At this time of year, we’re bombarded with messages about change, mostly about changing our bodies, our appetites and our activities. Most of these are bound up with other messages about buying something to facilitate change: gym memberships, detox programmes, smoothie makers, nicotine patches. Conversely, one of the other things we’re reminded of at this time of year is our desire for continuity, for repetition, and tradition. Long-term relationships are in some ways founded on staving off the impact of change; one of the highest compliments we can pay an old friend is to tell them ‘you haven’t changed’. It is this tension between change and continuity which can leave us trapped in self-destructive habits and with a sense of having little control over our lives.
The fact that these messages about transformation come round at least annually, and that most of us have embarked on some sort of new start with each new year should tell us that there’s something about the way we’re being sold change that just isn’t sustainable. The ‘change sellers’ are, of course, motivated by trying and failing repeatedly. But the cycle is endlessly repetitive also because most promises of seasonal transformation are premised on changes just in behaviour: ‘eat less, move more’; ‘just do it’; ‘if you can dream it, you can be it’; and so on.
For anyone who has tried and faltered to make a long-term change, it is clear that simply exerting one’s will over entrenched patterns of behaviour is not likely to work. This is not just to do with the difficulty of withdrawing from addictive substances like alcohol, nicotine and sugar. Change is tied up with thought and feeling, with memories of the past and desires for the future, as well as with behaviour and the intentions of the present. When working with someone on making a behavioural change in any area of their life, a counsellor might help them to understand what and why they want to change and what currently motivates that behaviour, what purpose it serves, perhaps what it protects them from. These are the things that make it hard to change but, once brought into awareness, might make change more possible.
One of the reasons that change in any area of behaviour might be difficult is because behaviours are so bound up with identity: I do, therefore I am. Who will I be if I drink less, don’t smoke, swap the sofa for the swimming pool? The answer is you’ll be you, doing something different. Our relationships can also be enmeshed in certain types of behaviours, so that others resist change in us as much as we resist it ourselves.
Making a separation between a behaviour and one’s identity can be a liberating move, as can developing a less critical relationship with the ‘self’ who engages in self-harming behaviours. There is nothing more likely to guarantee the short-lived character of any change than the critical voice from within ourselves which labels every set-back a failure and which accompanies every new venture with a narrative of doom and despondency.
So before embarking on any change, take a look behind the behaviour, and begin by cultivating a kinder, more empathic relationship with the self who ‘does’ the behaviour. It is self-compassion rather than self-punishment, an acceptance of self rather than a criticism of self, which can lead to the most sustainable changes; because we’re not changing who we are, just some of the things we do.