should do and be a certain way without even being aware that these are assumptions  – based on our family history, and then exacerbated by Christmas adverts and Hollywood (I bet if we were all brought up on Mike Leigh or Ken Loach versions of Christmas movies we’d have a different perspective).

I was brought up in a house where we always had lots of homemade sweets around and every possible foodstuff; 10 or more people descended on the house and yet it seemed there was still everything that anyone could possibly want. I carried that memory with me as I set up my own home and couldn’t understand why I found it a struggle to fit in making two different sorts of homemade fudges plus rum truffles and marzipan-stuffed dates, around working full-time in a busy job up until Christmas Eve. It took me years to pay attention to the fact that when I was little my mum had already been doing that type of Christmas for 20 years, wasn’t working outside the home – and may anyway have been fed up with the whole thing herself!  

Figuring out how to keep everyone else happy (and forgetting about self care)

Are you a people-pleaser? Chances are that this part of you heads into overdrive in the run-up to Christmas. It’s only when I lived abroad for a while, and enjoyed Decembers that were pretty much as tranquil as any other month – because we didn’t know many people – that I realised that my ‘normal’ December seems to involve having to meet up with practically everyone I know, all in one month! “Oh, we must go for Christmas drinks!” So, I’m already having a busy month, but for some reason I feel I need to agree to making it busier thereby further reducing the time that I have to do the things that I’m the only person that expects them of myself anyway…………and breathe.

Grief for lost loved ones intensified

This can be relevant whether those people are missing through death or have moved away. For people who have families scattered all over the globe, Christmas can feel a very empty time, the equivalent of the little match girl gazing through the window into the candle-lit sitting-room of children gathered round a parent reading a story by the Christmas tree. You might also be grieving for the family or loved ones that you never had – a lost Christmas experience that never was.  So Christmas can also be a very, very lonely time.

Being out of usual routines

Routines are great. They’re the scaffolding that our lives hang on, the stuff that we don’t have to think about that gets us through the day or week. For anyone who’s had times when they’ve felt their energy ebbing – physical, mental or emotional – developing self-care routines can be really helpful.

These can often be very simple things – a brief walk before starting the day’s work, 10 minutes planning the day, journaling before bed. They can take a little time to establish – and they can easily fall by the wayside when the rest of the daily routine changes – kids are around all the time demanding attention, you’re not at work, sleeping times are different – and often you don’t notice you’ve slipped out of them until you realise that we’ve already emptied the tank.

Balancing consumerism and environmental concerns

I spent years – and I mean YEARS – making myself feel crappy about Christmas present shopping, gradually finding ways of making present-shopping a pressure and a chore. At some point in the last decade, I added a new tradition to Christmas day: the empty box to put the proportion of Christmas gifts in that, as soon as they were opened, I knew were going straight to the charity shop. And yet it still took me a long time to be able to say, at last, to all those people I exchanged gifts with: “I’m not getting you anything this year, please don’t get me anything.”

The effort and angst that was involved in giving myself permission to do things differently – because I was afraid, at some level, that people would think I didn’t love them – or wouldn’t love me – was enormous. I see lots of people this year struggling with the balance of wanting to demonstrate love but with awareness of the devastating effect that that ‘demonstration’ is having on the planet – and a lot of these struggles seem often to be focused on the fear of hurting others.

But what can I do about it?

Many of the above points relate to challenges that affect other areas of life, or crop up at other times of year, but there’s something about Christmas – with its combination of tradition, family scripts, media hype and cultural assumptions – that seems to roll lots of difficult shit up in one stinking bundle and rub our faces in it. A lot of people find it difficult to prioritise their own needs at the best of times, so a festival that is all about ‘giving rather than receiving’ can exacerbate this.

Winter blues LucyHydeTherapy

Interestingly, research indicates that emergency room visits for mental health reasons drop around Christmas itself – possibly because people at risk have others around them on Christmas Day – but that they rise again afterwards. See this article about it. This, for me, highlights that ‘Christmas stress’ speaks more about the whole atmosphere around the Christmas period rather than the day itself.

And it seems to me that the ‘remedy’ for this can be the same as at other times of year – but it can be harder to apply during this period. How can you listen to what your own needs when there’s a family row going on next door? How do you choose not to repeat previous unhelpful patterns when you’re thrown into the historic family setting that led to them developing?

I don’t have a simple solution to this. I’m struggling with it too. But I think it’s something that we need to continue talking about and I’m offering some suggestions to help you think about it below.

