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Change and Personal Development

Part 1:

I have worked with kids and adults in helping, guiding, and instructional capacities for the bulk of my adult life. Relatively early on in the process I identified three components of human change which I still adhere to today. It is nice to see a lot of my theories being validated by scientific research especially recent finding in neuropsychology.

My instructional roles can be broken down into three areas, therapeutic, athletic, and academic. Most of my professional life has been working in the human service realm.

I have worked at many different residential setting employing various models, I have also worked with numerous families and foster parents. A great deal of my time has been spent helping kids who have been removed from school and/or home successfully return back to mainstream life.

Academically I have worked in public schools, in alternative schools, and classrooms in residential settings. I have functioned as a trainer, evaluator, and supervisor of residential staff at various therapeutic settings. I have also tutored kids and young adults in math, science, and language arts. The last decade I have developed my own techniques to teach basic math skills to very low functioning math students such as children with Downs Syndrome or high functioning Autism.

Athletically I have coached children from the age of 6 thru 18 in baseball and basketball, and have included athletic instruction with many of the kids I have worked with in therapeutic settings.

For the sake of brevity I will only talk about the following components when the goal is to replace an old skill or habit rather than learn a completely novel one.

When the goal is personal change and development I have found awareness of these three components to be crucial. In order to effect change in the most quick and efficient fashion while making sure the change sticks, one should:

1) Replace old habit, behavior, or ritual with a new one

2) Honor and incorporate psychological/emotional motive sustaining old habit into new habit

3) Find replacement for the biochemical payoffs of old habit

I’ll give you examples in all three areas.

Therapeutically it seems obvious that the goal should be to cultivate a new behavior rather than continue the asocial one which has necessitated a child being removed from home or school. Likewise, most people go to therapy or engage in some form of self-help program in order to change something in their life. Those might be issues they have with anger, weight, addictions and compulsions, or overall health. Most issues about change and improvement seem to demand a new behavior.

Yet, in practice this is not necessarily what is done. Instead of replacing an old behavior with a new one, the goal is to just remove or extinguish the old one. This is when we focus on the problem rather than the solution.

If I’m trying to not get angry, all my thoughts are focused on anger, while if instead, I’m taught a new skill to do when I start to feel frustrated or overwhelmed my focus can go to the execution of that skill or calming technique rather than on my anger.

This is when we just demand a person to stop lying, stealing, or threatening others. Sometimes we merely just tell them to stop eating so much, or think about the repercussions of their actions. This is also when we expect through counseling or talk therapy that a person’s new found understanding of the reasons why they do what they do will inherently result in their cure.

Its hard to give up an old habit without a new one being offered. Many ex-smokers can testify to the fact that until they replaced smoking with another activity, such as chewing gum, their efforts to quit were fruitless.

The just not doing something is difficult to accomplish for the mind and will need something else to deflect their attention from reflex habit. If I’m trying to not get angry, all my thoughts are focused on anger, while if instead, I’m taught a new skill to do when I start to feel frustrated or overwhelmed my focus can go to the execution of that skill or calming technique rather than on my anger.

When teaching parents to help very young children learn to accept no I recommend an intermediary step. For when a parent says, “no candy,” the child just hears and continues to think about candy and often has trouble letting go of the issue. Yet, if the parent gives them another enjoyable option than the candy, then the child is usually able to let the candy demand fall by the wayside.

When I’ve worked with kids who had the habit of swearing or making everything into a battle or debate, I have had almost no success by simply criticizing or prohibiting this behavior. Yet, when I have them practice a new behavior they can do to replace arguing and swearing and reward when they engage in the new behavior the rate of success becomes very high.

The advantageousness of developing new habits over focusing on intellectual understanding is depicted in the following example. My wife and I lived in a group home of nine adolescent boys. One of younger boys who came to live with us had already failed at a number of placements and hospitalizations. Within a couple of days it became apparent why he was labeled a nyctophobic (fear of darkness), for once the sun went down his behavior deteriorated as his anxiety climbed.

His first evenings with us were filled with his tantrums and outbursts which resulted in things being broken and his needing to be restrained. A quick perusal of his file explained much of this as his home had a long history of domestic and physical abuse often requiring police intervention.

Since we not yet ready to be able to process this through therapy and far too fragile to even looking at his family from an critical point of view, we needed to find a relatively quick and safe intervention.

A new habit, skill, or behavior will have a better chance at being implemented and maintained if the psychological and emotional aspects are incorporated into the new behavior or given an alternative outlet.

We decided to try and develop evening rituals that would be positive and comforting for the young man. We soon found that an early evening game of basketball followed by an evening shower and the possibility of board games and the reading of a night time story worked well. Through good behavior he was also available to have the radio on to fall asleep, and he could lend a hand at morning breakfast (he loved to cook) the next day.

