I realised recently that it’s 20 years since I had my first experience of counselling, as a client. It prompted me to think about the course that my life has taken since then, and to see that counselling did change my life.
I can’t remember now, exactly what it was that prompted me to seek counselling in 2003. I was miserable, I know that much. Feeling depressed, stressed, trapped, that life was meaningless, not feeling good enough – all these had been familiar states of being for me as long as I could remember, certainly since early teenage. I didn’t think of myself as having a bad life, as these feelings were interspersed with periods of relief, moments of joy, happy events and the comfort of some truly meaningful relationships.
I think I was probably closer to truly believing “I can’t cope” than usual. “I can’t cope” is a phrase that I’ve become accustomed to hearing from other people, yet actually unhappy people are very good at coping. Coping is what we do; we manage, we survive, we keep on going. Often, I believe, when we say “I can’t cope” to another person, something in us is saying “I don’t want ‘coping’ to be my way of life. I want more from life than ‘coping.’”
I remember that I went to my GP. It wasn’t the first time that I had spoken to a doctor about mental distress, although I didn’t have the language to describe it other than to say that I was stressed. Although the word ‘depression’ had resonated with me for many years I thought that people who were depressed didn’t have functioning lives so didn’t think I had the right to the word. On at least one previous doctor’s appointment, I’d been offered medication, but had been reluctant to pursue that route, thinking agreeing would be an admission that I was never going to feel better (rather than seeing it as an opportunity to help me feel better).
I can’t now remember whether I was offered anti-depressants in 2003, but I do remember the GP giving me a leaflet with a list of local counsellors and counselling organisations on it. They couldn’t provide me with this via the NHS, but they could signpost me to where I could access it for myself.
I now see that even that was hugely important – the doctor (I can’t remember who it was, but I can certainly remember those old white male GPs who it sure as shit wouldn’t have been) helping me believe that talking to someone was a valid avenue to pursue, and also that there was something I could do for myself that might help, rather than getting that via the NHS. GPs even now have a powerful role, and that GP – though I had wanted them to tell me what to do – handed some of that power back to me.
Clearly I was in a sufficiently privileged position to be able to pay for counselling, although I’m sure I, like many clients I’ve worked with since, struggled to believe that it was really a justifiable expenditure. I expect I could probably have afforded more than the 4 or 5 sessions I permitted myself, but at the time, my emotional wellbeing didn’t sit in the same position in my priorities that it does now. In fact, the phrase ‘my emotional wellbeing’ wouldn’t even have been in my vocabulary.
There’s lots I can’t remember. I can’t remember the name of the counsellor who I saw, although I’m reminded of them anytime I pass the end of the street that they lived on, where I would visit for sessions on dark winter evenings. I wouldn’t recognise them if I passed them in the street. I don’t remember much of what we talked about.
What I do remember is that, during those few weeks, I noticed an advert in my local paper for care assistants at a local respite centre. The pay was significantly lower than my earnings in my customer service role in a financial company, yet something drew me to it. I didn’t really believe I should apply for a job as a care assistant; I worried I was just trying to run away from work stress in my existing role, but I mentioned it to my counsellor, who responded as if it was a perfectly normal thing to be interested in, and helped me explore the potential rewards and fulfilment in such a position that were missing from my job. I remember her suggesting that caring for others might in itself be something that I would find nourishing.
It was possibly the first time that I’d been encouraged to trust my gut instinct for what felt right, rather than what I imagined was the appropriate or culturally expected way forward (and by culturally I mean my family culture as well as society; I already thought I was a failure for not having a ‘graduate’ job).
I went into the session wondering if my counsellor would know what was wrong with me for being attracted to that job. I came out of the session thinking “I am allowed to want this.”
And I made a change.
I resigned my job in the city and exchanged a long bus commute for a half-hour drive across farmland in the opposite direction, to Leuchie House, a respite centre for people with long-term conditions. I can remember those first shifts, where I didn’t really know what I was doing, but was blown away by all the interesting guests (we never called them patients) I got to meet, and nourished by the gratitude and appreciation they expressed to me for helping them with tasks of daily living that I took for granted.
It changed my life.
