Perhaps this scenario sounds familiar: You decide to change a behavior that isn’t serving you (like quitting smoking or spending less time on electronics) or you want to add a behavior into your daily life that you know would be good for you (eating healthier, going to the gym regularly). You set goals for yourself, you have the best of intentions, and maybe you even get off to a good start. But somewhere along the way you become impatient and frustrated with your slow progress, or you take a step backwards, and you start to berate yourself for not being able to make the change “yet again!” Before you know it, your inner critic has sabotaged your progress and you are back where you started, feeling deeply disappointed and discouraged.
How do we make changes in the face of these familiar challenges, when it feels like we are continually self-sabotaging our efforts or simply getting stuck along the way by the negativity in our own head?
1. First, you can remind yourself that this is a common struggle.
Most of us have an inner critic, giving us a running commentary about our lives that is often negative, exaggerated, self-critical, distorted, inaccurate, or unhelpful. In my new book Dancing on the Tightrope: Transcending the Habits of Your Mind and Awakening to Your Fullest Life, I refer to this voice as the “Noisy Person in the Movie Theater.”
It’s like sitting down in a movie theater, just trying to enjoy your movie, and having some noisy person sit next to you and start to give you a running commentary throughout the movie (e.g., “Can you believe she just did that? That is so stupid! This is terrible… I can see where this is going and it’s not going to end well!” — etc.).
Our own inner voice often attaches a narrative or story to the experiences in our lives that can more often than not have a negative or self-critical tone (especially when we face difficulties). It can help to remind ourselves that we are not alone in this internal struggle, and there is nothing “wrong” with us that our minds default to this kind of narrative. That being said, we can learn to do some things to help!
2. Become more aware of this voice in your head and try to catch it when it first starts to talk to you.
Often this voice skirts underneath the surface of our conscious awareness. We “talk” to ourselves all day long, but often we aren’t paying attention. Mindful awareness is a wonderful tool! I often teach that mindful awareness is like carrying around a flashlight as we go through our day, so we can see clearly what is there. It involves paying attention to what is arising with a quality of compassionate and kind attention, in an intentional and non-judgmental way. From this place we can observe thoughts and emotions without getting as swept away by them.
As soon as you recognize you are saying negative thoughts to yourself, you might experiment with writing the thoughts down on a piece of paper. Seeing them in front of us in this way often shifts the way we view them. It creates a little distance and helps us to realize that these thoughts in our head are not necessarily “absolute truth” — but instead are mental constructs of our own creation.
3. Once you have written the thoughts down, look for any distortions or inaccuracies.
You now have the opportunity to make your thoughts more accurate, and specific to the situation at hand. Ask yourself: Is this really true? What evidence do I have for or against this?
What happens in my body when I believe these thoughts?
Especially be wary of words like “always” and “never.” Even if some part of your thinking is true, are you making faulty generalizations that may not be completely accurate?
Notice the difference between
“I can never stick with anything. I have failed every time I have tried to diet. I am a loser!”
and Version 2:
“Sticking to my diet has been really challenging. I seem to actually do really well for a while, and then I stop following it. This pattern has repeated itself several times. I have a lot of determination at first, and then I lose my motivation.”
The first version would likely stop you in your tracks and make you give up. You have generalized this difficulty into an inescapable character flaw (I am a loser!). The second version might make you become more curious about what derails you. It is more accurate and specific to the situation. It leaves room to make some changes, because it addresses specific behaviors, not you as a person.
4. Look at the situation through the eyes of a friend, or imagine that your friend is going through something similar.
It is likely that you would not criticize and berate your friend, or see only the negatives in their situation. Instead of telling your friend “you are surely going to fail the way you did last time” you might acknowledge that changes of this sort are hard for most people. You might ask them “what part of your plan has worked for you, and where do you think you tend to get pulled astray?”
You might ask them how you can best support them. Imagine if we talked to ourselves in this way! When we change our language and thoughts to be more self-compassionate, it gives us greater motivation to pursue and stick to our goals.1
5. Ask yourself what discomfort you are likely to experience in an effort to reach your goals, and whether you are willing to turn toward it with open curiosity rather than resist it and run the other way.
