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Gravity vs. Flying
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 01/30/2017

Birds sunrise The start of the new calendar year is as good a time as any to examine our habits and our life’s course, to decide if we’d be better off by hitting the reset button and making some beneficial changes. One way to do that is to consciously and intentionally articulate what our goals are — short-term and long-term, and see if we’re getting closer to actualizing them or if we’re moving away from them through our choices. The conclusions we draw from such a self-assessment can suggest to us whether changes are in order or not. Areas we may examine can involve finances, career, appearance, physical fitness, health, relationships, parenting style, and living arrangements.

Propelled by a sincere desire for progress, we may end up making new year’s resolutions. These may range from plans to make radical changes in an area of our lives or may involve one relatively small step. How many of us follow through and make sure that these changes become (and remain) a reality and a part of our lifestyle from here on out? And what would it take for us to stick to our best intentions and make them happen and last?

Here are some of the basic ingredients for the recipe of successful change in our behaviors and our habits.
  1. A felt need. We have a felt need when we arrive at a place where we realize and admit to ourselves that we need to make certain changes if we want to reduce our discomfort, suffering, and misery—to alleviate pain or distress in physical, psychological or spiritual domains of our life.
  2. Taking responsibility. We own the fact that the only way for our distress to be lifted or reduced will be if WE ourselves make changes. We stop blaming others or making excuses for why we are at the place of pain we’re in, and we accept and acknowledge that it’s up to US to take certain steps and follow through on certain actions. We stop waiting for others to make changes first.
  3. Commitment. We honestly and courageously count the cost — what we believe it will take for us to succeed — and we embrace and commit to it as being WHAT IT TAKES to get from A to Z. It’s like we take our check book out and write a blank check for whatever it’ll take to get us moving forward.
  4. Problem-solving strategy A — identifying steps. We next figure out the best way we can break down WHAT IT TAKES into smaller, manageable steps. We need to figure out the stages that’ll take us from A and Z, and how to go from A to B to C... all the way to our desired goal. We map the change as a series of steps to take, manageable chunks, small bites — instead of expecting to enjoy near-instant transformation with a one-time or with haphazard effort. (Obviously, such unrealistic expectations set us up for discouragement and giving up when, naturally, they fail to materialize the sought-after outcome.) This strategy of identifying intermediate steps boosts resilience — tenacity, stick-to-it-ness — by helping us problem-solve, as we figure out HOW to “get there” by consistently taking one step after the other towards our goal. It also promotes resilience as we are encouraged each time we accomplish a sub-goal, and we see that we are one step closer to our desired outcome.
  5. Problem-solving strategy B — removing obstacles. This too is a strategy that boosts resilience — perseverance — by allowing us to anticipate and prepare for road blocks on our way from A to Z. It also helps us figure out how to get unanticipated obstacles out of our way or go around them. As Sharon Wood, the only woman to summit Mount Everest by a new route and without a Sherpa, states: “It’s not about finding more strength... it’s about removing the obstacles.”
  6. Habit building. A key component of making successful changes at this point is understanding how new habits are formed. Change is essentially about replacing an old way of doing something with a new way. Habits, based on neural pathways, are literally hard wired in our brain. Strongly established habits are like automated programs that are executed by parts of the brain that do not require conscious attention and effort. (Think of driving. Or of picking your cuticles when tense.) Established habits are basically overlearned, automated chains of behaviors. They are the default setting of what to do in certain situations. New habits, on the other hand, require intentional concentration, effort, and repetition for them to happen.
I’d like to add a little more on habit building, as this is at the heart of the matter of change. The analogy that helps me grasp differences in nature between old and new habits is that of gravity versus flying. Gravity is always present on our planet. We do not have to expend any effort, to work at falling, if we stepped off of a diving board. Gravity takes care of that for us, and into the pool we fall. On the other hand, for us humans, flying does not come naturally. To counter gravity and fly, humans had to invest time, energy, ingenuity, money, courage, faith, sweat, effort, perseverance, countless occasions of trial and error, improvements, corrections, and repairs. The Wright brothers are a testament to that. And then, an airplane or a glider require maintenance, upkeep. They don’t just stay functional on their own.

Let’s think of any existing unhealthy habits that we want to replace as operating like the law of gravity. They’re always there, whether dormant or active, whether we’re aware of them or not. We don’t have to work at having them take the steering wheel. They’re the self-driving vehicle taking us down paths we might regret. It’s the flying, the desired new habits, we need to commit to figuring out how to make happen. We have to invest in our vision of a better, healthier, “saner” ME. We too have to invest time, energy, money, courage, faith, sweat, effort, perseverance, count- less occasions of trial and error, improvements, corrections, repairs — and repetition, repetition, repetition. Persistent practice of our new, desired habit, will get us to the point where now our new habits become automated and override the prior unhealthy ones. The latter remain dormant, but they are no longer the “default setting.” The new, desired habit gets to be that hard-wired default.

We are free to choose. Is experiencing the joy and benefits of flying worth what it takes to make it happen, to break us free from the pull of gravity? Each one of us must answer that for ourselves in the depths of our hearts regarding certain of our behaviors that cause us discomfort and distress, behaviors that ultimately hurt us and perhaps also hurt the ones we love. My answer for myself is, ABSOLUTELY!

My focus this year regarding building a new habit is turning my mind toward identifying benefits and opportunities in every challenge, spotting what is going well, and detecting the hand of Love in my life, regardless of the circumstances — and being thankful, thankful, thankful for that. That’s the habit I want to build as an automated thought pattern and mindset for me. Why?

Because the payoffs of this practice, physically, psychologically and spiritually, are too many to count. What do you want your new, healthier habit to be? Where do you feel a need for improvement? Are you ready to take responsibility for making positive changes in your life? Will you commit to them? Will you figure out the steps you’ll need to take to go from your A to your Z? Will you work at removing obstacles in your path toward your goal? Will you help your brain build a life-giving new habit? Will you learn to fly?

This article as been reprinted with permission from the November 2016 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Editor's note: Caterina Spinaris is the Executive Director at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She continues to contribute to the field of corrections staff well-being individually and organizationally, in particularly regarding issues of traumatic stress due to exposure to violence, injury, death on the job, and also issues of organizational climate improvement.

Visit the Caterina Spinaris page

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