I didn’t stay in the role for long. Caring wasn’t for me after all, plus the pay levels at the time were unsustainable for me, on top of running a car to commute 30 miles a day (there being no public transport). I found the process of deciding what to next, 10 months later, stressful, and felt anxious about my future all over again – but I still didn’t regret having made that move. I remained with the organisation, ultimately moving to a managerial role and developing a career in human resources, and stayed there for 13 years, during which the organisation went through some incredibly challenging times, and so did I.
It wasn’t perfect, and at times I struggled with work stress. By the time I left to build a private counselling practice, I felt I had given as much as I could and was ready to go.
But I also thrived in the various roles that I had, and at times felt a sense of purpose that had been missing, being part of a team working towards a single aim, that of providing the best possible nursing care in a holiday home environment. I met and worked with some really inspirational and passionate people. And the experience that I gained, including practising mediation skills, having difficult conversations, supporting colleagues through difficult times, meant, when I was offered the opportunity to do a counselling skills course, I jumped at it, which ultimately led me to being a therapist today.
I’m absolutely not saying that I took one step in a different direction and never looked back. The decision to switch jobs didn’t change me totally. That younger Lucy, who was stressed, depressed, anxious and self-judgmental still resides within me. Although she doesn’t appear anything like as much, or have such an influence on what I think and feel and do, that’s not just about me having had one change of direction. It’s thanks to many years of therapy, lots of hours of psychotherapy training, learning Focusing skills and practising behaviours or skills to shift my mindset, over those 20 years. Plus a bunch of other experiences, influential people and being taught to see that difficult times could also be AFLOGs (Another Fucking Learning Opportunity for Growth).
But, as I look back over 20 years, I can see the thread that links my life now – as a therapist moving into my seventh year of self-employment – to the choice I made as a result of those few counselling sessions in someone’s living room 20 years ago. I can see the thread that links some rewarding adventures, following scary decisions, to the encouragement, from that therapist back then, to trust what feels right, not what I imagine other people think is right.
And I’m very, very grateful to that anonymous counsellor whose name I’ve forgotten, and who doesn’t know the huge difference she made. Counselling changes lives.
If you’ve read this you might be wondering whether you could use some help in making a big decision – or a small one. A decision that might seem relatively small, can have a much bigger impact on your life than you expect.
Or perhaps something is feeling off-kilter in your life and you don’t know what to do about it. Maybe you don’t want ‘coping’ to be your life. Talking to someone can help you to access a deeper understanding in yourself, and discover that there is wisdom there that can show you the way.
Ever wondered WHY talking to a therapist helps you feel better? Counselling / psychotherapy works by promoting changes in the brain through the experience of sharing thoughts and feelings within a safe, secure relationship.
How does counselling promote change?
Earlier in the year I published ‘How does therapy work? – Part 1’, which talked about the practicalities of what to expect when you start counselling for the first time.
But that question – ‘How does therapy work?’ – can be answered in another way.
What is it that makes talking therapy an effective resource for helping you feel better?
What processes are at work there?
“Can I fix this problem in me?”
Many clients come to counselling, believing that if they could just understand WHY they feel so depressed, or anxious, or stressed, or angry, they would be able to do something about it. It seems like a no-brainer, right? It seems such a logical process:
It needs fixing
If I figure out what it is I can fix it
Then it won’t be broken anymore
We can expend a lot of energy in the trying-to-fix, and often exhaust ourselves with thinking round and round a problem before we even get to point of finding a counsellor, eventually deciding we need an expert who’ll be better at fixing or figuring-out, to help us with the WHY.
But that’s NOT how therapy helps.
More understanding about ‘root causes’ CAN be helpful – but only if it encourages you to take a more compassionate attitude to yourself. In terms of ‘fixing the problem’……….
It might be that the reason for the depression, anxiety or stress is something that happened to you – and you can’t go back and change that
It might be that we’ll never know exactly why you have symptoms of anxiety or feel so angry – because you can’t remember everything that’s ever happened to you in life
If therapy isn’t about fixing problems – what IS it?
The way I see it – it’s all about the relationship.
The relationship you have with others.
The relationship you have with yourself.
The truth appears to be that many human struggles, from phobias to obesity, are consequences of evolution and not deficiencies of character. Identifying problems that we hold in common and developing methods to circumvent or correct them is a solid foundation upon which to build a therapeutic alliance.
What is the therapeutic relationship?
