In Order To Make Big Changes: Start Small

In Order To Make Big Changes: Start Small

When it comes to changes, most of us want to make big changes and see big results almost instantly. That’s why so many New Years resolutions and even regular goals fail. We only see the big picture and often get lost in all the effort it will take to see those changes.

What we should do however is focus on the little things. If we want to lose 30 pounds we can go on a crash diet that may work for a while only to see those 30 pounds plus some come back when we stop the diet, or we can start small by reaching for a glass of water instead of that soft drink, walking for 10 mins a day or adding more vegetables to our next meal instead of foods high in carbs.

If we want to save money we can get frustrated with the amount  we want to save and how little extra money we feel like we have to put towards that savings, or we can decide to put away an extra $10 here or there, to cancel that subscription to Spotify or to start bringing our lunch to work or cooking at home to save money.

In both scenarios, before you know it, because it didn’t take an extraordinarily amount of effort,  you will be inching towards your goals and likely will have found the motivation to increase your efforts, even more.

Think about the stories we hear of successful basketball players like Kobe Bryant who spend hours in the gym shooting free throws or three pointers just so when they make the “big shot” in the game it’s really just a series of small things that have come together.

Recently I watched a documentary on body builder and 8 time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman. For years he competed, but never won the Mr. Olympia title until one night, just before the show, with hesitancy, but with the urgency of another body builder, broke his routine. He was encouraged to relax, to have a drink and even eat some pizza. He was simply encouraged to not be so serious. The next morning he woke up and won the Mr. Olympia for the first time and he said he believes it was because he was so relaxed and allowed himself to have fun. Something so small ended up changing his life.

We all have changes we want to make and many people do not make those changes because they get lost in the totality of it all. Start small, put one foot forward and then the next. Before you know it you will have reached a goal you may have thought impossible or at least have gotten yourself further than you ever thought you could.


leisure-woman-mdnI’ve learned a lot from counseling other people and personal experience that a lot of anxiety and grief comes from refusing to accept reality.

A lot of times our perceptions or what we want things to be are out of line with reality. When we fight against that and refuse to accept to see things the way they are, it can create a lot of anxiety, depression, anger and neurotic behaviors. Ignoring reality keeps us stuck and doesn’t allow us to move on so that we can create and live a better, happier life.

We sometimes get stuck in relationships with partners, friends, and family members that need to be ended or at least changed in the way we deal with those people. Being in a relationship with an alcoholic for example, who refuses to stop drinking, while you hold on to the ideal that one day they will stop, will only disappoint and hurt you over and over again.

You have to see the person for who they are. That doesn’t mean you leave them if you don’t want to or stop trying to offer them help, it means that you align yourself more with reality so that everytime you find that person drunk you don’t take it personal and maybe it means you put more responsibilty on that person to attain sobriety instead of on yourself to do it for them. This will not only take a tremendous burdan from you, but it will also allow you to step back and see the situation more clearly.

The same goes for any relationship, including work.

Sometimes at work we make ourselves miserable, wishing things were different instead of accepting the reality of the way things are. By accepting reality, we can choose to either adjust to it so that we are able to maintain our sanity and a sense of accomplishment or we can decide that this particular job isn’t working for us and we need to move on. That’s what accepting reality does, it allows us to move on in little or big ways from situations that are not working for us.

Most of us don’t like change or for things to end, but often these things are necessary. Sometimes you have to leave one job to find a better one, or change the way you relate to a family member in order to have peace of mind. Beginnings, middles and ends all have their places in our lives and we can’t be afraid of them.

For example, few months ago I was hesitant to enter a new relationship becasue I hate beginnings and endings. I don’t like the feeling of having to “sell myself” or for someone to “sell themselves” to me, and I definitely don’t like the end of relationships. I prefer the middle, where everything is comfortable and stable and all the nuiances of the beginning have already been worked out, but no ending is in sight. However, you can’t get to the middle without the beginning so I had to accept that and I am glad I did as it has allowed me to not only get to know a wonderful person, but to explore myself and the way I am in relationships so that hopefully this relationship will have no ending.

