Perspectives For Building A Stronger and Healthier Life
In my experience, the most central feature for successful lifestyle change is to challenge the "feel good" paradox: that successful lifestyles must satisfy the same desires that brought about unhealthy lifestyles - they must feel good.
There are two interrelated principles I have found to be central in my thirty something years of guiding and coaching people to successfully make lifestyle changes.
Captaining your own ship
Change means setting sail to new and foreign locales, to unfamiliar locations. Learning to trust your seamanship and navigation skills, your own self-leadership and intuition, is essential to making you a happier person and more enjoyable to be around.
Building your self-confidence only comes about when you demonstrate to yourself that you can set a positive goal and accomplish it. If you never go it alone, you will never reap the rewards of real self-trust and self-confidence.
Even if you go to support groups or professionals for help, ultimately you must be the proactive Captain of your ship (life), push beyond what feels comfortable and safe, and challenge yourself to be more and more what you want to be.
Take small changes, small steps or bites so you are at least pretty sure that you will achieve the next goal. But you must take risks to acquire self-confidence.
Most people think that if they only had more self-confidence they could do anything. But it's the other way around: only by feeling uncomfortable and risking, can you build self-confidence.
One of my clients, who was a heavy drinker for many years, just told me, "I feel so great." Why? Not just because he is not drinking, but because he isn't afraid anymore. He wanted to learn to moderate his drinking, and refused to go to any groups because he was uncomfortable around people.
Now he is doing exactly what he was avoiding before: leading a support group. He feels great, not because he is not drinking, but because he is no longer afraid and actually enjoys that which he originally avoided.
So to build a stronger and stronger life takes great courage. You just have to be smart about it, and don't set up a goal that is too large for you.
Do little bits at a time. Building a strong life is like building the "Great Wall of China" one brick at a time, laying one courageous brick upon another, consistently and persistently over many years.
Once you get the hang of getting these emotional payoffs from doing something challenging, there is the potential for an uphill snowball effect.
Just like it might have felt when there was the downhill snowball that got you into the jam, where you did what felt good; the opposite can happen when you go after feeling good through challenging yourself.
A little bit at a time. Each time you face an activity despite and because of the feelings associated with it, the more confidence you take into the next challenge.
Lifestyle Navigation: 101
But how do you learn to trust your own judgment when your bad captaining and navigation got you in trouble in the first place?
"Do what is in your best interest, not what feels the best," over and over and over again. If it feels bad but you know it is in your best interest, do it. If it merely feels good, pass on it.
Life is filled with millions of forks in the road or the high seas. At each juncture, step back and try to observe it from a position of a Captain looking at their compass.
Forget about the topics (the issues, people, history involved) for a moment, and only ask what emotional direction does the needle point toward.
If it feels uncomfortable but you know it is the right thing to do, go for it.
The emotional compass can also be used to differentiate a positive potential behavior pattern from a negative one.
In general, negative patterns feel good up front, while positive ones don't - like exercising - and you have to wait until later for the positive feelings and rewards.
But negative patterns usually start with a good feeling up front, like drinking or drugging, and only later do you experience the negative feelings.
So remember the paradoxes of feeling good. Life should still be about striving to "feel good" - but with an appreciation of the importance of the sequence or order in which the good and bad feelings arrive.
Ultimately making positive lifestyle change is a matter of facing feelings right in the eye, and not going around them. Learning to face those feelings and fears, ultimately will empower and enable you to really have what you want.
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Psychologist Marc F. Kern, Ph.D. has over 30 years of clinical psychotherapy experience helping people overcome addiction and self-defeating habits, and acquire the insights and skills to live happier lives.
He is the founder and director of Addiction Alternatives, a division of Life Management Skills, Inc., wrote the practical self-help book "Take Control Now!" and has appeared on more than 80 television and radio shows including 20/20 and Larry King Live.