Behaviour change and its context

4 September 2020

By Ramone Whittle

Part 1: Does knowledge automatically produce behaviour change?

One of the 50,000 thoughts that whizz around this ‘under construction’ mind of mine is: what makes a person change? Lasting change, the “it’s been X amount of years since I’ve done (insert toxic behaviour here) and I have no desire to go back!” kind of change.

As a person who somehow ended up imprisoned mentally, when I would hear testimonies of victory, similar to the one mentioned above, my response would be anywhere between ‘scoff yeah right, that’s impossible!’ to ‘it’s lucky for some,’ and on a good day, ‘how?!

Of course the supplier of this testimony (my computer screen displaying the latest self help video) was unable to respond to my grievances; so the moment the content would end, hopelessness, delivered at the base of my mental ill-health mountain, packaged with more questions than answers, would begin.

I sink. My mind, arrested by the familiar, unwanted guest goblin named depression, is forced into a pit of despair as I watch my peace get locked away in a cage, wickedly placed clearly in my line of sight but fingertips past my ability to reach. He taunts with temptations, mocks with replays of the past. I cry out, “I know I should be positive, I know I shouldn’t smoke it away, shouldn’t drink it away, shouldn’t eat it away, shouldn’t sex it away, shouldn’t numb it away,

I know I shouldn’t. I wish I didn’t. But I can’t change!”

And in that vulnerable moment between me, my bedroom wall, and whoever else heard the sound of my voice, it hit me.

‘Knowing something is “wrong” doesn’t automatically produce change.’

When considering the treatment available, I’m aware of medication and counselling. Medication reduces the symptoms, and counselling decodes the decisions made when suffering with said symptoms. During my despair, I considered for the first time that perhaps there are more steps involved in the process of healing besides the two methods listed above, and so, here is some food for thought in the realm of change, that potentially gives us partakers of the mental wellbeing journey, the power to conquer our respective mountains.

Context for behaviour change

I think it’s safe to say that 2020 caught a lot of people off guard. At the start of every year, there is the sound of the unofficial national anthem: ‘new year, new me.’ This is performed by the nations with patriotic vigour, as they celebrate the achievement of their new year’s resolutions in advance. 2020, being the mark of a new decade, stirred an even greater sense of anticipation for new beginnings and personal elevation amongst humanity. Sadly however, the unexpected arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic frustrated the progress of many plans, and instead brought with it much turmoil and heartbreak.

What made 2020 beneficial despite all the tragedy, in my humble opinion, is that it created opportunity for all members (in Britain’s “new year’s resolution choir”) to abruptly ‘pause the music,’ and reset. Crisis brings change, and through the mess, I envision possible changes that can come out of this.

I see a group of people who perhaps for the first time in their lives have felt hindered by unseen forces; this hindrance brought along with it the realisation that they weren’t as immune to weakness as they once thought. They once bulldozed through life with a ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude, but now being introduced to their own frailty amongst the elements, they grow in compassion and understanding for their fellow earth residents. Another group, despite lockdown posing more challenges mentally, experience a relief from the pressure to force a ‘get on with it’ mentality through the handicap that has been placed on them, also by unseen forces, and are now better positioned to give their mental wellbeing journey the undivided TLC it needs, and deserves, without shame.

Covid-19 is an unprecedented time for humanity, and comes with daily reminders of the dire challenges at hand, but I have taken comfort in the increase in images of love and care for one another (celebrating the NHS for example) and this suggests to me that bonds of love are beginning to be formed between those who have been labelled ‘mentally unstable,’ and those labelled ‘having it easy.’

It would seem that beauty, through the clearly evident ashes, has begun to poke its face; ‘God save the queen!’ (and our resolutions!)