Not accepting things can make us stay in dead relationships and jobs way too long out of fear of the unknown, and sometimes that is okay. Sometimes we are not ready or strong enough to make the change needed and we need some time to build our strength. This is not something to beat yourself up over because change takes preparation and when we are ready, when we feel strong enough, we will make the change necessary. No one can tell us when we are ready, but we’ll know. As long as we are accepting the reality of the situation, we will know when the time is right to make change.

Every real relationship we have, job we have, place we go has lessons for us to learn and once we’ve learned those lessons, it is often time to move on or to change something about ourselves. Making changes takes courage and faith and the ability to let go of fear, something I personally have to work on. We have to know that while change can be difficult and scary, we will be okay.

I personally believe that our lives are carefully and lovingly planned and that all of us are right where we are supposed to be. We aren’t off track or a mistake. We are currently, at this moment, right where we are supposed to be, with the people we are supposed to be with, for one reason or another. Each step is a lesson and change is usually just a progression of lessons. Sometimes people have to learn to love and be loved. To stand up for themselves. To stop wasting time and money on other people or wasting away at dead end jobs. Everything is a lesson and until we learn what the lesson is through acceptance, we’ll continue to be faced with the same challenges.

Once we’ve learned those lessons, we will be presented with new ones. It’s just the way the universe works.

Not all lessons we have to learn are painful, but sometimes we have to go through those painful lessons so that we can get to the lessons that are filled with love and happiness. By accepting reality and where we currently are, even if we don’t like that place, it will help us learn the lessons that situation has to teach us so that we can not only be grateful for them, but also move on.

People who struggle with acceptance usually end up creating a life for themsleves that is full of drama, heart ache, confusion, disappointment and regrets. Acceptance helps us take those lessons and become stronger, smarter and

Change And Inertia: Embarking On A New Adventure

6a00d8341d537753ef00e55133a7c08833-800wiI hate change, which I know is probably strange for me to say because during my therapy sessions I do a lot of what is called change talk, which is talking about and encouraging change. I generally consider myself to be an agent of change as I guide my clients through the stages of change, but I myself have always had issues with change. I don’t like it.

Some people love change and I always admire those people. They love new adventures, they adapt quickly, and never seem to get stuck in a rut or dead end job. They seem to just be wired differently and indeed, the ease to which people accept or don’t accept change is a personality trait known as the Openness trait and some people are naturally more open than others to change.

My fear of change over the years has cost me a lot. It has kept me at jobs I should have moved on from for far too long and in relationships I should have left for far too long. It has also kept me from experiencing many pleasures and probably some pains and failures, otherwise known as learning experiences and opportunities to grow.

I, like a lot of people, like being comfortable, playing it safe, even when that inertia isn’t all that great and sometimes downright unpleasant. There’s a popular quote by a late, great female therapist, I couldn’t find it or her name, but it basically says that we prefer the familiar negative to the potential unfamiliar positive, except of course she said it more beautifully.

And this tends to be true, at least for me and the majority of my clients who struggle to make changes in their thinking and interpersonal lives because they are afraid of what the new change will bring, good or bad, but they know exactly what the old thinking and behavior will continue to bring them, both good and bad. This is one of many reasons people resist change.

This is why I think I was so successful at helping people make changes they found difficult to make, because I understood their ambivalence towards change, their desire to both want to change and not want to change at the same time because I’ve experienced it so many times myself, even in ways that bordered being neurotic.

It’s easier to stay the same. Inertia is much easier than movement, especially when that movement has to be sustained, yet inertia robs us of so many experiences, opportunity and growth. A fellow therapist recently old me that if you are comfortable, then you are not growing. You should always be challenging yourself.

It’s that comfort zone I try to push my clients out of because sometimes you have to become a little uncomfortable to truly grow and realize your full potential and the same applies to me.

