All New Year’s resolutions, from losing weight to quitting smoking to improving finances, boil down to changing habits. From year to year, those who make personal vows for self-improvement often experience fragments of failure. As the world counts down to another new year, good-intentioned people make resolutions that fall by the wayside in the following months. Nancy Hoey, a licensed professional counselor with Jefferson City-based Grace Counseling, LLC, advises those on the path toward betterment to maintain mental strength on what can be an emotional roller coaster, in order to achieve self-given goals.
Nancy Hoey: People say it takes 21 days to change a habit. I’ve also read that it takes 30 days or 60 days. I think it’s really hard to put a number on it because when it comes to human beings, there are too many variables. It differs from person to person and what kind of strengths they have. When I have clients who want to start new habits, I say, ‘Don’t overwhelm yourself.’ If their goal is to exercise every day, I will usually give feedback like, ‘That’s a little bit too much, can we start off small? Can we say exercise for three days at 30 minutes at a time, or even can you exercise two days a week just for 20 minutes at a time?’ My theory is to start small.
NH: Expect to fall when you’re trying something new. If your goal is a healthier lifestyle, or to stop smoking cigarettes, or to stop drinking, it’s kind of like climbing a mountain. People usually don’t climb a mountain without any falls, it’s more like, you go up a little bit and you fall. Then, you go up a little bit more and you fall again. Sometimes when we fall we feel like we’re back at the beginning. We’re really not. When you look at how far you’ve come, even with those falls, it’s a lot farther than where you started. I think when we’re trying a new habit and we fail—let’s say we go one day, then the next day, then we fail—instead of shaming ourselves and talking negatively to ourselves, we want to look at ‘OK, what was the reason why?’ We’re looking at it with awareness.
NH: I’ll ask, ‘What was going on in your life that day? Were you more stressed that day? Were you more tired?’ When we’re tired, we don’t function as well. What else was going on in your life? Let’s bring awareness to it and try to figure it out. In that way, we’re looking at it scientifically and we take the shame out of it. It’s like we’re scientists looking at the problem. What kind of feelings were you having? Were you anxious? Were you bored? People tend to overeat sometimes for comfort, so what happened in your day?
NH: It’s kind of like the circle of shame. We shame ourselves and then we go back to the bad habit. Anybody recovering from drug addiction knows there’s a cycle there. The same is true for weight loss or when we’re trying to incorporate new habits in our lives. We have to talk to ourselves in a gentle way: ‘I only missed one day, what’s the big deal?’ You can get started again. It’s really important to talk to yourself like that, in a positive way. And also, if you’re eating or smoking a cigarette to relieve stress, then what can you replace the eating with or the cigarette with? Now when I get stressed, I go exercise.
NH: I think visualization is a really good one. It can get overwhelming if we have 50 pounds to lose, so breaking that down is beneficial. For example, telling yourself, ‘In a year, I want to look different this way, so what are my short term goals?’ With athletes, we have them visualize their perfect game and then write it out or record it—mentally meditate on it. If you see yourself as successful, that can really help your mind. I think the most important thing is to take it one day at a time. Ask yourself, ‘What can I do just for today to get better at something?’ And, if you do it, then you write it down and you start counting the days you were successful. When you don’t, you ask yourself ‘Why not?’ Small steps.
NH: Of course, I would always recommend therapy for any difficult habit that you’re trying to break…oftentimes, therapists don’t tell people what to do, we come up with suggestions. What works for you isn’t the same thing that’s going to work for me. Just getting someone else’s opinion and support is something I think is really helpful too. Someone can recommend support groups or meditations that can help you become successful. Therapists and their patients are coming up with relapse plans. When you’re triggered, ‘What do you do?’ Do you call a friend and say, ‘I really want to drink’? And then that friend helps you? Or do you call a sponsor? It’s just implementing as many positive support systems as possible in your life.
NH: It kind of depends on the person. You might want to tell one or two people in your life who are good supports for you, possibly, rather than an aunt at Thanksgiving who says, ‘Do you really need to have that second piece of pumpkin pie?’ Those people are not helpful. But for many people it really motivates them to make it public. For many people, it’s good to have an accountability partner…someone to say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the gym.’ But when you fail, that accountability partner isn’t going to shame you, he or she is going to encourage you.
NH: I always tell people that being healthy is a lifestyle. It’s something that we have to put into our daily schedule. We have to schedule times to exercise. We have to schedule times to be with healthy friends. We have to schedule all these things that are good for ourselves. If we make them a part of our schedule, they are likely to become a part of our daily lives. We have to prioritize them. I think especially for women—because women tend to take care of themselves last and take care of everybody else first—it’s really important for them to know that unless they take care of themselves first, then they really can’t take care of everybody else as well.
NH: Yes, most definitely. Especially mothers, because we’re supposed to be everything to everybody. If we take time for ourselves, there’s a piece of society that tells us we’re selfish. We learn that from our moms. Research shows us that if we learned regular exercise and taking time out for ourselves from our moms (more than our dads), we are more likely to take time for ourselves as adults.
NH: I absolutely don’t believe that’s true, because I’ve seen people of all ages change habits. Is it harder when we’ve been doing the habits most of our lives? Yes, but it really is a mental thing. If you believe you can change it, you can. It takes a lot of work. I think that’s something with our society that we don’t do very well. We think that it’s not supposed to take a lot of work. I tell people any time they’re learning something new, it’s going to take a lot of practice. If you’re trying to learn how to ride a bike, it’s going to take practice, practice, practice. We want things and we want to go the easiest route, and that’s simply not how life works.
NH: A lot of times I’ll ask people, ‘What stopped you from exercising?’ Some people will say, ‘Oh, I just didn’t feel like it.’ Then, you go to the gym and there’s a bunch of people there and they all look like they’re enjoying it. I’ve been a runner a good part of my life, and 90 percent of the time when I’m running I’m not really enjoying it. I do it because I enjoy the afterward. You have to look at the goal. So when you assume that everyone feels like exercising, that’s not true. They aren’t always enjoying it, but they’re happy they are exercising. Focus on how you feel after you’ve had success. You have those endorphins going and that’s what makes us happy.
NH: I think it’s important to look at why you want to change the habit, and like I said before — be realistic about your goals. Don’t shame yourself. Know it’s going to be difficult and that you’re going to have falls. When we have goals, it’s important that they be specific and measurable. Read about success stories of other people. I just think you have to tell yourself, ‘I can do this. I’m good enough. I’m strong enough to do this. I can be successful.’ It really is a daily thing.