Behavior Modification

Dear Dr. Rob,
Like most people, my wife and I failed at our New Year’s resolutions pretty quickly. In fact, we never really got started. My wife’s goal was to become more socially extroverted and mine was to exercise. The problem is that neither of us can get motivated. We’re waiting for that light bulb to off and help us spring into action. Is it worth joining a support group? Any recommendations would be great.

If you had contacted me in December I would have advised against a New Year’s resolution, mainly because swift and extreme changes rarely last. I myself purchased a Wii Fit, deluding myself that I would use it six times per week and be in substantially better shape. In the first few days I mastered the “Warrior Pose” on the Yoga game, ran 3+ miles (in place) in my living room and learned to spin five virtual hula-hoops for a total of 800 revolutions in 90 seconds. However I quickly became bored and stopped using it, the same way people sign up for a five-year gym membership on January 2, only to never step foot in the place a week later.
It’s not the Wii’s fault I failed; in fact, it’s probably the second greatest invention of all-time, behind only the automatic wine bottle opener. The blame lays with me because if I actually used the thing it would probably work. Like me, many clients in my office often are looking to change something about their lifestyle: smoking, weight, exercise, or even an aversion or phobia. These are all reasonable therapeutic goals if one approaches it in the correct manner, something I clearly didn’t do.

Consider your “psychology” as having three distinct components: thoughts (or cognitions), emotions (or moods) and behaviors. All three parts impact and affect each other. When one thinks positive thoughts, emotions usually are high. When one is sedentary for too long, mood tends to decrease. When people are feeling great they are often thinking equally great thoughts. And when Nike developed the slogan “Just Do It” they hit on an important interaction between behavior and mood: action promotes positive emotions, which in turn reinforces more action.
Most people intuitively understand the three aspects of their psychology and how they are related, but they often make a crucial mistake when applying it toward life improvement. Far too often I hear in one form of another, “when I feel better (emotion), I’ll go out and do such and such (behavior).” No one can dispute the idea that improved mood can lead to positive behaviors but far too often this leads to psychological paralysis. In other words, if you wait for your moods to change before acting you are likely to be disappointed. So in the office I correct this error in thinking:
“You have it backwards. You change your behaviors first, then you feel better.”
There are countless examples of this philosophy in real life. How many times have you forced yourself to the gym and then felt better after the workout was over? How many social gatherings did you want to bail on, only later to say “I’m glad I went”? Have you ever pushed yourself to confront a friend about a behavior that pissed you off and realize that, despite any misgivings, you were pleased with yourself afterwards?
This approach works for psychological disorders as well. Remember my conversations with Jack? Despite the inherent awkwardness of dealing with a child who was at least 30 I.Q. points higher than me, I pushed him to alter his behaviors to alleviate his depression. Although helping people to change thought patterns can be useful, behavioral change is the most potent and long-lasting way to impact your life.
If you want to be more confident, look at what confident people do and emulate those behaviors. They stand up straight, look people in the eye, use respectful yet firm language. Don’t wait to feel more confident. Engage in those actions over time and watch your emotions follow suit. If you have a fear of elevators, all the talking, insight and processing in the world won’t pack the same punch as getting in the elevator car and riding up and down the chute. Once you do that, your thoughts and emotions will change as well. If you have a fear of flying, long-lasting change won’t occur until you strap in and fly across the country a few times.
This is all easier said than done and is the main reason why people enlist the help of others: therapists, personal trainers, support groups. Assuming one is not utilizing them for informational purposes these resources can serve two major purposes:
1) Universality – people benefit from group work because of the notion that “I’m not alone in this. There are others here who accept me because they are going through a similar, if not identical, situation.”
2) Accountability – a therapist, trainer, or even a support group can all provide that little voice in your head that says “You can do this, push yourself. And if you don’t, be prepared to come back and tell us that you didn’t do the work.”
In other words, Wayne, you’ve got to get over that initial psychological hump and take action. If that requires a support group or outside resource, so be it. If you or your wife need to bribe each other with money or sex or a vacation, that’s fine too. Just don’t wait for that light bulb you describe. Remember how your actions can impact your emotional state and make a move.
As a model to you I’m hitting the Wii Fit right now. It’s no Guitar Hero but there’s more to life than pushing buttons on a piece of plastic…maybe.

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13 Responses to “Behavior Modification”

  1. Esther says:

    So, you’re saying that all I have to do is get up when I wake up and go to the gym? Man, I was hoping I would somehow drift over there and accomplish my workout in a REM cycle.
    I have so many problems motivating myself to go do active things like that. When it comes to my precalc homework or reading some random scientific study I’ll spend hours on that. Thanks for this post. It helps to realize that everyone has trouble with motivation.
    As for New Year’s resolutions, I never make them. At least, not big life changing ones. Sometimes I’ll make a very small resolution. Say for example, I don’t get to go to the coffee shop for a scone unless I workout at the gym. So far I’ve only had one scone in the last week . . .

  2. JB says:

    Wonderful post. You managed an eloquent, respectful, yet informative way of saying ‘just go out and do it.’
    Very helpful!

  3. I find it interesting and somewhat comical that ‘help’ would be requested by a person trying to have follow-through with a goal. Here is my unsolicited and non-professional advice… just do it!

  4. Nadia says:

    I like how people use this blog to get free counseling.
    The Last Psychiatrist would never put up with that. You’re too nice Dr. Rob.

  5. sara says:

    behavioral change is the most potent and long-lasting way to impact your life.

  6. Wayland says:

    Good “advice,” Rob. Is there any way to do the WiiFit exercises with weights? If so, “just do it.”

  7. Amber says:

    New Year’s resolutions are a crock of shit. Mine was to quit smoking. All I did was stop smoking in front of my husband and lying to him about how great I’m doing. In order to make a change in your life you need to want it and want to fight to make that change happen.

  8. Tracie says:

    Your comments on confidence were pretty helpful, Rob. I’ll keep them in mind, trying to sort out a confidence deficiency here myself.
    Also, I cry a little inside whenever you speak of your Wii. Our house was broken into two weeks ago, and one of the items stolen was our Wii with my copy of Trauma Center inside. Fucking barbarians.

  9. Donika says:

    There’s an automatic wine bottle opener?

  10. Joy says:

    Haha. Oh wii fit.. I got one in October and did it nearly every day…and it has gone down from there. I love it though, but I really need to stop stumbling and just do it too. 😛

  11. Ironman says:

    I wrote an advice board post that echoes what you said here, from my own personal experience:

  12. Chris says:

    Highly motivating, and somewhat uplifting. Thank you.

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