Are you contemplating some change in behavior? Do you have some habits that you would like to change? Maybe you would like to lose weight, stop cluttering, or pursue a dream of yours? Have you ever wondered what pushes someone beyond the New Year’s resolution to actually following through on change? Let’s look at why people change for the better and what makes them stick with those changes. Change is not easy and yet people do change.
Let us start with what motivates people to change. Sometimes the need to change comes from outside. Many of my clients tell me they had no choice. They were diagnosed with cancer or diabetes. Their doctor told them to either stop smoking or die, to lose 30 pounds or start taking insulin. And they did stop smoking and they did lose weight. The shock value of a diagnosis can really get you moving.
On a global scale a natural disaster in Sumatra or New Orleans pushes people to discover what they value most. A flood may level the playing field between rich and poor. In response to a disaster, everyone has to begin again and rebuild their lives.
Those are not the only reasons people choose to change. Sometimes we gradually become aware that something is missing or not quite right in our lives. Sometimes we reach a crossroads and find that we cannot continue on the same path. Perhaps we realize that becoming a doctor or lawyer was somebody else’s dream. I have known women who, after years of stress in corporate careers have used a diagnosis of cancer as turning points toward more fulfilling vocations.
Midlife can be a great time to re-evaluate our lives. Loudon Wainwright III wrote a funny song about realizing that we have less time in the future than in the past, called “Doing the Math”. He expressed his sense of urgency of time running out. In midlife many people explore their roots in order to become more authentically themselves. I began taking art classes a few years ago because I thought if not now when? I chose watercolors because I had always been attracted to the fluid and translucent colors. This pursuit has given me new eyes.
I have known several people who have changed their diet and taken off weight because their doctors told them to. I decided that I didn’t want to wait until I was diagnosed with diabetes, arthritic knees or gout before taking off extra pounds. When I realized that I could reduce my risk of diabetes by reducing my weight, I did some research until I found a safe way to lose weight gradually and keep it off. Nine years later I find it’s easier to keep off the weight than it was to lose it.
People make changes because they see opportunities to belong, to experience, to create, to make a difference in the world. Perhaps someone thought “what if we could give poor people the materials and assistance to build their own homes?” I imagine that is how Habitat for Humanity came into being.
I listened to a portrait of Rosa Parks on NPR. She didn’t just decide one day to sit in a different seat on the bus. She had been thinking about the words of Martin Luther King Jr. She joined trainings and discussions of ideas about nonviolent social action and came to believe that she could make a small difference by just sitting down. Sometimes people just need to see the opportunities in crises or holes in their lives.
Changing our minds may be all we need to do. I gave a talk to a support group for people with brain tumors and one young lady who felt that she couldn’t consider getting married or having family because she said she had a “time bomb” in her brain (the possibility of recurrent cancer). I talked to them about living with uncertainty and showed them strategies for understanding their risks and taking chances. At the end the young lady said that she had changed her mind and that she wanted to start living more fully.
Seeing our mother so changed after a stroke, my brother was disconcerted. She could not walk and could barely hear even with hearing aids. I showed him how to touch her with care and gentleness. He said it wasn’t easy because we aren’t a touchy feely family. I noticed that he learned to hold her hand and give her a kiss by the end of his visit. It may seem like a small change, but for him it was huge.
Now think about the reasons that you have for wanting to change. If there is something that you have been thinking about changing – however big or small – start with knowing that change is possible, that you have the power to make the changes that are important to you, and if not now when?
The words of the philosopher Goethe ring true: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
Kate Leonard PhD