4 ways to jump-start a change in your life {stop an old habit or start a new one}

behavior-change-habit Making changes as a human is not easy. I often tell my clients it's like trying to swim against the current, because we truly are creatures of habit, and the more we do something one way, the deeper the neural pathway grooves are, and the more difficult it is to make lasting change. Our brains love autopilot, and stubbornly resist when we try to switch to manual control.

On the upside, we do know that it's certainly possible to end old habits and form new ones; and when a new behavior becomes a habit, the amount of required willpower and decision-making to do it decreases, and your new habit can become more a part of your autopilot setting. (But of course, continuing to be intentional about living your desired values and actions day-to-day is the best recipe for long-term success.)

In this post, I'll share 4 strategies that could apply to a variety of different behavior changes, offering you some tools that can help you jump-start a change you want to make in your life.

1 // Make an impact inventory. 

How is your current behavior -- the one you want to change -- really impacting your life? Often, we know that something is hurting us (or taking us further from our goals or the life we want), but we can be really good about keeping our heads in the sand about the details. Take a cue from the 12-step fellowships by making an inventory of all the ways that behavior is impacting every area of your life: physical health, emotional and mental health, financial, family, intimate relationships, career/education, spirituality, and legal/ethical. Don't just do this in your head -- write it down in as much detail as you can. I've seen over and over again how powerful and motivational this kind of inventory (part of step 1 of the 12 steps) can be for my clients.

2 // Get to the root of the function of your behavior, and how that function will be served when your behavior changes. 

This one is critical. I'll illustrate with an example from my own life: I sometimes go through periods where I waste a couple hours out of the week window-shopping online and aimlessly wandering into Target on my way home from work. I've gotten better than I used to be about actually buying stuff I don't need, but the temptation is huge, and I end up regretting the time spent that I could have used much more productively. When I notice this starting to happen, I have to take a step back and ask myself: what is going on with me? Usually, that behavior serves a couple of functions*: it allows me to procrastinate things I really need to do, and it allows me to live in a fantasy world where I look "totally put together" and everyone loves and accepts (and maybe even envies) me. So underneath that are two needs: to organize my tasks so I don't feel as overwhelmed by them, and to have meaningful connections with the people in my life who already love and accept me without all the fancy clothes or decor. Once I can identify those needs, I can take responsibility for meeting them instead of using shopping as a decoy/quick fix solution.

*The focus on function rather than "form" that a particular behavior may take is one of the reasons why Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one of my favorite therapy philosophies/models; the geeky scientific underpinnings are all about "functional contextualism."

3 // You need an accountability partner. 

I'm sure there are people out there who have made lasting change totally on their own, and kudos to them -- I bet they are the same ones whose morning breath smells like roses. I don't use the word "need" here lightly. Again, in the 12-step fellowship -- arguably the largest model for behavior change in the world -- one of the things that makes it so successful is the use of sponsorship. Having a sponsor as a key accountability partner is life-saving for a person newly in recovery, especially anytime they face a particularly stressful or triggering situation. Therapists, coaches, or friends who really "get" your goals and desired changes can also be great accountability partners. Having a group of cheerleaders online can be great, too, as I've discovered via a Facebook group for the online streaming barre workout service I use. I credit interaction with the group, which involves publicly committing to my goals, and a sense of accountability to other group members, as one of the major reasons I have worked out more consistently in the past few months than I have in years.

4 // Just START. 

Don't wait for the "perfect" time or to feel "ready" to make a behavior change. One of my work colleagues calls people who use this rationale "Monday people." ("I'm gonna quit smoking! I'm really gonna do it. I'll start the patch Monday." Does Monday ever come?) Ambivalence fuels more ambivalence-- but once you just get started, the power of inertia will work in your favor. You can get a rush of energy from feeling excited that you're moving in the right direction, and you can prove your mind wrong that you're incapable of doing anything different until all the stars and planets are aligned in your favor.

These are just a few ways to get you energized and motivated to make a change you've considered for a while, but needed an extra nudge to put into action.

What has helped you make lasting behavior change in the past? What mental traps get in your way? 

6 types of spiritual experiences (part 1 of 2)

6 types of spiritual experiences

Note: Since I realized this post would be stupid long all as one, I'm splitting it up into 2 installments. Enjoy! 

In the past couple months, I’ve  moseyed my way through The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning as I’ve been simultaneously reading several other books, and, quite honestly, just not reading as much as I’d like. (I’ve been doing great with a lot of my other habits, so I’m trying to be forgiving and patient with myself with this one!) This book is a treasure because it is at once both simple and profound. It weaves together ancient and modern anecdotes across many religious traditions, and examines how Alcoholics Anonymous has one of the healthiest perspectives on spirituality of our time, which actually aligns with many ancient, wise visions of spirituality. 

