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From A Caterpillar To A Butterfly: What Makes People Really Change?

Dr. Lisa Lawless

Dr. Lisa Lawless, CEO of Holistic Wisdom
Clinical Psychotherapist: Relationship & Sexual Health Expert

butterfly on cherry blossomsChange & Self Awareness

Have you ever found yourself in a place where despite being acutely self-aware, you feel utterly stuck? Perhaps you feel like you've done more self-reflection than a mirror in a funhouse, but still nothing's changing.

If that hits home, don't worry—I'm here to help you crack the code on the fascinating brain shenanigans going on upstairs.

For a long time, both psychology and neurology were baffled by the mechanics of personal change. Imagine a therapy client who undergoes a profound transformation seemingly overnight. What causes that?

Previously, no one could pin down exactly what sparked this change. Today, however, we're beginning to understand the neurological underpinnings of why change happens—and why sometimes, it doesn’t.

Why Criticism Does Not Work for Long-term Change

Here’s a crucial insight: when you are overly critical towards yourself, your nervous system reacts as though it's facing a real threat. Just like it would if there were a physical danger in your environment, your nervous system goes into lockdown.

So here’s the lowdown: When you're beating yourself up, your brain gets all "Defcon 1" on you. It pumps out this stuff called neuro-adrenalin because it thinks you're under attack. It’s like your noggin’s ready to fight a dragon.

Spoiler alert: The only villain here is harsh self-talk!

Thus, being your own worst critic is kind of like hitting the panic button in your brain. It sends us into a state of mental "lockdown," making us repeat all the not-so-helpful behaviors we learned way back when. And, don't just take my word for it, there's a whole study on it, called "The Neuroscience of Self-Esteem, Self-Criticism and Self-Compassion."

Other studies show that persistent self-criticism can even undermine mental health, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also significantly hamper the effectiveness of psychological treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)​.

While this response reinforces everything that has helped you survive to this point, the irony—and indeed, the tragedy—is that the more you criticize yourself, the more you perpetuate the very behaviors you are trying to change.

What Fosters Real Change?

So, what can we do to foster real change? In studies conducted by Juliana Breines at the University of California, Berkeley, participants who engaged in self-compassionate reflections showed a greater willingness to learn from their mistakes and pursue positive changes.

You know how sometimes you’re as nice to yourself as you are to that one plant you haven’t watered in weeks? Time to flip that script. The key lies in practicing immense warmth and kindness towards yourself.

It might sound simple, but it’s profoundly effective: kindness mixed with a little 'never give up' attitude? That’s the golden ticket to a whole new you. 

It's like treating yourself as kindly as you'd treat your bestie who just messaged you about texting their ex after three glasses of wine. It's all about giving yourself a pat on the back. Those little pep talks you give yourself in the mirror? They're actually ninja moves for sparking big life upgrades.

In essence, the journey from caterpillar to butterfly is not just about change; it's about transformation. And the most impactful transformation occurs not through self-critique but through self-compassion.

So, let's go easy on ourselves and enjoy our own glow-up, like a butterfly that’s just rolled out of its snug little cocoon.

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