Asay and Lambert (1999) researched the factors that influenced the effectiveness of therapy. They found that the biggest contributor towards how well someone responded to therapy is ‘client variables and extratherapeutic events’ – i.e. what other shit is going on in your life, what supports you have around you, and how motivated you are to do the necessary work in order to make changes in your life.
The second biggest contribution – 30% – is the therapeutic relationship: the relationship that the client and the therapist form as they work together. This is why it’s important to find someone you feel comfortable – or comfortable enough – to talk to. You need to be able to trust your therapist. You need to feel safe in order to be able to explore those feelings.
I think of therapeutic work as being about GROWTH (I want more of myself) and RECOVERY (I want to feel less wounded by what happened to me).
Both growth and recovery need to be nourished in an environment that feels safe enough, as the client will at times be feeling very vulnerable and exposed as they reveal their innermost hopes and hurts. The therapist won’t laugh at, or criticise, these tender, vulnerable parts – and for some clients, that experience of compassionate, loving attention may never have occurred before. Seen in this light, the therapeutic relationship really is healing.
Another important aspect is CHANGE – which is presumably what you, as a client, are looking for. If you’re content with things staying just as they are, you’re probably not going to look for a counsellor. So, there’s something you want to change, whether it’s changing an aspect of your life situation, or changing the way in which you feel about something or somebody (including yourself). Both involve you needing to do something different in terms of your behaviour – from changing the way that you talk to yourself, to taking steps to change how you live your life.
Lots of research has demonstrated that changes take place within the brain during the therapy process. Although the most significant change and learning takes place during the first seven years of life, the brain continues to change and adapt throughout our lives, as we do new and different things. This is what’s meant by neuroplasticity.
When we encounter new situations or experiences (for example, the experience of believing that another person – the therapist – really wholeheartedly accepts us just as we are), we develop new neural networks. These networks get stronger each time we repeat the same experience – it’s a bit like walking over the same route repeatedly. A path gets clearer as we use it more, and the old path, as it gets less used, gets overgrown.
The most recent research has demonstrated that brains have evolved socially – i.e. that the brains have evolved to connect with other brains, which explains why we can be influenced by the feelings of others. When people feel something we feel it too, by the brain creating an internal model of the other. So the therapist can influence the brain of the client by modelling and attunement; I’ll say more about this later.
There’s a great clip by Louis Cozolino talking about this here:
Within the relationship between therapist and client, a number of different experiences may take place, that support you, as the client, in making changes. These include:
having a neutral space with someone who has no connection to your life situation
hearing yourself say things out loud for the first time (and having them offered back to you)
being in a relationship with someone who accepts the whole of you just as you are
making sense of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours and where they may have come from
learning and practising ways to change your relationship with yourself
finding resources to improve your wellbeing
bringing your attention to how you and the counsellor relate to each other (helping you choose a different way of responding in relationships with others)
being able to experience strong emotions and still be OK
subconscious-level experiences, such as getting your emotional needs met
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
Opening up to someone neutral
“This is the first place I’ve had where it felt OK to say how I really feel.” That’s what Mandy*, who’d got in touch because of overwhelming social anxiety, said to me at the end of her first session. And many, many clients say a similar thing when I ask them how it’s been – that first occasion of speaking to someone, where you don’t worry about the impact of what you say on them, is so DIFFERENT.
Sometimes, you might not even realise how much you self-check or monitor when you’re talking to family and friends (no matter how much you trust them). You worry that if you really tell them how much it hurts, or how lost you feel, they’ll be frightened, or worry about you, or feel that they have to do something to make it better. The relationship between counsellor-me and client-you is different from ALL of those, and that means that you actually get to air those thoughts and feelings that generally just keep buzzing around inside your head, and……..
Saying things out loud for the first time – and hearing them
The experience of hearing your words reflected back when you share your thoughts and feelings can be very powerful. Speaking out lets that part of you that feels stressed, or angry, or ashamed, know that it’s OK to share that; and to have that received with empathy and understanding reinforces that sense.
Even if it’s not the first time you’ve spoken to someone about what’s going on for you, often people’s responses are something along the lines of ‘oh, yes, that happens to me too, isn’t it awful’ or focused on figuring out how to fix your problem, both of which don’t really make space for your feelings. When I offer your words back to you, you know that you really have my full attention, and that it’s important to me that I really hear and understand just how it is for you.