Notice

Lucy Hyde therapy how to cope at Christmas

Make some time to tune in to yourself to get a sense of what your discomfort is around Christmas. Perhaps you think you already know quite well, but it might be something that you try and ignore because you feel you ‘should’ be looking forward to it. Making a few moments to just notice what comes up, not to change it, simply to acknowledge, can really help that part of you – that may be anxious or unhappy – settle a little.

Question

Lucy Hyde counsellor how to cope at Christmas

What are your beliefs around what Christmas is or should be? Have you stopped to consider whether these are realistic or achievable – or might they be rooted in some childhood fantasy? Does hanging on to them help, and if not how might you allow yourself to let them go?

Buffer

Lucy Hyde counselling how to cope at Christmas

Give yourself buffer time if you can, to manage the emotional impact of seeing people. If you find yourself thinking “Well, the most efficient way of getting round these different sets of family would be drive to see everyone the same day”, stop a moment to consider instead what might be kindest to you? There may be certain people who really stir you up emotionally at this time, and if you can give yourself time to settle after you see them it could help.  

Say No

Lucy Hyde therapist how to cope at Christmas

It’s OK to do things differently. I often hear people say “We always do……” – No. You may always HAVE done something but it doesn’t mean you can’t choose to do it differently. You might find others would enjoy the change too – and if they don’t that’s not your responsibility. Let’s be realistic though, you may need to choose your battles here. There are going to be some people you find it easier to say No to than others, so keep reminding yourself the purpose of this is to conserve your own energy and wellbeing.

Think about what you want

Lucy Hyde counsellor Coping with Christmas

What would you like to be different about your festive season and how might you get it? How realistic is it? Who would need to be involved? What would you need to do differently? If there are things that others need to do differently – think about what you can do for yourself, if they refuse to change.

Start a conversation

Lucy Hyde counselling Coping with Christmas

Talk about how you’re feeling about Christmas with someone. You might find they feel the same. Most importantly, find ways to talk about it with the people who are involved. No, I don’t mean saying “I hate Christmas and I’m sick of you getting me things I don’t want even after I’ve told you” – but perhaps it would be OK to start with something that feels relatively small and unthreatening. I really believe that this is a time when practically everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, focuses their attention on what others think or want, or makes assumptions about what others expect – so actually owning what YOU want can make a real difference.

Plan ahead

Lucy Hyde therapist Coping with Christmas

I’ve found that Christmas seems to have suddenly come upon me this year. I’m not sure some switch in my head doesn’t flip on 1 December. But that’s made me think of the advantage of thinking ahead next year – starting to make plans way too early because suddenly it may be too late. I’m not talking about plans for ‘getting everything organised to have the perfect Christmas’ – I’m talking about making time in January to reflect on how the last month was – and really thinking about what I might want for next year.

Be prepared to ‘manage’

Lucy Hyde therapy Coping with Christmas

Perhaps one of the hardest things to let go of is the belief that somehow if you can just change that one thing, then you’ll have a joyous Christmas. While hope can be a wonderful resource for change, some of the things you find difficult about Christmas may not be ‘fixable’ by yourself, so it might be helpful to think instead of how you might manage Christmas in the healthiest possible way for YOU, including allowing yourself to be ambivalent about it.

Breaking with traditions

For those people for whom Christmas is a religious festival, even where they find the secular bit a bit tricky, they may still celebrate and enjoy the spiritual aspect of the period. If Christmas doesn’t have that relevance for you then getting a real, felt sense of what you are celebrating may be important to consider.

I often hear people talking about making their own traditions at Christmas. This can be a great way of escaping from misery-inducing family traditions that you were born into, the classic example being when starting a new relationship and agreeing that you spend Christmas Day together (not with the family of either partner).

But even with new ‘traditions’ we can set ourselves up to ‘feel bad about feeling bad’ – i.e. we establish our own rules on ‘what will make us happy at Christmas’. We all change over time, as we get older and go through different transitions. I’m thinking of establishing a new tradition for myself – of checking in as the season approaches, to decide what I need this year. A few days away where no one knows me? Helping out in a soup kitchen? A quiet time with normal food and a long novel to read by the woodstove? I might even surprise myself one year by choosing to host a full-on tinsel-and-turkey gathering……you never know!

Surviving Christmas LucyHydeTherapy

If you’re alone at Christmas, and would like company on Christmas Day, check out Sarah Millican. She started the annual #joinin campaign at Christmas, for people to hang out together on Twitter, rather than alone at home.

I’m very aware that this blog is written from my own particular perspective on The Christmas Struggle and that I have my fixations and blind spots. I’m really interested to hear what you find easy or hard at Christmas time, how you manage challenges, and if there’s anything you’re thinking about doing differently.

