Steps Along The Way to Changing Ourselves
Really, the only person who can change how you act or how you see yourself is you. People may try to get us to change, and sometimes it feels like we are being forced to do something, but we often resist those efforts. We can seem to go along with what somebody wants us to do, but that doesn't mean that our hearts are in it or that we won't stop when no one is looking. If we say "I won't become that person!" then it is almost impossible for another person to change us. But what about those situations where we decide that we might want to change things up, and yet we don't seem to motivate ourselves? Perhaps all those New Year's resolutions come to mind, or the honest promise to exercise more: we can find ourselves stuck in that "someday, but not today" mode of thinking. I know when it came to my decision to "do more good" I found that the decision to be different was not the same as actually becoming different. It turns out that most people go through this phase, and it is really a part of how we change ourselves.
There is a ton of research from Jim Prochaska (at the University of Rhode Island) that explains how we change ourselves. This process can be boiled down to the six stages of change shown above. First, we go through some thinking stages, where we might get from a very negative position (I won't) to a less negative position (I might). Even further along these lines is when we start thinking about how to prepare and when we will start (I will). Dr. Prochaska's research indicates that people move from I won't to I might to I will when they see good reasons for changing, or what he calls PROs. No one else necessarily knows how we feel about these first three stages because the stages are all inside our heads. However, if we do decide to tell other people in our lives about how we are thinking, our movement up the ladder becomes more likely. When we start blogging about wanting to do more good (ahem), we create a bit of pressure to live up to what we publicly said we would do because we usually want to be consistent with our words. Furthermore, if we start thinking about all the benefits of changing our behavior, then we are inclined to be more motivated to act.
Actually taking action is obviously different from just thinking about a change, but even here there are stages. We can actually dip our toe in the water by trying something different (I am), but that does not necessarily stick. If it does, then we engage in this new behavior more frequently until it becomes routine (I have). Further, if we begin to define ourselves based on this behavior (I do), then we are highly likely to maintain that behavior on an ongoing basis. One of the fascinating aspects of Dr. Prochaska's research is that moving through these behavioral stages has less to do with discovering PROs and more to do with eliminating CONs - overcoming obstacles that we feel prevent us from taking action. In other words, even when we picture ourselves looking great on the beach, getting compliments, feeling good about ourselves, we can still find ourselves stuck on the couch with potato chips instead of exercising because we have not dealt with CONs.
Becoming the Ethical Hero
Every potential change in our lives has some specific downsides. Exercising means finding time, doing less of other things, getting over some initial aches, and so on. Yet, what about our concept of being an Ethical Hero? If it seems great to be the one who speaks up, stands out, and makes something good happen or prevents something bad from happening, then what could possibly hold us back from doing it? The answer: our perception of what others expect of us.
The moment when we hear our voice speaking up or see ourselves breaking rank with others, we move away from how the rest of the world is used to seeing us. "What does Paul think he is doing, writing about ethics? He is no saint! I can tell you stories about him!" The funny thing is that no one needs to say those things aloud. For me, I hear those voices in my head as if others were saying them. "They" (me) are telling me how my behavioral change is wrong for me, how it doesn't fit me, how I should just stay the same. I am guessing that all of us hear those negative voices in our heads, and it stops us dead in our tracks. We end up mentally debating why we should versus why we should not, and in the meantime nothing gets done. How can we get beyond that? Here are three techniques for moving yourself from the thinking stages to the doing stages.
- Imagine how you will feel 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years later. Suzy Welch created a technique for sorting out short-term emotions from lasting ones. It is called 10/10/10, and it has been highlighted in her 2010 book and in Chip & Dan Heath's new book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. Here's how it works. You are about to head into a meeting with your coworkers, unsure if you should say that you are no longer comfortable that your current business practice is ethical. You are afraid of their reaction and how they will treat you from that point on. Your career and your personal friendships are on the line. Do you speak up about your concerns? Well, imagine how you will feel if you do say something, but not at that moment. After all, that moment will be a bit scary - you know that. But what about 10 minutes later? You think, "I will feel glad that I spoke out, no matter how they react. It will be done, and I will feel pride in that." What about 10 months from now? You think, "Well, if others agree with me, then we can have a better procedure in place by then. If no one agrees with me, then I will have had 10 months to consider if I still want to be here. That's not so much scary as exciting." What about 10 years from now? You think, "Either this moment is long forgotten, or it is the moment where I changed everything... certainly not scary!" Separate the immediate feelings that can prevent action from the future feelings, which are likely more important to you.
- You want to go where nobody knows your name. If you aren't sure how your family and friends will react to seeing you doing something new, then get yourself in a new circle who don't know your from Adam (or Eve). Start out by compartmentalizing this new you. You might find a charitable event where a lot of other people volunteer time, and ask them if there are other opportunities to do more of the same. You might search the internet about an interesting social cause that might have a local chapter or local event coming up. For that matter, you might just want to plan out your next trip to the supermarket with a promise to make a stranger smile: give up your spot in the checkout line, help someone take groceries to the car, or buy a child a balloon. It doesn't matter how elaborate your action is. The important aspect is that you get some strangers to see you as that nice person.
- Be the actor in the movie. If you are still feeling anxious about changing from your typical self, then take on the role the way an actor in a movie would. Give yourself the command "Action!" and then play the part of the ethical hero. When if feels odd to speak out or stand out, you can remind yourself that this is what acting feels like. Relax, and see how others around you respond to your script. Look them in the eye, the way an actor would, with confidence. You will be amazed how people take you seriously even when you don't feel as calm as you seem. Later on you should review what you did, how you sounded, and the impact that you had on others around you. Even if it felt like you were acting like someone else, it was in fact you all along.
This post is not intended to represent any person or organization other than Paul M. Mastrangelo.