All that being said, I began to wonder. ‘What makes everyone so sure they will see different results at the start of every year? What gives them hope and motivation to change? I mean we are still the same people, right? Without taking any extra steps, we are still as smart, still as funny, still as drowsy and run down from medication/work/trauma, still struggling to resist the temptation to give up, stay in bed forever, and disappoint those we promised we ‘wouldn’t do it again,’ on the 31st of December, as we were on the 1st of January, right? So if I’m still me, and I haven’t done too well so far, how can I expect things to be any different?’

I answered these questions the way any millennial would; I asked Google.

“The only stability and security you have in life is change. It’s a paradox, life is simply a series of changes: exiting and entering, grabbing hold of and letting go, starting and stopping, planting and uprooting, sowing and reaping, therefore, managing change is managing life. You can resist, ignore, accept, adjust, manage, become a victim of, prepare/plan for, and initiate change but you cannot stop it.”

Dr Myles Munroe

“Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have and underestimate the value of what they will gain if they give that thing up”

James Belasco and Ralph Stayer

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed!”

Peter Senge

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein

“You can’t become who you want to be because you’re too attached to who you’ve been”


Perhaps like me, reading these quotes from Google has triggered all manner of reactions. Join me in the next post and I’ll share my thought process.

Part 2

Jumping straight back in, the quotes listed in the last post are the fruit of my search on the concept of behavior change on the internet. These quotes (the last one in particular) present almost a guaranteed, simplified formula when put together, on how to change for the better. In short:

(preparation + resilient action) – complaining = positive results

In all honesty, my first reaction to reading them was “easy for you to say, you haven’t been what I’ve been through! Of course a leadership consultant/renowned scientist/qualified lecturer/established author would say that. This just doesn’t work for people like me.”

After my little hopelessness tantrum however, (months later) I reflected on my reaction to the quotes. I said ‘this doesn’t work for people like me.’ This then brought on a myriad of questions. ‘Who are ‘people like me?’ Do I know them? Am I suggesting that I am a member of a grand, anomalous family, who were intricately designed to fail at all attempts of mental/emotional stability? Designed? Who designed me?’ And the final question (that has probably been asked since the caveman), ‘People like me? Who on earth am I?!?’

On one hand (I say to myself) they say you’re not supposed to think too much when you’re showing symptoms of… ‘people like me.’ They say you should keep active, keep your mind occupied, do “normal things.” But on the other hand, this question is pleading to be answered: just who am I? Could it be that stability is on the other side of this question? I couldn’t resist; back to Google I went.

After searching around without finding many answers different to the quotes I listed previously, in a light-hearted conversation with a friend where they were telling me of their new business idea (it seems not all of the nation’s New Year’s resolutions were halted by Covid-19), they spoke on the difference between starting a business as a sole trader and as a limited company. In the many things that were said in that conversation, one thing stuck out to me. Legally, a limited company is recognised as a separate identity to the founder; meaning, if there were any financial dispute, all fines and legal proceedings would be credited/addressed to the company and not the founder.

I imagine my reaction to this comment was similar to the rush a detective receives when they find a fresh lead in a standstill case; I took Google by storm. I thought ‘since the economy is such a vital part of life, if a company can be treated as a person, then surely I can apply the same techniques used to define the company’s identity to myself to answer my questions.’ In my search, I came across a website (startwiththeheart.com) which (as the name suggests) uses the human heart as a metaphor to convey the message that the success of a business lies in the ‘heart’ of the business. They broke down the ‘heart’ of a business into 6 aspects; the first three dealt with the ‘why,’ of the company (why does this company exist?), and the second three dealt with the ‘what,’ and the ‘how’ (what does this company do and how does it do it – my interpretation). It is evident that these six aspects, according to this website, are the building blocks to “building successful, sustainable organisations”; the level of future success is dependent upon how clearly defined these aspects are during the inception stage of the company.

Words such as: ‘mission, vision, purpose, and core beliefs’ are used in the six aspects of the heart metaphor, and it acts as a springboard for readers to be launched into clarity on the identity of the company in question. Starting with the ‘what/how’ section of the heart, mission or aim refers to the journey required to arrive at a destination, and vision or goal refers to the destination itself.