Remember also that Christmas – or the run-up to it – could be a good time to reach out, to speak to someone. If something from this has struck a chord with you that you’d like to explore, please get in touch with me here or with another counsellor.

Oh – and if you like foul-mouthed Christmas tunes and want to enjoy Fascinating Aida’s song – it’s here.

Coping at Christmas LucyHydeTherapy

How I put my needs first! (on one day of the year)

November is my birthday month and for as long as I can remember – or at least for as long as it’s been an option – I’ve always taken a day’s leave for my birthday. Now that I’m self-employed, that feels more significant than it did when I was taking a day of paid holiday entitlement, which has caused me to think about WHY I do it.

Birthdays are funny things, aren’t they? We can respond to them in different ways, and feel differently about them at different times in our lives. Some people see them as a reminder that they are getting older, and thereby are inching closer to death – and that awareness of mortality feels overwhelmingly negative. Sometimes birthdays bring up memories of loved ones who have died or left, and the poignancy of being reminded of people who are gone can cause us to feel that we can’t enjoy the day now that they’re not there to celebrate it with us.

Lucy Hyde therapist putting yourself first
Me on my 19th birthday in student-land

Why celebrate my birthday?

Perhaps it IS a funny thing to celebrate – this accidental day when we just happened to arrive through no doing of our own, and I guess that’s why it’s a celebration – a celebration that I’m here! I’m important! I matter!

I’m the youngest child in my family, and grew up as a baby in a family of adults. Over recent years I’ve become aware of the beliefs that I’ve created for myself from that position, mostly around having to get things right because everybody else knows what they’re doing, working really hard at keeping other people happy (without really having the full knowledge of what it is that will make them happy) and particularly about having to know what to do without asking for help.

Knowing those beliefs are there doesn’t always stop me from being tripped up by them, but does help me tune in, when I’m feeling particularly shitty about a situation, to what baby Lucy is feeling, and acknowledging that – which helps me recover much more quickly.

Please yourself!

So it’s been nice to realise the flip side of that family role – that my birthday is a day when it’s OK to do just what I feel like doing – to be a child, to please myself. Because, for sure, I did get a fuss made of me on my birthday when I was little and probably got a bit of leeway into the bargain. I know – from the stories – that my late arrival was celebrated, and perhaps this is the one day when I know that in my body rather than just in my head.

My 18th birthday cake with 18 little marzipan piglets.

I had parties! With games! (Did you ever play that game that involved putting a hat, scarf and mittens on and then opening a bar of chocolate with a knife and fork?) And trifle! My big siblings came home from uni! I got good attendance at my birthday parties cos we had a big house that was popular for playing hide-and-seek, so some of that anxiety about whether other kids liked me was probably allayed too.

Birthdays are more than just birthdays

Chances are that for you, too, how you feel about your birthday is influenced by your family history – because you’ve been having a birthday for longer than you can consciously remember. Were there people who were missing at your birthday? Family arguments? Drunken fallings-out? Do you feel it’s OK to be made a fuss of? To ask for what you want? To be the centre of attention?

Lucy Hyde counselling eat what you like
Birthday breakfast. Yum.

For me, it is, definitely, the day when my urge to keep others happy is at its least powerful. I ask for what I want for my breakfast (this year it was kaiserschmarrn – see picture). I get to choose what I want to do without recourse to anyone else. This year it was to have an outing to somewhere with good autumn colours (see my previous blog on the joys of walking outdoors) – I even relinquished the responsibility of deciding where! But equally it might have been to spend the day lying on the sofa reading (one birthday in my 20s I spent the whole day reading Tales of the City).

Only when I took a pause to think about it, did I realise how rare it is for me to allow myself to choose what I want to do completely without regard to others. And how important taking that day for me has been, over the years, because of what it represents in terms of letting me know I matter.

It’s all about me!

Now, these days, I’m actually not bad at listening to myself. At not planning the hell out of a weekend to maximise my productivity (whether that production be a clean house or a day out lifetime experience), but instead being OK with having a low-key time pottering about doing not very much of anything. So maybe the need to have a day that’s All About Me isn’t so crucial as it was in the past. But now I’ve realised that it has symbolic significance, I’m sure as shit hanging on to the habit!

On my birthday I take a holiday and I let that little child within me out to play. What does it take for YOU to put yourself first?

