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Stop Telling Me What to Do!

By Health & Wellness Editor Kathy Whelan

How do you feel when someone says you should or have to do something (or else . . . )? And how do you feel when you realize you really want to do something? I’m guessing those are two very different feelings, and here’s why: all humans have a fundamental need for autonomy. We simply do not like to be told what to do.

Despite this basic need, we often comply with “shoulds” when it seems wise or expedient. This can happen when advice comes from a doctor or another expert or when we will be rewarded for following the advice. It can also happen when we act out of fear or a desire for social approval. And there may be good reasons, even urgent ones, for complying with these “shoulds.” They are forms of motivation that can get us to behave in certain ways. At least for a while.

The problem with this kind of motivation is that it does not usually last. When it comes to starting a new habit or taking steps toward a goal, a more enduring form of motivation takes into account the need for autonomy. When motivation is self-generated, when people choose what they do because it’s important and meaningful to them, they are much more likely to succeed.

Developing this kind of motivation requires looking at personal values, what really matters most to us. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds. When we think of values, we often think of what Dr. John DeMartini calls “social idealisms” like honesty, integrity, fairness and hard work. But these are not as much personal values as “shoulds” we have internalized about certain ways of thinking and behaving.

To uncover our true core values, we need to ask ourselves what it is we love to do, what we treasure most in life, what we choose to spend our time, energy and money on. This might involve relationships, work, hobbies, sports, travel, learning, teaching or any number of other things. These are not what someone else has chosen for us but rather what inspires us and fills us with vitality and enthusiasm.

As a personal example, when I was in middle school and had just learned about vitamins, I raced home and told my mother I wanted to be a nutritionist when I grew up. Later I wanted to be a social worker or a psychologist. But there were a lot of “shoulds” (and “should nots”) in my family, and I never became any of those things. Years later, when I learned about health and wellness coaching, I knew instantly, on a visceral level, that it was for me. It lined up with a long-time personal value: helping people live healthy lives.

When we seek to make changes in our health, we can uncover personal values by asking ourselves questions like “What do I want my health for?” and “Why is my health important to me?” Someone who aspires to be a teacher, a nurse or a chef might want to be healthy enough to spend long hours standing up. Someone else might want to be healthy to engage in a favorite sport for years to come. Others might want to be healthy so they can be active with children, travel the world or serve as a role model.

Bringing these personal values to the forefront casts current behaviors in a new light, making it easier to see inconsistencies between what is most important to us and unhealthy habits that don’t support our values. It helps highlight, in very personal terms, the costs of continuing to engage in those habits. It’s no longer “You should lose weight to lower your risk of heart disease” but rather “If I don’t lose weight, I may not be healthy enough to play with my grandkids!” Motivation becomes intrinsic and much more powerful.

The same need for autonomy in deciding what to change is important when we choose how to go about changing it. Each of us is different when it comes to how we want to approach a new habit, and there is seldom only one way. Remember: small steps. We’re simply trying to build what author James Clear has called a “gateway habit,” a place to start, one that opens a path to a larger behavior or ambition we’re working toward.

There will be challenges along the way – it’s how we grow – but they will seem less challenging when they’re linked to something we really want to do.

Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises.  It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including The Boston Globe. Learn more at www.whelanwellness.com

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