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The Power to Change: What to Do When Willpower Is Not Enough


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In the weeks since making New Years Resolutions, you’ve likely rediscovered something you’ve experienced many times before: how difficult it is to follow through on good intentions. When it comes to making changes that would improve our health and happiness, we’re of two minds, and I don’t just mean that as a figure of speech. We are determined to change at times and driven to continue destructive habits at others because the human nervous system has two distinct networks capable of processing information and generating behavior. In other words, not only are we of two minds, it’s almost as though we have two minds. The mind most familiar to us operates consciously and rationally. It’s sort of like the Windows operating system on your computer. What you see is what you get. And what you see when you think about destructive habits is a desire to change.

However, the conscious mind doesn’t direct our behavior all the time. Under certain conditions, a toggling mechanism in our brains switches control from the rational mind to a more reflexive nervous system network. At such times, it’s as though half our brain is tied behind our backs. We become less capable of thinking clearly and responding sensibly. Instead of choosing how to act, we revert to those behavior patterns that draw the lowest mental voltage: familiar habits. Trying to restrain ourselves in the heat of such moments is like trying to swim upstream right at the cusp of a waterfall. Unfortunately, that’s the situation most of us keep putting ourselves into by approaching change in the usual way, by relying on willpower. And we keep experiencing the natural result of such an approach: failure.

By the time I work with them, most of my clients have had years of experience with the following pattern: They resolve anew to change, and do all that they can to muster their resolve and determination. They hope and pray that this time, their willpower will be sufficient to bear up under the force of temptation when it hits. Then they proceed through everyday life, more vigilant than usual and more ready to put up a fight. With a heightened focus and increased exertion, they may find themselves more able than usual to resist the pull of habit. Nonetheless, inevitably, in some weak moment, they find themselves vulnerable again, more easily persuaded by the siren song of habit and less able than usual to marshal their inner resources for the fight. They succumb to temptation. Later, when they’re back in their right mind, they may kick themselves for giving in again. And then they may launch back in to the early stages of this cycle with even more fervor than before.

Over years of working with clients in the caught up in this cycle, I’ve been convinced that we can’t change habits by trying really hard. Fighting and succumbing are both ways of reacting, ruts we fall back into which follow the same pattern each time we repeat them. Did you catch that? Succumbing to urges and fighting them can both become ingrained habits that we repeat automatically, without much variation, without true awareness, and certainly without exercising any creativity. No wonder the roller-coaster of fighting and succumbing can continue in some people’s lives for years without substantial variation. A change program that works will need to help us alter both our habit of succumbing, and our habit of resisting in the usual way.

Even in the throes of such an automatic, unenlightened cycle, we remain human beings and thus retain our infinite potential. I’m not talking about the capacity to become a world leader or carve an inspiring sculpture. By infinite potential, I’m referring to the fact that our response options at any moment of our lives remain limitless—they can’t be numbered. In theory at least, we can do anything when we’re tempted to succumb to or tempted to fight our urges. Unfortunately, when we’re most reactive, we’re not in a choosing frame of mind. In fact, we’re not even in a recognizing frame of mind. Therefore, most of the time, we don’t do anything differently even when we could. The inertia of habit is considerable, and our usual patterns tend to continue. Don’t be surprised when change is slow, even after you start working with your habits in new ways.

Fortunately, in everyday life, there are those windows—those zones of freedom—within which we still have the presence of mind to make choices. At least some of the time, we can both recognize that now would be a good time to do things differently and proceed to do so. These are crucial moments, potential turning points, and we can leverage them most powerfully by taking little actions that further expand those windows, those zones of freedom. Like my kids, who would use the last of their three wishes to wish for even more wishes, we can turn these key moments of freedom when we feel like being reactive into even more freedom by doing things that help us ease away from the fringe of the reactive state of mind.

Breathing and noticing are two simple but surprisingly effective tools we can use to buy ourselves even more freedom at those crucial potential turning points. Let’s briefly explore each one.