I’m just finishing up the book now, and in flipping through all my dog-eared pages covered with underlines and stars (it’s the only way I can absorb nonfiction —no digital or audiobooks for me with this stuff!) to determine what to write about, I decided I wanted to share with you the main ideas from the final section of the book, “ Experiencing Spirituality.” In this part, authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham name six types of spiritual experiences: Release, Gratitude, Humility, Tolerance, Forgiveness, and Being-at-home. While I highly recommend reading the whole book, if you’re anything like me you have about 25 other books on your list already — you may not get to it very soon. So, my goal here is to describe bit about each of these six experiences and encourage you to explore how you are (or aren’t) opening up to these in your own life.

Introducing this section, Kurtz and Ketcham write,

“Spirituality involves not just talking about something, not just reading about or considering something, not even just doing something: it involves actually experiencing life in a new way. Spirituality makes possible—makes one capable  of—specific kinds of experience … these experiences cannot be commanded. We do not call them forth when we want them: they become available to us when we need them, if we are available to them. They happen and we experience them, if we are open to them, but we cannot control when or how they happen, nor can we control when or how we experience them. Once again, we find ourselves locked in a paradox: We cannot command precisely those realities that we most crave.” 

Release

“The experience of Release has been described as ‘the chains falling away,’ ‘a light going on,’ ‘a weight lifted,’ ‘something giving way.’ The very language attests that the experience is not one of triumph (‘I did it!’) but one of awe and wonder (‘I somehow see what I never saw before!’).” 

“Release” has to do with the recognition that we can never be fully in control of our lives, and acceptance for the lack of certainty that this fact entails. In recovery, it’s called “surrender.” The book quotes spiritual director Richard Rohr, from an article he wrote on AA’s 3rd step in which he states that “spirituality involves the ‘letting go’ of three needs: the need to be in control, the need to be effective, and the need to be right.’” 

Read over that last sentence a few times and just let it sink in. When I did that, I was amazed at how much suffering could be alleviated if we only released our grip on the “need” for those three things. Even in my just my own life! The idea of release / surrender is incredibly freeing and powerful, and it aligns well with mindfulness and mindfulness-based therapies such as one of my favorite models, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT devotes significant effort to illustrating to us just how ineffective most of our attempts are to control or avoid internal experiences (thoughts or feelings) we’d rather not have. The behaviors we use to try to numb or suppress, or patterns of trying to “think our way out of” feeling a certain way, often are not only  ineffective, but also tend to create even more suffering than the initial pain/discomfort itself. The alternative, then, is to release the grip, to “drop the tug-of-war rope” with the mind and practice willingness (acceptance) to experience that which is beyond our control. As ACT says, we humans are pretty good at solving problems “outside the skin” and think we can apply this same logic to problems “inside the skin,” but the lived experience proves otherwise. 

Gratitude

“Gratitude can be best defined and understood as the only possible response to a gift, to something recognized as utterly, freely given … The experience of gratitude has been lost, too, because we tend to think of it primarily as some kind of feeling. Feelings are fine, but they are also transient and ephemeral; gratitude is not a feeling but an ongoing vision of thank-full-ness that recognizes the gifts constantly being received. A feeling is fleeing, an emotion for the moment; gratitude is a mindset, a way of seeing and thinking that is rooted in a remembrance — the remembrance of being without the gift.” 

I love this perspective on gratitude, because as I allude to in the previous section, we are not that good at “making ourselves” feel a certain way. So, if I don’t feel a surge of genuine, tearing-up-like-I’m-watching-Parenthood gratitude every time I think of my family, my job, the roof over my head — does that mean I’m cold and ungrateful? No! It just means my feelings are not a faucet that I can turn on and off at will. What’s much more meaningful and significant is the decision to remember why I am appreciative of these things; to consider what my life would be like without them and meditate, even for 30 seconds, on what they mean to me. 

Humility

“In an era that fawns on ‘the rich and famous’ and adopts as its rallying cry, ‘Me First,’ humility is a concept scorned, or worse, neglected. The ancient, favorable sense of the word — connoting mildness, patience of spirit, and the willingness to remove oneself from the center of the universe _ has been eroded in the modern era by unfavorable interpretations in which ‘lowly’ calls to mind servility and self-abasement, ‘meek’ is equated with cowardly submissiveness, and ‘mildness is interpreted as blandness — plain vanilla ice cream in a freezer crowded with Chocolate Raspberry Truffle and Swiss Almond Praline.” 