The reason why this is important, in my opinion, is because when people plan on making change (especially myself) we start by realising that something is wrong, we don’t like it, and then we focus on what to do to change it. Though action is necessary (as without action nothing will change by itself), when the ‘why,’ is ignored (‘why is this here?’ ‘Why is this an issue?’) then results will be dissatisfying; either because the goal was not achieved entirely, or the achievement of the goal didn’t provide the anticipated fulfillment.

Going back to my original question of ‘who am I?’ I decided to apply this method of defining a company’s identity to myself. ‘What is my life mission? What is the vision for my life? What is the purpose of my life? What are the core beliefs that are operating in my life?’

I pause. I look around. I realise I’m in deep, unfamiliar waters with no sign of shore in sight. I realise my nosedive into the vast sea of Google knowledge brought me so far away from land (my comfort zone), and I’ve swam so far out that I don’t even know if I’m getting any closer to land or further away. I float. Not knowing what to do with myself, I sit still, hoping some type of rescue boat is on the way to fish me out and bring me back to ‘comfort’ shore. The sound of mindless TV playing in the background. I listen. And to my surprise I’m rescued.

I am going to stop this post here simply to stress the fact that this series was produced over a matter of months, there were many episodes, many give ups and start again moments, and much doubt over the content I was writing. Nevertheless, if you join me in the next one, the moral of the story, which I believe is worth a read, is waiting for you there.

Part 3

Jumping straight back in, to my surprise, my rescue was provided by a witty comment made by the commentator of a popular dating show when he was predicting the chemistry between contestants. He said in jest, “Don’t let me down science, or I might have to give religion a try!” Though this dating show is totally unrelated, the concept of turning to science or theology for answers made sense, and so I did.

According to thenextweb.com, ‘In psychology and sociology [science], identity is a person’s conception [birth] and expression of their individuality or group affiliations’ [who you identify with]. According to Wikipedia, ‘identity is the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person.’ And according to Peter Weinreich, (paraphrased and interpreted by me) ‘Identity is the interpretation a person gives themself, of themself, in the present moment; this interpretation takes into account their past behaviours and their future aspirations.’

What makes up identity? Is it gender? Race? Personality? Talents/abilities, profession, blood type, culture? The last quotation above made the most sense to me. I interpreted it as a more wordy way of repeating a statement made by Kanye West, “you are not your mistakes”. Applying that to the topic of conversation at hand, “you are not your symptoms”. There is a difference between what you do (behaviour) and who you are (identity).

When looking at theology, science, and philosophy (which to me is a debate on the validity of the first two disciplines), my simplified conclusion is that humans have three parts to them:

  • A physical element, which can be measured through the five senses (touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing).
  • A soul element, which, similar to the wind, cannot be seen directly, but can be described and felt; for example the mind, thoughts, feelings, desires, behaviours, habits, memories, decisions. These things are not tangible but we know they are real.
  • And finally, a spiritual element, which according to Aristotle is another non-physical part of us which powers the other two elements, it can be synonymous with words such as ‘life’ and ‘essence’, and according to theology it is our ‘true self,’ which shall live on, with our soul, after physical death.

Why is this important? Dr Myles Munroe (a leadership consultant) said, “Where the purpose of a thing is unknown, abuse is inevitable.” Let me give an example. Growing up, I liked to play football. Although I wasn’t very good, I used to kick my ball around whenever I got a chance, believing I could be the next star like my peers (who were actually good) and this would often mean playing in the small back garden surrounded by many fragile items. My parents and neighbours would politely (and regularly) tell me, “go to the park, that ball isn’t supposed to be used near windows.” Of course being under 10 years of age, I thought I had accumulated more wisdom than my elders so I would continue playing until the inevitable happened, I ‘bent the ball like Beckham’ into the garage window and it smashed.