Lucy Hyde therapy asking for what you want

Counselling for counsellors

The therapist as human being

Lucy Hyde online therapy

A while ago I read an article in a therapy magazine which referred to the reluctance of therapists to undertake personal therapy. Then I saw a question on an online forum along the lines of “Should you be working as a therapist before you’ve got all your shit together?”

This made me reflect on my own thoughts and feelings about having therapy, how these have changed over time – and about being a therapist AND a client. This blog, rather than focusing on the ethical and professional reasons for therapists to have therapy, muses on those reflections.

I remember my very first taste of therapy training; beginning a course in counselling skills. I remember making the decision that – though it wasn’t a requirement at this level – I wanted to see a counsellor to help me think about how the different bits of learning applied to me. It wasn’t because I felt I had specific ‘issues’ (that catch-all word for so many things from discomfort through to deep trauma) – I simply found I was thinking myself into a fankle* when I fit myself into all the different theories or models I was learning about – and boy, they certainly all seemed to apply to me!

overthinking counsellor East Lothian

I realised I was really good at thinking myself into a mess (or a dead-end) rather than out of it, and that counselling could help me find other ways of looking at things. That counsellor was an artist whose counselling room was also her studio, and some of the most significant learnings I made there stuck in my head as vivid visual images that just couldn’t be conveyed in any other way. That experience has coloured the way I work with clients and I will often offer images that come up for me as they are speaking without ‘interpreting’ them. Those images can speak in ways that words sometimes can’t, and add richness and depth to the work as we explore them together.

I remember also saying to the trainer “I’m interested in being a counsellor, but I need to get my own stuff sorted out first”. She laughed – kindly – at the idea that there might be a point when I knew I was Completely Normal. This was a revelation to me – the idea that I might have insecurities, fears, areas where I lacked self-belief……..and yet still be able to work with other people on their own struggles. Not long after, I read one of the books of Carl Rogers (the founder of person-centred therapy) and was blown away by his proposal that therapy wasn’t about ‘fixing’ people, and that in fact, the word ‘fixed’ also implied rigidity and immobility: “a person is a fluid process, not a fixed and static entity; a flowing river of change, not a block of solid material; a continually changing constellation of potentialities, not a fixed quantity of traits.”

As I moved into the world of Transactional Analysis (TA) training, I recognised the influence of a very strong ‘Be Perfect’ Driver (i.e. perfectionist tendencies, fear of getting things wrong) and realised that my unquestioned belief, shared years before with that tutor, had been “I can’t do [whatever I want to do at that point] until I’m as Perfectly Mentally Healthy as [I imagine] everyone around me is.” And what’s changed since then, isn’t my fear of not getting things exactly right, so much as an awareness of that fear, and a kind of wry gentleness towards it. TA’s fundamental principle is: “People are OK” – and that includes me.

My internal conversation might go something like “Oh, there you are again, Mrs Be Perfect. Worrying about getting this blog right. That’s OK, I know you’re there. What would be the worst thing that happened if you didn’t do it perfectly?” Much of this gentleness and understanding has come through the personal therapy that I had alongside my psychotherapy training, and of course it influences how I work with clients myself – my knowledge of my own vulnerability is a strength.

Lucy Hyde therapist in Edinburgh

That’s the thing about counselling counsellors; we are human too. We suffer from exactly the same weaknesses, fears and issues as others. Often we’re more aware of them because we’ve spent time bringing them to the surface and that can be uncomfortable as well as useful – oh, for sure, sometimes I’d like to be able to switch that awareness off! And sometimes we’re NOT aware of them, and they have subtle influences on our work with clients which we may only realise after the event – which is why it’s so important to keep developing our own self-awareness. It’s a constant journey of personal growth.

As a therapist, the learning never stops. I see the influence of my past therapists in how I am in the counselling relationship. But I learn as much from clients as I do from training. It is a privilege and an honour to share in the personal work of others, and for people to trust me with their tender places and thoughts. That is as true for clients who are counsellors as it is for clients from any other walk of life. 

growth through online counselling for counsellors

When I was training to be a counsellor, my therapist asked me “Would you be here if it wasn’t a course requirement?” I saw it as a luxury I was obliged to pay for, to ‘do my learning perfectly’ – and yes, I continued it for some time after my training finished, but I still excused the expenditure, to myself, in other ways – it would help me transition to a new job, it would help me prepare for the challenges of moving abroad. Yet those reasons were only part of the story. I hope that next time I enter into a new personal therapy relationship, I will choose to do so just for me, because I’m worth it.

*for non-Scottish readers, a fankle is a bit of a mess – think a tangled mass of string.

