Whys and Hows of Behavior Change

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?

On a typical work day, what’s for lunch?

What’s the most common way you spend your hours before bed?

Each of us has different answers to these questions, and no single answer will make or break our health. But all of the answers, in combination with all of the other automatic choices we make from sun up to sun down add up to our daily habits, the primary factor that determines our health if you ask me. Sometimes it’s smart to sweat the small stuff, because it adds up whether we pay attention or not. Our daily habits define the shape, content, and quality of our lives.

We know inherently that changing our daily behaviors can lead to greater health, success, and peace of mind.

So why is it so hard to do?

Lots of reasons, but here’s one. Often the changes we intuitively know are healthy for us require us to be with ourselves in a way that is outside of our comfort zone. For example, eating less sugar, drinking less alcohol, meditating more, and decreasing screen time all necessitate that we be in our own skin without a buffer that we’ve grown accustomed to. It takes energy and motivation to leave our comfort zones, and in the hustle of typical modern life, ain’t nobody got time for that. We’re too busy or exhausted from living our lives to tend to the habits we KNOW will make our lives so much better. Snacks and netflix is so much easier. What a pickle.

Sugar, fat, alcohol, oh my! They can each bring us comfort.

Sugar, fat, alcohol, oh my! They can each bring us comfort.

So what to do, Dr. Erin? The answer is certainly different for each person, but here’s what I have to offer. In Chinese medicine, the natural world is viewed from a perspective of yin and yang polarities. For example, yang represents the masculine, fire, and the sun, while yin represents the feminine, water, and the moon. I find this a helpful orientation to adopt when exploring complicated concepts like behavior change.

First let’s look at yang behavior change and imagine that it takes the form of your inner drill sergeant. He pushes you in the direction of positive change with some force, seeing clearly that you would be better off if you were different in some way than you are presently. This is the part of you that has the capacity to “light a fire under your ass” or “whip yourself into shape”. It can be a generative or destructive force, instilling discipline and goal-orientation, or beating you down until you give up on the direction entirely. Scientists are still trying to work out the physiology of will-power and discipline, but studies repeatedly demonstrate that pushing through on will-power alone is not sustainable. Subsequent tasks suffer when you repeatedly light a fire under your ass. (1)

I can’t even handle a personal trainer, so this is literally my nightmare. But you can bet he’s whipped those boys into shape!

I can’t even handle a personal trainer, so this is literally my nightmare. But you can bet he’s whipped those boys into shape!

Now let’s imagine yin behavior change taking the shape of your inner grandma. She knows what a good life looks like for you and gently pushes you to make choices that will point you in that direction. This is the part of you that comforts you and dusts you off when you fall, and whispers words of encouragement to convince you to try again. She too can be generative or destructive, however. Grandma has no shortage of kindness and compassion when you need it most, but she can also coddle you into laziness and apathy, because she’ll love you no matter what. A correlate to this might be loving-kindness meditation, which has had mixed results when it comes to behavior changes like weight loss. (2) 

It’s important to love you like grandma loves you.

It’s important to love you like grandma loves you.

Balance

I’m a libra, and it always comes back to balance for me. In Do it for You, we use the concept of the “inner healer” to guide us through the course. Your inner healer might sound like a drill sergeant or a grandma or something entirely different depending on the situation. When it comes down to it, you have to get clear on what you want for yourself and remind yourself each time you forget it. Then behavior change is a just matter of strengthening your remembrance muscle, if you will. Both yang and yin are essential to get from point A to point B. Somewhere in there with the drill sergeant and your grandma, you know exactly where you want to be and just how to get there. You got this!