fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


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It’s been said that life is a journey; a corollary to that idea is that we are all “works in progress.” The beginning of a new year brings out our wish to make a fresh start and is traditionally accompanied by resolutions to make changes. Newspapers and magazines weigh in with suggestions about what to improve in your life (No. 1 resolution, year after year: lose weight) and how to achieve your goals.

Yet people are quite intractable when it comes to change. To paraphrase the words of Harry Stack Sullivan (“We are all more human than otherwise”), we are all more “ourselves” than otherwise. Despite the human potential for growth and change, we are remarkably consistent when it comes to our behavior, and making real changes involves working against a considerable force to maintain the status quo.

What are the forces that make change so difficult? They can be broken down into three broad categories, which I would call neurological/behavioral, social, and psychological. Our understanding of the first category, the neurological/behavioral roots of our actions, has benefited greatly in recent years from the use of brain imaging studies. It is now known that when a habit is established, our brains adapt by creating structural pathways that correspond to what has been learned. So, for example, playing an instrument, with repeated practice, creates these new pathways that can be accessed and strengthened each time you play the instrument. Unfortunately, bad habits also have the unfortunate benefit of this support. This is above and beyond the genuine addictive potential of some bad habits like smoking or drinking: The very act of going outside for a smoke, for example, becomes “entrenched” in this way.

A recent article in The New York Times describes a study that reveals that people who resolve to lose weight often neglect changing their shopping behavior, despite their best intentions:

“In the new year, people resolve to eat healthier,” said the lead author Lizzy Pope, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, “but they continue to buy unhealthy food that defeats their goals. We go on automatic pilot. If we can increase our conscious thought in the grocery store, that might be the first step in making our purchasing match up with the goals we set.”

This “automatic pilot” is not just a matter of habit. If you have repeated the same action enough times, there are pathways, like grooves in a road, that make it likely to be repeated.

Studies have shown that when trying to break a bad habit, the most successful among us find a way to replace it with a different habit. You want to stop X behavior, and if at the same time you add Y behavior, you have alternative pattern to substitute for X. So, for example, the grocery shopper needs to go in with a prepared list of different items. She may even have to shop at a different store or at a different time of day.

Even more successful and constructive is to substitute a healthy behavior for any unhealthy one; for example, going to the gym on the way home rather than stopping at a restaurant or bar. This is why, when seeking to change such habits, experts advise that you must change the behavioral patterns that support them.

Social factors, the second category of habit reinforcement, can also be powerful obstacles to our wish to change. There are clear-cut examples, such as the fact that it is hard to quit drinking if most of your social time is spent with friends in bars or you need to attend a lot of work functions that involve drinking. But there are more subtle factors at work as well. For example, a woman who resolves to go to the gym three nights a week on her way home from work may encounter resistance from her family. Though they might be initially supportive of her efforts, her goal can be sabotaged if her family complains about her later-than-usual homecoming time. To change your habits you must also change the social structure that supports them: Friends who share your habits must be avoided for a while, and your family/significant other needs to understand that changes in your life will bring changes in theirs as well.

In fact, experts agree that it is important to have a plan when trying to change, and the more detailed and well thought out it is, the better. The plan should detail not just your goal, but also the steps you plan to take to achieve it. Everyone understands that the goal “lose weight” needs to be accompanied by dietary changes and exercise, but how you plan to make those changes is important as well. As the above example illustrates, your goal needs to be accompanied by a change in shopping behavior, time structure, and even family attitudes if it is to succeed.

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  • Jennifer May 8, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Thanks for the excellent article on changing behaviors.

    I think we all struggle at times to make the changes we say we want.

    I would like to add one more book to your suggestions:
    Barbara Sher’s excellent
    “I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was”.

    She has some good examples of why we might be resistant to a desired change and how to break through that resistance.