This is a brief post about change. (Okay, now that I have finished the post, I will amend that: This is a medium-ish reflection on change. Grad school killed my ability to write brief reflections.)
My blog is focused on healing and strengthening our spirits through love, and love entails a certain amount of self-acceptance.
However, love also entails bringing about change, especially when we want to begin new, good habits that show more kindness, compassion, and respect to ourselves.
For instance, this summer I began a new walking habit because I realized I was starving for movement and nature. This new habit has greatly increased my confidence and joy. It is definitely a way I show myself kindness, compassion, and respect.
This is a picture from a walk I went on in a Zen garden the other day. It was hot, and the walk was wonderful. I have become a lot more comfortable walking in hot weather.
Beginning new, good habits can be one of the most loving things we can do for ourselves, but new habits can also be very hard to form.
When I want to begin a new habit in my life, I sometimes undermine myself even before I get started.
Here’s how it usually happens.
Step #1: I think about the habit I want to begin.
Step #2: I decide I will completely change my life in that area immediately and make drastic changes the very next day.
Step #3: I feel overwhelmed with my drastic plans for change.
Step #4: I give up before I even get started.
I tend to get stuck in perfectionistic, all-or-nothing thinking.
Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Maybe you have a problem with this kind of thinking, too. When we approach change in this drastic manner, we usually fail to form helpful habits, and we fall back into our old, comfortable habits, even if they are harmful to us.
This failure to form good habits can cause us to feel like change is impossible.
In the last few years, I have begin to look at the process of change quite differently, and it has helped me tremendously.
I have realized several things:
1. Change almost often feels scary because it is new and different, and so during the process of change, I really need to be a supportive friend to myself.
Here is what I don’t need: I don’t need to be a harsh drill sergeant imposing a list of impossible expectations on myself.
2. Small changes leads to big transformations over time.
Of course it would be nice to make incredible changes miraculously overnight, and sometimes that happens. However, incredible overnight changes are only one kind of change and they aren’t even the most common or effective type of change.
A lot of incredible change happens slowly by little changes done consistently overtime. Often this kind of change is more permanent and long-lasting because it allows us to gradually change our thoughts, emotions, and dispositions as we make practical changes in our lives.
3. If making a big change feels overwhelming, I can just take the next smallest comfortable step.
Small changes are 100% better than no change at all. We don’t have to prove ourselves to anyone and for most new habits we want to form, all that matters is that we keep moving a little closer to our goal day by day. In this case, any small change, any small step forward is a success.
Thinking this way helps me a lot.
For example, I have been working on doing long-distance walking and building my mileage. To do this, I try to follow a schedule of walking four miles, three times a week, and then I do a longer walk on the weekend. Ideally, I need to stick to this schedule, rain or shine.
I did a great job of building mileage over the summer, but since the semester has started again, it is sometimes really hard to stick to my schedule. Several times, I have been really tired before a walk, or it has been raining, and I felt completely crabby or anxious about taking a walk. (Walking long distance in good weather has been a really big change for me, so the idea of walking long distance in the rain is really overwhelming sometimes.)
I have definitely skipped my walks a couple times. I often feel disappointed with myself when this happens, and occasionally I have thought, “I might as well give up this long-distance walking thing. It is really hard and uncomfortable sticking to this schedule now that the semester has started.”
But my new philosophy about change and forming good habits has helped me. Instead of giving up, I have thought, “Okay, Shelly. If the idea of walking long distance in the rain feels scary, what’s the next small step you can take to head towards your goal?”
The other day I realized that if I couldn’t stand the thought of walking long distance in the rain right now, I could just focus on going to the park anyhow and walking as long as I felt comfortable–even if it is just five minutes.
This way, I get used to walking in the rain, and it is not as scary. I have actually walked several times in the rain, and while I didn’t walk very far, I am beginning to feel more comfortable walking in the rain.
Of course I wish I was emotionally and psychologically able to walk long distances no matter my schedule or no matter the weather right now. But taking this next small, comfortable step helped me maintain my walking habit instead of giving up on it, and this has been really, really good for me.
This is a butterfly I saw on my walk the other day.
As another example, I am working on getting into a more consistent housecleaning routine, but I also get pretty anxious about housecleaning because I don’t think I am very good at it.
The other day, I created a long, overwhelming list of things I had to clean, and I almost gave up before I got started. But instead, I realized I was feeling anxious, and I asked myself, “What is the next small, comfortable step you can take in this area?”
I decided to clean the bathtub, and I did. And it was no big deal.
Of course I wish I could go on massive cleaning sprees and clean my house in several hours with joy and confidence. I am not there yet. But taking the next small, comfortable step helped me feel more confident about my cleaning abilities, and I know I can keep building this confidence over time.
I believe that setting new, helpful habits is a way that we heal our spirits. Healing is the process of mending a wound or ache we have, or it is the process of supplying a deficiency that undermines our ability to live with strength and confidence. Creating helpful habits is one way we do this and even the smallest, comfortable step helps.
A friend of mine loves this saying of Confucius, and I think it applies wonderfully to this idea of forming new habits, even if it is just one small, comfortable step at a time:
“[The task of self-cultivation] might be compared to the task of building up a mountain: if I stop even one basketful of earth short of completion, then I have stopped completely. It might also be compared to the task of leveling ground: even if I have only dumped a single basketful of earth, at least I am moving forward” (Confucius, Analects 9.19, Slingerland translation, p. 93).
What do you do to help yourself gently to change?
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We Can Change
Note: I do realize that sometimes we have to make drastic changes in our lives because our bad habits are killing us. This post is not aimed at those kinds of changes but rather changes we need to make that do not deal with life-threatening issues.
Confucius. Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Edward Slingerland. Hackett Publishing Co. 2003.