I’ve changed. Don’t let anyone tell you people don’t change because I have done so many, many times in my life. I’ve quit substances and habits, changed how I behave and relate to people, and stepped outside of social paradigms, rejecting unhealthy norms. I’ve eaten crow, admitted I was wrong and worked to end things I used to support. I’m not impressed by “life-long” anything. Change is a sign of growth and, frequently, maturing.
And yet, we hate it. It seems ingrained in us to hate change, even when the status quo is harming us.
To say change is hard is usually an understatement. We all know this. It rocks the norms, stresses us, creates inner conflict, and turns us into brooding jerks. And to top it off, it tends to offend others, as if personal change needs to be approved by the collective. How dare you not do things like other people. Newsflash, all: people don’t improve themselves to slap you in the face for your choices.
It’s not that I don’t experience these struggles. I’m not superhuman and I still struggle with some things, but I have figured out what I need to make change happen anyway.
Here are a few ways I’ve come to understand change and how to best accomplish it in my life. I hope they help you.
First, let’s talk about labels. (This time, I don’t mean food labels.) If you are a parent, you probably understand the importance of labels. The goal is for children to internalize good labels while rejecting, and therefore not identifying themselves with, the negative labels. Why? Because if you believe it about yourself, you are more likely to act in accordance with that belief. If someone calls your kid ugly, you don’t shrug it off, you help your child understand that it isn’t so because internalizing that label would hurt them. We’ve all seen it but we frequently fail to use it to our advantage.
Think I’m over stating it? Think about how you have felt when someone has given you a label (you might think of it as name-calling) that you didn’t anticipate. It could have been a positive label like “selfless” or “beautiful.” Those words tend to elevate us. Sometimes it’s a negative name like “liar” or “fake.” Whether we deserve them or not, these external identifiers can be surprising if they are inconsistent with the labels with which we already identify.
Labels are powerful.
How do we use these to better assist change in our lives? We decide on the labels that are positive and then we repeat and reinforce them until we have internalized them and, therefore, made them part of our identity. The only thing needed to make this effective is honesty. You can label yourself and foster a dissonance between what you identify as and what you really are. This isn’t magic. Saying you are open minded and then obnoxiously shutting down outside opinions makes you a liar. If, on the other hand, you say you are open minded and then repeat it to yourself when you are exposed to other ideas and therefore quietly listen and give them a fair consideration, you are being honest and internalizing your label.
This principle was made clear to me when I quit smoking for the last time. The cravings and habit were (and sometimes are) still there. The trigger situations are still there but I have changed my identity in my own head by repeating to myself that I am a non-smoker whenever I get the urge. It sounds too simple but it took at least 5 attempts to quit over the years and when it finally took, years ago, this was what worked.
So, what are your labels? Write them down if it helps. Are you a plant-based eater? Are you eco-conscious? Are you an independent? Are you someone who puts others first?
Don’t use the labels for social signalling and I don’t even recommend using them to get others to hold you accountable. Repeat them to yourself when you make a decision, resist an urge or choose an action as a way of reinforcing the you you want to be. You already have labels for yourself so why not be intentional about them?
Second, understand your motivation. You would be well served to figure out why you really want to make a change. Be honest with yourself here, and always, or it won’t last.
A friend called at her wits end recently because her teenage son was dating a vegan and now he wanted to be one. Considering the odds the relationship was going to last more than a few months (and setting aside the fact that she was crying to someone who doesn’t eat meat about people not eating meat), I felt confident telling her it wouldn’t last. After all, the motivation wasn’t going to last.
If you are just doing something because you are jumping on a bandwagon, admit it, because bandwagons pass.
When you are motivated by something that isn’t going to evaporate when it’s convenient, and you can keep that reason at the forefront, as a higher priority than the ease of not changing, you are on the right track.
And speaking of priorities, if you are going to choose convenience over health or conscience, admit it. Say it out loud. Look in a mirror and tell yourself that you would rather drive through than have energy and a functioning liver. That’s what honesty and integrity look like for many of us. Bragging about that poor choice is called being a fool, so don’t do that. It doesn’t justify anything to admit it, it just means you are telling the truth about your priorities.
While we are on the subject of motivation, we aren’t all motivated by the same forces. I highly recommend Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before to help you understand how you are motivated and as a bonus, it will help you understand the people around you better.
Third, keep learning. If you want to reinforce your change for the better, get educated about it. I know too much about food to live on crap and I intend to keep learning. Read blogs, columns and books. Listen to podcasts. Go to lectures or clubs. We already do this with things we currently practice. The avid religious practitioner studies or listens to religious leaders. I listen to food podcasts, have a flag on my newsfeed for food related stories, read books about all things food and go to food related seminars.
This does not mean live in an echo chamber, only reinforcing your desired take. Truly learning means studying a subject from all angles.
A bonus here is that being well educated about your decisions allows you to feel confident when those who are bothered by your change lash out. I get teased, trolled and sometimes verbally attacked for the ways in which I don’t conform. I’m confident in my choices because I know far more about the issues than anyone who has ever taken issue with me. Do yourself that favor.
Andy Stanley likes to say that it isn’t “when you know better, you do better.” The truth is that when you do better you do better.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Happy new year and happy eating, Katy