There are twenty simple motivational lessons in The Diabetes Motivation Book. Here is the first lesson:
In this lesson, you learn about the myths of change, and you try to establish the right mindset for doing the reflective and thoughtful work that personal change requires.
Myths About Personal Change
Myth One: Change is linear. As a person who has been diagnosed with diabetes, you have probably been asked to change many things in your life, including your eating habits, physical activity level, awareness of blood sugar levels, and perhaps your medication regimen. It is certainly easier for us to entertain the notion of change if we picture a map, consider ourselves to be at point “A,” consider our end goal to be at point “B,” and map out the journey as the crow flies. Ideally, the path toward a goal would be a straight line. In reality, though, change is more of a winding road where we might stop by the road and rest for a while, or even take a wrong turn or two. Tal Ben-Shahar, professor of psychology at Harvard University, describes the path toward a goal as an “irregular upward spiral… [with] numerous deviations along the way” (2009). The key point is that change takes practice, trial and error, and a repeated “coming back” to our goal.
Myth Two: Change is all-or-nothing. It is tempting to think about change as concrete: we make it to a goal, or we don’t; we achieve a goal, or we fail. In reality, change is complex, and sometimes we fall in the grey area between the black and white extremes. Ultimately, though, if we create some wiggle room in our minds and accept the fact that failure and achievement can co-exist, we will persist and grow.
Myth Three: Change should happen in one try. Change is so difficult, the average self-changer has to make several attempts at a new behavior before succeeding. Change researchers Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente (1994) first discovered this when studying the change efforts of individuals who were addicted to substances such as alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. They learned that most people who quit smoking report three or four serious attempts before they finally manage to kick the habit. Later, they extended their research to other types of personal change (like health behavior change) and found similar results. For instance, they found that people typically have to make a New Year’s resolution for five consecutive years or more before it becomes a permanent change.
One reason that change is so difficult is because our minds are divided into independent systems that sometimes conflict. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2006) uses the analogy of the Elephant (the emotional side of the brain) and the Rider (the rational side of the brain). The emotional side feels pain and pleasure and likes instant gratification. The rational side is analytical and strategic and can mull over decisions with great aplomb. The Rider sits on top of the Elephant, holds the reins, and appears to be in charge most of the time. However, because he is small, he will lose to the Elephant whenever they conflict. For change to occur, there must be a goal that appeals to both the Elephant and the Rider. This does not always happen on the first change attempt.
Perhaps a good reminder to give yourself is that change is a skill that takes practice, practice, and more practice! Much like picking up a new musical instrument or playing a new sport, you aren’t good at it on your first try. With practice, you learn which aspects of the skill come easy to you, and which aspects will require your hard work and dedication. You use this feedback to refine your approach and tailor your practice sessions. Eventually, you start to feel more confident about your ability to change. You work on one aspect of your diabetes management at a time.
Myth Four: Once you achieve initial success, it is all downhill from there. Although it is nice to experience that initial taste of pride, satisfaction, and reward when you succeed at taking the first few steps toward your goal, it does not make the rest of the journey any easier. In fact, it is pretty much guaranteed that the next set of emotions you will experience includes frustration, hardship, self-doubt, and even hopelessness. It is quite easy to feel defeated when you are trying to persist at a change effort and it feels like a struggle. Research on the “growth mindset” has shown us that there is an alternative to defeatism (Dweck, 2006). People who know from the beginning that “everything is hard before it is easy” and who consider struggles to be learning opportunities (rather than failures) are able to persist and to succeed in the end.
Reflection Question: Think about the personal changes you have made successfully in your life, and try to recall the details about the process of change that you went through. Did change occur as an immediate transformation or did it take practice, trial and error, and a repeated “coming back” to your goal? What emotions did you encounter along the way?
As much as we don’t like to admit it, any new endeavor is going to involve setbacks. Let’s just agree to this early on and acknowledge that when we’re in the middle of our change efforts, everything can look and feel like failure. As Michele Weiner-Davis, a world-renowned counselor and author, puts it: “Real change, the kind that sticks, is often three steps forward and two steps back.”
If setbacks are a necessary part of the change process, then the way in which you make sense of setbacks is vital. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has conducted decades of research into this issue (2006). She examines the power of mindset and how it influences our approach to goals. The conclusions she has reached teach us important lessons about how to persist as we work toward diabetes-related goals.
Dweck found that some people approach their goals with a “fixed mindset.” They believe that for any given ability, we either have it or we don’t, and our abilities simply reflect the way we are wired. Our fundamental qualities (like intelligence, athleticism, leadership, or health management, for example) are perceived as static.Therefore, when an opportunity comes along to strengthen a particular ability, these individuals avoid the challenge, get defensive, and see their efforts as fruitless. In the brain of a person with a fixed mindset, slip-ups simply confirm failure and verify that he or she lacks ability. In this worldview, there is really no point in attempting anything too hard, because you might just end up looking or feeling deficient in some way.
In contrast, some people approach their goals with a “growth mindset.” They believe that abilities are like muscles, and they get built up with practice. When a challenge comes along, these individuals embrace the challenge, persist in the face of obstacles or setbacks, and view effort as the path to mastery. They take risks, accept feedback, and take the long-term perspective. They know that slip-ups do not mean failure or ultimate defeat. Instead, blunders mean an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and to use the feedback or criticism to reach successively higher levels of achievement.
Obviously, it is much easier to persist toward a goal when every mistake does not signal eventual failure. But how do you adopt a growth mindset if this is not the mindset that comes naturally to you? There are broad suggestions and specific ideas that might help you with this task. The broad suggestions include the following:
*Remind yourself that everything is hard before it becomes easy.
*Remind yourself that everything can look like failure in the middle of a change endeavor.
*If you see something that looks like failure, remember that it is simply a sign that you are making progress and that you have taken on a worthwhile project or goal.
*Remember that your commitment is to growth, and you can always find lessons and inspiration in your life experiences.
The specific ideas come from Carol Dweck’s growth mindset workshop which she describes in her book (2006). She stresses the importance of getting specific about the “when, where, and how” with regard to something that you want to learn or a problem that you need to confront. For instance, she proposes that every morning, as you think about the day ahead of you, ask yourself: “What are the opportunities for learning and growth today? For myself? For the people around me?” Then, as you notice the opportunities for growth, form a plan to take advantage of them, and ask yourself “When, where, and how will I embark on my plan?”
If things do not go the way you want or you find yourself encountering a setback, reformulate your plan, and then ask yourself, “When, where, and how will I act on my new plan?” As you can see, there is no room in this model for judging yourself or beating yourself up when you face obstacles. Instead, there is a consistent problem-solving focus that you can come back to again and again.
Reflection Question: When you get frustrated with your diabetes change efforts, what is one reminder you can give yourself?
Did you enjoy this excerpt? Want to read more? The full text is available for purchase at Amazon.com (print copy and e-version for Kindle), Barnes and Noble.com (e-version for Nook), and Smashwords.com (all electronic versions).