Some of you who follow my blog may know that the grant that pays for me to serve the students at the inner-city school I work at is coming to an end this Friday. The school has been working really hard to find funding to keep me and they may be close to working something out, but I couldn’t count on that to come through so reluctantly I started looking for another job.

Well an opportunity came up for me to apply for a job as a supervisor at the mental hospital I used to work at fresh out of grad school as a supervisor over the crisis unit I used to work at. I loved working in the mental hospital, I enjoyed dealing with people in various stages of a crisis from emotional and mental break downs to substance withdrawals.

This opportunity would force me to grow, push me out of my comfort zone, pay better and definitely be an upward climb in my professional career, so I applied for the job and got the news Friday that I got it. I should be excited right? But remember, I don’t like change and I do love working at the inner-city school I currently work at even though I potentially won’t be there next school year anyway because of funding.

One of my first students and myself.

I love working with the teenagers I work with, helping mold young lives and by taking this job at the mental hospital, I would miss that although in my private practice I would still see a very small number of teenagers. Although I would be taking a pay cut to stay at the school, potentially not have a job this year or next year AND still be stagnant career wise, I seriously thought about turning down the supervisor job to stay where I was comfortable, in a place that would require no effort (inertia) although I know I would love doing my job (compared to the unknown level of satisfaction of a new job).

I’ve had similar opportunities twice in the past two years to make more money and move up professionally and both times I turned it down to stay comfortable. Of course I said I did it because the kids need me, and while I felt like that was true, I also know that a large reason I stayed was fear of change.

Now however, I am pushing myself into change just as I talk to my clients about pushing themselves out of their comfort zones.

It’s with a heavy heart that I took this new job, something I should be extremely happy I got because the chances seemed so slim when I first applied and went through two interviews. After all, I have no real supervisor experience, but I have experience working in a crisis unit and my love and dedication to the mental health field and those who suffer from mental illness is unparalleled.

And it’s with a heavier heart that I have to tell the school tomorrow that I will not be returning for another school year. It’s a tough decision and one I made ultimately not out of where the money was, or where I felt most comfortable, but where I needed to be for both professional and personal growth.

I am pretty sure it won’t feel as rewarding and life changing as working with the high school students I work with, but I think it will allow me to serve people in another way while learning more about myself and the mental health system altogether.

My passion will always be teens and adolescences, and I’ll continue to write a lot about issues that effect that population, but I am sure that naturally I’ll write more and more about issues and situations I encounter working in the mental hospital.

So while I am still anxious and uncomfortable  I’m pushing myself towards this change, trying to welcome it and all of the new possibilities that come along with change. After all, how can I promote change in others if I am unwilling to go through the uncomfortableness of change myself?

Motivating Your Unmotivated Teen Part 3: The Stages Of Change

iStock_000011734632XSmallAll changes has both negative and positive consequences, which is why it is normal for people to want to change and not want to change simultaneously.

That is the hallmark of ambivalence.

Indecisiveness is a natural part of the change process and something that often drives parents crazy when they are trying to move their teenager in a certain direction that may seem like the obvious better decision to them.

It is natural however to be ambivalent about change, to be hesitant and unsure if the change is worth making.

For example, while doing better in school may allow for a teen to have more freedom at home, get better grades and improve their chances of going to college, the extra time spent studying may come at the cost of less time available to spend with friends, for after school activities or with a boyfriend and that may determine if the cost outweigh the benefits in the teen’s mind.

That’s why it’s important to know that teens may both want to do better and at the same time, not want to do better and are probably unaware of this ambivalence. The indecisiveness has to be resolved in order for the teen to see the value in the change, or little to no improvement is likely to happen.

Helping your child resolve the ambivalence may be all that is needed. By having a relationship with your child that allows open, non-judgmental communication and acceptance, the indecisiveness may be resolved on it’s own which may be all that’s needed to get the teenager to reflect on their situations and decisions.

