In my last entry, we talked of the value of looking back and appreciating what is positive in our lives through gratitude. In this entry, as we anticipate the coming new year, let’s look forward and think about our potential to grow.

What is the difference between these two scenarios?

“I was doing well on my diet for 3 months before I started slipping back into old habits.”

“I used to smoke two packs a day, but I quit 30 years ago.”

Here’s a hint. Only one of the scenarios involved real change.

What is real change? From a brain perspective, it is when our default state of mind, the one that triggers our automatic thoughts and behaviors, gets overwritten with a new set of beliefs and behaviors, so much so that the “new” actually feels normal and familiar.

Think about an old habit that you’ve since grown out of. I used to drink a lot of soda. When I was younger, I could get away with it because of a different metabolism and regular opportunities to exercise. Then somewhere in the middle of medical school, the accumulation of multiple bad habits caught up to me and I started to put on a lot of weight. The first change I made was that I gave up drinking soda. That was not easy at the time, but eventually it wasn’t that hard at all. And I did start to lose some of the extra weight I had gained. Now, I occasionally have a Coke, but when I do, I can’t really drink that much past the first few sips. It tastes overwhelmingly sweet. Strange that I used to drink three or four of these a day.

So how does this happen?

Stage 1 – Insight  It starts with a meaningful insight. A meaningful insight has the quality of “oh…now I get it,” or even “uh oh.” Not only do we learn something in the moment when the light bulb goes off, but we also immediately see the significance of this newly acquired knowledge. A true understanding. This type of insight is a combination of thinking and feeling. In the scenario above, this came in the form of a mentally upsetting compare and contrast, from what the scale said versus what I thought I should be seeing.

Stage 2 – Intention  If this insight is truly meaningful, what naturally follows is the formation of an intention – “I should do something about this.” With my weight issue, I decided that I needed to do something different. This need to do something was really what made the difference, which is a key factor in this stage – determination. I think of determination as a persistent choice, a decision with legs.

Stage 3 – Iterations  This leads to the next step, which goes from in our head to the real world – new behaviors. But for this step to really work towards actual change, the new behavior has to be repeated. Practicing. Also for this step to work, the new behavior has to be better than the old behavior, providing an experience of gratification that drives the motivation to persist. I’m sure there were times where I still snuck in a couple of Cokes, but for the most part, it was progressively less frequent over time. Also, because I started to lose some weight, I recognized the value in the change I made and was more self motivated to keep up with it.

Stage 4 – Integration  As I mentioned earlier, at some point, it really wasn’t that hard to stop drinking the soda. It eventually felt more normal to drink water, coffee or iced tea. What starts to happen with our repetition of new behavior is that new connections are being made in our brain, overwriting our old patterns. As we become more consistent with our new behavior, the neurons that get used more often become more efficient. This is when things start to feel easier. Our experience goes from conscious to subconscious. This is when these practices start to feel familiar and natural. This is the end point of real change, integration – learning a new normal.

The stages I’ve just described are not a strategy for change. It’s a truthful and accurate description of how change occurs for all of us. Understanding how this works can help us move forward in our own processes of personal growth. It can also help us understand why in so many cases we seem to get stuck.

In the next entry, I’ll discuss common ways in which our process of growth gets derailed, stagnant, or stuck. And I’ll provide some strategies as to how to assess and redirect us back towards positive change.

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