Most of us have watched our January New Year’s resolutions become a source of frustration and embarrassment by March — or even earlier. Our resolutions to change the way we act, think or feel often fail because real change takes more than good intentions and willpower.
Psychological coaching trains people in the art and science of change and targeted personal growth. Psychological coaching is different from therapy, because the psychological coach is directive, and the work is focused on well-defined and clearly scheduled outcomes. Psychological coaching empowers people to change by giving them the exact knowledge and the precise tools they need to attain their goals.
Coaches of all kinds are in vogue today. Some have good intentions and strong marketing skills, but their lack of real knowledge limits them to being high-priced cheerleaders. Others have persuasive personalities with excellent speaking skills, such as Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra. Coaches like Tony and Deepak can excite people into an appreciation of their deeper possibilities, but after the excitement passes, most people feel unsure of how to proceed. Numbers of people pay up to $1,000 for a 45-minute personal session with these coaching stars with no lasting benefit.
Successful psychological coaching rests on more than arousal and excitement. At the end of the day, there’s not a lot of win in chasing and praising goals we can’t achieve. Serious intent and willpower are important, but they’re usually not enough because we’re “conditioned” more than we imagine. We’re conditioned by automatic patterns and programs that operate independently of our will and awareness. And so, they have great power.
Unless we can unlock and dismantle this conditioning, we’ll fail to change and overcome the conditioned forces that drive what we think, feel and do. For example, cigarette smokers can decide to quit cold turkey thinking that the problem is nicotine addiction, only to discover in a few days that they can’t do it. Typically the conditioning problem is greater than the addiction problem. That’s true for all addictions, something I learned early in my career researching and treating heroin addiction.
Consider this: Last spring I switched the position of the two file cabinets to either side of my desk. One cabinet was for files, the other for supplies. It took me many weeks to open the right file cabinet, because I was conditioned to their prior position. The cigarette smoker has to deal with all the day’s “conditioned smoking moments” such as lighting up after he 1) wakes up, 2) has coffee, 3) drives his car, 4) has lunch, 5) gets home and so on. Not smoking at these times will be tough and stressful.
And stress is the single greatest factor for driving someone to light up again. Same goes for drugs, food and alcohol problems. The conflict between short- and long-term consequences cannot be won under stress. The smoker may want the long-term results of not smoking, including healthier lungs and heart and a longer life. But under stress, the short-term consequences of smoking now will be more attractive than not smoking to get healthier later. And so the battle will be lost.
Science research has discovered the laws of learning. These laws explain most of how we have learned to think, feel and act as we do. We tend to learn and repeat things that have favorable consequences. There are two kinds of favorable consequences: 1) we get what we want and, 2) we avoid what we don’t want. Under the pressure of stress, the deck gets stacked for short-term consequences.
If I am overweight, I want to lose weight to look better, feel better and avoid a serious health problems. But getting these benefits takes time and they come later. But if I open the freezer and eat the pint of ice cream staring at me, I will enjoy the rich, creamy taste right now.
Psychological coaching helps a person to understand the forces at play and to minimize stress. It trains a person to do what needs to be done to change. For example, I may want to stop judging people and to be more kind and generous to others. But if I lack the knowledge and tools I need to stop reactively judging others, then I won’t be able to do it.
No reasonable person who has never sat down at a piano will expect to be able to play one without learning how first. Why should we expect to be able to do things we don’t know how to do? Before you throw the towel in on achieving a New Year’s resolution or any other goal, at least ask yourself the critical question: Do I have the knowledge and tools I need to do this?
Dr. Jim Manganiello is a clinical psychologist and diplomate-level medical psychotherapist based in Groveland and West Boxford. He is also an author and teacher focusing on stress, personal growth, meditation and “inner fitness.” His book “Unshakable Certainty” is available on Amazon. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.drjimmanganiello.com.