The Stages of Change

When change happens it’s not usually on motion, instead it usually happens in five stages, identified in Motivational Interviewing through research done by James Prochaska as pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

1. Pre-contemplation:

In pre-contemplation, the teen hasn’t given any consideration to change. They see no reason to change. They don’t see a downside to their current situation, so the thought of changing hasn’t even entered into their head.

Trying to force change when your teen is in the pre-contemplation is a battle you are not likely to win, and may even sabotage motivation and the possibilities of change.

Dennis Bumgarner, ACSW, LCSW finds it helpful to ask “what if” questions when your teen is in the pre-contemplation stage, such as, “What if your grades improved?”, “What wouldn’t be different?”, “What will happen if things continue in their current direction?”, “What would be different if you did improve?”

During pre-contemplation, you want to ask questions that don’t take a particular position, but questions that get your teen to think and this thinking is what is going to move them to the contemplation phase.

When your child starts considering making a change, remember that they are still considering making the change, so fight the urge to push them too hard or start making plans for their future or they are likely to pull back.

2. Contemplation

At this phase, your teenager is considering the pros and cons of changing. They are thinking, “Maybe I should do something about my current situation.” It’s easy for parents to get overly excited at this point and start helping the teenager make plans for what they need to do to make the changes. This push may be too much and cause your teen to not move forward.

Instead, ask questions that continue to get them thinking and reminds them that you are not the expert. You are here to listen to them, hear what they are thinking and not to offer or force your opinions. You are merely being an agent of change.

Ask questions instead of making statements. Try to avoid offering advice, but instead listen as your teen contemplates making a change.

You do not want to tell your teenager how to change or try to try to make them change at this point, but what you are doing is sparking their intrinsic desire for change. Remember, intrinsic motivation is more powerful and long lasting than extrinsic motivation, so this is what you want to elicit in your teen by guiding them to and allowing them to find their own motivations for change.

3. Preparation

At this phase, thanks to your guidance, your teenager has worked through much of the ambivalence. He or she has decided to start making some changes. Perhaps they have met a study buddy, signed up for the ACT or asked a teacher for extra help. They are literally preparing to make a change.

Once again, it’s easy at this stage to get overly excited and pushy, but don’t. Instead, allow your child to make the preparations and resist the urge to help unless asked, and even then don’t over do it. Show interest and ask questions that are genuine, but not questions that appear to be to intruding and critical.

The contemplation and preparation phases are considered to be the most important part of the change process and it’s easy to sabotage your teen’s motivation at this point by going back to old ways of dealing with their unapproved behavior.

It’s natural for people to go back and forth between preparation and contemplation, and so it’s easy for parents to see this as a sign that their teen is unmotivated or unwilling to change.

Instead of looking at this as a negative, understand that it’s a natural part of the change process as what may appear to be a simple change to you may be worth considerable contemplation by your teenager.

Don’t be frustrated or judgemental, but allow your teenager space to prepare for the change at hand. Continue to support them through genuine questions and as always, listening to their thoughts.

4. Action

At this stage, your teen is actually making the change. They are actually studying, doing homework, going to all their classes, whatever the change may be. They may from time to time revert back to one of the earlier stages, but for the most part, they are making steady change and progress.

At this stage, parents are thrilled that their teen is making better choices and that’s natural, but refuse the urge to become a cheerleader. Remember, this change is not about you, but about your teenager. It’s okay to ask them what has this successful change been like for them, and that simple question is saying a lot.

Your teen may stumble as they continue to find their way through this change and that’s okay. Don’t jump in to redirect them unless they ask for it.

It’s very important that they do this on their own so at the end of the day they will know that they were responsible for making a positive change in their life and they can do it again and again.

Helping them build self-efficacy is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child.

5. Maintenance

When your child has maintained the change for six months, they are in the maintenance stage. You are very proud of the changes your teenager has made. There is likely less arguing going on and more peace in the house as you have made successful efforts in motivating your teenager!

