Behavior, not thought, is the key to change

Conventional wisdom tells us that if we want to change a behavior we must first change our thinking.  However, that wisdom turns out to be incorrect, according to a new theory.


Behavioral Activation is a relative newcomer to the field of psychological theory. The central idea behind Behavioral Activation is this: Change the way you behave and you will change the way you think.


Authors Dr. Michael E. Addis and Dr.  Christopher R. Martell make the point in their Behavioral Activation workbook that we do not have control over the thousands of thoughts that tirelessly create our daily mind chatter or the feelings those thoughts produce.  Yet, we do have considerable control over our behaviors, many of which are influenced by the past.


“Your past is extremely important in shaping who you are now.  However, the quickest way to remove the effect of the past is to begin to act differently,” say Addis and Martell in Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time.


Because we do have control over our behaviors, changing them is the most effective means of generating the change we desire in our lives.  Though the workbook is devoted to the treatment of depression, I have found that it is a powerful tool for my clients suffering from a wide range of issues including relationships, addiction, anxiety, and negative habits.


The reason for that is simple.   It is our behaviors that impact other people and ourselves, not our thoughts.  Thoughts are hidden until they are expressed in our actions.  And our actions are behaviors.


But in order to change a behavior, we must first be aware of it.  One of the reasons why I believe in the power of relationships is that we are often unaware of our behaviors and the impact they have on others.  We need other people because they are like mirrors that allow us to see the effects of our behavior.


The importance of other people in promoting self-awareness is reflected in Addis and Martell’s three principles of behaviors.

  • Much of your behavior is so automatic that it occurs outside of your awareness.
  • You do much of what you do out of habit.
  • To change behavioral habits, you must first recognize the behavioral pattern, so you can know when and what to change.


For those of you who have come to this blog post from the recovery community, you have often heard in AA meetings the saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”


The idea here is that we act our way into different thinking.  And this is also true of our feelings.  Psychologists tell us that we feel our thinking.  So changing a behavior can have a profound effect not only on our thinking but also our feelings.


Although our past has been a crucial element in shaping who we are in the present, it doesn’t mean that we must become acutely aware of everything that happened to us since we were kids.  This is why life coaching has advantages over traditional therapy.  Life coaches typically work from the present to the future rather than from the past to the present.


“Change does not require that you develop complete insight into the workings of your childhood but only that you begin to learn new ways of being an adult,” say Addis and Martell.


One of the greatest hurdles that we need to surmount in addressing change is the incessant message our Western culture speaks to us: that we must feel motivated in order to accomplish anything, including change.


Addis and Martell make the observation that when we wait to feel motivated to do something we often avoid it.  And avoidance is one of the greatest contributors to stress and bouts of depression.  Motivation is not our natural starting point for accomplishing tasks.  Instead, motivation is the result of first undertaking a task, including the task of changing our lives.   Put in the effort and the motivation will follow.


Avoidance can take on subtle forms.  Worry is one of them.  When we worry, we distract our minds from dealing with strong feelings of sadness. “Often the more you avoid experiencing negative feelings, the longer the negative feelings remain,” according to Addis and Martell.


For those of you who are in recovery, you are keenly aware how our addictions numbed us out to issues in our lives that could only be addressed by change.  We became experts in avoiding anything that created discomfort.  And change so often involves the discomfort of uncertainty.  As a result, our problems piled higher and higher, and we became sicker and sicker.   Sadly, some of give up,  preferring  the certainty of misery over the misery of uncertainty.


For those of you inspired to change, Addis and Martell came up with fitting acronym for putting Behavioral Activation into effect:  ACTION.  And here’s how to apply it:


A = Assess your mood and behavior.

C = Choose alternative behaviors.

T = Try out the alternatives.

I =  Integrate these changes into your life.

O = Observe the results.

N = Now evaluate whether to keep the behavior or choose another alternative.


In parting, there are no guarantees that when we change our behaviors that the results will be the fulfillment of our fantasies.  We cannot control how people will respond to the changes we make.  But heartening to me is that our behavior is one of the things that we do have control over.  By asking those in our lives to help us identify the behaviors that are creating suffering for us and others, we can put into action the change that can transform our lives for the better.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, spiritual life coach