Learn new behavior; follow a model; use self-instructions; try the
"as if" method.
Self-observation and self-evaluation (methods #8 & #9) may result in our feeling a need to change. One way to change our behavior is to change the environment, as we have just discussed. Another way is to learn some new and better way to respond in the old situation. That's obvious! What's not obvious--indeed, it's confusing--is all the different ways of learning new behavior. Consider this:
A number of self-change methods were described in chapter 4, including operant, classical, and observational learning methods. There was also discussions of how to increase motivation and reduce procrastination, how to stop bad habits, how to prevent relapse, and how to develop a comprehensive behavior modification plan. Moreover, this entire book deals with changing some form of behavior--changing values in chapter 3, changing emotions in chapters 5 to 8 and 12, changing skills in chapter 13, changing your mind in chapter 14, and so on. These behaviors are dealt with separately simply because it won't all fit in one chapter. However, even when we limit ourselves to simple, unemotional, conscious behaviors, there are lots of tricks and gimmicks and techniques for "changing behavior" or preparing to do so (including all 20 methods in this chapter).
This section really focuses on three major learning techniques: learning from observing others, the use of self-instructions, and practicing new behaviors. These approaches to learning new behavior are generally useful in many situations to replace many different kinds of unwanted behaviors. All three are among the most commonly used approaches to changing. Each will be briefly described.
- To consider periodically one's options in a given situation to determine what are the better alternatives in the long run (so you keep changing as circumstances change). In some situations we are meeting our needs in ways that could be better met by some other behavior, e.g. a specific plan will solve a problem better than endless worry, a commitment to helping others reduces feelings of uselessness better than endless depression, becoming an alcoholism counselor meets many of the same needs as the drinking met, going back to school may offer better ways to make a living than continuing in the same old minimum wage job, etc. In short, you may need new behaviors.
- To develop new and better ways of responding to a situation by observing models or reading and discussing it with others.
- To learn how to utilize self-instructions to modify behavior and increase self-control.
- To understand the need for repeated practice of a new response before we become accustomed to using it and it eventually becomes an established habit.
This might involve changing your response from being late to being punctual, from being impulsive to being careful, from criticizing to giving compliments, from being alone to socializing, from being a late sleeper to being a 6:00 AM jogger, etc.
STEP ONE: Consider alternative ways of responding; select a part of your life that needs to improve.
In some cases, it is painfully clear to us that we are failing, goofing off or hurting, and need to change. In other cases, we may simply see, hear or read of someone handling a situation well and want to try doing something better than we have been. On still other occasions, we may have given no thought to handling a situation differently...but perhaps we should. Wise observers realize most of us frequently respond out of "habit" rather than because we have consciously decided that this is the best way to handle the situation. We are "flying on automatic" or "set in our ways," even if we are young. Of course, you can't question every little thing you do. However, it pays to be open-minded about the possibility of improving.
A few examples might help: suppose you are always agreeable and compliant and willing to "give in," perhaps you should learn to be more self-directed and assertive (chapter 13). Suppose a person is very close to a group of old friends; he/she is very comfortable with these friends; yet, that person might grow more, experience more, and become better adjusted and more successful if he/she had other friends in addition to these. We can become our own worst restricter, our own inhibiter, our own blinder. So, try new responses and new environments!
There is no way to know what is the best way of responding in a given situation, except by trying out new behaviors and seeing what happens. So, begin by considering a wide variety of alternative responses--even some radical ideas. Read about the problem and solutions. Make a list of coping responses. Ask friends, teachers, parents or counselors for ideas. Maybe brainstorm with a group. See decision-making in chapter 13. Decide on a general approach to acquire these new and better behaviors.
STEP TWO: Learn the details of a new experimental response by observing a model.
Before practicing and polishing, we need to know exactly what to do, precisely how to behave. Where does this information come from? It often comes from observing others, preferably good models and people you respect. Sometimes good ideas come from books that give detailed descriptions of how capable people behave, including self-help books. You could ask someone to carefully instruct and demonstrate a new approach to you (see role-playing in chapter 13).