Lucy Hyde online therapy for growth

References

Berne, E. 1966. Principles of group treatment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown, S. 2018. Walking our talk. Therapy Today. 29:9 November, pp8-11.

Kahler, T. 1975. Drivers: The key to the process of scripts. TAJ. 5:3 July, pp280-284.

Rogers, C. 1961. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. London: Constable.

The original version of this article appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of STROKES, the Scottish Transactional Analysis Association’s magazine.

Changing behaviours – what I learned (part 2)

Part 2: How to make changes

In the first part of this blog I talked about setting myself a challenge of using my bike every day for a week, in order to change my ‘transport habits’, and what I learned from that experiment. Now I’m going to explore what makes changing behaviour hard, and offer some tips that might help.

Why is it difficult to change behaviours?

Negative motivation: Take a moment to consider your own process when you plan to change something. Do you focus on the benefits? Or are there lots of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that come into play? Usually when I think about doing things differently, it goes something like “I shouldn’t be doing X” or “I need to be better at Y” and there’s quite a punitive quality about it.

How can I change my habits? - East Lothian counselling

As an article by David DiSalvo says “Negative emotion may trigger us to think about everything we’re not doing, or feel like we’re doing wrong, but it’s horrible fuel for making changes that stick.” We need to find positive reasons to want to make the change rather than chasing ourselves with a big stick.

Oversized targets: Another problem is that we often set our aims unrealistically high or have huge but vague targets. The classic one is gym membership – forking out hundreds of pounds in an effort to shame or punish ourselves into getting more exercise or getting fit. 3 spinning classes in the first week after New Year, yeah! we feel great with how well we’re doing – then something happens that interrupts that momentum, we have a week off and then beat ourselves up for failing at ‘change’.

How can I change my habits? - East Lothian therapy

It becomes an all-or-nothing belief, and as ‘all’ is an unfeasibly large goal we pretty soon end up with nothing. The smaller the steps, the better, when it comes to making changes, because even small steps move you forward; there’s a better chance of small changes sticking; and ‘mony a mickle maks a muckle’ (translation for non-Scots: lots of little things add up to big things).

How can I change my habits? - counselling online

Life challenges: Let’s not ignore that there may be additional factors which we have no control over. Changing to a healthier lifestyle when you’re a lone parent struggling to make ends meet and are trying to hold down 3 jobs, or when you grew up in poverty and neglect, or when you’ve survived civil war and have arrived in the UK and are fighting for your right to stay…….the odds are stacked against you. The impact of the environment you’re in is sometimes ignored in the individual-centred world of psychotherapy. It’s important not to discount the role that society and inequality play in our having control over our lives.

Habits: We tend to think we can ‘just make’ a change – mind over matter, perhaps – rather than thinking about the factors that support that change or prevent it. Remember what I said in the first part of this blog about my biggest learning being to make it easy? We are creatures of routine and habit, so no matter how firm our intentions are, once we slip into the daily routine it’s difficult to remember those intentions.

How can I change my habits? - online therapy

This is where planning and using reminders or alarms come in. Telling people what we’re doing and asking for their support can help too – rather than trying to do it all alone in the hope that we can then suddenly explode like a new-born butterfly in all our radiant changedness.

Stages of change

Prochaska and DiClemente introduced the Stages of Change Model in the 1970s to help understanding of what happens during the process of change. The model splits change into six stages:

  • Stage 1: Precontemplation. At this point I am in denial about there being a problem, or about believing that I have control over my behaviour; “this is just how things are”. Sometimes people come to therapy at this point because they know something needs to change but they’re not sure what.
  • Stage 2: Contemplation. I’m aware that there are benefits to making a change – but I’m also aware of the costs, so I have conflicted emotions about changing. In order to gain the benefits, be they physical or emotional, something will need to be given up, and this in itself can mean that this stage lasts for a long time.
  • Stage 3: Preparation. I’m experimenting with doing things differently in small ways and gathering information about what I need in order to make the change. For change to be successful, this stage needs to be given time in order to find or build supports and decide on specific goals before throwing yourself into action.
How can I change my habits? - online therapis
  • Stage 4:  Action. I start direct action towards my goal. But did I spend enough time contemplating the change and preparing for it? Any positive steps taken at this point need to be reinforced by congratulation and reward to maintain the movement towards lasting change.
  • Stage 5: Maintenance. Having made changes, I’m avoiding reverting to former patterns of behaviour and continuing to reward myself for keeping up new ones. This stage takes time, and will be interwoven with…..
  • Stage 6: Relapse. Inevitably, I’m only human, and I relapse into previous behaviour. I’m pissed off and disappointed with myself. The key with relapse is to accept that it is inevitable and to use it to learn for next time – what triggered the relapse? What might help manage this trigger in future? This is a good opportunity to return to the preparation stage, especially if this was rushed through.

