Becoming your better self as reason for changing behavior

Becoming your better self as reason for changing behavior

In a novel I was reading about nine years ago, the main character explained how he could not eat anything “in which a heart had been beating”. Like a thunderbolt these few words sunk in. I became a vegetarian overnight and I have not had any problem sticking to this ever since. The new behavior perfectly fitted the “person I am”.

Conversely, in the past I used to regularly jog quite long stretches. However, I never viewed myself as a “sporty person”, and whenever a barrier occurred such as being ill, I lapsed into being a couch potato. I now try to walk whenever I can and consider myself an “active person”.

Our actions reflect our self
My behavior of “not eating animals” matches my self-perception. Being a vegetarian gives me a positive view of my “self“ as a caring, considerate person, who loves animals. Every time I decline a dish with meat, my “self” gets affirmed.

Thus, we perceive what we do as part of who we are andwant to feel good about ourselves. This is an extremely useful starting point for health interventions. For example, looking for how positive self-views derived from our unhealthy behavior (drinking wine since I consider myself someone who enjoys the good life), can be served by other, less harmful or even healthy, behavior (drinking a non-alcohol alternative that still reflects a relaxed lifestyle). Key to change then is making what we do relevant to the type of person we consider ourselves to really be.

Part of our self lives in the future
We humans spend almost half of our time fantasizing about the future. In it, we generate a multitude of possibilities for ourselves; options that have been called “Possible Selves”. They direct our imagery, and increase our openness to goal-related opportunities. For instance, a future self-image as being a ‘quitter’ or ‘nonsmoker’ greatly increases quit-intentions, quit-attempts, and also quit-success. Smokers thus need to be able to picture themselves as “future nonsmokers” before they can actually quit. My colleague Eline Meijer and I, currently investigate this by asking smokers to write about the type of person they will become if they quit smoking, and if they continue to smoke. They also provide accompanying associative pictures. Participants write for example: If I quit I will become “a strong, clever woman with character” or “a more balanced, carefree father and lover”, and conversely: If I will continue to smoke I will become “a coughing, panting and miserable old women” or “an anti-social, stinking, weak man in pain”. A first striking finding is that most of the provided pictures are symbolic, and do notcontain smoking people or products. Written associations with the pictures include: “carefree”, “complete” and “decisive” versus “junky”, “depressive”, and “hopeless”. We suspect that having these ‘self-images’ readily accessible when needed, e.g., during cravings, helps to stay on track.

We thrive in groups where we feel we belong
Resisting temptations may be particularly difficult in social situations. You may fear social rejection once you no longer behave in line with your friends and relatives. Quite a lot of our self-perceptions are based on the social groups we belong to. For example, most people who smoke or use drugs affiliate with people who also use the same substance. Using substances is a key norm behavior that defines “being part of the group”, which is associated with all sorts of other valued qualities. For example, youngsters after rehab, may experience that their ‘cannabis using’ friends are still the people who “fit them best”, even now they are clean. Their old friends seem to reflect their own “wits, loyalty and level of maturity”. Thus, to establish lasting change, people need to develop positive self‐representations in which they can see their future self perform the new healthy behavior that is also in line with their social environment.

Practical recommendations
1. Make behavior of direct importance to the experience and image of yourself. For example create mood boards of your ideal and feared future selves.

2. Find ways in which self-views that are linked to the new behavior can be retrieved at critical moments such as craving or temptations. For example, use your moods boards as reminder cues by sticking them to the start screen of a PC or smartphone.

3. Make scripts for how to respond to your friends’ reactions to your change. For example, when offered alcohol, your response could include the shared bond: “Wow, you are always looking out for me, such a good friend you are. How are you holding up lately?”.

Originally written for Practical Health Psychology