If you are trying to eat healthier, chances are you will need to say no to certain foods that you might crave in the moment. Resisting something that is pleasurable, but that isn’t so good for you, can be uncomfortable. Likewise, having to go to the gym when you would rather sit on the couch and watch Netflix might also involve experiencing some discomfort. Research shows that when we turn toward our emotional discomfort (e.g., our food cravings, or our desire to play on our phones rather than go to the gym) with mindful curiosity rather than try to push the discomfort away, this can help us step out of the automatic reactivity of bad habits and make choices more aligned with our long-term goals.2
6. Focus on WHY you want to reach your goals. Researcher and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests going deeply into the question of “why is this important to me?” by asking it three times to yourself in a row.3 When we focus on the value that is at the core of our goals, it helps us to stay committed to it. If your goal is to go to the gym three times a week this might be important to you because you want to be healthier. Why is it important for you to be healthy? Perhaps because you want to be able to have the energy to run around with your kids and be active in their lives. Why is that important to you? Perhaps because your own parents were unable to do this with you and you value that kind of connection and presence.
7. Come up with specific actions for handling setbacks.
Psychologist and author Dr. Robert Brooks writes about the importance of making a plan for handling setbacks in order to make important lifestyle and behavioral changes.4 This is often the place I see people struggle the most, when they hit a setback and don’t have a plan for how to handle it. Once the person strays from their diet for a day or two and “blows it”, instead of seeing this as a setback from which they can recover, many people view this as a failure.
Instead, it can be helpful to expect setbacks, and build them into your plan.
For example: When I hit a setback I am going to see this an opportunity to practice being kind to myself. I am going to write myself a letter now that I can read when I come across a setback, to remind myself of my strengths, and my humanness. It is quite OK not to be perfect. This path to change is not linear. “Obstacles do not block the path. They are the path.” [Zen Proverb]
On a similar note, it can be very helpful to build in action plans for handling plateaus. When change is not as fast as we hope, it can be disheartening. We can think that we will NEVER get there. We certainly won’t if we abandon our plan all together.
Instead, we need to plan for these inevitable discouragements and come up with ways to bring rational thought and perspective to our long-term goals, in order to see a big picture. Re-assessing our progress in short and long-term increments can be helpful. Using all of the above strategies can also help to work through plateaus.
Want an even better chance of success?
Be specific about how you will implement a plan to help when you run up against a setback or challenge. Using implementation intentions (e.g., saying when situation X arises I will respond by doing Y) have been found to help people more effectively realize their goals.5
For example: When I start to crave the candy that is sitting in my work office today, I will go over and talk with my friend Cheryl, who always encourages me — or I will go to my computer and read that article about how sugar may spike my insulin in unhealthy ways. I will also keep a notecard with me on hand, where I can write down and re-read why being healthy is so important to me, and read encouraging quotes about perseverance.
8. Think about something you have succeeded at, that may at first have been challenging.
What did you do to make that happen? Maybe it was completing school and getting a degree, even though school may have been difficult. Maybe it was learning how to play a sport, or teaching yourself a new computer program or other skill. Maybe it was giving a talk, or going up and introducing yourself to new people. Make note of what helped you to achieve that goal.
What steps did you take to help you succeed? What mindset did you have? What did you do when you felt like giving up? Write these things down on a piece of paper so you can get a good look at them.
Chances are, you already have a lot of inner resources to help you that you can now apply to this new situation!
When your inner critic starts yelling at you, remind yourself of these previous successes and the steps you took to achieve them. Kindly tell your inner critic that you know he or she is anxious and deep down really just wants you to succeed — and in fact, you already know how to do this. Just ask your inner critic to sit in the back seat, like you might lovingly place a small child, while you step back into the driver’s seat and take the next helpful step forward.
Adapted from in interview published on Mind Mastery Lab.
- Breines, J.G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Psychology Bulletin, 38(9),1133-1143. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167212445599 [↩]
- Brewer, J. (2017, November 10). A simple way to break a bad habit. Mindful. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/simple-way-break-bad-habit/ [↩]
- Goodman, N. (2014, December 9). The science of setting goals [blog post]. Retrieved from https://ideas.ted.com/the-science-of-setting-goals/ [↩]
- Brooks, R. (2011, December 15). Realistic Lifestyle Changes: A Positive Approach to Nurturing Our Health [blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.drrobertbrooks.com/1110/ [↩]
- Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7): 493-503). Retrieved from http://www.psych.nyu.edu/gollwitzer/99Goll_ImpInt.pdf [↩]