Flip-side

When I used to do clinical work, it often seemed odd to me that many people in therapy not only had strong motivation to change, but the desired behaviour was already in their repertoires. What was stopping them? In looking back, now I realize that, often, they were probably trying to change behaviour (for example, "being impulsive") that they actively enjoyed, but from another point of view ("being spontaneous"). With this realization, changing one's behaviour might be seen not as changing something negative but as making a choice between two positive alternatives (for example, "being reflective" versus "being spontaneous").

One of my students and I tested the hypothesis that the reason some people have a hard time changing their behaviour, no matter how hard they seem to try, is that they really value that behaviour under a different name.

Using a list of negative traits, such as rigid, grim, gullible, and the like, we asked people to tell us whether they had tried to change this particular quality about themselves and succeeded and failed, or whether the description was irrelevant to them. Later we had people tell us how much they valued each of a number of traits such as consistency, seriousness, trust, and so on, which were the mirror opposites of the negative traits.

Our hypothesis was confirmed. People valued specific qualities that, when negatively framed, were the very things they wanted most to change about themselves but had failed.

[Ellen Langer]
Mindfulness, p.71, 72

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From an open-minded position, it is clear that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to addictions. Though perhaps obvious, this is not the usual point of view for someone trying to break a habit or addiction.

People who want to stop smoking, for example, generally examine only the negative consequences of smoking. They remind themselves of the health risks, the bad smell, other people's reactions to the smoke, and so on. But when they smoke people are not thinking of the health risks or the smell, so trying to stop because of these reasons often results in failure. Part of the reason they fail is that all the positive aspects of the addiction still have a strong appeal. The relaxation, the taste, the sociable quality of stopping for a cigarette remain tempting.

A more mindful approach would be to look carefully at all these pleasures and to find other ways of obtaining them. If the needs served by an addiction can be served in other ways, it should be easier to shake.

While recognizing the positive reasons for the addiction and finding substitutes is not easy, the attempt to do so may help us find more mindful ways of breaking destructive habits.

[Ellen Langer]
Mindfulness, p.186, 187

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