behavioral change

Why we will never tell you to “just be positive”.

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 Not to ruin the mood for anyone, but we have to be honest about one thing when it comes to YOMI: we’re not preachers of a happy-go-lucky attitude, and certainly not of a ”just think positive” one. To be honest, there is an abundance of various life coaches, mindfulness entrepreneurs and health profiles that try to sell the message that it’s up to you to change your thoughts, and that your life will be amazing once you do.

Here’s why that won’t be the recipe for a large number of people, and why saying that we can control our own thoughts can be both guilt-inducing and counterproductive:

  • Ignoring thoughts don’t make them go away
  • People have spent centuries trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts and emotions, usually with the result of more suffering in the long run.
  • Worrying does in certain cases serve a purpose for us: experienced security, even if this security is imagined more than anything
  • If you’re a worrier thinking positive probably won’t make you feel good, it will probably make you feel terrified

So, do we think that everyone should just let the negativity, catastrophic thoughts flow freely? Not quite, but we do think that we should make space for whatever arises in us, both good and bad stuff – and practice how to take care of ourselves even in hard times.

Shortly here’s what we propose:

  • Accept that your brain will continue to produce thoughts for as long as you live. This is what our brain does and likes doing the most.
  • Just because thoughts are produced doesn’t mean that we need to place any value or emphasis on them.
  • There’s a difference between avoiding thoughts and acknowledging that they are there, but without reacting to them. Doing the latter is usually more beneficial for us.  
  • Sometimes life sucks, a lot of the times life is hard. It would be stranger if this didn’t affect us than if it does. This is perfectly fine – hurtful, but in order. When we allow ourselves to be with what is, even pain, it usually subsides after a while. All emotional states eventually pass and shift.  

When we in hard times intentionally shift our gaze to what’s still working, beautiful, desired, lovely in our lives we help our brains detect the small stuff that usually get hidden when disaster strikes. By helping our brains do just that we also help our minds widen their perspective by allowing positive and negative thoughts and emotions exist side by side. We help our minds become more flexible in seeing that things seldom are black and white, but that there’s always at least a ray of light in the darkest of times, as well as a streak of darkness in the lightest of times. And that this is perfectly well.

 

Nurturing a better self-care: Introducing the concepts of ”topography/form” and ”function”

Most of us know that taking care of ourselves generally is a pretty good thing to do. Feeling well and helping yourself to feel well makes intuitive sense.

In therapy, when we as psychologists bring the issue of self-care up, a lot of clients look at us and burst out: “Oh, you mean I should go to a spa or something?”. Or they quickly say that they have been to the spa several times, but it didn’t make them calmer at all, on the contrary it made them even more stressed.

It seems as if taking care of oneself is not always as easy as it seems, and that taking care of oneself is a concept that has a lot of misconceptions and notions tied to it. Like the one of self-care equaling going to the spa, or getting a facial.

Not surprisingly though, what’s nurturing for one person might not be so for another. While going to the spa might make me calm, going for a run, to a sports game or even watching some TV might do the trick for my friends. So how do we know what works for us, and if we don’t, how can we start to find that out?

In order to nurture a better self-care we can start by getting acquainted with two concepts from the behavioral psychology: form/topography and function.

When we start to look at different behaviors we can describe them in various ways. We can do it by looking at their topography or form, namely what they look like from the outside (for example “watching TV”, “eating an orange”, “taking a bath”). The topography of a behavior is comparable to drawing a map of the behavior, of what we can observe from the outside.

But if we want to get closer to learning about what is a nurturing and self-caring behavior we shouldn’t be too blinded by what we see from the outside, but rather start looking at what functions our behaviors have, what motivates us to do something. If I do something, say, go for a run, it will make a difference whether I do it because I’m scared of gaining weight or because I genuinely love being outside and feeling my body move. Even though the run will look exactly the same from the outside it will in these two examples serve different functions. If I call a friend due to not wanting to feel alone it will serve a different function than if I call him due to wanting to speak to him and hear about his ongoing life. Behaviors that look exactly the same from the outside can serve us in very different ways, varying between people or even between different times for the same person (one time looking at TV might serve the function of distracting me from negative thoughts, whereas the next time my motivation might be that I’m interested in the show that’s broadcasted).

