Changing Our Habitual Approach to Change

Most of us feel bad about ourselves, at least some of the time. If we pay close attention to our thoughts, we may notice thoughts like “I shouldn’t have done that” or “I’m an idiot!” or “I never do anything right” or “I’m bad.” These thoughts tend to be accompanied by a sense of contraction in our body, and painful emotions.

Have you ever wondered what the purpose of these thoughts is? I suspect the hope is that these thoughts will spur us to change our behavior, so that it will be more life serving. Often, the actual content of the thought doesn’t seem all that helpful. So, the intention may be to inflict a punishment on our self, as a way of motivating ourselves to change. The problem is, most of us subject ourselves to so many painful mental jabs that those jabs seldom stimulate helpful change. Instead, some part of us just hunkers down and tries to endure the painful experience. Yet, the more the strategy of thinking punishing thoughts doesn’t work, the more frustrated we become, and the more we do it. It is a cycle that can produce a great deal of suffering.

We can be like a frustrated animal trainer repeatedly whipping an animal, without ever helping the animal to understand what behavior is wanted or offering encouragement.

These thoughts, which judge us and put negative labels on us, have a couple of characteristics that limit their ability to achieve their intended effect. One is their punishing quality. Another is that they typically offer little insight into what behavior is actually wanted. And even when they do offer some direction, as in “I should be exercising,” they fail to inspire us or connect us to any positive emotion that could provide fuel for the hard work of change.

The alternative to subjecting ourselves to punishing thoughts is to focus on sensing what it is that we are really aspiring to. So, instead of thinking “I’m an idiot!” we might connect to how much we want to approach situations with alertness and awareness, or instead of thinking “I should be exercising” we might sense how much we long to be healthy and energetic. The point is not to generate more targeted thoughts about what we “should” be doing. Instead, we connect to our natural longing, setting aside any expectations about whether and how those longings might be fulfilled. It is a matter of bringing into awareness what matters to us, without adding in any punishing overtones. This approach is both more enjoyable than the strategy of thinking punishing thoughts, and more likely to eventually produce organic, sustainable change that will serve us.

In shifting to the new model, a first step is to develop awareness. Notice when you feel emotional pain, and use that as a cue to notice your thoughts. Likely, you’ll discover a thought implying judgment of yourself or someone else. (For current purposes, we’ll just consider the case where you are judging yourself, though shifting your thinking is just as helpful when you’re judging someone else.) You might explicitly name what you’ve noticed, e.g., “I’m having a judgment that I’m so selfish, and I’m thinking that means that nobody is going to like me.” Just notice that, and notice also any temptation to judge yourself for having had a judgment.

Allow yourself to be a grateful that your thoughts are trying to tell you what you want. See if you can translate your thought into something that more explicitly names your longing. “I’m so selfish” might mean “I really value generosity,” and “nobody is going to like me” might mean “I would love to be accepted and liked.” Look for a translation that is about what benevolent quality you want in the abstract, not about any specific person or any specific action. Doing this sort of translation isn’t just an intellectual exercise. Check to see if the statement of what you want feels right. If you’ve got it, likely you’ll notice some part of you saying “yes!” and perhaps feel some relief or easing inside. If you don’t get that response, see if you can refine your translation. Perhaps ask yourself, “If I got what I want, what would that do for me?”

Once you’ve gotten your translation, try repeating it to yourself, and notice if it changes anything about how you feel inside. Our self judgments have had lots of time to shape our emotions. Giving our honest longings a chance to shape how we feel can start to bring our life back into balance.

It takes time and patience to shift our approach. Punishing thoughts will likely still be present, but they can lose their energy and simply become steppingstones to awareness. The first step is to start noticing the connection between our thoughts, and how we feel. Notice any self infliction of pain, and practice substituting kindness and clarity about our aspirations. This can lead to changes in ourselves and changes in our experience of the world.