Being accepted just as you are
You’ve probably come to therapy because you want to change something about your life or about yourself; you might think there’s something ‘wrong’ with you. But although I’ll talk about what you want to be different in your life, my starting point is that you are an OK human being just as you are, right now.
That doesn’t mean that I won’t be able to see that some behaviours or thoughts you have may be unhelpful, or hindering you, but I believe your core, your fundamental being, is right.
Making sense of thoughts, feelings and behaviours
Probably, as we talk, we’ll discover that those behaviours and thoughts and feelings mentioned above, are actually a pretty logical and normal response to your experiences in your family, in your life, and in a society, culture and world, that is frequently dysfunctional and restrictive of natural human growth. You might be reading this and thinking “but nothing bad happened in my childhood”, because a frequent narrative is that unless you’ve experienced ‘capital-T-trauma’ you should be a fully-functioning confident adult.
However, there are many aspects of 21st century life that discourage us from following natural healthy tendencies. These include:
excessive exposure to other people’s lives via social media, encouraging us to make unhealthy comparisons;
product marketing that is designed to play on our insecurities, promoting a sense of not being ‘enough’;
political and social attitudes that put increased emphasis on the individual rather than recognising collective, community responsibilities for each other; and
disconnect between a philosophy that economic growth is appropriate or desirable, versus the real existential threat to life – via the climate crisis and unequal access to resources – that such a philosophy promotes.
Emotional distress is a natural response to living in today’s world, no matter what your individual history is.
Getting a better understanding of the links between how you feel and the context of your life, while it doesn’t ‘fix the problem’ in itself, can help you be more accepting of your emotional experience. It can also help you recognise those areas that are outwith your control, and those areas that you can do something about, so that you can choose where to focus your energy to make changes.
Developing a better relationship with yourself
The experience of me accepting you just as you are, right now, combined with greater understanding of why you have the emotional experiences that you do, are really powerful in supporting you to shift from a self-critical to a self-accepting attitude.
In addition, I’ll often point out the language that you use in talking about your thoughts, feelings or behaviours. Language can reveal a punitive attitude to yourself that you may not have realised you had; a common example is using the word ‘should’ – “I should be doing such-and-such” which implies that you are failing if you’re not doing this.
Noticing this, and making small changes subtly shifts your attitude towards yourself – in this example, replacing ‘should’ with ‘could’ is softer, more permission-giving, less judgmental. The language that we use in relationships is powerful, and that applies in your relationship with yourself too.
I’m interested in ALL the thoughts and feelings that you have, even – in fact, especially – ones that seem contradictory, inappropriate or unattractive, and I’ll encourage these different aspects of you to get an equal say, possibly in contrast with your previous tendency to squash them down or ignore them. As I do this, I’ll support you to make space for these parts yourself – which usually leads to you realising that they’re not as scary or unpleasant as you thought they were, and you’ll discover that you can develop a compassionate attitude towards them.
Finding resources to help your wellbeing
There are two aspects to this, as one place you’ll find resources is within yourself. There’s a good chance that, when you’re finding things difficult, there are tools that you already know help you. In fact, one of the solutions to helping you feel better, can be to do more of what you’re already doing, or to remind yourself of things that have helped in the past that you’ve stopped.
You might say to me “but I’ve been doing my yoga / getting out for walks / going to bed early so I should feel OK” – yet sometimes our need for what resources us is greater than at others, and recognising that can be helpful.
The other aspect is looking for new resources. I’ll encourage you to come up with your own ideas, sometimes by us exploring together what already helps or hinders you in feeling well, and developing further ideas from this. I might also make suggestions based on my experience of what other people have found helpful.
I’ll ask you to focus on the smallest possible next step you can take, because building things up gradually is more manageable. The experience of successfully making a small change is more motivational and encouraging of hope, than trying and failing to make a big one!
Understanding your patterns of relating
You and I can learn a lot about the way you are in relationships, by noticing what happens in our relationship – we’ve got really valuable information playing out in real time in sessions. For example, when I first started working with Mahmood* he would sometimes take a long time to answer questions that I put to him, and I could see that he was thinking hard before he replied. After a few sessions, we reviewed the work together and I discovered that at these times he was working hard to try and guess the ‘right answer’ to my question – his focus was on giving me what he imagined I wanted. This was relevant for his process in relationships generally, where he found it difficult to pay attention to his own needs as he was so concentrated on keeping the other person happy.
