Is Change A Choice?

Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center. Each one of us can live such a life of amazing power and peace and serenity, of integration and confidence and simplified multiplicity, on one condition – that is, if we really want to.

Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

I was introduced to Thomas Kelly’s writing in a contemplative study group. After a few moments of silence, questions were posed. “Is it enough to want to change? Can we simply choose to live our lives differently?” We repeat sayings that seem to promote the idea that we can simply choose.

. . . My daughter still remembers her fourth-grade teacher telling the class that life was “all about choices.” She was trying to make them think about the consequences of their actions.

. . . When someone would ask, “why would they do that?” my father used to say, “People do what they want to do.” I hated when he said that, but logically there is a consequence for everything we do. We are choosing not to do the opposite. There is an opportunity cost,[1] and we can never return to that moment and choose differently.

. . . “Change is hard.” Not sure where this one comes from, but I agree.

. . . There’s another old saying “Know better, do better.” It implies that if we are aware of a choice that would provide a “better” outcome, we should, or would, choose that option.

All these sayings may contain some truth, but, as with most things in life, it’s much more complicated. They imply that our choices are made consciously and rationally. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t choose over and over to do something harmful to ourselves or others. Don’t circumstances sometimes dictate what we can choose? Aren’t there things that get in the way of making the choice we want?

There is so much advice out there telling us how to change that it can be overwhelming. Each self-help guru states their case so positively and emphatically that we believe theirs must be the way, the magic bullet, the 1, 2, 3 approaches that will not fail.

My experience is that change is a process, a practice, and lots of things get in the way.

Let’s use exercise as an example. Why is it so hard to overcome a lifetime of not exercising if all I must do is really want to exercise? Just make a choice, right? If only. With just a little research, I found three categories of advice on making that change.

Believe the Science

The body of science on the benefits of exercise is quite large and very compelling. A Harvard study shows that exercise, along with healthy body weight and overall physical good health, predicts a higher level of satisfaction with life.[2] A Chapman University research project by Julia Boehm, Ph.D., suggests that if we can increase our activity levels early in life, we can “reduce the burden of poor health in later life.”[3]

Who wouldn’t want to be more satisfied with life and have better health in our old age? If it is a simple choice, we should be able to believe the scientifically proven benefits of 150 minutes of exercise per week and start doing it without all the resistance we actually experience.

Reimagine Your Identity

I’ve been interested in personal and group identity interplay for quite a while. James Hollis describes our personal identity as a “provisional story about who we are and what we’re supposed to do and not do.”[4] I grew up with the identity that I wasn’t very good at sporty activities. I inherited a theology that promoted shame around the female body. My family system emphasized that utilizing the brain was super important. I didn’t learn the skills that would be necessary to build a positive body image or create an athletic identity.

James Hollis would say that an image of “body bad” and “brain good” can keep us from believing in new possibilities.[5] The authors of Responsibility Rebellion tell us that when a behavioral change requires an alteration to our identity, we start to see change as huge and scary.[6] That makes sense because years of “behaviors, routines, beliefs, and habits” have created that identity. Now we want to change it, and that feels risky.[7] That feeling of risk can cause us to unconsciously cling to our old identity and choose ways to avoid the reality of the need to change, escape or put off the hard work of change. That route keeps us from learning and growing into the authentic life we desire.[8]

Utilize External Motivators

You may have been told you just don’t want to change badly enough. That you just aren’t motivated. We’ve all used forms of punishment or reward to change behavior. I’ve tried to reward myself for walking with “don’t break the streak” on my Apple watch. We use sticker charts to get children to do their chores. Physical education teachers give popsicle sticks to incentivise kids to run and give out prizes for the number of sticks earned. It’s called operant conditioning, which uses one behavior to teach someone to acquire another behavior.[9]

But there are concerns about how effective external motivation is for long-term behavior change. Extrinsic motivation may work in the short term. It may result in only doing the action if there is a reward and not because the person becomes passionate about the new activity.[10] Michelle Segar, Director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center, says that for adults over 20, short-term motivation, guilt, shame, stating values, and setting future goals don’t work in getting people to exercise. She said, “If you need the willpower to do something, you don’t really want to do it.” [11]

Look Out for the Unexpected Roadblocks in Life

It’s so easy to assume we know the reasons for people’s choices. We often overlook the practical realities of life that get in the way of implementing change.

In the case of exercise, having to work multiple jobs, a long commute, or working 60 to 80 hours a week may leave no room for anything else. After all that work-related stress, there might be no self-control left for exercise. Some women may feel guilty about the time they take for themselves or feel pressure to spend any available time taking care of others. Other people may also feel their neighborhoods are not safe enough to walk in. Even if they can afford to go to a gym, many people are intimidated by unfamiliar gym equipment or exercising in front of others.[12]

We may try all the popular advice that seems to work for others and find it does not work for us. Making changes is hard enough without dealing with the shame of being judged by others. Dr. Frank Sniehotta, Director of the National Institute for Health Research’s policy research unit in behavioral science, might say that trying and failing or even just taking a break from exercise could lead to giving up on the effort to make the change.[13]

So what can we do to create personal change?

I’m wondering how we ever manage to make alterations in our lives. What practices or processes work for creating change?

James Hollis says the “ability to tolerate ambiguity and change” is essential in creating a moral culture. When trying to implement internal change, is building our tolerance for the anxiety raised by the change process the critical step for successfully implementing the change we desire?[14]

I was able to find some additional resources for successfully implementing regular exercise and quickly started thinking they sounded like the process of implementing spiritual practices for living a centered life. Spiritual practices have been instrumental in grounding me through challenging external changes in my life.

