Changing Muscle Memory Takes Practice and then More Practice

I heard her frustration and disappointment. She’d almost cancelled our call, lost in the worry that she wasn’t getting anywhere and couldn’t change.  I empathized as I felt her pain.  But I’ve been in this place myself and I’ve learned that what she really needs is encouragement to keep practicing.

Even magic tricks require hours of practice. And we aren’t working on pulling rabbits out of a hat.  We’re working to change life-long habits of thinking and behavior.

At the outset, she said clearly that she wanted to feel like she was in control of her life even if the pain had taken so much away.  She thought that if she could do that, her pain wouldn’t be as overwhelming and she’d spend less time fighting the pain and feel more contented with her life.  We decided that the place to start was by reducing her work load.

Over the next  month, she logged her pain and capacity, calendared her work events  and developed strategies and responses to say ‘no’ to the on-going demands at work.  Good solid stuff that creates a sense of accomplishment.  Two months in, she told me how happy she was not to be feeling the constant and frenetic urgency all the time. She was excited at the thought that now she’d have time and energy to add exercise into her day.   She told me that meeting her goal — and  the finish line was visible!  (I suggested it might not be the finish line but one of many benchmarks.)  

Then, as often happens, she took a slide back into long standing habits by saying ‘yes’ when she could have said ‘no’ to a work assignment.  She had also misjudged how much time some activities would take, fell behind, and was back to working the long hours that made her pain even worse.  Easy to do.

Frustrated that she’d once again found it too hard to set limits, it seemed to her that she was letting other people rule her life again.  She believes that her pain leaves her more vulnerable to other people’s demands and  this diminishes her strength or capacity to do anything about it.

As we talked, what struck me is her notion that change must be easy for everyone else, especially healthy people.  All the motivational blogs, self help books and TED Talks must work for others — or why would they exist?  And, since she can’t manage to change, this is one more example of how living with chronic pain makes her different.

I told her that I thought she had achieved significant shifts.  She developed a clear idea of what she wants to be different, a plan of action that can help her achieve it and the ability to notice when she slips off track.  

Now she has to keep practicing and fine tuning the mechanics. 

Living with a chronic health challenge can leave you feeling ‘behind’ in so many ways.  It’s easy to step into a mental minefield of doubt.  You already feel different from others because your health makes activity that much harder.  But each of us has to figure out how to do this on our own — healthy or not.  If change were easy, the self help/motivational industry wouldn’t have an audience. 

Regardless of what challenges you face, changing behavior takes time and requires practice. Ask any athlete, pro or weekend warrior, what it takes to change that shot or swing.  I’ll bet you hear that changing muscle memory takes practice and more practice.  And time. 

Practice, notice, fine tune, practice, notice.  How are you doing with the things you want and need to change?



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