How To Change Your Thoughts And Behavior Patterns For The Better
By: Jon Jaehnig
Updated January 29, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Fawley
If you have thoughts or behavior patterns that you know are unhealthy or unproductive, or even toxic to yourself and those around you, changing can be hard. After all, these patterns are part of life. Deciding that you need to change your thoughts and behavior patterns for the better is a huge step, but it can leave you wondering where to start.
Understanding Your Thoughts Through Mindfulness
To change your thoughts, you need to understand how your thought processes work. This sounds simple, but it's a bit more challenging than one might expect.
Our minds are running all the time like a computer, not just while we're actively paying attention to something or trying to figure something out. While you're driving, taking a shower, reading or watching television, your mind is running wild. Mindfulness proponents call this your "monkey mind."
Your brain tends to tune out the monkey mind, but it still has a huge influence on how you think and feel. Learning to pay more attention to your monkey mind can be difficult, but it can help you understand and actively change your outlook.
One of the best ways to understand your monkey mind is through a process called "mindfulness meditation." Usually used to reduce stress, this thought exercise can also help you to understand and change your thought and behavior patterns.
To begin, sit or lie down comfortably. Close your eyes. Focus on your breath. You don't need to change your breath to make it deeper or slower, just pay attention to how your breath feels as it enters and leaves your body. Chances are, you're only going to be able to focus on your breath for a few moments before your monkey mind interrupts. That's okay. Just take note of what the thought was about and go back to focusing on your breath. Try to do this for at least five minutes. By the end of your time, you may have noticed a trend in the kinds of thoughts that were distracting you. Try to perform this exercise at least once a week but working up to at least five minutes per day.
Once you've been doing this for a while, you should be more aware of what your monkey mind is telling you throughout the day. If you're actively trying to change for the better, it's probably your monkey mind that's holding you back. Being able to intercept it can help you prevent it from determining your behavior.
Understanding Your Behavior Patterns Through Retrospection
Your monkey mind can control your behavior, but your behavior is more readily observable than your monkey mind. Chances are if you're interested in changing your thoughts and behavior patterns in the first place, it was probably your behavior that let you know that something wasn't right.
Monitoring your behavior is an active endeavor, but it doesn't have to involve meditation. It just has to involve paying attention to how your behavior makes you feel. Sometimes, the behavior that you want to change is a behavior that you have made a habit. That means, it can be hard not to do it even if you regret it afterward. So, treat these behaviors kind of like you treated your intrusive thoughts in the mindfulness exercise above. That is, don't beat yourself up, just pay attention to how they make you feel and see what kinds of trends you may notice. This can do two important things.
First, it can help you to understand chains of events that can lead to your unwanted behaviors or to isolated events that can trigger the behaviors. For example, maybe you only behave in an unwanted way when you are with specific people, or if you've been drinking, or when you had a bad day at work. Once you recognize the things that lead to your unwanted behavior, you may find that you can interrupt the chain of events.
Second, reminding yourself of the negative feelings that you have after performing the unwanted behavior can help you to steer clear of it. Sometimes, we know that we are debating engaging in negative behavior, but we can forget the way that it makes us feel later on. Reminding yourself of your past regret over your behavior before you do it can help you to convince yourself that the behavior isn't worth it.
Understanding Your Behavior Patterns through Those Around You
Sometimes, we don't understand what's wrong with our behavior; we only know that it hurts those around us. When this is the case, it can be difficult to monitor your behavior patterns and feelings on your own as described above, but that doesn't mean that you are without hope.
If you don't understand how your behavior is hurting others or even which behavior are causing the problem, you can often find out by asking them. This can feel a little awkward, but if you are genuine with others when you ask them, they will usually understand and offer their advice.
If you know what behavior you want to change, it can be easy to reach out to the people that it impacts. Try starting the conversation with something like, "I'm trying to change X about myself, and I think that will be easier for me if I understand how it makes others feel."
