I recently read some research by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey of Harvard University on change. They point out that our best efforts to change are often overwhelmed by forces within us. Many times we have goals that would make a significant difference in our day to day life. Even though we understand that, we routinely kneecap ourselves. But there may be a good reason for self-sabotage.The behaviors we find so hard to change may provide protection for something we feel very vulnerable about. When you see your behavior from that perspective, as helping you in some way, the behavior is brilliant. Kagan and Lahey believe that anxiety is what is underneath change- resistant behavior. It’s the brain’s background noise, increasing in volume when we have to deal with something new and uncomfortable, but operating at such a low level most of the time that we don’t even notice the noise. To avoid feeling the anxiety we have, we develop habits which many not serve us. The cost is the change we want to make but don’t.
So are we stuck where we are and doomed not to reach our goals? Not at all. We can change, but it takes effort. The first thing to do is pick the right goal. In the past maybe your goal has been to lose weight (we are women, after all). But why? Look at your biggest complaint. Is it that your clothes don’t fit or that your knees hurt? We can always get new clothes, but how easy is it to get new knees? Now you have a real reason to change your behavior.
Next ask what you do that works against losing weight. Be honest and detailed, but don’t beat yourself up.
Now for the hard part, ask yourself what would happen if you started doing the opposite of what you are doing now. Are you feeling that anxiety? You want to lose weight but are you afraid that your friends would not like the “new you”? Look at competing commitments and see if they are rooted in secret anxieties.
The final step is to identify any underlying assumptions you may have about changing your behavior. Your Italian family won’t love you if you are at a healthy weight. I had to face that one. My Italian grandmother always told me I was fat and then when I said no to chocolate cake she was upset because I didn’t love her anymore. So my anxiety was that I would not be loved and accepted if I didn’t eat. Or you may eat to avoid losing your temper. But just knowing what your underlying anxiety is will not solve the problem. You also have to act. Test your assumption. Have lunch with friends and have a salad instead of a sandwich. Lose your temper and yell at your husband or kids instead of eating. Find out if your assumption is correct.
Chances are testing your assumption will show you that the basis of your anxiety is incorrect. Then you will have the confidence to choose a behavior that is not self- sabotaging. And if your assumption is true, that’s okay. Understand that your behavior serves an important purpose in your life and honor that purpose for as long as needed. Change when you are ready.
For more in depth information on how anxiety may influence you behavior, read Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey.