I often work with clients that are trying to change certain behaviors. They may be reacting badly to others. They may be emotionally eating. They may engaging in any number of unhealthy, unproductive or undesirable behaviors. Often the first step is having insight and recognition in the pattern that leads to the behavior. Sometimes that is enough to create change. Other times we will put in place strategies to help support change in the moment.
The problem is people tend to be very hard on themselves when it comes to change. That seems to often stem from the fact that many of us aren’t good about distinguishing thoughts from actions. This is what I mean by that. I will work with a client to make a change. They come in the next session and talk about a situation arose that normally would evoke the undesired behavior. And they didn’t do the behavior. Perfect, right? Not to them. So many times the response from them is, “but I still thought about doing it!”
Because the person is so inside of the situation they confuse the desire to do the behavior with actually doing the behavior. But they aren’t the same. And instead of being proud of the fact that they made the shift of not doing the behavior, they are upset with themselves for having thought about it. They fail to recognize that they accomplished what they set out to do…to not do something.
It would be great (although that’s arguable!) if we could just get rid of desires and thoughts that we don’t want to have. The desire for that extra piece of chocolate cake. The desire to yell back at someone that makes us angry. The desire to try to please others at the expense of ourselves. All kinds of desires. But it doesn’t work that way. We have desires and we can’t just turn them on and off. They may change over time but there is no magic switch for them.
What we can do is decide how and if we act on those desires. That is where the change really occurs. You may always want two pieces of chocolate cake. But you can choose to just take one. If you do that and still have the desire you didn’t fail…you succeeded! You successfully made the change in your behavior. Sure, it would be nice if the desire magically went away but it doesn’t.
Desire may lessen or even go away over time as you gather evidence of how your new behavior benefits you. The desire to be healthy and fit may become stronger than the desire for the second piece of cake, making it easier to ignore the desire for cake. But that is a process that takes time.
Start paying attention to the difference between thoughts and behavior. Think about how many times during the day you have desires that you choose to not act on. And you probably don’t even think about it. You may think, “hmmmm, I wish I didn’t have to work today” but you don’t skip work. You think, “wow, I’d love a new car” but you don’t go out and buy one. You may even think, “they make me so angry that I want to hit them” but you don’t. You are actually much better at not acting on desires than you realize.
The next time you make a change, give yourself credit for it. Don’t let the fact that you thought about doing something distract from the fact that you didn’t do it!