Next post we will discuss key concepts of motivation including goals and empathy.

Motivating Your Unmotivated Teen Part 2: Understanding Change

Teen AngstIn part one we started discussing the importance of having a good relationship with your adolescent in order to help facilitate motivation and change.

Often times, too many parents try to motivate their child instead of developing motivation as a function of their relationship with their child. That means that you have to serve as a source of motivation in someway.

You can’t expect your teenager to want to do something different if you haven’t demonstrated motivation and change behavior in your own life, or if your efforts to motivate them include constant nagging and criticism.

Sometimes that is all that is needed, for a teenager to be in a relationship with other people that are inspiring.

For example, I have a running partner who is a much better runner than I am, yet running with him has motivated me. He encourages me sometimes, but for the most part, I run to not disappoint him and because I enjoy his company. In the process, I became a better runner which motivated me to continue running. The key factor in that is the relationship with my running partner that helped start the process and the motivation to continue it.

It would have been nearly impossible for me to find motivation in our running relationship if he was always cancelling or if he showed up just to show me up. The same principles apply for parents trying to help their teens find motivation. They have to have a motivating relationship.

Motivation Is Change Oriented Movement.

That is the simplest definition of motivation. This definition focuses on motivation as a matter of change that is directed towards behavior, not thinking. When it comes to motivation, it’s often more important to focus on changing the behavior and not the thinking, but changes in thinking generally follow changes in behavior.  But why do people change? What makes people, especially teenagers, decide to do something different? What factors and circumstances have to come into place to facilitate change?

Why Do Adolescents Change? 

Many people believe that people change to avoid discomfort. Often however, unpleasant feelings and experiences actually decrease the chances of someone taking action, which is another reason punishments often don’t have the long term effect they were intended to have.

There are three conditions that need to be in place for change to happen:

1. The change has to be associated with intrinsic value.

Even external consequences that have intrinsic value can work, but the teen has to find intrinsic value in the change in order for it to occur and be long lasting. You have to have a relationship with your child that allows you to discover what is intrinsically valuable to your child. Trying to do that through punishments and groundings is usually futile.

2. Your teen has to be able, willing and ready to change.

This is where a lot of parents fail, not understanding that their teenager won’t change until they are capable of making the change, are willing to make the change and then is willing to make the change. You can not push your teenager into making a change they are unwilling or not ready to make, all you are going to get is defiance and discord.

Change can not be forced on anyone, no matter how important you think the change may be or how much it makes sense. Change will only come when your teenager is willing, ready and capable of making the change required.

3. The teenager has to be in a safe, empowering and accepting environment.

Your teen’s primary environment is their relationship with you, which means you have to provide a safe, empowering and accepting relationship if you want to see your teenager make positive changes.

The number one factor in providing this type of environment/relationship is having unconditional positive regard, where your teen can feel free to express their thoughts and emotions without criticism. This doesn’t mean that you will tolerate uncivil or inappropriate behavior from your child, but it does mean that you will not try to change their thoughts.

Communication is also key in developing the type of environment necessary for change.

This means having open, non-judgmental conversations about the problem and sometimes this alone can be enough to facilitate the motivational and change processes. This can be hard for parents to do because they are used to talking, dictating and teaching, when listening to their teenager is often more  productive.

Your teenager wants to be listened to. Dictating to them what they need to do is usually a sure way to kill motivation, not induce it.

Accept your teenager for who they are.

By accepting your teen for who they are, you make room for motivation and change. If however, you criticize your teen for who they are, they are more likely to actually feel unmotivated to make any changes you would like to see them make. Acceptance facilitates change, but it doesn’t guarantee it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that you approve of your teenager’s behavior, it just means that you are not going to criticize or judge them. There is a right time for useful criticism that we will discuss in another segment.

Next post we will discuss indecisiveness and the stages of change which are important to understand when trying to understand the change process.