Is now the right time to make a change?

I’m very aware that it was relatively easy for me to try something different when I did; my circumstances at that time meant that I had some time to play around with – and so the last thing I want is for this to sound like I’m implying that changing behaviour is easy, or even that I’m particularly good at it! Context made it possible.

How can I change my habits? - phone counselling

So it’s important to notice what may be going on around you that makes changing behaviour difficult – environment, friends, a challenging personal situation, poverty. That’s part of the precontemplation and contemplation stages.

But it’s also important to be aware that there is never going to be a ‘perfect’ time to change behaviour. Perhaps you can look at the reality of the behavioural change that you want to make and see if it can be broken down into smaller, more achievable – more affordable, simpler, whatever – chunks. Preparation. Then do it – and remember that relapse is part of the deal.

Ten tips to help you make and maintain a behavioural change

1. Set small and specific goals
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde online therapist

Notice I say SMALL and specific. What’s small for one person may not be for another. My goal of using my bike every day was achievable for me that week because of circumstances. “I’m going to get more exercise” isn’t specific…… but rather than “I’m going to walk to and from work every day” you could start with “I’m going to get off the bus 5 minutes early and walk the rest of the way 3 times a week”.

2. Accept that you will relapse

Hold this in mind right at the start.

Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde online counsellor

Being aware that, at some point, you will have a relapse in behaviour will enable you to be more forgiving of yourself when this happens, instead of thinking “I’m useless at this, I knew I’d never be able to do it”. Relapses help you learn what you could do differently next time.

3. Set times to review

Do you need to change the goals?

Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde counsellor in Edinburgh

Make an appointment with yourself at the end of each week to check how you’ve done, and to notice what has been difficult. Maybe your goal was too big and you need to scale it down; succeeding with a small goal is more motivating than failing with a big one. You can always raise the bar later.

4. Consider how you’ll reward yourself
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde counsellor in East Lothian

Positive motivation for change is more successful than beating yourself up for failure, as mentioned earlier. Think of a reward that you’ll enjoy but that won’t conflict with your goals (i.e. don’t give yourself a junk food reward for eating healthily!) – buy yourself the book you wanted, go and see a film.

Make rewards part of your plan.

5. Plan and prepare
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde counselling in East Lothian

You might be seized with enthusiasm once you’ve decided to make a change, but planning and preparation give you the best opportunity to succeed, just like they do with DIY tasks!

What resources do you need to make this change? Who or what might support you? And what might get in your way – be obstacles or triggers? Is there anyone you need to avoid?

Take time to think about where you can look for help.

6. Accept that changing behaviour is hard!
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde therapy online

Most of us live by routines and habits – it’s normal and it makes life work because you don’t have to think about everything you do. But it means that we become wired to do things in a particular way, and that takes time to change.

When you notice what hasn’t gone well, try and catch yourself and reflect on a positive – rather than saying “I had an unhealthy snack two days this week” switch it to “I managed five days this week where I didn’t have an unhealthy snack”. 

7. Track and review your progress
Tips to behavioural change - counselling Lucy Hyde

Keep a journal, or a food diary, or use an app on your phone. It can help to express your frustrations, and keeping track of the positives will help you recover when things aren’t going so well.

8. Ask for support
Tips to behavioural change - counselling East Lothian

Remember you don’t have to do this alone!

Perhaps there’s someone else who might be interested in working towards the same goal and you could buddy up together. Or someone you know who might have skills or advice to offer. You might get in touch with a therapist if you need help understanding why you’re finding it difficult to make a change.

At the very least, sharing what you’re working towards means that your friend or partner can help, by encouraging you and giving you feedback when things are going well.

9. Reward yourself. ALWAYS.
Tips to behavioural change - East Lothian therapist

DON’T SKIP THE REWARDS!

If you’ve done well, take a moment to pat yourself on the back and acknowledge the achievement, even if it feels uncomfortable.

10. Be compassionate with yourself
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde therapy

Don’t make it harder than it already is. Think of how you might support someone else who is trying to change their behaviour.

Can you offer that support to yourself?

What am I doing differently since ‘The Bike Challenge’?