Though his progress was anything but linear, he returned home successfully and despite another hospital visit was free of any more placements or interventions. His nyctophobia was held in check, if not resolved, through his positive growth and new rituals. Even when he returned home he found his newfound rituals an oasis when his family returned to their old habits. I do believe he did find a therapist some 10 to 15 years later whom I assume talked to him about his past.

People have psychological and emotional reasons for why they do what they do. A new habit, skill, or behavior will have a better chance at being implemented and maintained if the psychological and emotional aspects are incorporated into the new behavior or given an alternative outlet.

The psychological and emotional payoffs for engaging in an asocial behavior can be numerous, but often exist because they work. Some children do find that arguing, having tantrums, and making threats wears down parents and they end up getting what they want. The solution in these situations is to start to have the child get more when they comply then when they resist or act out.

People often engage in asocial acts or have habits they wish they didn’t because they get emotional and psychological payoffs for these habits which they have a hard time doing without. Some people lie, steal, cheat, or overeat because it temporarily comforts them, gives them a sense of power or control, or is a source of pride or identity.

The solution would, of course, include finding alternative behaviors which comfort, foster power or control, and produce pride without the downside or asocial attitude. In the above example of the young boy who was afraid of the dark, he acted out to get power and control and to increase his feelings of safety. We, therefore, gave him increased power and input into his environment by complying with our wishes and by doing the new rituals we offered. His new sense of safety was able to replace his old warped sense of safety and control. This allowed him to make the change in a seamless manner rather than us asking him to change behaviors while leaving him in an emotional limbo.

It’s hard to make personal changes and improvements. Yet, it becomes much more doable when your emotional needs and preferences are not harmed or suspended during the transition/learning period.

Every thought and experience we have, and every emotion we feel has its own biochemistry.

I remember working with a child with a severe stealing problem. I recall sitting in the office at the group home and having a pleasant conversation with him when he was with us a couple of weeks. I could see him eying a candy bar lying on my desk, so I asked if he wanted it. He denied wanting it. At the end of the conversation I told him that if he did want the candy, he could earn it if he did a couple of small tasks. He declined my offer.

That night, the candy bar was stolen. Since he had a long history of denying ever taking anything, I did not confront him on the theft. Instead, I asked for his assistance and expertise. I told him the candy bar was taken and asked if he had any ideas how someone could have pulled off such a caper. After some time he finally decided to help me make the home more theft proof. In exchange for his assistance he earned many things he wanted and was able to find a socially acceptable means of exploiting his talent as a thief.

In this young man’s case he was a very talented thief. While he failed in school and was generally viewed as mentally limited, when it came to robbery he was nothing short of brilliant.

It will be hard to adapt to a new behavior, or stay away from an undesired one if we do not honor our biochemistry.

Through time we found many other problem solving applications for his talent, all of them legal and many potentially lucrative. He wrote a few good great heist stories while he was with us, and learned many ways to use his prowess to engage and entertain those around him. As a child and adolescent he was not only a thief, but an excellent liar. As he grew up he was able to adapt to being a salesman and a promoter.

It is now time to address the third component I had mentioned, that being biochemical. The biochemical element is often easy to see in areas of addiction, compulsive or risky behavior, or in asocial behaviors such as lying and stealing, or arguing, and having tantrums.

Every thought and experience we have, and every emotion we feel has its own biochemistry. In what ways biochemistry reacts to our experiences and in what ways does biochemistry cause our experiences will be a source of great debate and research for the next few decades.

Yet, when it comes to changing our behavior or developing a new habit an awareness of biochemistry is very crucial to our success. It will be hard to adapt to a new behavior, or stay away from an undesired one if we do not honor our biochemistry.

A person whose metabolism is dependent on the biochemical effects of a substance, experience, or emotional state will have a hard time doing without that experience, substance, or emotional state. Yet, if the new habit provides the same chemistry or is accompanied by other activities which tend to the desired biochemistry than the chances of success are greatly increased.

A smoker who either gets nicotine or a corollary mimicking that internal experience will not be as resistive to giving up the habit. A drug dealer, thief, gambler, or daredevil who gets a danger high from these activities will be more able to change their ways if they find a more acceptable alternative that still provides them with a similar biochemical rush.

Emotions and emotional states such as anger, revenge, fear, safety, love, excitement, depression, anxiety, detachment, and safety all have their own biochemical states. Likewise, so do experiences such as conflict, risk, power, control, subservience, dependence, starvation, or overeating. So do most foods and substances cause changes in our biochemistry and not just the obvious ones such as sugar, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol.

This post is going longer than I intended so, therefore, I will discuss the roles of these three components regarding education and athleticism in the next post.

I hope this entry was not too unwieldy or confusing. I just wanted to relate to you the importance and benefit of trying to view personal change from the perspective of these three components.

In my 30 years of helping clients, friends, and myself I have found these components to be of crucial value.

1) Find a new habit to replace the undesired one

2) Make sure that your emotional/ psychological payoffs of the old habit have new outlets

3) Help your body accept the change by not drastically changing your basic biochemistry

Article written January 19, 2018 by Jim Guido.

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