Mindset for Change

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woman sitting by a river

We all know that we should exercise, eat well, go to bed on time, get enough sleep, call our friends… The list of the things we should do is long. And we actually want to do at least some of them. But when you’re staring down the list of all that you should do, it is hard to motivate yourself to start on a good day. But then you have your bad days, weeks, or even months dealing with flares in your arthritis. How on earth can you make yourself do the things you need to do then?

Part of the problem is in the question. When we focus on the things we should do and how we need to make ourselves do them, it makes things unnecessarily difficult. Getting in the right mindset can make life so much easier.

Your mindset is like sandpaper. It can either scuff up an otherwise smooth surface – making an easy task difficult. Or you can use it to smooth the rough edges. You’ll still have to put in the necessary work, but you won’t be working against yourself while doing so.

One thing at a time

When we think about making a lifestyle change, it is natural to want to make a huge sweeping change, especially when we don’t feel good. When you’re in the midst of a flare, it is tempting to think that you need to change everything to make the flare go away. Yet at the same time knowing that you are in no shape to do so.

Fortunately, you do not need to make big sweeping changes. In fact, making multiple changes at once makes it less likely for those changes to take hold. You are more likely to succeed when you take things one step at a time. Focus on one area of your life that you want to improve and make the next small change. Build from there.

line of hand drawn asterisks

Stages of Change

The stages of change, also known as the transtheoretical model, is something I learned way back in university. It has been one of the most helpful frameworks for understanding habit change actually happens.

There are 5 main stages of change:

      1. Precontemplation
      2. Contemplation
      3. Preparation
      4. Action
      5. Maintenance

It looks very neat and orderly in a numbered list, but the reality is often messier. You might move through the stages quickly and easily with some habits. But more often, you start moving through the stages and then you end up sliding back. Sometimes you get stuck on one stage for a while. This is all very normal and natural.

Understanding each stage can help you understand what is going on in your mind and keep yourself moving forward.

Precontemplation

In this stage, you are not aware that you need to make a change. Either it has not been brought to your attention or you are in denial. You are before contemplation.

At this stage, you’re not aware that there is an issue, so there isn’t anything direct for you to do. It’s more about mindset – being aware that there is probably some habit that you have that you will want to change once you become aware of it.

Morning pages or general journaling is a good proactive habit to be in. You can surface issues in the safety of your journal pages and begin to work through them, before they become major problems.

Contemplation

You are aware that you need to make a change, but you are uncertain. In this stage, you are weighing the pros and cons, and possibly feeling a lot of ambivalence. Ambivalence is when you both want and don’t want a thing. You are contemplating whether to make the change or not.

When people get stuck here, it is because they don’t realize that this is part of the process. Let’s take a look at a simple example. You know you would feel better if you went for a short walk every day. Your arthritis symptoms are low so there shouldn’t be anything holding you back and yet you haven’t started. You are in the contemplation stage.

The biggest mistake people make is that they try to move from contemplation to action. But that would be skipping some valuable steps in the process.

In the contemplation stage, look at the pros and cons of both changing and staying the same. What are the pros and cons of going for a walk? What are the pros and cons of not going for the walk? What are you getting out of your current habits? Acknowledging the benefits you are getting right now is important if you want to be able to make a change – you’ll need to incorporate them into your plans.

hand drawn question mark

This stage is all about gathering motivation and calming the objections in your mind.

Preparation

In the preparation stage, you prepare to make the change. Sometimes there is very little to prepare, but other times you need to get educated, buy equipment, or practice and experiment.

hand drawn numbered list

If you want to go for bike rides but don’t have a bike, you’re not going to get very far. If you want to eat healthily but have never cooked for yourself, you have skills to learn. If you want to exercise but don’t know how to do so with your physical limitations, you’ll need to get a referral to a physiotherapist, kinesiologist, or occupational therapist for specialized instruction.

Once you have everything you need, you are ready to take action. The pitfall in the preparation stage is that sometimes you get caught up in trying to make sure you’re totally ready and know everything and you end up going in circles. At a certain point, you have to just try to make the change and if you discover you don’t have the knowledge or skills you need, go back and learn them then.

Action

Time to put it all into practice. Use the motivation you gathered while contemplating and the knowledge and skills you prepared and put in the work.

This is all about taking one step at a time, going through the motions, learning by doing. Be mindful and take note of the experiences so you can feed your intuition.1In the Mindful Eating article, I talked about how mindfulness leads to intuition. Intuition is your mind’s unconscious pattern recognition. When you bring mindfulness to your experiences, you feed that pattern recognition system with high-quality data. This makes your intuition more accurate.