You will need different kinds of models in different situations. For example, if you wanted to learn how to dance, sell air conditioners, or ask someone for a date, you would want your instructor to be an experienced expert. In these cases you need knowledge. On the other hand, if you are 16-years-old and want to get better at public speaking, driving a car, or handling a snake, the best instructor or model is probably not a great speaker, a championship race driver, or a professional snake handler. You need a competent model but someone you can identify with, someone who isn't too different from you who will guide you through your next few steps. In fact, watching a model who has some fears of snakes overcome his/her fears is a much better experience for a snake phobic than watching a totally relaxed handler. The spectacular expert may only intimidate you more.
Have the model demonstrate and explain whatever you want to learn. It will also be helpful if the instructor (model) also acts out and describes the common mistakes you will need to avoid. Then the model should show you the best way to do it again, perhaps several times, until you are ready to go through the process slowly yourself, step by step, with his/her guidance. The instructor gives you constant feedback, suggestions (modeling again), and encouragement. When you are sure you have the idea, you may want to practice alone for a while. Later, you can again demonstrate your new skill to the instructor and get feedback. Eventually, self-observation, self-correction, and self-reinforcement as you practice this task will be your job.
You may be surprised how often you already know how to behave, you just need practice using your readily available skills in new situations. Examples: the same social interaction skills are used with new friends as with old ones, even though the new friends are much more into athletics (or community service) than the old friends. Your ordinary social skills are all you need to become a Candy Striper at a hospital or a volunteer at a local nursing home; yet, your life might change. The task is to put those old skills to new uses.
STEP THREE: Develop self-instructions that guide the initiation and carrying out of the desired behavior.
If you think about it, a new behavior (one that isn't habitual) is ordinarily linked with thoughts that tell the behavior when to start, how to proceed, when and how to stop, and so on. We have a "coach" inside our head. Thus, changing behavior might more accurately be described as self-instruction modification. There is a therapy approach called Cognitive Behavior Modification. Donald Meichenbaum (1977) has developed and summarized many of the techniques using self-talk. Our self-talk both guides our behavior and explains and evaluates the outcome (see Attribution theory in chapter 4). It is our awareness and our thoughts. Consider this example of uninsightful thinking and much more aware and self-guiding thinking by an overeater:
Uninsightful thinking Insightful thinking I don't have the will power to cut down on my eating. Stop giving yourself excuses. Will power has nothing to do with it; you just don't plan what you will eat and you haven't yet controlled your environment. Let's get healthy! My life is so dull. I deserve a good meal in the evening. Another self-con! Come on, all this weight is no fun. I don't look good; I have high blood pressure; I'm lonely. I deserve the more fun and health I'd have if I lost weight. A small steak and a bowl of ice cream later won't matter. You are kidding yourself again. That is what you said last night. It does matter; this eating has to stop. Why not now? No one is ever going to be interested in me, any how. What a pessimist! That kind of thinking is ruining our life. Come on, let's go to aerobics and have a cup of yogurt afterwards.
This is how we control ourselves much of the time--we talk to ourselves. We know when our thinking is leading down the wrong path. We can recognize excuses, rationalizations, depressive, and self-defeating thinking, and then we can correct those thoughts. As a result, our behavior is much more reasonable and results in our reaching more of our highly valued long-range goals in life. Become mindful of your mind.
How else can we use self-talk? Let's suppose we wanted to become less shy and there was a particular person we would like to get to know better. This is the kind of self-talk that might occur before we approach this beautiful hunk of man or woman: "When can I talk to him/her? Let's try to catch him/her between English and Math. What can I say? What about, 'Hi! How is the ___ team coming along?' Sounds pretty good but I am afraid he/she just won't want to talk to me. Hey, get off that self-putdown stuff, it's a compliment to be approached. I really care about him/her." Later, between classes, we do see him/her and our internal coach says: "OK, go up to him/her and smile and say, 'Hi! How is...'. You can do it. Don't make such a big deal out of just speaking. Hey, I know it's scary but go ahead! It doesn't matter that a friend is with him/her. Do it NOW." The self-talk keeps us on track, checks out our feelings, calms us down, and keeps us from taking the easy way out. Finally, after talking for a few minutes, the self-talk might go like this: "Wow, I did it! It went well. And he/she was friendly! By gosh, I'm going to call him/her tonight. I feel great!"