Motivating Your Unmotivated Teen Part One: Understanding Motivation

Lazy-teenager-001The other day while counseling a fifteen year old boy with very little motivation, failing grades and a poor attitude that is driving his mother crazy, I found myself thinking, how can I motivate him to care about his life and future.

I realized immediately after I had that thought that I was making a critical error in my thinking, one that millions of parents make every single day. I was trying to figure out a way to motivate this young man, to make him want to change, when in actuality, we can’t make anyone change.

The subject of change is a very interesting one, as we all change multiple times throughout our lives and usually know when change is needed, but when it comes to working with adolescents, they often seem unwilling to change even when we as adults know that making a change for the better would be beneficial to them.

This young man’s mother had tried many different things to make him change, including giving him incentives like allowances or extra time playing his video games, to punishments such as taking away privileges and scolding him.

She has made the same mistakes that many parents make.

External Consequences Rarely Work

Applying external consequences works on some adolescents, but not on all, and even when they don’t work, parents continue to try them and are frustrated when they don’t work.

Think about the high recidivism rate among criminals or the way countries like Cuba and North Korea seem to thumb their noses at the world even in the face of increased sanctions. External consequences, positive or negative, rarely work.

If you have been trying punishments or rewards with your adolescent and aren’t getting the results you were hoping for, it’s time to start thinking about doing something different.

Talking Sense Into Them

Another thing parents often do that can backfire is that they hound their adolescent, trying to lecture them into change. Usually it’s with good intent, but lectures can actually have the opposite effect of what they were intended to do.

When parents lecture their teens, they tell them how smart they are, how talented they are, etc., yet if the teen doesn’t believe this about him or herself, they are usually going to think that their parents either:

  1. don’t really know them, which means that their parents will lose some credibility with their teen, or
  2. the teen will feel even worse for wasting their talents or intelligence and become even less encouraged and motivated.

Think about listening to a motivational speech. They usually motivate you for a short while or they demotivate you, making you feel incapable of accomplishing what you are being told you can.

These external influences work even less if the teen is already unmotivated, overwhelmed, disheartened, demoralized or anxious in the first place when it comes to school and/or their future.

Instead of lecturing, it’s good to listen more to what your adolescent values, feels and thinks about themselves and what they want. By listening more, you will learn and understand your teenager better so that when you do talk to them, you won’t come off as  patronizing.

You Can’t Motivate Anyone or Make Anyone Change

Over the years I’ve helped many adolescents change, stop using drugs, start making better grades and even graduate and go off to college, but I can’t say I motivated or changed any of them.

I know that what is going to motivate the young man I am working with, just like the teens I’ve helped in the past,  isn’t going to come from me. I know that I can only help to facilitate change and motivation, but I can not make him change or to become motivated.

Like most parents, his mom thought that she could motivate him to change. That if he got motivated, he would do the work, but that is not how motivation tends to work.

We rarely get motivated and then do something, but instead start doing something, like the outcome of what we are doing and then get motivated to continue doing it.

Think about when you are cleaning your house or trying to lose weight.

You may “feel” motivated to clean or lose weight, but usually once you see the house start looking a little cleaner, or the weight falling off, you get motivated to continue. That’s where the bulk of the motivation comes from. We do something and then get motivated.

For instance, if I waited until I was motivated to workout, I would rarely workout. More than half the time I don’t feel like working out, but I force myself to go to the gym and once there, I usually find motivation from seeing other people working out, or once I start my work out I just feel motivated to workout harder.

Your teenager may not be motivated to study, but if he or she sees their grades go up from studying, they will probably become motivated to continue studying.

Doing Something Different

So I know that I can’t motivate this young man and his mom had been trying unsuccessfully for years to motivate him. What we can do however is to try getting him to do something different that will hopefully inspire motivation from within.

Intrinsic motivation is far more powerful and long lasting than extrinsic motivation.

