Making meaningful changes in mid-life
With the end of 2018 and the ushering in of a new year, you may be contemplating changes and making resolutions for 2019 to be a better year. If you also happen to be in the stages of mid-life, you may have even more reasons for making changes.
There is nothing like the realisation that we are halfway through our lives to make us selective about how we want to live. Time is a great motivator.
By now we have greater self-knowledge and years of experience to draw on, and this makes mid-life a great time to re-evaluate. Many mid-lifers find they care less about pleasing others and are more interested in doing right by their own values and needs. The changes we crave may be psychological, spiritual, practical or physical. If nothing else, the physiological changes we encounter teach us that we can’t take our bodies and health for granted as we may have done in our younger years. For me, just a few days without exercise results in stiff muscles and the return of familiar aches and pains, and this has prompted me to prioritise time for exercise.
Understanding our habits
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, 40-45% of our actions every day are habitual, as opposed to conscious decisions. Having good habits is efficient; if we had to consciously think about every action we took we would seriously slow ourselves down. Imagine if we had to focus carefully every time we brushed our teeth or tied our shoelaces; we would have no attention span left for more interesting, higher pursuits.
Unfortunately, as much as our good habits support our wellbeing, unhealthy habits such as chewing nails, critical self-talk, procrastination and reliance on substances can affect our well-being and undermine us to varying degrees.
I regularly help clients to eliminate unhelpful habits and introduce life-enhancing ones, but before we can change our habits we have to recognise and deal with our resistance to changing them. One thing I have learned is that we are very good at defending our habits. Here are some typical ways that we do this:
We label ourselves:
- "I can’t help the way I am, I’m a perfectionist"
- "I’m just naturally disorganised, I’ll never be one of those organised people"
When we label ourselves, we tell ourselves that our personality and character are fixed and beyond our control, almost as if who we are is accidental and nothing to do with our choices. We absolve ourselves from responsibility yet go on resenting ourselves for our lack of ability to make changes.
We tell ourselves that we need our crutches:
- "I have to have a glass of wine after work or I can’t switch off"
- "When I’m upset I must have my comfort food - it’s the only thing that makes me feel better"
Here we undermine our ability to cope without our crutches; we are not prepared to sit with being uncomfortable whilst we find alternative ways to soothe our needs.
We say that changing is much too hard:
- "I don’t have the willpower"
- "I always give up on things, why should this time be any different?"
As long as well tell ourselves we can’t do things we won’t change, we effectively give ourselves permission to stay the same. This can be very depleting to our energy levels and self-esteem as it denies our ability to mobilise and act.
I’m not saying that making changes is easy; it can be uncomfortable as our habits are often creative attempts at finding short-term rewards. The glass of wine after work tastes good, we do feel better, but problems arise when we rely on it and our intake becomes unhealthy. When we favour short-term gains, we miss out on longer-term rewards like better health and more satisfying ways of coping like talking about what is troubling us or finding solutions to our problems.
Neural plasticity and habits
Scientific research has revealed that our brains have plasticity; this means they have the ability to reorganise synaptic connections based on our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours create neural pathways, and the more we repeat them the stronger those pathways become. The pathways we don’t use fade away. It is a testament to how efficient our brains are that over time the neural pathways we use regularly become automatic, or habitual.
The good news about neural plasticity is that we can consciously create new neural pathways by changing our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. We can think of it like brain training. With consistency and practice over time, we can change our habits and behaviours.
It seems Eleanor Roosevelt was onto something when she said:
"Watch your thoughts, they become your words, watch your words they become your actions, watch your actions they become your habits, watch your habits that become your character, watch your character that becomes your destiny".
So, what does it take to make meaningful changes?
As habits are enacted automatically, the first step towards change is to become aware of what we are doing. Before making any changes, simply notice the habit, how it makes you feel when you do it. Can you see any patterns?
Sometimes a habit masks an unmet need or anxiety. You may notice that you procrastinate when you are afraid of failing, or you drink coffee to keep yourself going when you are actually exhausted and would be better off prioritising rest and relaxation. Once you recognise how certain habits are keeping you stuck in unhelpful patterns, you can start to think more about how to deal with the root cause in a more honest way.
Accept you will feel uncomfortable at first
Making changes requires additional focus and effort, so when we let go of a familiar habit or introduce a new one, it will probably feel uncomfortable before it feels better. We may even feel some sadness as we say goodbye to a habit that provided some soothing. Know that with time and repetition this will get easier as new neural pathways strengthen and old ones fade. Accept that it is ok to feel uncomfortable - it will pass.
Criticising ourselves for having bad habits will only increase our sense of shame and demotivate us. Everyone picks up bad habits; if we approach change with compassion and understanding we are more likely to succeed.
If you slip up, acknowledge it and carry on. Be forgiving. It is common to have setbacks when changing well-established habits; the important thing is that the overall direction is positive.
Make it as easy as possible
Do whatever you can to make things easy. Take small steps, and once you feel comfortable with those, take the next small steps. Focus on what is achievable.
If, for instance, you want to eat healthier snacks rather than comfort eating sugary treats, you can prepare by removing temptation and having a plentiful supply of healthy alternatives readily available. Avoid putting yourself in the way of temptation, at least until you feel a bit stronger.
One you try out your new habit, repeat it and repeat it. Through repetition it will become a habit, your neural pathways will re-wire and it will become easier as time goes by.
Find your cheerleaders
Surround yourself with people who support you and want the best for you. Be your own inner cheerleader, cheering yourself on. Stay away from people who are negative about making changes.
Some habits can turn into addictions – substance abuse, shopping, social media, gambling, sex and more. If you are concerned that you have an addiction you can seek out additional support. Your GP should be able to point you in the right direction or you can contact organisations such as AA.
It is so important to celebrate the changes we make, even the smallest of them. This affects the reward centre of our brains, releases feel-good chemicals and gives us a sense of pride. Really take in and feel what you have achieved and enjoy it. This will help to build motivation for any further changes you wish to make.