I think it might be springtime. We’re in Indiana, though, so it’s hard to tell. A couple of weeks ago, before the snow started again, on one of those teasing 70-degree days, I ventured into the yard to pick up the debris that was the result of a long winter of sub-zero temperatures and wind. Littered with tree limbs and leaves, the lawn was gray and crunchy under my feet.
As I retrieved the dead branches and looked at the trees from which they had fallen, I realized that new growth was on its way, bringing the promise of green leaves and, in some instances, flowers. The trees had discarded what they no longer needed to make room for something better, something fresh.
It made me think about how we are not that different from the trees. How often could we benefit from discarding old beliefs, habits or behaviors that no longer serve us well? When we are young, we often develop patterns of behavior to help us survive various situations we encounter in life. Perhaps we learned to exhibit brashness, bossiness or bravado as a shield from fear and uncertainty. Or alternatively, maybe we learned to become overly accommodating because of dreading confrontation. There are more types of coping mechanisms than can be recounted in one 800-word column, but you get the idea.
While some behaviors may have helped us progress through life at one time, often they become limiting as we develop and mature. Eventually, some behavior patterns hurt more than they help. Maybe you engage in negative self talk, such as, “I could never do that,” or “I would never be chosen for that job,” thus holding yourself back from opportunity and personal growth.
There are ways to change these patterns – to create new internal responses or maps, so to speak, so that you will move in a different direction from your old way of being. Think of your old habits as roads that you have driven repeatedly to reach your destinations. The roads are rutted (not unlike another springtime phenomenon) and ingrained, but they may no longer be the best route to your intended destination. You can forge new paths to get where you need to go. For example, you can interrupt an old pattern or path by doing something unexpected, forcing yourself to react differently to a situation. Take a moment right now to write down three types of typical behaviors or reactions to situations that you would like to change (and remember that identifying the needed change is half the battle). Then for each of these, write down three responses that are different from how you would normally react or respond. If this is difficult for you, think about someone you admire and how that person reacts in similar situations. There is nothing wrong with learning new behaviors from others you consider to be role models.
Developing these potential responses gives you an arsenal of options the next time the situation arises. For example, let’s say that you forgot to do something at work – maybe you neglected to return a phone call or missed an internal deadline. If you would normally react by becoming belligerent or trying to blame someone else because you fear being judged negatively by others, try accepting responsibility for what you did. You may be surprised that others won’t judge you as harshly as you think. In fact, they probably will be pleasantly surprised to hear you accepting responsibility.
Maybe your usual behavior involves allowing others to take advantage of you. If you have trouble saying no, use the writing exercise above to devise three methods of saying no that you can be comfortable using in the future.
If you have a habit of negative self talk, flip the thoughts on their heads and tell yourself positive things. It may sound awfully simple, but it is an effective technique. View yourself in a different light. A concerted change in behavior, even if it doesn’t feel natural, can change your image of yourself and increase your self-esteem. Many years ago, I was on a trip to the Southwest with a friend. We stopped in a gift shop and were looking at some silver and turquoise jewelry. My friend commented, “I wish I could wear something like that.” I turned to her and asked, “Why can’t you?” She responded with a litany of reasons why she couldn’t. So, of course, I bought a necklace for her. It was several months before she wore it, but when she did, she seemed really excited about it. She stepped out of her comfort zone and nothing terrible happened. In fact, people told her that they liked the necklace, and she wore it quite often. She just had to take that first step toward doing something different. While new clothing won’t change your life, it can change the way you see yourself – and the way you feel about yourself – which in turn can change your life.
Taking steps to alter old patterns of thinking and behaving can set you on a course for new beginnings and a more fulfilling way of life.•
Jonna Kane MacDougall is assistant dean for external affairs and alumni relations at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law. A professional career/life coach, MacDougall can be contacted at 317-775-1804 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author.