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How New Thoughts and Behaviors Become More Comfortable

Making changes in our life means practicing what we do want again and again.

When I went for a walk in the conservation park, a couple of new signs caught my eye. One read New Trail Route and the other This is Not a Designated Trail—Do Not Use. These signs are necessary if the route is actually going to change. It doesn’t do much good to plan or even clear a new trail if people are going to keep walking the old way.

Just because the old trail isn’t to be used anymore doesn’t mean it’s no longer there. A new trail is interesting, but the old is familiar. Until people stop walking the path they’re used to, it can’t grow back over. Every time someone defaults to the old trail, they’re not reinforcing the new.

A similar thing happens when we’re trying to change a behavior or thought pattern. I’m certainly not the first person to compare changing our habits to blazing a new trail, but the illustration is apt.

Sign reads: New trail route.

The more we do or think a certain way, the more ingrained it becomes. Even if we know it’s not what we want anymore, it’s still easier to do what we’ve always done than to do differently.

For example, for decades I’ve believed disagreeing with someone is rude and critical and means I think I’m better than them. I’ve been afraid expressing a different opinion will result in conflict. As a result I’m likely to say what I think someone wants to hear or avoid saying anything at all.

After questioning this belief, I know I can share my own opinion with kindness and respect. I know people can have calm, caring discussions even when they don’t agree. It might seem like I’d immediately be more comfortable sharing my thoughts. But after acting out of the other belief for so long, it’s taking a while to change my default response.

The trail of my old beliefs and habits is still well-worn and familiar. I might navigate all its twists and turns and end up right back where I’ve always found myself before I even notice I’m on the path. In order to start creating a new trail, however, I need to step out of what feels comfortable and known. It will likely be slow going at first. I might trip a few times and start to wonder if I’m even headed in the right direction.

Forging a new way can be exhausting, surprising, and even terrifying. But every time we travel down the trail it becomes a little more established and familiar. In the meantime, the neglected old trail gradually becomes fainter as the forest reclaims it.

Sign reads: This is not a designated trail. Do not Use.

To bring this back out of the forest and into our everyday lives—the more we practice thoughts and behaviors the more habitual they become. Just because we realize we’ve been holding onto an untrue belief or decide we want to respond differently doesn’t mean the change will be instantaneous.

It’s natural to fall back into habits we long to leave behind. Of course this is frustrating and can lead to self-criticism, especially if we don’t know to expect it. But if we keep practicing the new thoughts and actions—even if at first that means noticing in retrospect and visualizing what we wish we’d done instead—eventually the new will come more naturally and the old will feel less comfortable and familiar.

Making changes in our life means practicing what we do want again and again. It means pushing ourselves to not give up and default back to the thoughts and behaviors we want to leave behind.

It’s also an opportunity to be very gentle with ourselves. Expecting to change immediately is just too much pressure. Change takes time and we might have to navigate unexpected obstacles along the way.

Chances are good we’ll step onto the old trail again, but every time the situation comes up we have another chance to practice. Over time, if we stick with it, our new way will become familiar and the old will fade away. In the meantime, we can often find little ways to remind ourselves where we want to be headed.

What is something in your life you’d like to change? Maybe you want to start taking a walk after dinner instead of turning on the tv. Maybe you want to approach difficult conversations with curiosity rather than defensiveness. Maybe you want to share what your opinions and preferences in a kind, respectful way instead of silencing yourself for fear up upsetting others.

Whatever it is, what is a small thing you can do to start practicing this new way of thinking or acting? What will you do if you find yourself slipping back into familiar habits? How can you kindly support yourself through the tough work of blazing a new trail? What are some ways you can remind yourself which path you want to take—whether literally putting up a sign, putting your sunglasses where you usually keep the remote, or taking a deep breath before speaking?