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Changing Behavior

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09th-Mar-2020       
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Marty Nemko :
The following distills what most often helps my clients effect behavior change. While I frame it as what I do as a counselor, much of it should be useful in self help.
Build on one's genetics and upbringing
We're learning that ever more of our behavior is affected not only by our upbringing but by our genetics, from intelligence to behavioral flexibility, from self-control to political leaning. So my clients have made more progress when we attempt to remediate only the most essential weaknesses, for example, a tendency toward sloth.
Otherwise, we usually focus on developing goals and objectives that build on strengths and skirt rather than remediate weaknesses. For instance, let's say a person tends to get angry. Sure, I'll encourage the person to use tactics to reduce anger's effects, for example, when starting to feel anger, take a slow deep breath, remember the price that anger imposes, and maybe "go to the bathroom" to calm down. But we usually focus on identifying work, environments, and people that are less likely to trigger anger.
Aim to change behavior, not attitude
It's usually easier to effect behavior change than attitude change. Indeed, behavior change usually precedes attitude change. So, once clients have identified a desired change, for example, to be calmer or more assertive, I often ask them to imagine a movie in which the main character behaves that way and to describe the character's behavior during a typical day. Then I'll invite the client to, between sessions, pretend s/he's a person who behaves that way.
That approach is exemplified, perhaps surprisingly, in a song from the classic Broadway musical, The King and I:
I whistle a happy tune,
And every single time
The happiness in that tune
Convinces me that I'm
Not afraid.
Make believe you're brave
And the trick will take you far;
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are
Try here-and-now first
Usually, here-and-now is my go-to approach. In that, I help the client:
1.    Identify the desired change.
2.    Break it into baby steps.
3.    If it's a discrete task, for example, working on landing a job, I'll ask if s/he'd like to set a timer to do the task, for example, 9 AM Saturday, working for 20 minutes and 5 minutes off, 20 more minutes and 5 off, 20 more and ten off.
4.    Decide if it would help to give him or herself a reward for getting it done or a punishment for not. If so, I ask the client to select it.
5.    Identify blocks. I'll often ask the client if s/he thinks it would help to log feelings at each "moment of truth" when s/he wants to start the task as well as when s/he gets stuck.
6.    Troubleshoot. If an attempt to change behavior fails, in the next session, we figure out whether the change was too difficult, is the wrong change, the result of a tendency to procrastinate, etc. We use that information to revise the plan.
Use a cognitive-behavioral approach as backup
If here-and-now doesn't work well enough, I often try a cognitive-behavioral approach to help the client determine if an irrational fear is impeding the behavior change. If so, it's usually fear of failure, rejection, or embarrassment, perhaps caused or exacerbated by earlier trauma. My version of a cognitive-behavioral approach usually has four steps:
1.    To identify the person's psychological barrier, I'll typically ask a question like, "Pretend you're about to do the task and are feeling resistant. What's going through your head and heart?"
2.    I typically ask the client, "What would your wiser twin tell you to do in response to that?"
3.    If the "wiser twin" doesn't come up with anything the client feels has a good chance of working, I'll offer a suggestion and ask whether the client believes that would work.
4.    As with the here-and-now approach, if the client's attempt to change is inadequate, we troubleshoot.
Clients should fly solo as soon as possible. That's because whatever help a professional provides is diminished not only by sessions' cost and time but because using a counselor is disempowering, making the client feel s/he lacks sufficient self-efficacy. So when I sense a client would do well on his/her own, I ask if s/he'd like another session, to proceed solo, or with the help of a friend or loved one. If s/he chooses the solo or friend option, I reassure the client that if needed, s/he's welcome to schedule another appointment with me.
Discourage victimization. If a client wants to make activism about racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia, ageism, lookism, or trauma part of his or her life, fine. But if my client's goal is to improve their work or personal life, it's rarely helpful to focus on such externalities but rather to develop and implement baby steps toward improving their lives.
The takeaway
As always, no model fits all, but do you think the aforementioned, a variant thereof, or even one of its components are worth a try?
(Marty Nemko, Ph.D., is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, California, and the author of 10 books).

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