PMH Tool 11 – Understanding why it’s Hard to Change the way we think, feel, say, and do things, and what it takes to make such changes

People often struggle to change the way they think, feel, say, and do things, even when they really would like to, and have suffered serious professional, relational, health, and economic consequences for the way they do.  Sometimes people will temporarily manage to change the way they think, feel, say or do things for the better, only to slip back into their old unhelpful ways later. It helps to understand what you are up against if you do want to change the way you think, feel, say, or do things.

One reason is that behavior is always purposeful. People start and continue to do what they do because it serves some purpose in their lives. As long as a behavior serves some purpose, people will tend to continue to behave the same way, even in the face of evidence that the way they behave is unhelpful, self-defeating or even self-destructive. For example, if someone smokes, drinks, or uses drugs to withdraw from or avoid unpleasantness in their lives, and get relief from feelings they don’t like, it will be difficult to stop engaging in such behaviors as long as they served a purpose. They will continue to serve a purpose as long as they continue to generate more feelings than they want to have or know what to do with. It’s why, for example, people who quit smoking often end up eating more and gaining weight. Eating can also be mood-elevating and start to serve the purpose once served by smoking. To give someone their best hope of changing for the better, they should reduce the purpose served by the behavior, which would mean learning to reduce the frequency, intensity, and duration of the feelings they seek relief from.

A second reason is that whenever we practice thinking, feeling, saying, or doing things a certain way, we create what neuroscientists call Ruts in our brains. These “Ruts” are like ruts in dirt roads or fields that are created by people walking or driving the same path over and over again. Like real ruts, these neurological “ruts” (neuro-pathways) are easy to slip into, hard to stay out of, and hard to get out of once we slip into them.

Some important things to remember about “ruts”:

  • We can have cognitive, emotional or behavioral “ruts”
  • “Ruts” make thoughts, feelings, and behaviors automatic
  • When thoughts become automatic, simple opinions about oneself, others, and life or even falsehoods can start to seem like facts, givens, or truths; simple imaginations can start to seem like reality
  • “Ruts” can be helpful or unhelpful things to have – it depends on what thoughts, feelings, or behaviors they lead to
  • The most important thing to remember is that once we create such “ruts” in our brains, we can never get rid of them – we can only make new ones
  • We make new “ruts” the same way we made our old ones – by practicing and rehearsing new ways of thinking, feeling, saying, and doing things over and over again
  • Even after we create new “ruts”, we can and probably will slip into our old “ruts” at some point in the future
  • Knowing about “ruts” can help someone choose to have USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance, and UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance for others who think, feel, say, or do things they don’t like or disagree with.

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