Changing ourselves is hard. Once we have the conscious awareness that we are doing something again and again that we want to change – which is no small feat in and of itself – it can be maddening to watch ourselves continue to do it over and over even when we are trying to change it. Whether we call them habits or patterns or auto-pilot settings, it doesn’t change the difficulty of changing them.
Over the years of watching myself and the many people that I have worked with, it seems to me that real change in ourselves takes place in much the same slow and gradual way regardless of what we are trying to change – and that it follows, more or less, the following sequence of internal shifts of awareness, leading to shifts in behavior.
Let’s use being overly judgmental as an example.
1. First, I have a realization that I’ve been overly judgmental for a long time and that is has affected many, if not all, of my relationships with the people that I work with and lead.
2. Gradually, as I start paying attention to it, the time delay from the moment I judge someone unfairly to the time that I realize it starts shrinking. Maybe, at this point, it takes me a week to realize it (as opposed to the years it took to get to Step 1).
3. Then it takes a few days…. then one day….. then I start realizing it later that same day.
4. Then I realize it just as an interaction ends – as the other person walks away.
5. Then I start realizing that it’s happening in the midst of an interaction – but I can’t stop myself.
6. Then I notice it happening in the midst of the interaction and I am able to redirect myself.
7. Then I notice that it is about to happen and I shift before I get there.
8. Finally, I notice – in hindsight – that it didn’t happen at all.
Note that this is not a list of the ‘8 Magic Steps to Change Your Life’, but simply shifts in your awareness that you might notice along the way – shifts that might help you know you are moving forward or backward. Also, note that you may stay at each step for a long time – i.e. you might be stuck for months noticing the thing you are trying to change the day after you do it. Then, suddenly, it shifts to the moment. There is no way to predict how long a person will take to go through the steps – only that they tend to move through them in order.
Some would say that this is the process for all growth – that it’s just the length of time that varies, from days to weeks to months to years depending on the person and the issue. In my own life, when I have been conscious of this process unfolding and conscious of asking for help along the way, it has sometimes felt almost effortless on my part – the gradually growing in-the-moment awareness unlocks the freedom to do something different.