Perhaps you’ve been here before – even annually. This is the year you’re going to get fit, lose those extra pounds, cross new bridges, embrace a new lifestyle. You possess a new vision of yourself – one in which old jeans are rediscovered and airplane rides are more comfortable than before. Your ambitions are sincere, and yet, the ominous voice of the internal critic queries, “How will it be any different this time?”
The primary axiom of behavioral change is that, first and foremost, it is difficult. People generally do those things that they know how to do, and unless we’re learning new strategies, willpower alone will rarely precipitate sustained changes in our diet or our exercise. It’s time to be candid about our eating and our activity level. These, at the most fundamental level, are behaviors, and behaviors involve acting. If the goal is to change, the mechanism is observation.
You might have noticed already that I’ve alluded to three roles that are embedded within your personality functioning – the actor, the observer, and the critic. Dr. Peter Ossorio, a contemporary genius in every sense of the word, described these independent (yet related) functions when he developed his conceptual approach to understanding human behavior, Descriptive Psychology. All three roles are important, and when neglected or over-indulged, problems result.
To make either short-term or lasting changes in behavior, it is imperative that we first shift out of the role of acting (i.e. doing) or criticizing (i.e. judging) as we have grown accustomed. For many, this means silencing the critic, as a heavy dosage of self-disparagement rarely motivates us for long. As well, change necessitates putting a stop to the bustle of everyday life. It means designating time, perhaps scheduling it on the calendar. It means pulling out the journal, assuming the role of the observer, and confronting yourself with three questions: (1) “What behavior do I want to change?” (2) “Why do I want to change this behavior?” and (3) “Is my behavior consistent with my core values?”
As a clinical health psychologist, I have become convinced that lasting behavioral change rarely occurs lest behaviors are compatible with a person’s core values (i.e. those principles that bring life its meaning). I recall a patient I saw for anger management a few years ago who embraced the observer concept and proceeded to lose 80 pounds over the next four months. This was a person who became an astute observer/describer of his behavior and committed himself to his core values – namely improving his relationships with family members. As he focused on cultivating those relationships, he realized that his neglect of his health was also compromising his potential to participate in those relationships.
So going into the new year, I present a challenge. Act and criticize less. Resolve to observe. Commit to your values, and live so accordingly.