In that short tale you can see that I used my football in an environment it wasn’t designed for. The ball was made from a material that, when kicked with enough force (and imagination that it’s a game-winning shot in a tournament cup final) can inflict costly damage on fragile objects (in this case my parents’ beloved window) and therefore, for proper functionality, it needed to be used in an environment that didn’t have anything fragile nearby, I.E. a park.

I cannot speak on behalf of all travellers on the mental wellbeing journey but in my experience, though abuse has been a factor, a large chunk of my depression was fuelled from replaying constantly in my mind the negative words which were spoken over me at a young age by others. I heard it so much that I believed what was said about me, and began saying it about myself without their assistance. These people were teachers who were dismissive, work bosses/colleagues who were demeaning, friends who were users, and all these things convinced me that I didn’t belong, and I didn’t have any value; these things spoke to me about my design.

Of course I am no scientist nor doctor so I am not advocating the abolishment of medication, this is simply me sharing my thoughts, but I wonder if getting to the bottom of: who we are (identity), who designed us (source), what were we designed for (purpose), what can we use to optimise our design, (potential/capabilities) and discovering where our unique design fits in this complex construct called life (destiny/journey/mission), could help us avoid cycles, reduce stress, and better position us to attain freedom and general life satisfaction.

How? Because when something that operates the way it is supposed to, it can be enjoyed by all who use it. For example, a cup is designed to hold water; when there are no holes in it, it provides a convenient way to transport liquid from one place to another (from the fridge to my mouth). A tyre is designed to roll whilst supporting the weight of a car; if it doesn’t have any tears or holes, it can transport a person from one place to another. (I am overdue a holiday.) Using a tyre as a cup and a cup as a tyre wouldn’t be very effective!

To sum up the points made in this blog, may I submit for your consideration that perhaps an element to your struggles are found in the core beliefs you have adopted. Mine for example was that I was ‘designed to be buried under mental illness symptoms’. Personal beliefs can be formed in a variety of ways which is probably another series, but another example would be ‘football fans are unapologetically loud during games’. This belief is built on the fact that on match day, (as I live by the Aston Villa football stadium) I can hear the fans during game time. My experience in life contributed to the formation of my belief. I am not saying it is right or wrong, it is just a conclusion or an interpretation of the information I received through my five senses.

All human beings have various interpretations stored in their subconscious as they’ve progressed through life, so it doesn’t make you a bad person if you have built a negative self belief like me, it simply means that now you are aware of it, you can reevaluate it; trace it back to its inception and if you find that it doesn’t work for you then replace it with an alternate belief and to my understanding, the place to alternate beliefs on identity is the realm of theology or the realm of science.

The statement “whilst you are strong, prepare for when you are weak” made by Emmanuel Adeseko (author and mentor) plays in my mind as I write this. The idea being that high moments and low moments happen to us all for a multitude of reasons and it is wise to, as best as you can, put measures in place in advance so when the low moment comes, you are better positioned to handle it. In this case, though this content may seem irrelevant for someone who struggles to think about anything else other than their daily pain and difficulty, perhaps during those times where it’s a little bit better, consider taking small steps in the direction of answering these questions, and you may find the door that leads to lasting change.

Writing this piece has challenged me in so many ways and in all honesty I still haven’t got it all together, the information contained in this series was birthed out of the desire to ‘get it together,’ and I’m humbled at the opportunity to share my journey.

For those who feel nothing is changing in their lives despite their efforts so why try something new, I wanted to leave one final quote from a favourite music artist of mine named J Cole who released a song during this pandemic which I think perfectly addresses that feeling of hopelessness:

‘Look at freedom (from mental wellbeing symptoms) like trees, you can’t grow a forest overnight. I would say it’s more effective to treat (the mental wellbeing journey) like a child, understanding that time, love and patience are needed (for freedom) to grow.’

– J cole (writer’s edits)

These pieces are part of our writer in residence programme, and are the writer’s personal views.

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