Descartes once said, “I think therefore I am.” He was discussing the nature of self-awareness and identity. Let’s take that statement and change it a bit to help you understand why despite feeling committed, prepared and supported you might find yourself facing set backs in your Primal Blueprint 21-Day Challenge. The statement I want you to keep in mind throughout your challenge and as you read on is the following:
“I think therefore I do.”
What do thoughts have to do with anything?
Do you know why you do the things you do, the way you do them? I’ll let you in on a secret… your behaviors are directly linked to your feelings and your thoughts. Actually, most of what we do is designed to reassure us and reinforce our perception of the world and ourselves.
What does this mean for you and the changes you are trying to make?
It means that any time you try to modify a habit pattern or make a change you can’t simply consider which behaviors you need to modify, without also considering how those behaviors fit into your world, your belief systems. In psychology, the cognitive behavioral theory actually provides a simple model – a universal framework – that can help you understand what your behavior represents, and why you may be struggling to change.
Think about it this way: Every time something happens in your world your brain tries to make sense of it. It wants to understand what a situation means for you and what it says about you. Over time, you form larger assumptions, constructs and beliefs that guide you as you navigate the world, your relationships and your goals. Your thoughts about any given situation dictate how you will feel about it.
Imagine you found out that you won the lottery…
How do you think you would feel?
Excited, ecstatic, relieved, happy? These are emotional responses to the situation, which is winning the lottery.
What is it about winning the lottery that would make you feel that way?
Maybe realizing that you are free of debt; that you can do things that are right now out of financial reach. Maybe there is a dream or project that you will finally be able to pursue. Whatever the reasons might be, these are your thoughts.
What if the thoughts were different? What if upon winning the lottery the first things that came to someone’s mind were the fact that the IRS was going to take a huge chunk of their winnings or the belief that people and organizations both familiar and unfamiliar would descend upon them for a share of their money? What if they thought about their complete lack of financial savvy and they started to consider that they know nothing about how to invest or protect large sums of money? That would probably change the feelings we listed earlier. Now one could expect anxiety, fear, worry, maybe even anger…
Bottom line: how you feel is not a function of what is happening to you, so much as it is a reaction to your assumptions about the situations you are facing.
What is the personal connection?
So far you know that when you are presented with a situation your brain tries to make sense of it and that is what your thoughts are. Based on your interpretation of a given situation you then form an emotional reaction – your feelings are just a manifestation of your beliefs. Behaviors are simply a more concrete expression of these two factors; they are your solution to a given set of assumptions and the feelings elicited by this reaction.
Often times behaviors help to strengthen our assumptions; by acting in-line with our thoughts we create future situations and circumstances that tend to reinforce those beliefs. It’s a bit like a Facebook feed, the more you click (behavior) “like” on feeds and comments you agree with (thoughts), the more your Facebook world presents you with posts and articles that mirror those that views, thereby reinforcing your beliefs. The same happens in real life. What you do has a personal connection to who you are, and how you see yourself and your world; it is a direct response to your beliefs and your feelings.
Here is a quick example of how that personal connection can hold you back from reaching a goal or resolution:
Many of you are doing the challenge to improve your diet, and lifestyle. You have made a personal commitment to change what and how you eat, as well as how you move. You have made this commitment to yourself because being healthier really matters to you. A likely assumption is that your desire to be healthier, coupled with the right program will unlock the path to a healthier, happier life. This assumption is very important; it is what prompted you to participate in this challenge. Unfortunately, we are complex beings, and you actually have a whole bunch of underlying assumptions, beliefs and personal rules that are also going to positively or negatively impact your chances of success.
I have worked with countless people who have the same hopes and aspirations. Often these assumptions, that desire plus the right plan will equal success are correct, but what if there are other underlying assumptions that get in the way. What if another belief you held about health was that “getting to a place of health is very hard and restrictive,” and that thought combined with a deeper personal belief that “I am not strong”? Can you see how these two underlying assumptions might pose a problem? The first one automatically triggers fear and anxiety, the second helplessness. Together they create a significant barrier any time the process of getting healthier is harder or requires a sacrifice.
In experience as a coach, I can tell you that this kind of thinking is responsible for more failed goals than any kind of physical barrier (such as time constraints or easy access to healthy food options). These types of thoughts, especially the personal beliefs about strength, worth or competence can make the difference between persistence in the face of a challenge versus giving up.
How can you use this in your life?
Recognize that any time you try to make a change you are not only modifying a behavior, but you are challenging a whole cycle of thoughts and feelings.
Given (1), don’t expect big changes to be linear, or easy. Rather understand that the process will involve some great successes and some set backs. I like to tell my clients it’s like the stock market, up close it might look like a bunch of highs and lows, but when you take a step back what you see is upward progress.
When you find yourself struggling with a goal you can try strategizing, but if the best laid out plans don’t seem to be working for you go for the mind. Sit down, and outline what your thoughts and feelings are about both behaviors: the one you are trying to change and the new one you are trying to implement. This will help you understand why you’re not doing what you committed to do.
Use those insights to create a plan that is right for you, one that not only contains the best strategies, but also addresses your assumptions and feelings.
Using the earlier example, you might decide to create smaller steps that don’t feel hard. Steps that you can look at and confidently describe as realistic and feasible – yes that might slow you down, but you’ll get to your finish line. Alternatively, the solution might be thought-based. One of the corrections I have people make all the time is switching the language in their mind from “it’s too hard” to “it’s very hard, but feasible”. If nothing else by now you understand that changing the words in your mind can have a HUGE impact on feelings and actions (caveat – you have to believe what you are saying, it can’t just be positive for the sake of being positive).
Research shows that we have 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day. That is 60,000 to 70,000 opportunities to help or hinder your progress. Luckily, the majority of those thoughts are neutral and unremarkable, as are their associated feelings and behaviors. However, some thoughts, feelings and behaviors are defining and can determine the flow and pace of your life. So if you have been struggling to change a behavior or habit despite feeling motivated and having a great plan of action, the one place I recommend you go is to your mind – it holds all the answers!
Bio: Alessandra Wall, Ph.D. is a specialist in change. She is psychologist and a life and nutrition coach in private practice in San Diego, California, as well as the Executive Director and Lifestyle and Nutrition Coach at CrossFit Elysium. Her background is in anxiety, stress management and eating disorders. She specializes in helping people create lasting and significant life change, by providing practical insights into the cognitive and emotional factors that typically hold them back. Alessandra has been a featured speaker on topics such as the psychology of change and stress management at several PrimalCon events and Health Unplugged 2014, the UK’s first Paleo/Primal conference. Check out Alessandra’s Change of Heart program to learn how to create and achieve your life goals.
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