How positive psychology tools bridge the gap between thinking it, and being strong enough to do it!
Updated: Jul 25
"I know I know I know"...my clients and students who are all extremely intelligent people always protest that they know exactly what they should be doing...but - as you will experience yourself, there is often a gap between knowing it and actually doing it.
The catalyst for taking action is quite often external - perhaps you suddenly have no choice, perhaps it's thrust upon you, perhaps someone else does something which incenses you? Or, when it's internal - it might happen, eventually, but how much time spent in worry or even regret, rather than in a state of flourishing, has elapsed in between? The most healthy approach is to do it yourself around the time you start noticing something is amiss - as not only are you then in charge of the what, but also the when.
I know it, so why can't I do it?
One of the potential answers to this question lies in DILT'S model of change, and its relationship to the common approaches to motivating change.
DILT'S model outlines the levels of change that we go through with one caveat: Change that begins at the bottom does not affect the next step up - you have to climb; change that starts at the top will filter down naturally and you will suddenly find you are doing and living in the way that you want. Note - "Prettier" packages of self development such as The Law of Attraction will often phrase this as "The Manifesting Mindset"...and if that works for you to motivate the change in behaviour you want, great, just don't spend lots of money on guru courses that you don't need...if this is your thing, there is an abundance of free content on YouTube.
But, I'd like to give an explanation using what I know - psychology.
Behaviour starts instinctive and conditioned - but then becomes reasoned and chosen
As a child we learn about the world through reflex and a process of conditioning ie. you cry, someone comes - you learn that this is a way of generating help when you are uncomfortable. If we do something, and we get rewarded - we'll do it again, if we don't (or worse experience pain) we won't. Our brains, notably the pre-frontal cortex (which develops as we grow), are not capable yet of the forward thinking, future-planning "executive reasoning" eg: morals, consequences, alternatives. Before the age of 2, we do not fully realise that others do not think and see the world as we do. This ability known as the "theory of mind" gradually develops so we begin to understand that if someone is standing in a different position, they may not be able to see an object from our perspective, or that if you hide something when someone leaves the room, they will not know it has gone when they return.
As we grow, so too does our understanding (and the complexity of the pathways in our brain) and we move from reflex and conditioning (learned response) to desire, active choice, reasoning and consequence.
Our physical development is occurring at the same time as changes in our social world - we attend school, we join teams, we may start taking on responsibilities, we are influenced by more people - friends, teachers, people with whom we interact (now also on the internet as well as in the real world). Thus we become a balance of the brain and the body - we may think and then we do, but we may also do and then we think. Positive change - and maintaining it - needs to appeal to both as it needs to challenge habits which may have been practised for many years, or which are simply "comfortable."
Traditional coaching gets us only so far
Thus, as adults, when we want to change something we may seek help - we might join a gym, or take lessons or see a counsellor or coach. Teachers and mentors will always underpin everything they do with encouraging and instilling a positive mindset - "You can do it!", "Be awesome", "Great job!". But often, regarding DILT, they teach from the bottom up. They give you classes, they give you tools...I do this too. Yes, they work with the mind, but often to unpick the barriers and help you to recognise that it could be your thinking holding you back. This approach is hugely successful often because if you see a coach or trainer regularly, you will begin to see the changes and this in turn keeps you motivated whilst possibly using separate tools to reframe your thinking. But not everyone can afford that luxury...and it is a luxury. It is time and it is money to pay someone to tell you "you can do it" and show you how on a regular basis. (Which is also why I always say, choose that person very carefully).
BUT, we evolve for efficiency rather than effectiveness
(Or, if you wish to take a psychodynamic approach - underneath it all, we appear to retain a drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain.) If you take the time to reflect on your ability to learn a skill - after a while it becomes easy and - in the case of a sport for example - we have to work harder to continue to see gains.
And, here - that moment between "work harder" and "relax" is an example of where, if we want to keep achieving, or even flourish - most coaches will say - we need to know and remember our aim. It is all too easy to revert to behaviours that, often through past experience, give us a jolt of immediate pleasure (ie. we indulge our child-like motivation even if the long term consequences are not so positive).
As an adult so many things will serve that purpose - a spending spree, comfort eating, recreational drugs...I'm not trying to give you ideas so I'll stop there!
Conversely, the alternative option - "working harder to see gains" is less appealing, not least because those gains will - as we get older - take longer to appear...or perhaps we simply notice the time more. All the more reason why we don't always choose the long term "good" over the short term "nice". And so our motivation falters. Even though we saw results, we may drop out of coaching or training, and the gains fall back down the DILTS model and we're back where we started.
How does positive psychology bridge the gap?
