How to Change

Change lightbulb

Question: "How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer: "The light bulb has to want to change." This simple little light bulb joke covers 90 percent of what you need to know before you try to change anything in your life.

How to Change Your Life

First, a warning: This will not be easy. If changing one's life were easy, the entire world would be sober, fit, and happily married. Knowing this will be difficult, you will have a better chance of success if you divide your big life-changing plans into smaller parts. Take it step-by-step. The following is a quick outline to guide you. You will certainly tailor your plan to fit your unique situation. Write these steps down and keep them in a safe place where you will remember to check in regularly.

Step One: Understand Your Motivations

Motivate Yourself

Learning how to change starts with understanding your motivations. You cannot change if you do not want to. It is pointless to try. If you are struggling with addiction, you want to lose weight, or you are unhappy in a relationship, ask yourself a question: Do I want to change this? Then ask yourself a second time: Do I really want to change this?

Step Two: Don't Let Yourself Hit Bottom

Unfortunately, too many people decide they are ready to change their lives when something really bad happens. They get arrested for drunk driving. They sit in a wicker chair, and it collapses. Their significant other becomes physically abusive. Experience is a harsh taskmaster. For motivation, nothing beats hitting bottom.

No one wants to hit bottom. For certain, no one wants to do it twice...or three times. You want to change without hitting bottom. If you feel as though you are headed that way (the floor is getting closer rapidly), reach out and ask for help. You do not need to ask for a lifeline from a friend or family member. You can call an anonymous hotline, such as the Samaritans.

Step Three: Look Within

Here's another story. A man buys a hot dog at a stand outside a ballpark. It turns out the hot dog seller is a Buddhist monk. The man pays with a $20 bill, and the monk gives him his hot dog. An uncomfortable silence follows. The man asks "Aren't you going to give me change?" The monk stares earnestly into the man's eyes and says "Change must come from within."

It is true. Change always comes from within. You have the power within you to start making positive change in your life. If you suffer setbacks, you have the power to pick yourself up and start over. That is a cool thing about humans: they're resilient. Often, you can find inspiration in the stories of others who have faced obstacles and overcame them. YouTube is a terrific source of such stories.

Step Four: Explore Secondary Gain

It is important to ask yourself if you truly want change because your motivations are complicated. Sometimes you are stuck in a rut because you benefit in some way from the thing you want to change. This type of benefit is what psychologists call "secondary gain." You may not like the behavior or the habit, but the secondary gain keeps you hooked.

Here are some examples of secondary gain:

  • Perhaps you drink to mask the pain of a bad childhood. You are also funnier when you drink.
  • Maybe you overeat and under-exercise because you are dealing with some unresolved conflicts about your sexuality. You also like having bigger breasts.
  • You might still be with this guy because you are afraid that if you leave, you will never experience love again. He also pays half the rent.

Knowing how to change means understanding how these secondary gains prevent you from changing.

Step Five: Find a Community

Plan B

Real, substantial, and lasting change seldom happens on its own. Humans are social creatures. They need one another to live, thrive, and survive. Most of all, they need one another to change. Working within a community can help facilitate change. Examples of communities include:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) helps people stop drinking and turn their lives around. "The Program" is not perfect, but it works. The success of AA may depend largely on the strength of its network: the group of like-minded individuals who struggle together.
  • CrossFit is an exercise and lifestyle craze that claims enormous success in helping clients lose weight, get fit, and stay healthy. Like AA, CrossFit has its share of critics, but the system works. One thing detractors never criticize is the sense of community CrossFit fosters. Thousands of people who would never lose weight succeed with CrossFit because they are cheered on by an enthusiastic, supportive community.

For relationship problems, there is no shortage of community. The internet is overflowing with support groups and forums where unhappy partners can ask for help. If you cannot find the group you are looking for on sites like Reddit or Quora, you can start your own group. Other people will find you!

Step Six: Be Ready for Setbacks

Perfection is unattainable. No one should beat themselves up for failing to be perfect. The same goes for failing to meet your goals. This is why readiness for setbacks belongs on your "How to Change Your life" List. There is great reward in continuing to move toward a goal. If things are not working out the way you want, go back to step one. Examine your motivations. Are you getting some kind of secondary gain from stalling? If so, write them down and make a plan to overcome them.

Tips and Tricks

Consider the following tips for facilitating change in your life.

Set S.M.A.R.T Goals.

Goal Plan Success

Goal setting is important. Use the acronym S.M.A.R.T. as you set them.

  • Specific - For example, "I will lose weight"
  • Measurable - How much? 20 pounds
  • Attainable - Ask yourself, "Have I got 20 lbs to lose?"
  • Realistic - Ask yourself, "Is this doable?"
  • Time-bound - For example, I will do this by the end of April, etc.

Chunk Your Goals

Make a mini-goal for each month. If your plan was simply to stop drinking, then make your goal for the month "30 days alcohol-free." If you want to lose 50 pounds, make your monthly goal five pounds. If you crush your goal in 10 days, then make a new goal! Write these goals down and leave a column for your successes. If you do not reach your goal, record what you did anyway. It is great motivation.

Do Not Forget to Celebrate

Every step along the way deserves a celebration. Celebrate when you brainstorm and figure out your motivations, including the ones that hold you back. Celebrate when you reach out for a helping hand. Celebrate the communities you join, especially if the group is full of people like you working toward the same goals. Find where you have written down your goals and make sure to note when you've achieved them. It sounds corny, but it works amazingly well. Find someone to celebrate with. Life is better when you share victories with others. If there doesn't appear to be anybody around, celebrate yourself. Just DO IT. Then celebrate it.

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