Find Motivation From Within

You may have been told at some point, “know your why.” The idea is to understand the internal motivation or reason to keep you going towards your goal. Knowing your motivation allows us to pinpoint what intrinsic or internal satisfaction we receive from pursuing the changes necessary in the long term.[15] Writing this out and regularly referring to it can keep you connected to how you will benefit when staying with it gets difficult.[16]

I was particularly interested in the suggestion of “cleaning house,” going back through your life experiences to identify where your attitudes and automatic responses originated. Writing stories about life events related to what I’m trying to change is a way of thinking about what might serve me better today.[17] I’ve also found regular journaling about what works or not and how I feel about my experiment is also helpful. My journaling practice keeps me from trying too many things without discerning what is working. It helps me stay focused on “choosing curiosity over comfort”[18] and not getting discouraged or overwhelmed.

Understanding the years of habits and experiences that have created your current identity can take time and effort. But, with a bit of curiosity and openness to discovering new ways of being, it will be easier. Neophilia, or openness, has been shown to increase happiness through approaching life as an exploration of possibilities. Curiosity will help you find ways to try different paths or activities to reach your goal.[19]

Embrace Freedom and Hope

Once we have faced and examined the things that have created our current identity and may be keeping us from making the changes we desire, we can grasp hold of a new sense of freedom for making new choices. We can use the exhilaration of recognizing a new sense of freedom to carry us forward to making the necessary changes.[20] With that freedom comes hope which gives us the courage to act and will support us as we evolve into a new aspect of our identity.[21]

In his book How We Change, Ross Ellerhorn says that “hope is connected to contemplation” which allows us to detach and notice what is working or not and how to make choices to adjust.[22] Awareness, courage, and perseverance will be necessary to keep showing up to execute our exercise practices on the days we just don’t feel like doing it.[23] To make the change stick, we will need to make time for thinking about how the steps taken are leading to the change we desire.

Using The Action Reflection Cycle of Contemplative Practice for Transformation and Change

My musing about whether change is a matter of choice began and ends with the contemplative practice of action and reflection. In my contemplative group when the question was posed, “Is it enough to want to change?” I reflected on the question and went in search of an answer.

This cycle of reflection, action, and reflection is foundational to all types of change. This methodology is utilized in studies of organization and business systems, education, personal growth, and contemplative spiritual traditions. We study what exists to see what is working or not working and why. We talk with the people involved and seek out alternatives to recommend changes. Once the changes are implemented, we wait and observe the outcome. Another round of reflection begins.

On a personal level, contemplative practices of action and reflection are helping me dig deeper into what I’m feeling and thinking. To observe what is going on in my body. To listen to my soul’s deepest desires. To trust that the connection with the divine Center that Thomas Kelly wrote about in the opening quote is within me. It’s a journey, but with attention and practice I’m able to discern a next right step.

You may have figured out that I chose exercise as an example to research because it is a lifestyle change I’m having trouble sticking to in the long term. I’ve had week streaks of adhering to my practice, and then several weeks go by with nothing. Intellectually I knew that exercise is necessary for a long and happy life. So, I needed another approach.

It’s been fascinating digging back into my life to uncover the events that shape my identity around movement and exercise. I’ve spent some time journaling to discover my internal why for making this change. I’m incorporating exercise and how I feel about it in my body, mind, and spirit into what I write about as I reflect on the past week and plan for the coming week. I’m feeling much more hopeful about my chances of showing up and moving regularly. I need to apply what I’ve learned and continue to reflect on my progress.

I can choose to change . . . but, it’s a process!


[1] Kain Ramsay and Cynthia Dubois, Responsibility Rebellion an Unconventional Approach to Personal Empowerment, Kindle (Houndstooth Press, n.d.), 316.
[2] Arthur C. Brooks, Strength to Strength Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, Kindle (New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2022), 1596.
[3] Sheri Ledbetter, “Psychological Well-Being and Physical Activity in Older Adults,” Chapman Newsroom (blog), December 1, 2016, https://news.chapman.edu/2016/12/01/psychological-well-being-and-physical-activity-in-older-adults/.
[4] James Hollis, Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, Kindle (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2018), 1176.
[5] Hollis, 902.
[6] Kain Ramsay and Cynthia Dubois, Responsibility Rebellion An Unconventional Approach to Personal Empowerment, Kindle (Houndstooth Press, n.d.), 412.
[7] Ramsay and Dubois, 382.
[8] Hollis, 1176.
[9] “Extrinsic Motivation: Examples, Pros, and Cons,” Psych Central, September 23, 2021, https://psychcentral.com/health/extrinsic-motivation.
[10] Psych Central.
[11] Emine Saner and Guardian readers, “How to Stay Fit Forever: 25 Tips to Keep Moving When Life Gets in the Way,” The Guardian, September 12, 2018, sec. Life and style, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/12/how-to-stay-fit-for-ever-25-tips-keep-exercising-expert-advice.
[12] “Ten Reasons You’re A Couch Potato,” Forbes, accessed March 25, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/2008/02/27/health-couch-exercise-forbeslife-cx_avd_0227potato.html.
[13] Saner and Guardian readers.
[14] Hollis, Location 125.
[15] Psych Central.
[16] “14 Ways to Actually Enjoy Working Out,” Byrdie, accessed March 25, 2022, https://www.byrdie.com/how-to-actually-enjoy-working-out.
[17] The Atlantic.
[18] Ibid.
[19]Arthur C. Brooks, “Don’t Approach Life Like a Picky Eater,” The Atlantic, May 27, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/05/neophilia-novelty-happiness/618998/.             
[20] Ross Ellenhorn, How We Change and Ten Reasons Why We Don’t, Digital (New York, New York: Harper Wave, 2020), 42.
[21] Ellenhorn, 43.
[22] Ibid, 48.
[23] Hollis, 969.

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