Now, I'm certainly not advocating - work hard and then work some more, but I am suggesting there are alternatives to our habitual, child-like "pleasure" that - when we keep our goal in mind - won't undo the efforts spent. This is an example of how Positive psychology supports traditional mental health and wellbeing interventions. It is a "bolt on" to the traditional methods. It's not just that you need to identify your goal (traditional coaching) - but you need to be strong enough to stay focused. It engages the mind encouraging change from the top down, by simple behaviour interventions which so easily become good or helpful habits, you don't realise your mindset has shifted.
AS WELL AS the traditional tools of journaling/tracking, reflection, and of course the specific tasks given to you in counselling, coaching, a fitness class, a lesson and so on, it focuses on bringing "soft health drivers" (Zaraska, 2020) - kindness, gratitude, friendship and overall quality of life to the fore.
In the example of "work harder" - in that moment, before you choose to indulge, I might ask you to identify the times you are likely to be tempted to do something with negative consequences (utilising the adult ability for executive reasoning in the way of classical coaching), but rather than only say "now avoid that trigger", I will also suggest you find a simple, easy to reach, substitution which you also love and that will also give you a sense of joy eg. a healthy snack, or texting a friend, or even looking at your achievements in this area - and in the process of finding substitutions, you may discover things you hadn't previously ever considered as enjoyable! Your choice of substitution helps you "surf the urge", and because it is easy and pleasurable, it has the extra benefit of energising you to keep going.
Other quick and easy techniques you can try
While I would often go through that approach with a client in a session because reflection takes time, there are even easier things you can try:
1. If you have a difficult conversation you are putting off - yes of course I want you to "just deal with it", and I will also go through practical tools for resolving conflict such as "the house model", or having an agenda to avoid being side-tracked, or I might even practice that conversation with you - BUT I will also suggest you i) identify what makes you feel really good; and ii) do that - just this evening when you get a moment.
You may look at that and think - aren't the practical tools better? They are indeed excellent - if you use them, while the situation is still a "conversation". But are you going to?
The act of doing the thing that feels really good - for you - reminds you that you are someone worth caring about, because you are lovely/strong/capable. These thoughts are not even conscious all the time - you may simply have that bubble bath because "The coach said so"...but it will have that effect. When you feel good, you feel more capable of going to the hard place.
2. Instead of saying "Dump the toxic people" we might explore your values, and the types of behaviour you want to see from those in your life and who embodies them. But I will then also suggest you actively give one of the valued people in your life a call or a message, and try and spend more time with, and/or focus, on them. In turn, if you actually cannot "dump" the toxicity, having been energised by the lovely people in your life, it might make the time you spend around the others more bearable, or even better - AND - as a bonus(!) - when you fill your life with the positive people, there's far less space for the negative and the ones who can be "dumped" will naturally fall away.
3. While asking you to focus on your goals in life - including identifying them, and working our the steps you need to get there, I will also remind you to look around daily and truly see the value of everything you already have. This isn't just the "high ticket" items, but appreciating things like the clothes you have that make you feel great but you haven't worn for a while, or maybe something that has sentimental value from a friendship you treasure. Then, perhaps you might call that friend (and enjoy the feeling of love), or wear those clothes (rather than buying more) - and although you will keep moving forwards to achieve, you do so from a point of fulfilment and strength, rather than desperation or envy.
Get into a routine of positive psychology practice yourself
The soft-health drivers I use include:
- Kindness or volunteering
- Financial health (ie. saving, and appreciating what you have - you feel rich!)
- Mindfulness (including meditation and affirmations)
and none of this needs to be formal - sometimes my meditative practice is simply focusing on the sounds around me when I walk my dog, or gratitude can be saying "thank you" with each step I take walking to the toilet to remind me to love my body for what it does (even if I don't always appreciate how it looks!)
Other informal positive psychology practices might include:
- Having photos of moments I love (including "thank yous" from others) in a screen shot album to remind me I've made a difference
- Checking in regularly with my friends (whether by phone or a funny text)
- Laughing - a lot (there's no harm in cat videos, as long as you don't spend all day watching them)
- Positive affirmations (on post-its or on my phone)
- Gratitude first and last - I think about something I am grateful for before I sleep, and when I wake up I'm always grateful for how lovely my bed feels!
I'm currently also promoting an #ilovemylife gratitude challenge where I am - and encourage you to join me in - taking one photo a day of something I'm grateful for (including things like a roof over my head and running water!)
But what about the REAL results?
Unlike those videos you see where you're told "do this and get rich", I don't have a lamborghini or millions in the bank (yet ;) ) but I'm also not having to continually seek (and spend on) external support, or put my desires into the hands of others. I have enough to live comfortably, I have amazing people in my life, my work is growing (including the release of a 3rd book), and I'm certainly grateful to be working right now - amidst the pandemic, which hasn't stopped me being able to present, albeit on webinar, overseas - and invitations to collaborate take me to places, teams and opportunities I didn't even think were options for me. I'm even putting my media experience to good use by growing a podcast. Ultimately, every day I am happy, and if I am not, I know I have the ability to change it. To me, that is what matters most - growing, thriving, flourishing...join me.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt