Wednesday, I wrote about the myth of changing habits in 21 days and touched on whether or not it's worth trying to change. Changing anything, not just habits, can creates a tremendous amount of stress for some people. Assessing what habits are worth changing is part of self-acceptance and self-esteem. It takes a strong sense of self and a steady character to resist the forces out there that make you feel like there is something wrong with you if you don't do things their way!
Although some people thrive on change, and some are even addicted to change, even good change can create a lot of cognitive dissonance, confusion, and emotional pain. Think about the last time you rearranged your furniture. It may have taken a couple days to not bump into things. When I moved my office, as much as I loved it, after 5 years of going in one direction, it felt a little weird at first to come up the stairs and go in the opposite direction. But it was so worth it!
What makes changes worthwhile? In large part, it's the degree of reward or the payoff you believe you will get once you assimilate the change - how much you care about that payoff - and how painful you perceive the change to be. Better health, Less Stress, Peace of Mind, Better Performance Reviews at Work, Happier Marriage all are wonderful goals, but if the pain you experience in trying to make the desired change is greater, you won't succeed in changing - unless you can minimize the pain, or how you perceive the pain.
Once you decide to change, "changing" is actually a process which has predictable phases you can anticipate and emotionally and physically prepare for. The phases of change are Initiation, Disorientation, Reorientation, and Integration. Each of these is discussed below.
1. Initiation - One factor that greatly affects the stress level you feel during change is whether or not you initiate the change or someone else is requiring you to change as in a job layoff, or a spouse giving you an ultimatum to lose the clutter or get divorced. For this discussion, I'm going to assume you want to change. There is a whole other level of difficulty in accepting changes that are thrust up on you.
2. Disorientation - This is the most challenging phase and can make or break your success in changing. The degree of disorientation and/or pain you feel during this stage is directly proportional to:
- The degree of the magnitude of the change.
- How much you are in control of the change.
- How compatible the change is with your core beliefs
- How well you are meeting your conscious AND unconscious needs
- How entrenched the old habits are or how long you've had the things
- How right for your innate personality and preferences the change is
- How risk averse you are
- How much you need to be in control
- How ready you are for the change
Feelings during this stage are relative to how much you want the change and how deeply your old habits are ingrained.
The Role of Unconscious Needs
One of the biggest obstacles to change people face is unconscious needs. You can learn about your true inner needs by trying to change! For example, holding on clutter may be meeting a need to avoid social contact that you don't realize you have till you no longer have the clutter. Or perhaps you have a deep security need, or a fear that you are unaware of till you try to change. There could even be a genetic component that is compelling you to hold on to the way things are. Some of us are born risk takers willing to take the chance "we might need that someday". Or perhaps we have a deep sense of security that allows us to belief that our needs will always be met. When our unconscious needs conflict with what we want, change is more challenging.
The Role of Beliefs
Another major source of disorientation in this phase is our beliefs. For example, when trying to let go of things, some people believe they are "losing a part of themselves" or that "things have feelings so they need a good home to go to" or that "it would be a waste to throw away something functional" (in fact, you aren't using it, you are also "wasting" it.) These beliefs lead to intense fears and often are simply not true. But we are emotionally attached to our beliefs and they can be very difficult to change.
When you try to change, your unconscious needs & beliefs surface and can cause feelings of anger, denial, and anxiety. Unless you have truly changed the underlying beliefs, and /or find another way to meet your unconcious needs, there will often be some kind of pain and this can manifest itself in some very negative ways, even beyond backsliding, like substance abuse or developing a new addiction.
That's why even self-initiated changes such as quitting smoking can cause intense feelings of anger, denial, and anxiety - no matter how much you want to change!
Denial is often involved in backsliding. You tell yourself, just one cigarette won't matter, etc. This is the phase where emotional and environmental support is critical. For example, if you are trying to quit smoking, you may need a support group. If you are trying to exercise on a regular basis you may need a friend or personal trainer to motivate you through the change.
In the organizing realm, you may need a professional organizer. A lot of what I do as a professional organizer is help people minimize the pain of this phase by helping them:
- Become aware of their deeper attitudes and beliefs toward their things and toward organizing so they can change them to more productive beliefs
- Reframe their relationships to their things before letting them go
- Design change so that it works with their natural style as much as possible
- Make their environment support the change by redesigning the layout, changing the things that are in it, and even by decorating - changing paint colors, etc. - to make the space they operate in more attractive.
- Hold their future vision so they stay motivated to get through to the other side of side of change.
- Reward themselves for their efforts and their successes
- Integrate joy into the process wherever possible!
There actually can be joy experienced in this phase if you try to make it so!!
3. Reorientation - This is where the change starts to really take root. Let's use the "quit smoking" habit again. When I quit, I mean, after the many, many times I quit, it tooks years for me to stop craving a cigarette when I saw others smoking. Thankfully, it did finally happen. For me, the strategy I used was to make myself hate smoking was to smoke a very stale cigarette when I just couldn't resist smoking. It would make me gag and feel nauseous and the cravings eventually stopped. You don't always need to be this radical, but it worked for me! : ) During this phase you start experiencing the benefits of the change and no longer mourn the loss of the way things used to be.
4. Integration - This is where the change becomes so ingrained, you can barely remember the way it used to be. You know, like when people say they can't imagine life without their kids. Or when after you've moved a couple miles from where you used to live, you stop going on automatic pilot to your old house. Or when you never think about smoking at all and can't even remember why you liked it. Okay that may be a little exaggeration, but I'm sure you get my drift here!
It's important to note that this model describes successful change. But not all changes are successful. And not all should be! Some things we should never get used to if we can help it. Like habits that are abusive or unhealthy.
But understanding this model can help you identify your obstacles to making the personal changes you want to make. By preparing to give yourself the support you need to make each phase successful, you can change. Sometimes you need an external support system...and there is nothing wrong with getting the support you need! And sometimes, you need to:
Accept the things you cannot change;
Have the Courage to change the things you can;
and have the Wisdom to know what not to bother trying to change!
Wishing you many successful changes!