Parents often waste a lot of time trying to get their teenagers to change the way they think, and I too often do the same as part of cognitive behavioral therapy, but when it comes to motivation, this isn’t usually the most effective way to bring about change. Instead, what we want to do is try to change their behavior, at least to get the desired behavior started in hopes that doing something different will elicit motivation and thus change the way they think.

You never know where motivation is going to come from.

I once asked a teenager to try to study for one hour a day and one hour only (he had been studying none at all). By studying one hour a day, he managed to get a “C” on an exam when he had gotten “D’s” and “F’s” on all previous exams. His teacher then complimented him on his “C” and so did a girl he liked. He then started studying more than an hour a week and his grades rose to “A’s” and “B’s”.

His parents were elated at my “ability to motivate” their son, but I knew that all I did was move him in the direction of the desired behavior and the motivation came from himself and his world. Once he saw the results of his behavior, the motivation followed.

It’s important to have the type of relationship with your teen that encourages motivation. We’ll discuss more of that in part two as well as understanding change and the conditions that facilitate change in teenagers.

note: when I discuss the topic of teens, I often say parents, but this applies to anyone who has a teen in their life, no matter if they are family members, students or if you are a mentor in anyway. 

New Years Resolutions

IStock-New-YearsIf you are like me, every New Year you make a list of resolutions, a list of behaviors, attitudes and other changes you would like to see in your life, and each year you fail to keep any of them.

I don’t even remember what my New Year’s resolutions were last year, but the top three New Years resolutions are:

  • starting to exercise
  • eating better
  • reducing the use of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc.

I’m pretty sure part of my New Years resolution last year included all of those three things including the reduction of caffeine/diet sodas and I can tell you I didn’t succeed in any of them.

Most people who make New Years resolutions, 75% fail on their first attempt to make changes and most people make more than one goal.

Why do people make New Years resolutions and how successful are they likely to be?

Researchers Mukhopadhyay and Johar (2005) did some research on the psychology of resolutions.

They found that people who believe that self-control is dynamic, unlimited and changing, are more likely to set more than one resolution (i.e., “I can lose weight, stop drinking and go back to school, it just takes willpower.”).

They found out that people who believe that we all have a limited amount of self-control that can’t be changed (i.e., “I’m fat because my mother was fat, I can’t change that” or “I smoke because my father smoked, it’s in our blood”) and those who have little confidence in their ability to carry out their goals (low self-efficacy) do a lot worse on achieving their resolutions.

High self-efficacy correlated to a higher likely hood of a person achieving their New Years resolutions and goals in general.

People with high self-efficacy tend to attribute their failure to achieve something as a lack of effort on their part, while people with low self-efficacy tend to attribute failure to lack of ability.

People who are made to believe that self-control is a fixed or limited resource that they can’t change, made fewer resolutions and gave up on them faster, regardless of their level of self-efficacy.

What does this mean? That if you believe that self-control is an unlimited resource that we all have access to and it can help you with your goals/resolutions, you will do better at achieving them. The more you believe in your own abilities (self-efficacy), the better you will do also.

Setting MORE goals/resolutions also seems to help because you will be more likely to succeed at them, while people who set a small number of goals usually go into it expecting to fail either consciously or unconsciously, and thus create a self-fulfilling prophesy to fail.

Researchers also say having the actual skills to make the changes you want to see in your life is helpful.

If you want to lose weight, do you actually know how? Have you done the research? If you want to save money for example, do the research ahead of time, it will make it easier for you to actually achieve that goal.

Being ready to change also helps of course.calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutions-572x433

Some people say that they are ready to change, when they really aren’t and then are surprised when they fail at making the change they said they wanted to make.

There’s a whole psychology orientation called Motivational Interviewing that is about preparing people to make changes in their life.

Miller and Marlatt (1998) also suggest to:

  • Have a strong initial commitment to make a change.
  • Have coping strategies to deal with problems that will come up.
  • Keep track of your progress. The more monitoring you do and feedback you get, the better you will do.