Discovering this meant that when I saw this happening, I could bring his attention to it and we could notice what his internal experience was in those moments, paying attention to the part of him that felt it had to keep the other person happy, and checking out what it needed. Mahmood was also able to experiment with not giving me the right answer, or with telling me when my questions didn’t make sense or feel relevant, noticing what feelings this triggered and how he could learn to tolerate them. The therapy session can be a safe enough space to try a different response, before taking that different behaviour into the outside world.
Developing resilience and recovery
Often clients say to me at the start of our work together that they want to get rid of a feeling – of anxiety, or anger, for example. I’m clear that I won’t help someone to ‘get rid’ of any aspect of themselves – it doesn’t fit with my philosophy of the whole of that person being OK. As mentioned earlier, feelings are a response to a situation, a response that has been a natural, logical step for some aspect of that person at some time in the past, even if with their grown adult perspective it may not seem helpful now.
Your way of dealing with an uncomfortable or overwhelming feeling might have been to try and ‘not feel’ it, to suppress it, ignore it, or distract yourself from it in some way – through over-eating, perhaps, or through getting very very busy doing things. In therapy we do something different – I welcome the feeling, and hold a safe space for you to gently turn towards it.
I’m there to pace you, to encourage you to pause when it feels like it’s too much, to help you get some distance between you and the feeling so that you’re able to experience it as part of you rather than feeling consumed by it. Almost always, you’ll find that you’re more able to tolerate these strong feelings than you realised.
And crucially, by giving the parts of you, that are anxious or angry or stressed, some time and attention, they will usually settle down and be less demanding. I use the analogy of a small child screaming with distress – you could shut her in a cupboard, but she’s going to carry on crying, whereas if you sit her on your knee and ask what’s going on she’ll begin to calm down.
Getting your emotional needs met
Sometimes the most profound and important work that happens in our relationship together is the hardest to see and articulate, that we may not talk about explicitly in sessions. This takes the form of interpersonal (between you and I) and intrapsychic (within your mind) growth and development.
As we work together, I influence your brain through modelling, where I demonstrate a way of being that may be different from other significant caregivers in your life. Modelling is much more powerful than verbal instruction – ‘Do as I do’ is hugely more influential than ‘Do as I say’!
I’ll also be influencing your brain through attunement, which is where I allow myself to resonate with your emotional experience, genuinely listening and caring about what is going on in your inner world. Attunement is fundamental for children to develop their ability to securely attach to others, but sometimes we don’t get enough of this when we’re little. The therapy relationship is ‘reparative’ – repairing the deficit. As we work together we create the optimum conditions for your inner growth and development, supporting you to be more able to meet your emotional needs – both in your responses to yourself, and in your ability to voice your needs to other people.
This is one of the seemingly ‘magical’ effects of therapy, that you can start to feel better, to learn to like yourself, by the experience of being in a relationship with someone that is reparative and healing of your previous wounds.
All of the above experiences happen over and over again during the counselling relationship. There may be some moments where it feels like a lightbulb goes off in your head, and something big changes, but more often, in my experience, the process of therapy is one of re-learning or adjusting your way of being.
It’s not a straightforward linear process where you steadily feel more and more like the person you want to be. Shit will still happen and you’ll sometimes be triggered by it and react exactly like you did before you started counselling. The difference is you’ll be more familiar with, and understanding of, those reactions and can use your new learning to recover more quickly from those experiences.
Effective psychotherapy or counselling is a transformation that therapist and client facilitate together by allowing ourselves to really connect to each other in relationship. It’s mutual work – not something ‘done’ to the client by the therapist, but something that is built together. Like any work, it can sometimes be hard, or a trudge, but it’s sometimes fun and enjoyable! Importantly, to be able to work together to create something, client and therapist need to be able to establish a good-enough, safe, trusting relationship where both can be vulnerable to being impacted by the other.
Psychotherapy is not a modern intervention, but a relationship-based learning environment grounded in the history of our social brains.
If reading this has been helpful, you might also want to check out ‘What happens in therapy – Part 1’ where I talk about the practicalities of what’s involved from that very initial contact.
And if you think I’m someone who you’d like to try and build that therapeutic, growthful relationship with, please get in touch.
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.
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’.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
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!
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
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
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.
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
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.)
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.