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The Virtues Of Endurance, Acceptance And Structure

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
-Thomas Edison

Whether consciously held or not, New Years is typically associated with renewal in most people's minds. Think of the new year and what image comes to mind (at least before the recent spat of 2000 and Y2K iconography)? - the classical image is that of the old man with the white beard leaving and the new baby in diapers coming in to assume the mantle of the new year. Old becomes new. If the world is renewing itself in preparation for the spring - then we as individuals can renew ourselves as well.

Perhaps for this reason New Years has become a time of resolution making. We resolve that we will behave better, feel better, smoke less, eat less, lose weight, get into better shape - essentially - get ourselves into better control. We're great wishers and hopers for this sort of change but we often have difficulty following through with the actions required to make these changes a reality in our lives.

For those interested in some practical advice on how to stick to your new years resolutions I'll refer you to the January 1999 editorial authored by my predecessor - Dr. John Grohol. The five steps outlined in this article give the big picture on how to turn the resolutions you set into realities. These steps are:

  1. Pick realistic goals (Make sure your goal is really possible for you to achieve)
  2. Define those goals tightly (Make them objective, measurable and unambiguous)
  3. Set a schedule (Write them down along with when you will do stuff)
  4. Expect setbacks (Accept that you'll mess up and keep going forward anyway)
  5. Enlist help or support (Get with other people to share your experiences with)

This is good advice - but exactly why this is good advice may not be clear. And since it is a lot of work to do all of this - if it isn't clear as to why this is a good approach - you might be tempted to skip a couple steps. What I've tried to do below is to explain why these are good ideas to follow so that you don't skip anything.

My take on the matter is that these are good guidelines because they help promote your sustained ability to work over time on your resolution. Sustaining effort over time towards working on your goals is absolutely critical to meeting them (most of them anyway).

Sustaining work towards your goals is hard to do. It takes a very different mind-set to sustain effort towards your goals than it does to come up with the idea of setting them in the first place.

We tend to approach resolutions as we approach most other self-improvement projects in our lives. We imagine a better state of affairs - ourselves minus 20 pounds, or less depressed, or less anxious, or binging and/or purging less - and we resolve to make ourselves into that better state. But thinking about being better is not the same as doing it. And the actual "doing" of self-improvement takes work - and usually doesn't feel too good. Eating (for example) is a very comforting and reliable thing to do - it doesn't come naturally to restrict our eating at all. Likewise - resolving to improve our moods, stay on our medications, worry less, etc. all require sustained work to accomplish. If it were so easy to weigh less and feel better we'd be there already. We have to accept that this work is okay and in our best interests in order to actually do it.

The other thing is that when we are looking at work to be done - we tend to think about it as requiring strength to accomplish. For instance - if we believe we need to diet so as to lose weight we tend to think that the success of the diet is dependent on our willpower or the strength of our ability to actively resist the temptation of eating. Relying on willpower, however, is a recipe for failure, more often than not. Willpower is the name of the trap that some eating disordered persons get themselves into - starving themselves in the name of self-control. "Willpower" is also the false strength that so many alcoholics and drug addicts are familiar with - the voice that says that you can afford to have 'just a little bit' because you don't have a problem - you're in control.

The problem is that we get hungry or thirsty or we get some serious craving going on - and our urges to eat, drink or 'get right' or whatever overwhelm us (if not now - later). If we fight our urges too hard and too directly- we lose.

Instead of willpower, we should want to cultivate endurance. And endurance comes much more easily when we enlist and create supportive structures around us to help us to remain motivated to continually work towards change.

It's sort of like the idea of getting braces on your teeth. You start out with crooked teeth and a desire to straighten them. You can't just use strength to twist them into place - if you do you'll have a mouth full of cracked and broken teeth. Teeth are stubborn buggers that 'want' to stay where they are. If you move them quickly they break. - So what the orthodontist does is to move them slowly - a little bit at a time. It takes a long time to move them this way - but it works. The same principles that work to straighten your teeth can work to straighten your habits too. - only we don't use actual braces with habits - instead we use schedules, goal setting, social support and healthy self-talk to serve the same function as braces.

Now - it must be understood that braces for your teeth hurt a bit - and so do schedules, goal setting, etc. You won't be motivated to accept this necessary 'pain' until you are humble and realistic enough to accept that it is truly in your best interests to do so.

We need to accept that we are creatures of often overwhelming habit (whether it is eating too much, drugs, alcohol, depressive or anxious thinking, forgetting to take medicine, etc.). When we accept the realistic strength of our habits we are then in a better position to help ourselves change them. We need psychological braces or armor to help us in our tasks.

This then is why taking the five steps outlined above are good practice for making new years resolutions come true - or for that matter - making any sort of change to your habitual routines. These five steps help us to create and maintain the supportive structure and environment we need - the 'psychological braces' if you will - to slowly but surely, make the changes we need to make.

We don't tend to easily accept support when we are proud and 'strong'. But then - in the behavior change game - the real strength is not strength itself - it is endurance and willingness to accept structure in the service of that endurance. We can greatly help ourselves to have the necessary endurance to meet our goals by accepting and creating helpful structures in our lives (like schedules, goals and social supports) that foster endurance.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Director,

Reference:
Dombeck, M.J. (Jan 2000). The Virtues of Endurance, Acceptance and Structure [Online]. .