So this is the reason why going to the spa not necessarily equals self-care for everyone (note: to make it a little bit more complex, one behavior can of course serve more than one function, but there is usually a primary motivation behind it). If we want to nurture a better self-care we need to look deeper into our behaviors than their topography, and try to peel away our conceptions of what taking care of oneself should look like. And instead try to get to know what taking care of ourselves feels like, so that we can start looking for behaviors that nurture that self-caring feeling.

We will get back to this subject several times, digging deeper into it with the main purpose of better nurturing our own self-care. But as of today you can start by noticing and observing, not only what you’re doing (the topography), but also what your primary motivation behind doing something is; what function the behavior serves. 

Facilitating behavioral change: establishing a daily practice

If there’s something we psychologists know it’s how hard it can be to make behavioral changes. If it weren’t then this world would look a whole lot different, your life would probably look a whole lot different.

We’re creatures of habit, lovers of the path of least resistance and automatized to the point of in many ways resembling an autopilot that has set out across the ocean, navigating us through our daily lives.

Luckily, something else we psychologists know are a few tips and tricks on how to facilitate the desired changes in our behavior. And, lucky for you, one of our aims with YOMI is to share whatever knowledge we have that might make life easier for just about anyone who’s interested. Hence: this series of blog posts called “Facilitating behavioral change”, fresh with psychological knowledge and research, applied on our yoga and meditation practice, in our regular everyday stressed out lives.

When getting into yoga and meditation, whether it be through a more structured program such as the YOMI program, via a youtube home practice or the occasional yoga class at your gym, most people eventually become more and more intrigued by the thought of establishing a daily practice: a daily sadhana. Which, due to our somewhat habitual and lazy nature, can be easier said than done. Establishing new habits usually requires a bit of effort, but can be facilitated by a number of things:

·      Take small steps: the hard part of creating a daily practice is usually not so much the actual “practice” part as the “daily” part. If we focus too much on the practice being big, advanced or strenuous, chances are it’ll be hard for us to keep up on a daily basis. Rather, when starting out, try to take smaller steps in the beginning, gradually building your practice. Start with a shorter practice, using only poses and exercises you know well. When establishing a daily sadhana five breaths on your mat everyday actually is more beneficial than one and a half hour of advanced asanas once every other week. 

·      Create a good space: It might sound like an obstacle that shouldn’t have much impact on your own willingness to practice, but not having a good space to set up your mat or meditation pillow will decrease the chances of you practicing on a regular basis. People are fairly easily conditioned (as much as your average dog or rat), and our brains love to make associations between activities and certain places (e.g. associating our bed with sleeping, our dining table with eating, and the bathroom with brushing our teeth). So much that it can help us get sleepy when we are nearing our bed in the evening. Creating and condition yourself to a certain place for your practice is a good helper. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you just need to know where to roll out your mat, and that this preferably is a place where you have room to raise your arms, and not be disturbed by too much noise or other people. If you want to cozy it up, go ahead, see that as a bonus, but not as a required.

·      Keep your things handy: When NIKE claims “Just do it” they’re probably not thinking about that in order to do it we need to take a few steps first. Such as getting into the appropriate attire and finding our blocks. The rule usually goes that the more accessible your needed stuff are the likelier that you’ll do it. If you do your practice in the morning, set up your space and lay out your clothes the night before. Keep your mat visible, it’ll remind you of your practice. (Remember the previous step about creating a good space, and about how the brain loves to associate things with each other, such as your mat with you doing your practice).

·      Be humble towards the fact that you have a whole other life to live – but adapt accordingly: Few of us have the luxury of leading lives where time seems to come in abundance. We are usually quite busy, especially the one’s of us who seek out yoga and meditation to help manage our stress levels. And in some ways life is what it is; we won’t get rid of certain daily chores, our kids will need picking up from school at certain times each day, our bosses might keep giving us the evil eye if we slip home early too often from work. So, while you get ready for making that really big life change of downsizing or quitting your job (or if you’re just quite happy with keeping things fairly much as they are, but would like some more time for yoga), stay humble towards the fact that life is there, and it’s requiring quite a bit of you. But learn how to adapt accordingly. What time of day would be the easiest for you to practice? Are you a morning person enough to get up half an hour earlier and roll out your mat? Are you an evening person that would benefit from winding down with a night time practice? Is it possible to come into work later and staying later, giving you some more time in the morning? Are you willing to give up a bit of TV time in the evening to practice?  Do what suits and do what works for you, it’s usually a good guideline to increase your chances of getting on your mat. And that’s really what it’s all about: getting you onto your mat and start breathing. Once you’re there you can gradually build the rest.