Breathing is one of the few automatic nervous system functions that we can take over and direct for ourselves. We can’t make a point of slowing our heart rate or stop sweating because we want to stay calm. We can, however, take a few slow, deep breaths when we realize that bodily tension is building. This enables our body to stay more relaxed when we were starting to get keyed-up. Interestingly enough, this has a profound effect on the mind, because the mind takes its lead from the body. When the body’s tense, the mind tends to fixate. It narrows attention down and can only choose between a restricted set of reactions. Old familiar habits like succumbing and fighting are usually top on the list. When the body is relaxed, on the other hand, the mind gets the message to broaden our awareness. In this open frame of mind we can observe things we’d otherwise miss and consider a multitude of possible options. We remain free to repeat a destructive habit, practice an adaptive habit, do something we’ve never done before, or even to forbear taking action altogether.

In addition to taking a few slow, deep breaths, we can also notice some of the input that flows into our senses at any given moment. For instance, we can look at one thing in our environment, one visual point, as we take a deep breath. As we focus fully on that one thing and the way it looks at this very moment, something interesting happens in our brains. They have a limited capacity for processing information, and “what’s real now” gets priority over plans, memories, abstract thoughts, fears, and fantasies. Because our nervous systems operate according to this Reality First principle, we can interrupt reactive mental habits by tuning in to and becoming mindful of current sensory input.

Personally, when I practice noticing, I usually go back and forth between three senses. I find and fixate on a particular sight during one inhale, then as I exhale I direct my attention from what I was looking at and tune into what I can hear. After I single out a particular background noise, I focus on it during my next inhale. Then I rub my hand against a nearby object like the dashboard of my car and attend closely to its peculiar texture as I slowly inhale again. If I go through these three senses a couple times each, I find that by the time I’m done breathing & noticing my mind has usually freed itself up from where it was lodged. I can then decide what I want to think about and consider some response options that are more sensible than the reactive habits that felt so compelling a few moments ago.

During the first month I worked with him, I encouraged Steve to practice two exercises between our weekly meetings. The first was to keep a record of those times when he found himself caught up in a reactive state of mind. He did this by recording in a little notebook his “spots & thoughts. ” At least two or three times a week, usually once he was back in his right mind again, he wrote down something about the situation or time of day (the spot) and something about what was going through his mind (the thought) when he felt more emotionally reactive than usual. This exercise helped him become more aware of both how frequently he shifted into an emotionally reactive mode and the events and situations in his life that tended to trigger it. After his first week of tracking spots and thoughts, I encouraged him to practice the breathing and noticing sequence in a few of the moments when he caught himself starting to feel reactive.

At first, Steve used the breathing and noticing when he felt the pull of *** ography, the habit that he had hired me to help him overcome. He said at the beginning of our third session, “I was surprised how much that breathing and looking and listening thing helped. It seems to dissipate and defuse temptation a bit. A couple of times it went away and was gone for good. Then on Thursday it kept pounding away at me, and eventually I slipped up. But it seems like a promising tool that I can put to use in the future. In fact, it helped me keep my cool when I was upset at my fifteen-year-old. He violated his curfew on Friday night and I did it as I was sat there in the living room waiting for him to get home. ” Steve clenched his jaw and let out a sigh: “There’s the neighbor’s mailbox… (another sigh) There’s the feeling of the carpet against my toes…”

I was glad that Steve had something new he could do, something he could use that would sometimes break the spell of obsession in the heat of the moment. However, I knew that if he just kept trying to catch his destructive urges and turn things around once he felt a strong pull, he’d continue to fight a losing battle. I knew that he would be more likely to succeed in the long run if he started to pay attention to the landscape upstream from the waterfall. Then, he could get better at turning around before the current got so stiff. Instead of focusing solely on avoiding the destructive habit itself, I encouraged him to focus on identifying and managing the factors that switch on his reflexive mind and disengage his capacity to decide how he’s going to act.

As he began to track the “spots & thoughts” associated with his other, less disturbing emotional reactions, he discovered what most of my clients do: that he didn’t get to the point where he felt a strong urge for *** ography all at once. Instead, he discovered that he had been unknowingly spending large chunks of time during the week working himself up into a state of vulnerability. He did this the way we all do: by becoming reactive in other ways that are less troubling and thus less noticeable.

