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Motivate healthy habits: Leaving a family legacy

Do you want to prevent disease, live longer and improve the quality of your life? And what about your family members too? All you and your family members have to do is:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat well-balanced diets
  • Keep your weight under control
  • Never smoke or quitting smoking
  • Never use drugs or quit using drugs
  • Avoid alcohol excess or abstain from alcohol

Simple to say but it’s difficult to do it
No one and no family has perfect health. Everyone has a weak spot. And even if you are a baby boomer, it’s not too late to change and get the most out of your golden years.

Do you think you should change but don’t feel like it?
How well do you understand why you (and your family members) emotionally resist changing your unhealthy habits, despite your best intentions?

If you (as most people do) under-estimate your emotional resistance, you can become trapped in the prison of your own mind. To break free of ineffective action (like broken New’s Year Resolutions), you must unlock the door to your emotional resistance before you can cut a key to effective motivation.

If you try to motivate yourself before you lower your emotional resistance, you will experience a tug of war between your head and your heart. But your heart (feelings) will win over your head (best intentions) in favor of your unhealthy habit. To help your head and heart work together effectively on change, use this three-step learning strategy

Recognize what feelings drive your emotional resistance
Are you fully aware of how your emotional resistance prevents you from making health improvements? How do positive and negative feelings contribute to your emotional resistance? Here are some examples of positive and negative feelings that can help you explore why you (and your family members) remain attached to unhealthy habits.

Positive versus negative feelings

  • Relax versus avoid anxiety (e.g., overeat, drink alcohol and/ or smoke)
  • Enjoy the pleasure of downtime versus avoid the pain and gain of change (e.g., exercise to feel naturally high)
  • Comfort oneself versus relieve stress (e.g. smoke or overeat)
  • Let go of anger (drink alcohol to suppress inhibitions) versus suppress anger (e.g. over eat to minimize anger)
  • Give courage (e.g. drink alcohol to ask someone out) versus avoid fear and rejection
  • Increase sense of power (e.g., use cocaine) versus avoid feelings of powerlessness
  • Increase confidence (or self-esteem) versus avoid feeling low confidence (or low self-esteem)
  • Feel good versus suppress feelings of depression (e.g., overeat and/or drink alcohol)

For any positive feeling (drink alcohol to have fun with friends), you may have an underlying negative feeling (avoid social anxiety). If you identify more strongly with the positive feelings, you may be unaware of how your unhealthy habit helps you avoid negative feelings. When you stop your unhealthy habit, you can experience the negative feeling (anxiety).

On the other hand, if you identify more with the benefits of reducing your negative feelings (overeat to comfort a negative mood, smoke a cigarette to relieve stress, or drink alcohol to drown your sorrows), you may have additional, underlying issues that need addressing.

If your fear of failure also makes you feel guilty, you may avoid change and both negative feelings. If this fear is compounded by a lack of confidence, you may undermine your attempts at ever making a change. Or never, make a change attempt.

Feelings can distort your perceptions so that you minimize the risks and concerns about your unhealthy habit and maximize the benefits of your unhealthy habit. This self-deception can keep you in your comfort zone and avoid the risk of change.

How can you begin to address these distorted perceptions and the negative impact of these powerful feelings on your health? Explore deep change to understand what lies beneath your emotional resistance.

2. Understand what lies beneath your emotional resistance
Your past history and life experiences, your motives and values also affect your current behavior. Motives can relate any combination of the following factors.

With externally controlled motives, you are only changing because other people want you to change.

With internally controlled motives, you are only changing because you feel that you should, ought or must change. When you do not change or fail to change, this motive can evoke feelings of guilt and other negative emotions such as shame.

With freely chose motives, you are changing because it is really important to you and your values. It feels good to change. You can, of course, experience a blend of these motives that can change over time.

In addition to these underlying factors, your current energy level and competing priorities in life also affect whether you can put your values into practice. You may value your health but not do what you say.

For most people, behavior change is a complex challenge. Researchers and/or outside resources can help you, but it cannot give you the answer to this challenge. The ultimate answer must come from within. Do as you say and put your values into action.

3. Lower your emotional resistance
Understanding how your feelings drive your emotional resistance can help you become an effective researcher of your own behavior change. There is no simple, quick-fix recipe for lowering your emotional resistance. Do not be deceived by marketing hype that sells false promises of long-lasting change.

Explore what lies beneath your feelings to discover the path of least resistance to effective motivation. Experience this learning process, ideally with the support of family and friends, to make change happen. This learning process can inspire family and friend to do the same.

As Gandhi said, Be the change that you wish to see in the world. Leave a family legacy of healthy habits to benefit future generations. Improve your health habits in ways that family members and their offspring can benefit from your learning experiences. This important “hand-me-down” learning lesson can pass from generation-to-generation. This approach empowers families to address a major failing in our educational systems: the absence of a healthy lifestyle curriculum.

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