September is Self-Improvement Month, and I want to use this space to talk about how to make lasting changes in your life via the lens of paradigms, how they affect your self-image, and how you can make them work for you.
Perhaps you commit to waking up early and going for a run before work. For the first few days or weeks, you own it. You lay out your clothes the night before, you only hit snooze once, and you’re out the door in the brisk morning air.
But then, perhaps, something happens. You stay up too late watching your favorite show and don’t have the energy to run. You have a stressful day at work and indulge in one too many glasses of wine with dinner the night before. Your kids bounce into your bedroom demanding pancakes instead of the usual quick bowl of cereal.
Whatever it is, suddenly, you’re off track. You miss a run, then two, then three. Pretty soon, you’re saying to yourself, “I’m such a failure, I can’t ever meet my goals.”
That, right there, is a paradigm. Let’s dig in.
What are paradigms?
Paradigms are, essentially, the habits, beliefs, attitudes, and expectations you have both genetically ingrained in you as well as culturally formed. Paradigms have a huge influence over our subconscious thought, and thus, our behavior.
Remember the “I’m a failure” thought from the scenario above? That’s a belief you hold about yourself.
Or perhaps your inner paradigms are different. Do any of these sound familiar?
“I have no willpower, I’ll never stick to a diet.”
“I’m so unmotivated, no wonder I never get the promotion.”
“I can’t ask for the raise at work—I’m such a coward.”
“I’m terrible at expressing emotions, I won’t ever have a stable relationship.”
Are you seeing the pattern? A paradigm is any belief you have about yourself, any belief you hold as an absolute about your character in your mind.
How do paradigms connect to your self-image?
Sometimes these paradigms are wonderful affirmations. But for too many of us, they’re negative. Why does that matter?
Because you’re more likely to fail at a task you set for yourself if you already think of yourself as a failure. You’re more likely to make whatever bleak future you see for yourself come true if you already believe you have no willpower or don’t know how to express emotions.
It’s a self-fulfilling cycle, and it comes to shape your entire self-image. When your self-image is based on a negative paradigm, your behaviors reflect that, and vice versa.
The good news is, you can change your paradigms, which changes your behavior, which improves your self-image.
The best news? Only you have the power to do it.
That’s not scary—that’s empowering. You absolutely have the power to make meaningful changes in your life, changes that last. Let’s learn how.
How do I make lasting change?
Start inside your own head. This is a bit of cognitive-behavioral therapy that’s fairly easy to incorporate into your day (and if you need help, starting actual therapy can be very beneficial!).
The first step is being aware of your own thoughts. You don’t need to practice 20 minutes of daily mindful meditation to do so (though that can also be very beneficial!). Just make a point to be aware of when you hear yourself thinking your negative paradigm.
Then, simply say to yourself, out loud or in your head, gently yet firmly, “No” or “Stop.” Interrupt the thought in its tracks and don’t let it repeat.
Replace that negative thought with a positive one. Let’s use the above examples:
“I have no will—” “Stop. Willpower is a skill I am practicing and improving.”
“I’m so unmotiv—” “No. I am a dedicated employee who loves my job.”
“I’m such a cowa—” “No. I am a strong, compassionate person.”
“I’m terrible at expressing—” “Stop. Emotional health is a journey and I am making progress to healthful expression.”
It may feel a little silly or uncomfortable at first. That’s normal. Our culture was built on making you feel badly about yourself so you buy some product to make it better. Most of us aren’t taught to be kind to ourselves, let alone to praise ourselves.
You might not even believe your new positive paradigm at first. But the longer you practice this, the more your brain will automatically give you the positive belief instead of the negative one. And the more this happens, the easier it will be to change your habits.
What else can I do?
As you start to get your brain in the right place, you can also take steps to change your behaviors. We have all of our habits for a reason—they give us some kind of positive emotional reward. If we experienced a negative reaction to our habit, we wouldn’t do it anymore.
Think about a habit you have that you want to change, and examine what positive reward you’re getting from it. For example:
Do you scroll social media for ages instead of getting out of bed early? Perhaps this feeds a need for connection that you feel.
Do you have more glasses of wine with dinner than you’d like? Perhaps it helps reduce your anxiety. (Please note there’s a big difference between mild overdrinking and actual conditions like alcohol dependency and alcoholism. If you’re concerned you have a bigger problem, I definitely encourage you to reach out to your doctor or therapist.)
Do you constantly swing through the kitchen or work break room for a mindless snack? Perhaps this habit is driven by a missing nutrient in your diet or needing a break from work to de-stress.
Once you figure out the positive reward coming from the habit you want to change, find a way to meet that need elsewhere.
Instead of scrolling, see if you can schedule a weekly Zoom call or hang out with a friend group to stay connected.
Instead of reaching for another glass of wine, try journaling or another technique to manage your anxiety. Or perhaps pick a hobby back up that you let lax.
Instead of mindlessly snacking, make sure your diet is balanced and that you’re managing your stress in other ways, like with meditation, exercise, or therapy.
The final and most crucial piece is to then replace the bad habit with a good one. It’s important to meet the need elsewhere, but it’s vital to then fill that time with something good; otherwise, a new bad habit will simply creep in.
Replace scrolling with a quick morning meditation to help wake you up and start your day in a positive frame of mind.
Replace the wine with a zero calorie, low sugar drink that still helps you feel like you’re sipping something more interesting than boring old water.
Take a walk outside instead of through the kitchen and let nature soothe your stress instead of food.
See how it works? With a little self-reflection and a substituted habit, you’ll be well on your way to changing your life for the better, for good.
How do I put it all together?
An important key is to only tackle one or two habits at a time. If you try and change half a dozen things at once, it’s too easy to get overwhelmed and not succeed at changing any of them.
So, focus on two key habits you want to change. Dig into why they exist and meet that need elsewhere. Replace them with good habits. And all the while monitor your thoughts to interrupt those negative paradigms when they rear their heads.
Before you know it, you’ll have positive paradigms that will in turn support your positive changes in behavior. Your self-fulfilling cycle is now helping you improve your life instead of inhibiting you.
That’s how you make lasting change.