Ingredients for setting yourself up for failure:

  • Not thinking about making resolutions until the last minute.
  • Reacting on New Year’s Eve and making your resolutions based on what’s bothering you or is on your mind at the time.
  • Framing your resolutions in absolutes (i.e., “I will never do ‘x’ or ‘y’ again.”).

Good luck with all your New Year’s resolutions. Mine include exercising more, eating better and losing weight. How original, I know, but I am going to use everything I talked about in this post to help me achieve those goals and hopefully you will too.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, A Brief Primer Part 2: The ABC’s of Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors

Albert Ellis is the father of what is known as Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT. Today, a lot of techniques used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) come from REBT and that includes much of the theory that our thoughts control our feelings and behaviors.

Most people believe that an event or person “makes” them feel a certain way, when in actuality, it’s their thoughts (perceptions) and what they are telling themselves (self-talk) that actually make them feel and thus react in a certain way.

However, REBT and CBT teaches that by controlling your thoughts, you can control the way you feel which will in-turn affect the way you feel.

Let’s take for example that you are dating someone and then they suddenly break up with you. Most people will internalize everything by telling themselves things such as “what did I do wrong”, “maybe he/she found someone better”, “I just lost a good thing” or “I’m such a loser”.

Those thoughts will then lead to the person feeling down, depressed, like a “loser” and possibly even anxious and desperate.

They are then more likely to do things depressed people do such as over eat, over sleep (or under eat and under sleep), cry, isolate themselves, turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain of rejection, etc.

Now let’s take that same person and the same situation, but this time after the break up they tell themselves “he/she just lost a good thing”, “Oh well, on to the next one”, “he/she must have other issues”, “now I’m free to find someone worth my time”, or “it’s better to find out things wouldn’t work out now then later”.

That person is more likely to not feel so rejected, to possibly even feel somewhat relieved or even optimistic about the future.

Because of this, that person is likely to go on with their life with little interruption, returning to life as normal, without all the negative behaviors that came along with the first example. The event didn’t change, but the thinking and perception did.

Your thoughts are so powerful! No one can make you mad, sad, anxious or whatever, only your thoughts can do that.

If I am going to speak in front of a million people and all I’m telling myself is that “I’m going to mess up. I’m not qualified to give this talk”, then I am going to lose sleep, be extremely anxious and probably stumble as a self-fulfilling prophecy during the speech.

However, if I convince myself that “I’m going to rock this. I am more than qualified to do this”, then I am likely to be much less anxious and thus more likely to actually give a great speech.

The event didn’t change (having to give a speech), the only thing that changed is my thinking!

In short, Albert Ellis broke it down into four simple rules to help evaluate your thoughts and see if they are rational or irrational.

A. Activating Event: What exactly is going on?

B. Beliefs (perceptions): What thoughts are you having about the event? What are you telling yourself?

C. Consequences (behaviors): What do you do or how do you act in response to the beliefs and thoughts you have about the event.

As a last example, let’s take something almost everyone can relate to, the terrorist attacks that happened in America on September 11, 2001, that would be our activating event.

People in the United States were angry, scared, and shocked about the terrorist attacks, while the terrorist were elated. In America we prepared for war, started avoiding certain places and even slid into a recession, that was our consequences/behaviors, while the terrorist celebrated as seen on CNN and Al- Jazerra video.

How could the same exact event have starkly contrasting reactions? The answer is the difference in the way the two groups perceived the events.

And then there is the last part of the ABC’s of thinking and that is “D” for disputing our thinking.

It is imperative that when we have thoughts that upset us that we challenge or dispute them to see if they are irrational. What evidence do we have that we are going to fail, be alone forever, not get the job we applied for, etc.

Without disputing or challenging our irrational thoughts, we’ll always believe they are true, even when they aren’t. In the next part of this series we will explore negative thoughts a little more in-depth.