For instance, Steve started to notice that he was more prone to experience *** temptation after a stressful week at work. “Then I feel too wound up to sleep, so I stay up and channel surf. I find myself lingering on those titillating dating shows or those infomercials for sex-related 900 numbers. It only takes a bit of that before I’m fully into it and I’ve lost my resolve to abstain. Next thing I know I’m spending money we don’t have on that garbage with no regard for how I’ll feel later or how my wife is going to react when finds out I’ve relapsed again. ”

With coaching, Steve started to identify the earliest stages of the pattern that eventually culminated in those relapses. He kept a lookout for those times when he started to work himself up at the office or at home. Using his spots & thoughts notebook, he discovered, for instance, that his mind and body got particularly keyed-up when his inbox got too full or he started to get phone calls from employees in other departments of the company who were waiting on one of the databases he was programming. He’d start going full bore, which had obvious advantages. He’d usually get more done more quickly. However, in that super-focused state of mind, he was also less likely to notice that he needed to take a break, grab something to eat. He was unresponsive to subtle urges to stretch, stand up, or take a little walk. As he paid more attention to these stressful periods, he realized that he even avoided taking bathroom breaks, at times until he was in pain from a full bladder! He observed that eventually, his gung-ho mentality reached the point of diminishing returns even in terms of productivity. His concentration would fade, he’d make more computer programming mistakes. He also noticed a moderate but distinct lagging of his morale during intense times.

After identifying this earlier part of his pattern, Steve started to use breathing and noticing to interrupt what he called his productivity compulsion. It surprised him to be working on this, because just weeks earlier he hadn’t even entertained the possibility that his drive to deliver a good product at work might play a role in his destructive habit. Now Steve relied on breathing & noticing, the same skills he’d been using to interrupt *** impulses, to break the spell of the reactive frame of mind that kicked in at work. He still worked hard when demands were intense, but a few times a day he’d push himself back from his desk, take a few slow, deep breaths, and notice the sound of air rushing through the heating duct, a branch on a tree in the courtyard of his office complex, or the texture of his corduroy pant leg as he rubbed it between his finger and thumb.

This helped him reestablish a calm state of mind. Sometimes he could see that he was fixating too much on one topic and was at risk of missing the forest for the trees. A few times he returned phone calls that he might have otherwise forgotten about. Usually, he continued the work he’d been doing, but sometimes the task now had a noticeably lighter feel to it.

Over a period of weeks, the *** urges that had haunted him for seventeen years diminished and became less pesky. Steve concluded that by changing the way he responded at work and at home, he was preventing the buildup that used to eventually cry out for *** release. Steve slipped in his progress several more times during the time I worked with him. However, after the fact, rather than kicking himself and assuming that he was “back at square one, ” he looked at each lapse in an effort to determine what factors had increased his vulnerability. Each time, he learned something new that he could apply in his ongoing efforts. As he did this, I could tell that Steve was responding as a human being, exercising his infinite potential. He was being thoughtful and deliberative, rather than lapsing back into a familiar sequence like “berating myself for messing up” or “trying harder this time. ”

Of course, the portrayal I’ve given of Steve’s progress is oversimplified. After all, I met with him eleven times over a period of just less than a year. However, what you’ve read is the essence of what helped him and dozens of other clients struggling like him to change their habits. Try out these principles and practices for yourself. Then, please let me know how it goes for you. Sometimes change is a miraculous process, and I’m interested in hearing about what you learn along the way.

Mark Chamberlain is a clinical psychologist in private practice specializing in the treatment of sex addictions, substance abuse, eating disorders, domestic violence and other compulsive behavior. He is the author, editor or coauthor of four books including, Confronting *** ography, Willpower is Not Enough: Why We Don’t Succeed at Change, and Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction. His work has included a variety of settings and roles including a psychologist for two intensive outpatient chemical dependency programs, trustee on the board of a domestic violence prevention agency, psychologist at a methadone clinic, and work at the Utah State Prison with inmates in the sex-offender program.


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