Today, as I write this blog, is the first day I’ve got clients in the new room that I’ve rented in Edinburgh, and I’m cycling in. I chose this room over another because of its proximity to good cycle routes avoiding busy roads – even though it’s further from a handy bus stop (Make It easy). I know I’ll be tired when I leave to come home, but I’m hoping I’ll appreciate a different experience from my usual bus ride (Don’t compare apples and pears). It’s raining right now but I’ve got a change of clothing and I’ve packed some calories to make sure I’ve got sufficient energy both for my clients and for the cycle home. And I’ve looked out the bike lights – which I may need to elastic-band to my handlebars (Don’t do this at home, kids) in case it’s dark when I return (Plan and prepare).

(NB: I wrote this over a month ago. As I publish it today, I can look back at a month’s worth of Wednesday cycles where I’ve enjoyed the processing time on the ride home after seeing clients.)

Tips to changing habits - counselling in East Lothian

I’m not using my bike every day. I need more practice to really embed it as part of my routine and I’m mindful that my attitude may change when winter weather arrives. But I’m incorporating cycling more into my professional decisions – like the room hire, or arranging meetings – and I’m now using it as a mode of transport more than the bus, which is a definite shift. Every time I use my bike to run a quick errand it gives me a little lift. So I’m pretty happy; and I’m going to reward myself with a new set of pedals, because those pesky toe clips still don’t fit properly!

I’ve included some links to other resources below. If there’s a change you’re wanting to make in your behaviour, and you’re finding it difficult to get started, please get in touch with me. There are many factors that contribute to the habits that we find ourselves in, and you may find it useful to explore what these factors may be, for you, in therapy. 

How to change your patterns of behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapy

References & resources

How to change behaviour

Stages of Change model

Why changing behaviour is hard

Social & societal factors in behavioural change

Changing behaviours – what I learned

Part 1: A self-experiment

How to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapist
Photo by Jon Gerrard

Saturday 8 June was the start of National Bike Week 2019. What a great opportunity for a post on my Facebook page encouraging people to get out on their bikes, I thought. I’ll say that I’m planning to use my bike every day this week.  

That gave me pause, though – because if I was going to make a public declaration like that, I needed to actually do it! There’s a whole world of difference between exhorting other people to do something different for their self-care, and actually doing it myself.

How to change behavour - Lucy Hyde counsellor

I’d bought a new bike a couple of months earlier after deciding to try living without a car, thinking I’d use a lighter-weight bike more as a means of transport. But WHY hadn’t I used it as much as I’d hoped – even though I liked the idea, and the new bike? What was getting in the way of me doing that? I decided to make it A Project. I thought perhaps if I could track each day, I might learn something – from looking at the things that motivated me to use my bike, or the things that put me off.

And so it began.

The change-my-life bike challenge

Change habits - Lucy Hyde therapist

I noticed there was sawdust on my bike seat……woodworm in the shed roof! I decided to cycle to the nearest place where I could buy woodworm treatment, about 4 miles away. Oh, but first I realised I needed to change the toe-clips on my bike, the ones the bike shop had put on were useless………oh and it looked like it was going to rain…….and where did I put my pannier? At least the bike locks were handy, as I hadn’t put them away…..

It started raining while I was out, and I got soaked. But…..I had plenty of time, it was a Saturday, I could get changed when I got home, I was already in suitable clothes for cycling and crucially there was the novelty feeling of having decided to make this ‘a challenge’.

Change habits - Lucy Hyde counsellor

I suggested to my partner that we ride to a nearby town to see an exhibition but he was feeling tired, so instead I decided to get a quick ride in alone and call in at the Co-op for some shopping on the way back. I was put off a little by thinking I ‘should’ be doing something with my partner because it was the weekend, but I felt full of beans and wanted the exercise – and once again there were no time pressures.

It was a beautiful morning and I had the familiar experience of flying along on the outer leg with the wind behind me (and then having to really push into the westerly wind on the way home).

Changing habits - Lucy Hyde therapist

Oh-ho! Back to real life, how do I incorporate cycling into the working week? I had a morning meeting in Edinburgh to see a room I might want to rent, so decided to cycle in – a round trip of around 23 miles. I was somewhat nervous about this as I hadn’t cycled in the city for years and the prospect of navigating traffic made me anxious. I was worried about arriving late and also about getting sweaty and looking unprofessional!

On the other hand, I had a flexible schedule that day so could leave plenty of time, and after researching routes found that much of the ride could be done on cycle paths. It seemed like a good opportunity for a ‘test’ commute – as it wasn’t a client appointment it didn’t matter if I was a bit windblown!

