When friends would ask how I was doing or what goals I had set for myself, I would answer that my goal was to figure out why I don’t do what I claim I want to do. Most of the time they responded with sympathetic laughter. They know how hard it is to break old habits and start new ones.
Sometimes I have managed to change my behavior permanently. For about 20 years I had a frozen left shoulder from an old injury. I could raise my arm only so high before the pain and crackling noises would stop me. I considered it my fate until one day I read about frozen shoulders and understood that my bones, muscles, and nerves had settled in one place. They would have to be disturbed if I ever wanted to raise my arm above my head again.
I placed my vitamins on a high shelf, forcing myself to reach for the bottle every day. At first I would stand on a stool, then use my right arm to lift my left arm to reach for them. Day by day, repeated action after repeated action, I would reach for those vitamins. Eventually I learned how much pain I could tolerate before I was afraid of breaking something. One year later I could reach for the vitamins with my unassisted left arm without a stool.
When we think of making a change, we think of these three simple steps:
In terms of my shoulder, it would look like this:
This is how we imagine intentional behavioral change is made. It looks simple and straightforward, but that’s an illusion. Carrying off a behavioral change is much more challenging.
Post George Floyd, when people realized that being nonracist was not enough, a few colleagues confided they wanted to change to be more active. One person mused that maybe she would join a voter registration drive, or start contacting our legislators on issues of importance, or get more active politically. This was in June. Last month we had the same conversation. What happened to her very sincere pledge to herself?
The actual process of change is similar across personal, organizational, community, family, and societal levels. Volumes have been written about this process, so this is a bare bones description.
Let’s start by reframing the above model.
What pitfalls do we face? These three occur in most change efforts.
We’ll take them one at a time.
I was a guest on a recent Melanated Social Work Podcast1. The hosts, four impressive Black guys who appeared to be Gen Xers, asked me to tell their listeners how to respond better to racial insults.
Here is the exchange:
Host: I keep going back to this phrase that I was introduced to through the legacy of the Panthers: the idea of a revolutionary discipline.
Jean: If there's one thing I got out of my Columbia School of Social Work program in community organization, it’s revolutionary discipline. We had to be committed to the people, and we had to believe that the people couldn't be self-governing if they didn't know what to do. We had to be patient as they walked – not ran – to where they wanted to go.
When I’m hired for DEI workshops, I tell them that according to DEI research, culture changes in organizations routinely take 5-7 years. Some are shocked it takes so long, but most are simply relieved to know it takes time.
With personal behavior, common wisdom is that it takes 3 months. Actually, it takes less on average and we often take much longer. In one study of people making behavior changes (healthy eating, drinking, or exercising), the effort averaged 66 days and ranged from 18 to 254 days for the new habit to become automatic2.
People also underestimate the trajectory of change, expecting that once you begin a change, it should continue without interruption. Instead, they need to adopt the mindset of continuous improvement: small steps toward the ultimate goal with intermittent setbacks. The winner is the person who perseveres, no matter what. The nature of change is such that regression should be planned for and expected3. It is only the highly disciplined who can keep it up continuously.
Here’s the takeaway:
A common second error is to rely solely on willpower.
Despite our best intentions, a variety of factors will keep the status quo.
Here are the takeaways:
Most of us embark on a change by trying to push ourselves to do a new behavior.
We expect willpower to carry the day. Yet time and time again, willpower has proven insufficient to change ingrained habits reinforced by environmental structures.
Working at the level of identity provides a powerful advantage, by thinking of who you want to be. What I do is visualize who I want to be in a particular situation.
A friend once confided to me, “I just can’t see myself as skinny.” No wonder all of her diet efforts were doomed for failure. She went from diet to diet to diet and stuck with none. Each new diet and failure brought an overall confirmation of failure, until the last time I talked with her she didn’t even want to talk about food. She was unhappily resigned to her current weight.
"Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.”
(ascribed to Henry Ford)
The logical levels diagram explains this. Let’s see how I learned to respond to racial insults.
Robert Dilt’s Logical Levels Framework 4
I frequently put myself in environments where I had to learn how to deal with all kinds of people whose personalities and values were different from my own. I came to understand that people whose values were highly different (let’s say a Proud Boy) had values as strongly held as my own.
I began noticing my behavior, how the feeling of anger and hurt washed over me, and shifted my focus away from the other person to my own internal turmoil. This was the behavior I wanted to change. I knew that once my focus shifted from their hurt and anger to my reaction, I would become less competent in the interaction. Instead, I reaffirmed my values of a world that works for everyone. And then I began working at the level of identity.
Growing up in the segregated South, I endured many racial insults from Whites. It was par for the course. Yet the child in me was hurt. The difference now is that as an adult, I know that those hurling the insults had been socialized to do it and were coming from their own sense of fear and threat.
The question I asked myself was whether I could shift from the identity of a hurt child to one of a healthy adult who understands the person in front of me has pain. Their insults don’t reflect on me or my worth. Rather, they reflect on that person’s sense of inadequacy. If they really thought highly of themselves, they would have no need to insult me in any way.
Might I be in physical danger and would that change my perception? Well, it certainly would make me fearful, but it shouldn’t change my identity as a healthy adult talking to someone in a lot of pain who is directing their pain at me. To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, they may be able to harm my body, but I will not give them control of who I am5.
These read as affirmations and you can write them that way. But it’s not what I do. Let’s go back to what the host in the Melanated Social Work Podcast said:
I think that patience is what our generation lacks. Right now we want it done tomorrow, right. I think this idea of revolutionary patience is key.
What I’m talking about is hard work. It requires revolutionary patience with myself. The challenge is getting myself to believe what I am saying about myself. Simply declaring the new identity won’t get me there. I may have to visualize, journal, read about others who have achieved.
Once I can bring myself to believe in the new identity, I notice hints of opportunities to make a change that I absolutely would have missed before. These serendipities happen all the time when you’re open to them. We miss them when we are stuck in failure or lack patience.
In my old identity, if someone (such as a Proud Boy) hurled racial insults at me, I would have focused on my internal wounds. Now, as someone who believes in a world that works for everyone, I feel the sting and then notice all the trappings the Proud Boy needs to feel better about himself. I notice the sadness in his eyes, or the triumph. And I get curious. Who is this person? How can I break through?
At the beginning of this post, I presented this diagram for how most people think about change:
Here's an alternate way:
These three strategies help you stick with the changes you want to make:
Bottom line: Commit to the goal. Do the work.
Questions to ask yourself:
Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:
1 Episode 32 with Dr. Jean Latting: Leading Consciously. The Melanated Social Work Podcast.
2 Lally, P., C. H. M. van Jaarsveld, et al. (2010). "How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world." European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6): 998-1009.
3 Moshontz, H. and R. H. Hoyle (2021). "Resisting, recognizing, and returning: A three-component model and review of persistence in episodic goals." Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 15(1): e12576.
4 Dilts, R. (1990). Changing Belief Systems with NLP.
5 Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's search for meaning. New York, Washington Square Press Publication.