Finally, when you forget, simply start again. If you start an everyday habit and you miss a day, pause and reflect whether there is something to be learned, then simply come back to it the next day. (Be kind to yourself, is what I’m saying..)

hand drawn sun

Maintenance

This is the holy grail of habit change. This is the point where you no longer think about the habit, it is just something you do. Brushing your teeth likely falls into this stage. You don’t debate whether you’re going to brush your teeth. You might often find yourself in the middle of brushing without consciously deciding to put the toothpaste on the brush. It is simply something you do.

hand drawn coffee cup with two hearts above

A lot of behaviours will never fully be in this stage because they aren’t habits, they are routines. Cooking a meal, unless you cook exactly the same thing in exactly the same way every day, is not a habit. It is a routine. It is more complex and requires more planning and energy than a simple habit like brushing your teeth.

But even a complex routine, like cooking, can have a simple habit that sets off the chain of routine. Morning routines are a popular example of this. My morning routine starts with putting a kettle of water on. Then I pour a glass of milk, prepare my oatmeal, put tea leaves in a mug, and on my morning goes. The whole routine is not a habit, but turning on the kettle is. I do that without thinking when I enter the kitchen in the morning.

Know Thyself

This phrase has stuck around through the millennia because it speaks to a universal truth. To be successful, happy, and healthy, you need to know yourself. Understanding how you will respond in certain situations allows you to set yourself up for success.

For instance, are you the type of person who is more likely to follow through on your plans if you tell someone else? Or does doing so make you want to rebel against expectation?
Are you most alert, creative, or energetic in the mornings or evenings?
Do you like to challenge yourself with lofty goals or do they paralyze you?

There are endless ways we can describe ourselves; the sheer number of personality tests and descriptors attest to that. These can be helpful guides. Just be sure you do not allow yourself to be boxed in by these descriptors. It’s easy to go from understanding to avoidance. It’s one thing to know that you are an introvert who is fatigued by certain types of social interactions. This is helpful, it allows you to plan for them. What’s not helpful is avoiding those social interactions entirely – that simply makes your world small.

Journaling

One really powerful way to get to know yourself better is by journaling. Writing out your thoughts allows you perspective. When you see the thoughts on a page it is easier to spot your thought patterns. This is often prescribed by mental health providers as a way to notice and manage unhelpful thought patterns. And it is just as helpful in getting to know the benign patterns that you have.

Drawing by Samantha Holmgren

When you regularly journal, you can surface issues that you weren’t aware of. The precontemplation stage is all about bringing light to the fact that something in your life isn’t working and then identifying what exactly that is.

Once you have the awareness of what needs to change, you have to wrestle with the ambivalence of wanting the result of the change without actually changing anything. Your journal is a great place to work through the pros and cons and identify why the change is important to you. Once you have it on paper, you can also reference it in the future when you need reminders of your motivation.

And your journal can be a great place to organize your thoughts and plan your actions as you work through the preparation stage. It can help you notice when you are procrastinating rather than preparing.

But the benefit of journaling doesn’t end there. Once you get into the action stage, you will come across difficulties. Things may not (will not) go according to plan. In your journal, you can reflect on what went wrong and improve your plan for the future.

Be Kind

One of the biggest mistakes people make when undertaking an effort to improve their habits is to do so by force. They try to force themselves to walk every day. They berate themselves when they don’t. They call themselves lazy or worse.

It is counterproductive to sit and think about how you should be exercising. It’s not helpful to call yourself lazy. It is harmful to try to motivate yourself through guilt. None of these actually work, not for long anyway.
What does work? Kindness. Treating yourself with the type of kindness and compassion you would show to a young child.

Forgive yourself

It is very common to feel guilty when you don’t do what you set out to do. You planned to go for a walk every day this spring but a month later, you’ve only gone out twice. You planned to cook at home every day but ordered take-out instead. Whatever the case may be, the guilt isn’t helping.

You have a reason for not following through with your plans. Forgive yourself so you can let go of the guilt.
Let me repeat that, you have a reason for not following through with your plans. Calling it an excuse is the guilt talking, and it is preventing you from learning from this experience.

open book with a question mark on the left page
Drawing by Samantha Holmgren

Journaling Prompt:

Why did your plan not work?

Once you have an idea of why the plan didn’t work, you can adjust the plan.
Perhaps you had planned to walk every day, but you didn’t have good shoes. Maybe you weren’t in shape for a daily walk and you needed to start with walking 3 times a week. Maybe you got hit by a flare and needed a backup plan. Maybe you hate walking alone and need to plan to meet up with a neighbour or phone a friend while you walk.

Let go of the should – embrace feeling good

Let’s stick with the example of physical activity. Rather than focusing on the fact that everyone (including me) says you should be active, it is helpful to focus on the fact that you feel better when you move regularly.

When you are active on a regular basis, you feel better than when you are not. This is true no matter what your fitness level or pain. Whether you are in a flare or not, regularly moving is important. What you do and how much will change based on those variables, but not the fact that you need to move your muscles.

