Sep 5, 2018

Understanding Our Own Behavior in Order to Change It

Heather Finn — Board Certified Health Coach

A Better participant two months into our program recently shared with me, “This is a lifestyle change. I’m enjoying the ride and enjoying learning - I am doing it and it feels good! Things are feeling effortless and natural. I went to see my doctor last week and he commented that my blood pressure is lower than it normally is - and that felt really good.”

Changing behavior is no easy task. We start everyday with good intentions and high hopes of what we want to accomplish, but often end the day off the mark from what we thought was possible. When we know what we need to change, why is it so hard to actually make the change and stick with it? What makes one person successful while another struggles? And, why can’t I just give someone a plan to follow that tells them exactly what to eat, drink, exercise and have the results follow along? Changing behavior is not that simple, because it is not just about the overt behaviors and habits that we do on a regular basis.

One critical aspect of behavior change that often gets overlooked is identifying the function of the behavior a person wants to change. The why of what is going on for them on a daily and weekly basis. It is not merely enough to sidestep past this important step and force new, healthier habits to form. Without identifying the function, an individual may not meet that same need with the new behavior. And, over time, this need will return and will have to be addressed.

Let’s look at an example. An individual has a goal to cut back on calories in order to lose weight and improve her diabetes. She identifies that one way to scale back is to replace a late night bowl of ice cream with an apple. However, she may be missing a key component of eating the bowl of ice cream. What is the function of the late night eating? Hunger? Or, an emotional need, like relieving boredom, stress, loneliness? Maybe eating the ice cream fulfilled this function, even if temporarily, whereas the apple doesn’t come close. Although eating ice cream does not get to the heart of her need, it was meeting the need on some level.

Health coaching is comprised of two parts: action (or goal setting) and self-awareness. Many of us are already familiar with goal setting, but without the cultivation of self-awareness, working toward goals gets lost. This self-awareness includes understanding what works for us and what doesn’t, our strengths and challenges, and exposes why we want to change and also why we want to stay the same. There is a reason why it’s been a struggle to change these behaviors in the past; the desire is strong, but there are often competing forces within us that crave to stay the same. That bad habit that we complain about to our friends, family, coworkers is serving some function and until it’s truly understood, it’s hard to change it for good.

At Better, we help our participants not only set goals that will help them achieve better health, but also help get them closer to understanding themselves to make it happen. Beginning in the first coaching session, the coach and participant develop a partnership based on honesty, non-judgment, and trust. The coach sets the framework, creating a space for the participant to explore what works best for them; there are no goals that are “not good”. The participant can feel comfortable fully exploring what they really want for their life, their health and how they want to get there (how fast, in what way, etc.). The coach helps the participant look closer at the why behind the behaviors that they want to be doing (“What will this bring to your life?”) as well as the why behind the behaviors that they don’t want to be doing (“What are the pros of doing this behavior? The cons?”) to not only cultivate this self-awareness but also help the participant develop a successful plan to make effective changes stick.

A participant in their fourth week of our program recently shared with me, "I really enjoy the coaching. It's more than just what you eat, how much you exercise, or cheering me on. It's talking through the process, understand my goals and why they are important to me, and having additional support. It's really helpful."

The coach is an accountability partner as well as someone who can reflect what the participant is learning. The coach holds the space for the participant to explore whatever topic they bring to the session while also keeping the participant’s goals, motivation, vision and values at the forefront for them. In this non-judgmental space, the coach and participant can explore what these bad habits are bringing to the participant’s life and how the participant would like to meet these needs differently. At Better, our coaches work with participants with chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and hyperlipidemia. The goals that our participants set are tied to making significant improvements in these conditions through changes in their diet and lifestyle. For many of our participants, the stakes are high and they need to make changes in order to continue leading the life they want to live or to enable them to live a life free of pain, worry and limited mobility.

During their work together, the coach helps the participant take a step back to look at their progress from a big picture perspective. This helps participants see beyond the daily and weekly progress and see how it’s impacting their life as a whole. It exposes what they’re learning about themselves, their own values, strengths and challenges. And as they achieve goals, they begin to develop a better understanding of what works for them and what doesn’t work (Not all of us will fall in love with kale and quinoa, or go for morning runs!). This process also helps participants understand why they were stuck in their old habits and what purpose those old habits served for them. Changing behavior is not easy, but is entirely possible.