YES. From my work with the 12 steps, I knew humility was an important value, but this description helped so much to explain why our culture has such a negative connotation for the idea of “humility” or “being humble.” It does not mesh at all with our fantasies of power, control, wealth and fame. (Also, gotta appreciate the ice cream metaphor, amiright?)

Another statement I had to share from this section originally comes from Dag Hammarskjöld’s book, Markings: “Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exultation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It is—is nothing, yet at the same time one with everything.” 

The importance of being “right-sized” should be required psychoeducation for every 4th grader. We spend so much of our lives either trying to puff ourselves up (often by putting others down, even in covert ways) or putting ourselves down. Life can start to feel like a constant competition, and if the ego is already so fragile that it cannot possibly withstand any perceived criticism, the spikes come out.

Outside of 12-step, the most I hear about humility is in a religious context — ideas that we must be humble before God, acknowledge how vastly inferior we are to Christ, or acknowledge our place as lowly humans in comparison to the divine. This type of humility may fit well for some, but it does not appeal to me, because on some level it feels fear-based and externally motivated. I would rather think that if there is a divine loving power, I am not bigger or smaller than it, but rather that I am a part of it, and it is a part of me. 

Tune back in to the blog soon for part 2 of this blog post, which will discuss Tolerance, Forgiveness, and Being-at-home. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what resonated most with you about this post, or how you are exploring these topics amidst your own spiritual journey. 

"am i codependent?" - what codependency is and how to work on it

codependency.jpg

In my latest vlog, I'm talking about codependency: some of the most common patterns and behaviors that define it, and a couple of the most important changes that you need to make if you think you're codependent in one or more relationships. Codependency might sound rather innocuous -- hey, it's way less harmful than what some people do, right?! Wrong. I have worked with many clients where codependent relationships are one of the core issues they're struggling with, and it's often so painful that they then turn to other self-destructive coping mechanisms to numb, like eating disorders, drugs and alcohol, shopping, promiscuity, etc -- which in turn create even more problems.

It can be tough to clearly define codependency and to know when it's become a problem, because the fact is that we are all a little codependent. If you dropped me off in the woods somewhere, I probably wouldn't survive very well, because I need other people. And while I'm not a parent, I know many parents struggle to find the line between being a good parent and being codependent or enmeshed with their kids. It's just realistic that we are sometimes going to put others' needs before our own, especially if there are little ones who are literally dependent on us.

But the bottom line is looking at the pattern: if you are consistently putting others' needs and feelings before your own, and you're not making sure that your own needs are met and feelings are tended to, that's not sustainable. It's only a matter of time before you crash and burn, or start doing something really unhealthy to try to keep this up. 

Check out the video for a few basics on codependency, assertive communication, and setting boundaries: 

(If you're reading this on your phone, you may need to click here to view the video on YouTube.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uELKSRTpkS0

One point of clarification: In the video, I mention that sex & love addiction is often an off-shoot of codependency. This is true, but I think it's important to make the distinction that "love addiction" is not talking about real healthy love, but about patterns like relationship-hopping, inability to be alone, excessive preoccupation with your romantic partner, doing sexual things you wouldn't normally do just to keep the person around, etc. All related to codependency, but for some people, their codependency shows up mostly in these relationships and not necessarily in others, so it's called more specifically "love addiction."

Pure sex addiction (most common in men, but some women, too) is related in that it often stems out of trauma or dysfunction in the family of origin, but it's more similar to drug or gambling addiction than it is to codependency. Sex addiction involves acting out in some kind of sexual behavior(s) compulsively, to the extent that it's negatively impacting their life, and they desperately want to stop but feel powerless to stop on their own -- so they keep acting out, which more shame, which then leads to more acting out to numb the shame. It's the classic cycle of addiction. (The behaviors differ from person to person - could be affairs, prostitutes, porn, exhibitionism, etc.) Yes, sex addiction is a legit thing, no, recovery is not "anti-sex," and no, it does not clear someone of their responsibility for their behaviors and committing to a program of recovery.

In addition to therapy (or residential treatment if the problem has gotten more severe) 12-step programs can be very effective for people struggling with codependency, love addiction, and sex addiction. Below are some good links to check out. (And by the way, I've been in trainings on sex addiction over the past year, so I'm currently a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist Candidate, and will be heading to my next training this spring.)

What questions do you have about codependency? Do you put your own feelings and needs first?