Changing habits - Lucy Hyde counsellor

An unexpected drama came a third of my way in when my saddle came loose, and I didn’t have the necessary tool to sort it out. After swithering about whether to lock my bike somewhere nearby and take the bus the rest of the way I decided to carry on, getting on and off rather gingerly at junctions. I was heartily glad my route involved few busy roads. After my meeting I headed to the nearest bike shop where they kindly fixed my saddle free of charge and I had a much more comfortable ride home.

Changing behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapy

An easy day – a quick dash to the shop to get a sandwich for my lunch, a round trip of not much over a mile. It seemed a bit of a faff to get the bike out of the shed for such a short journey, but crucially, having been using it every day, the operation of getting everything together was pretty quick. I was wearing skinny jeans so no need to change clothes for this short ride, and I was there and back with plenty of time to sit and eat my lunch!

Changing behaviour - Lucy Hyde counsellor

The weather was a bit rubbish but I had something to take to the post office. To be honest I might not have made myself do it on foot because of time required in a rather busy day. It was a lesson that I could get an errand out of the way really quickly in less than 15 minutes by using my bike.

Behavioural change - Lucy Hyde therapy

I learned I could ride in wellies – after a fashion. It was a really miserable day, I had no commitments outside home and there is no way I would have got my bike out had it not been for having set myself the task of doing it. Once again a quick dash to the shop, but I felt a bit lost about the pointlessness of ‘the bike challenge’ as a project.

Behavioural change - Lucy Hyde counsellor

I was very conscious that I was just getting my bike out for the sake of it, and having to look for a reason to do so. However, I cycled to the library – only a mile or so away – and actually this was probably a perfect example of cycling making life easier. The journey on foot was a little too far to squeeze into my working day, but on a bike it was much quicker and I could pop the books into my pannier rather than having to carry them. I might not have finally got round to using my library without the bike challenge.

So what did I learn from setting myself the target of using my bike every day?

Make it easy.
Learn how to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapy

This was my absolute No. 1 takeaway from this experiment, that I was reminded of every day. In order to change how you do things, you need to make it easy for yourself. We’d already changed the way we stored our bikes so that they were easy to get in and out of the shed quickly. In addition I’ve moved my pannier from an inaccessible shelf in a cupboard to near the back door ready for use and the bike locks are also on a shelf handy to grab. Now I can get my bike out and ready to use in a little over a minute.

Plan and prepare.
Learn how to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde counsellor

Don’t assume it is going to be easy until you’ve established a routine! So, I need to think about what to wear when I’m going to meetings, and I need to factor in the time until I get the hang of how long it takes to get places. Wearing clothes that mean I can quickly jump on my bike AND be appropriately dressed for work (leggings are my friend here) makes life easier.

Don’t compare apples and pears.
Learn how to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapist

……….or bus journeys and bike journeys. You can learn to enjoy a different way of doing things. Particularly with the ride into Edinburgh I felt conscious of how long it was taking me. But the second time I did this run I was able to enjoy the opportunity of being out and getting exercise rather than focusing on whether I was using my time ‘efficiently’ (and actually traffic snarls aren’t a factor on a bike path).

This applies to other behaviour changes too; you need to acknowledge what you’ll lose by changing what you do, but you can also appreciate what you’ll gain.

Some investments are worth it.
Learn how to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde counselling

It felt like an extravagance to buy a new bike – but a lighter bike made it easier for me to use it more (although things have improved, in the UK we have bike paths that involve carrying your bike up the steps of a bridge over a railway, for example).

If you can afford it, it’s worth spending money on things that will facilitate you changing what you do; e.g. buying a good pannier rack meant that it’s simple for me to carry stuff comfortably on my bike.  

Ask for help.
Learn how to change behaviour - therapy in East Lothian

Flippin’ heck, I can never be reminded of this one too often….. Only my saddle almost falling off pushed me into it; but of course cycling is a friendly world – and when I took my bike into Edinburgh Bike Co-op they graciously sorted it out instantly and free of charge. What’s the worst that could have happened? They might have said no, or have charged me a few quid. Big deal.

It takes time.
Learn how to change behaviour - counselling in East Lothian

If you do something enough times, it forms a habit. But you HAVE to do it enough times, in order to remind yourself that this is how life is now. I decided at the end of the week to keep the ‘use-it-every-day’ practice going for another week to try and develop a routine. Since then other things have happened and I’ve been away, but I notice I AM using my bike more as it’s higher up my consciousness.

In the second part of this blog, I’ll be talking about why it’s difficult to change habits and behaviours, and – crucially – offering some tips on how to make and maintain changes.

If you’re interested in support for making changes, or just have questions, please get in touch with me through my contact page.