Want to Change a Behavior? Find Your "Yes!"

A powerful strategy for shifting from negative habits to positive ones.

Posted Mar 14, 2019

Image by Engin_Akyurt on Pixabay
Source: Image by Engin_Akyurt on Pixabay

Try this short experiment and say the following statements to yourself: I want to stop eating junk food. I want to stop yelling at my kids. I want to stop worrying about things I can’t control. (Feel free to substitute behaviors that might be more relevant in your life.) 

Notice how this feels in your body when you say these things to yourself. Do you feel tight and constricted or more open and expansive? Do you feel motivated and energized to change these habits, or do you tend to feel stuck, closed off, or perhaps even some sense of guilt or shame

Now try these statements out (and again feel free to change them to fit the behaviors that are relevant in your life): I want to commit to making food choices that support and nourish radiant health and wholeness. I want to parent my kids so that they feel deeply supported and valued. I want to fully engage in as many precious, present moments of my life as possible.

Notice how this feels in your body as you say these things, and ask yourself the same questions as above about how making these statements feels. Chances are, these first and second statements have a different tone for you. 

To simplify this experiment even further, you might say the word “no” out loud several times and notice what happens in your body. Now say the word “yes” several times. For most people, the first has a feeling of resisting or rejecting something, and it feels constricted and closed, whereas the second has a feeling of embracing or moving toward something that is more energizing, open and hopeful.

Focusing on the “Yes”

According to the work of researcher and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, focusing on what you can say “yes” to, choosing a value-based commitment that reflects something important to you in your life, and taking a positive action toward something, are more effective ways to change behavior than trying to say no to something or trying to stop engaging in a behavior you are unhappy with. In other words, committing to what you want is more powerful than trying to resist something that you don’t want.

As simple as this shift may sound, it is a new idea for many people, especially when it comes to wanting to change difficult behaviors. It is human nature to want to resist, push away, and fight against what is unpleasant or undesirable. In addition, it is common to be self-critical and to beat ourselves up when we aren’t able to stop engaging in an unhelpful behavior. We sometimes think that if we are hard on ourselves this will help us stick to our goals. According to researcher Dr. Kristen Neff, the research is quite compelling to support the power of self-compassion over self-criticism, as a vehicle for behavior change.

I know for me, during my teen years and into my early college years, I struggled with a very unhealthy relationship to food and a negative body image. I would binge eat, then try to punish myself by restricting my eating. I would berate myself and feel shame when I couldn’t stick to my goals of eliminating junk food and losing weight. Then one day, I read a book that completely shifted my focus and how I was approaching my goals. It was a book about the benefits of aerobic exercise and it sparked my interest in becoming healthier and stronger by adding a positive behavior instead of trying to eliminate a negative one. 

As I moved toward incorporating this new behavior (exercise) into my life, my struggle with food began to fall away. I was no longer battling myself and focusing on constantly saying “no” throughout my day; instead, I was saying “yes” to something that I found meaningful and that I enjoyed. When I look back at other big changes in my life, they too involved saying “yes” to something rather than saying “no” and trying to stop myself from doing something (which often didn’t work).

Finding Your YES

So I invite you to ask yourself what you might say YES to in your life today. Instead of trying to stop something that isn’t working, what might you add into your life that encompasses a value that is deeply important to you? For example, instead of trying to stop binge-watching TV or playing on your phone at night, you might focus instead on adding in 30 minutes of quality time with your children or partner or friends each night, and notice how that shifts your experience with TV.  

Here are a few questions that you can ask yourself to get started:

What do you want to say yes to, go after, create or cultivate in your life?

What is your WHY? Why is this important to you? How does it connect to your deepest values about how you want to live your life?

What can you do today, and what small, specific and committed actions can you take each day that are consistent with your long-term values (from question 2).

How might your inner dialogue (that voice in your head and the things you say to yourself all day long) support your long-term goals and be self-compassionate when you are struggling?  In other words, imagine what you would say to a good friend who was trying to say “yes” to something in their life and at times experiencing setbacks, that would be supportive and encouraging. Try to speak to yourself that way.

Note:  This article was first published on PsychCentral's World of Psychology Blog.