Stop The Shame Loop and Let the Process of Habit Change Unfold

I’ve never considered myself a very disciplined person. Let’s just say I’ve never met a french fry I didn’t eat, I hit the snooze button easily, and I’m always the one around the office you can count on to say yes to the impromptu lunch (abandoning the lunch I packed). 

Even with an established meditation practice, as a busy mom and lawyer, I often find myself stumbling through each day just trying to keep all the balls in the air and ending each day in bed cycling through the long list of things I didn’t get done or should have done: I should have exercised today. Why didn’t I meditate? I didn’t get through all my emails. Do my kids have clean underwear for tomorrow? I need to clean the bathroom (why is the bathroom always so dirty?)? Did I eat a vegetable today? Did my kids eat a vegetable this week? When was last time anyone in my family ate a vegetable? And on and on and on.

For so long I was stuck in a loop: try to cultivate a habit or make a change, feel like I was failing, feel ashamed and beat myself up, give up. Telling myself the story that I’m just not a disciplined person.

Then I found the work of Leo Babauta and his blog Zen Habits. Babauta’s work focuses on productivity using a Zen based minimalist philosophy. As women we are conditioned that success means we do it all and we do it perfectly. Babauta’s work helped me start to deconstruct that. He introduced me to the idea of starting small and just doing less.     

The focus on productivity helped, but I was still stuck in the habit change loop (start, stop, feel ashamed…). That’s when I found  Kelly McGonigal’s work and the 10% Happier Habit Change Course.  McGonigal is a behavioral psychologist at Stanford that studies habit formation and teaches using mindfulness practices.   

The first time I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course, I learned the basics of habit change and how to create routines to support habit changes. The basic steps of habit formation are to choose a trigger, associate it with a behavior, and reward yourself for doing the behavior. McGonigal teaches that in order to build lasting habit changes we must connect them to our higher goals of the kind of person we want to be and the life we want to lead.

Establishing a regular exercise is a big habit for me. I have herniated discs and when I’m running and stretching regularly my back hurts less. The first time I took the Habits Course I took McGonigal’s advice. I’m also 44 years old with young kids. I want to be able to run around with my kids (and grandkids some day!). Yes, my increasing amounts of cellulite and my pants fitting too tight are part of the motivation to exercise, but once I connected exercise to my higher goals (feeling good and being active with my kids) it got a little easier.

I learned to incorporate visual reminders of these higher goals into my routine. I cut a picture out of a magazine of a mother and daughter smiling and running on a beach together and hung it up by my bed. This picture is a visible reminder to me when I don’t feel like exercising that the reason I want to put on those running shoes is so that I can be active with my kids and be pain free.

Practical tips and understanding the psychology behind habit change helped, but I was still stuck in the shame loop so I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course again. This time I heard McGonigal’s words about cultivating self-compassion. I learned that the habit I really need to change is the mental habit of shame when I don’t do what I think I should be doing.

McGonigal says acknowledging that you even want to change something is the “bravest version of yourself” and that self-compassion means being gentle with yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can. She says “life is unfolding process” and that self-compassion is the bedrock of opening up to that process. I can feel myself opening up to the idea that habit change is a lifelong process up and for the first time I’m starting to interrupt the shame loop.

I will never be the most disciplined person, but maybe, just maybe, I can be someone who does her best and doesn’t beat herself up every time she doesn’t do exactly what she should be doing. Maybe I can finally embrace the concept of the lifelong process. Maybe some day I’ll be the person who exercises somewhat regularly, maybe eats a vegetable once in a while, and meditates regularly. Maybe I’ll be the kind of woman that lays in bed and thinks: I did my best today, isn’t that great? Good job, me.

So if there’s a new habit you’re trying to cultivate or a not-so-great habit you’re trying to break – whatever you do go easy on yourself.

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