As your own therapist, you become your own directing, comforting, inspiring, rewarding coach. A sample of "guiding" self-talk is "OK, what do I need to do now?" or "Make a plan" or "What can I say if he/she seems real friendly?" etc. A sample of "calming" self-talk is "Don't get uptight, it doesn't help" or "Take a deep breath...relax" or "I can handle this," etc. A sample of "rational" self-talk is "It isn't the end of the world if ____ doesn't think I'm fantastic." or "Oh, God, I don't know anything about that. He/she will think I'm dumb. I'll pretend I know. No, I don't need to do that. I'll ask questions...I am interested and he/she can explain it to me," etc. (See Challenging Your Irrational Ideas in chapter 14.) A sample of "rewarding" self-talk is "I did it!" or "I'm getting better" or "I'm tough enough to stick it out; it will work out; I have a good plan," etc.
The self-instructions need to be as well thought out and as practiced as the behavior. Self-statements should be in your own words, tailored to your specific situation, and designed to lead to more reasonable judgment and desired feelings and behaviors (Meichenbaum, 1977). See chapter 12 for a more detailed description of self-talk as a method of self-control with emotions.
STEP FOUR: Practice the self-talk and the desired behavior.
One might start by rehearsing mentally, imagining giving self-instructions, and carrying out the desired behavior. Then talk out loud and act it out. Then one might role-play with a friend (see chapter 13). Practice as long as you need to, don't procrastinate, and then DO SOMETHING.
STEP FIVE: Try out the new self-talk and behavior; see how it works.
In 1893, William James, speaking about breaking bad habits, gave this advice: Learn a new habit to replace the old one. To do this, he said (1) launch yourself with as much initiative as possible (change your schedule; make a public pledge and so on), (2) permit no exceptions until the new habit is established, and (3) seize the first opportunity to act on every resolution you make ("the road to hell is paved with good intentions" that never get acted on). Well, some things haven't changed in 100 years.
William James also gave another bit of advice, a self-help method called the "as if" technique. He said, "If you want a quality, act as if you already had it."
It may be wise to start with an easier situation or behavior and work up to more challenging circumstances. Get at it. You are building a stimulus cue (external or internal, i.e. self-talk)--new behavior--reward sequence. Record and reward your progress.
Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.
Developing a new dependable response is seldom easy. It may take an hour or two to consider new options, especially if you do some reading or talk to a friend. It may take another hour or so to devise new self-talk and behavior. It will take more time to practice and try out the newly learned behavior. Total=2 to 4 hours. Keep in mind that many, many new responses might be involved in changing from a shy, scared, quiet, poorly informed person into the opposite. So, the impossible takes a little longer.
Common problems with the method
Not sticking with it; pessimistic attitudes; giving up after the first defeat; deciding you want to do something else when the going gets tough. And, backsliding when you move on to work on some other self-improvement.
Effectiveness, advantages, and dangers
People do change, presumably through some process like this (see chapter 4). Research has shown repeatedly that people learn new behaviors from models. An advantage is that this method focuses on mental and behavioral processes that are related to almost any self-improvement.
How effective is self-instruction training? Meichenbaum (1977 and 1985) says it is promising but not yet conclusively proven. It has been used with many kinds of people with many different problems with some success. Dush, Hirt, & Schroeder (1989) found that self-instruction modification, as done by therapists, was quite effective in some studies but of marginal value in several others. It seems to work better with adolescents than with younger children--but in either case the improvements don't seem to last. Self-statement modification done by yourself has not been evaluated yet. Perhaps other self-help methods need to be used along with self-instruction training.
However, since we are all watching successful models and talking to ourselves anyhow, the methods pose no new risks, except that occasionally we may try a new behavior that produces unexpected unwanted consequences. That's an unavoidable aspect of growth.
Meichenbaum, D. Cognitive-Behavior Modification, New York: Plenum Press, 1977.
Meichenbaum, D. & Jaremko, M. Stress Reduction and Prevention, New York: Plenum Press, 1983.