If you don't know what behavior you want to change – you just know that there needs to be a change – it can be harder to find the people to talk to. Consider starting with people who you are close to, like family members and coworkers. You don't need to start by "owning" your negative behavior. Instead, you could begin a conversation with something like, "I'm trying to be a better person, but I don't know where to start. Are there any things that I do or say that upset you?"
This may seem like opening yourself up to some hurtful feedback. Facing that you need to change your behavior can be difficult, but it's a journey that you've already started. If you are honest with someone when asking for their help, they're not likely to use it as an excuse to make you feel bad about yourself. Try to remember that they have your best interests at heart, even if they give some feedback that may be hard to hear.
Understanding Your Thought And Behavior Patterns Through Observation
Understanding where your thought or behavior patterns come from can help you to change them for the better. Sometimes we don't know where our thought or behavior patterns come from. Other times, however, we may be able to recognize our negative thoughts or behavior patterns in those around us. It could be that these are the people who we picked them up from. Sometimes we pick up negative behaviors from parents, coworkers, or friends. Often, we understand that we have been behaving unacceptably when we recognize ourselves in someone else.
Identifying where you picked up an unwanted behavior can help you to understand how to avoid it as well as where not to go for advice on fixing it.
Why Some Behavior Patterns Are Hard To Change
Even once you understand what your negative behaviors are, where they come from, and what leads to them, thought and behavior patterns can be hard to change. The reason for this can be complicated, but there are a few basic trends.
Some thought and behavior patterns are hard to change because, even though you may not want to engage in them anymore, they are socially acceptable – or even encouraged. Prominent examples include things like drinking or substance use, overeating, and other activities. Whatever the behavior, it is probably encouraged in specific environments or social settings. If this is the case, you may need to remove yourself from that environment or social group to avoid prompts for engaging in your unwanted thought or behavior patterns.
Some negative behavior patterns can be encouraged by your body, making them even harder to overcome. Some negative behaviors make us feel goodusually because they are based on or mimic a healthy behavior and confuse your body's chemical reward system. If you indulge in this behavior too often, your body can come to associate it with feel-good hormones, leading to a behavioral addiction chemically similar to substance use disorder. This can be the case with eating certain foods, playing videogames, having sex, and other activities.
When You Need A Little Help
Sometimes, despite our best efforts and intentions, we are simply unable to overcome our unwanted thought or behavior patterns. The thought pattern may be too deeply ingrained in our mental processes, or the behavior may be too strongly drilled into our reward center. When this is the case, you might need some help.
Talking to your healthcare provider can be a good place to start, especially if your behavior is harmful to your health. They will be able to direct you toward community resources.
Another option is to look into online support groups, community centers, and local mental health services. Many unwanted thoughts and behavior patterns are more common than we think, and many communities have support groups for people experiencing them.
Finally, you may want to meet with a counselor or therapist. This can seem scary and can be expensive. However, looking for a therapist or counselor online can help to solve these problems. Online therapists and counselors are more affordable and convenient than meeting with counselors or therapists in person.
A study has shown that online therapy can feel more personal than traditional therapy. Ninety-six percent of people using online therapy reported feeling a personal connection with their online therapists as opposed to 91 percent who saw face-to-face therapists. They were also more invested in completing homework the therapists assigned them and occasionally reviewed correspondence between them and their therapists, leading them to move forward with their lives.
How BetterHelp Can Support You
If you find yourself falling back into old thought and behavior patterns, reach out to BetterHelp. You’ll get matched with a licensed therapist or counselor who can teach you techniques to challenge and change unwanted thoughts and behaviors while offering emotional support and understanding. You will be able to meet with your online therapist in the comfort of your home and at a time that’s convenient for you. Below are some reviews about BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
“Dr. Streeter listens to my concerns no matter how big or small, and helps see situations from other perspectives. They always provide additional resources for me to research, or suggestions on ways for me to practice being more aware, unlearning behaviors that no longer serve me, and reinforcing new behavioral goals. I highly recommend Dr. Streeter!!”
“Hope is very good at assessing what I'm not saying as much as what I am and is very good at getting to the center of things and helping me identify thought processes and behaviors that are present in my life. I appreciate her insights and tools so much!”
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