This is true for every aspect of a healthy lifestyle – eating well, getting enough sleep, cultivating good relationships, maintaining good mental health, being active. It feels good to do these things. It’s why mindful eating is such a powerful tool for healthy eating. You feel better when you eat well, and when you notice that, it becomes easy to choose healthy options more often.

This is a key insight in Rebecca Scritchfield’s book, Body Kindness, as well. When we are kind and compassionate towards ourselves and our bodies, it becomes easier to make changes because they are good for us and we enjoy it.

Make it enjoyable

"fun" written in cursive

When you’re struggling to make a change, it is very helpful to ask yourself, “How can I make this more enjoyable?”
If you hate lifting weights but you want to build strength, why not try yoga. If you hate the exercise class you go to (or watch online) pick a different one. If you hate exercising alone, meet up with a friend – or schedule a video call. If you hate walking alone, walk with a friend, befriend a neighbour, or call a friend while you walk.

Similar ideas can work for cooking at home. If you live with others, try to hang out in the kitchen while one of you cooks or you cook together. Video chat with a friend while you both cook. Find a few recipes to master or try something different each night, depending on what seems most enjoyable to you (probably a mix of both).

You do not control your arthritis

It sucks that this is true. I wish I could control when I get flares. I wish I could magically get rid of arthritis altogether. I know you do too. But we can’t. We can only do the best we can in the situation we find ourselves in.

Believing that you can control your arthritis or get rid of it leads to unhelpful mindsets. You get frustrated when you can’t do what you want – or you force yourself to do it anyway and pay the consequences later. You try every supplement and fad diet that hints that it will be the thing to cure you and just wind up losing money, making yourself miserable, and possibly making yourself more unwell.

I get the temptation. But I also know that’s not how the body works. There is no magic solution to any health condition I have researched and helped clients manage. Arthritis is no exception.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t influence arthritis, inflammation, and especially how we feel. We have a lot of influence, but no control.

Influence not control

We can influence our body, encourage it with all the tools in our toolbox. But it might still decide that today is a good day for a flare. That is the sucky part of having a chronic relapsing health condition. Having a mindset that accepts the truth keeps you from the guilt and shame you feel when you expect to be able to avoid flares entirely.

It’s the balance of accepting that what we do matters – we have influence. But sometimes shit happens anyway – we do not have control. So write this down in your journal or post it where you’ll see it when you are feeling discouraged about the value of healthy habits:

I have influence over my health, not control.

Keep the big picture in mind

We live in a culture that encourages perfectionist thinking in our lifestyle, especially when it comes to food. This is diet culture. It moralizes food and body shape. It says that if we eat good, we are good; if we eat bad, we are bad. It says that if we aren’t thin and toned, we are not worthy. It’s bullshit.

Not only is diet culture outright wrong in so many ways, but it completely loses the big picture of what it means to be well.

A “perfect” diet, as defined by diet culture, cannot exist. If you never eat anything less ‘perfect’, it makes it impossible to go to a restaurant or a friend or family member’s house and enjoy their cooking. So you stay at home and miss out on socializing. Or you eat before you go and again you miss out on the social connection of sharing food with people.

When you are striving for a perfect diet, you become fixated on what you are eating, when your next meal will be, what you will be able to eat, is this allowed….. On and on. It takes up so much of your mind that it crowds out everything else. Your mental health suffers.

Balance and moderation are fluffy terms. You can’t nail them down and define them. What they mean will change from day to day and person to person.

Wellness, the feeling of being well, of being whole, being calm, simply being, is defined by balance and moderation. Which makes it even harder to define. Wellness is not simply physical health. It is mental health. Emotional health. Social health. Vocational health. It is feeling energetic, connected, purposeful.

Even the term energetic is difficult to define. It is possible to feel energized while being physically fatigued, I feel that right now. Writing these words, attempting to describe something that is impossible to describe, energizes me. It makes me feel well.

Despite the fatigue from my 5-month-old baby being up a couple of times last night. Despite the stiffness of my hands and the fact that typing makes them ache. I feel energized. I feel well.

THIS is the big picture. This is what is important. Not whether you exceeded 6 grams of sugar. Not whether you slept exactly 8 hours. Yes, as I’ve said, eating well, being active, getting enough sleep, maintaining good relationships, taking care of your mental health, are all important. But they are important because they support your wellbeing.

Your wellbeing is what is important.

Closing Thoughts

Your mindset is like sandpaper. It can either scuff up an otherwise smooth surface – making an easy task difficult. Or you can use it to smooth the rough edges. You’ll still have to put in the necessary work, but you won’t be working against yourself while doing so.

Be kind to yourself by taking things one step at a time. Know yourself and where you are in the stages of change. Lean into the fact that making positive changes feels good and make it enjoyable. Accept that you do not have full control, through you do have a large influence. And finally, keep the big picture in mind.

These are key aspects to priming your mindset for change and making sustainable changes. When you are struggling, pause and reflect on whether you could making things smoother by using these mindset tools.

Until next time,
-Samantha.

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