Friday, March 11, 2011

Take Charge of Your Destiny - An Amazing Tale of Behavior Change

In another post I shared a video in which I tell a personal story about how I changed a bad habit related to my driving. It took me about two months to establish a new, safe behavior pattern, but I did it! This incident reminded me of another story in which my wife Kathleen successfully changed an ingrained driving habit. Only it didn't take her two months to replace it with a safer way of driving.

Early in our relationship, Kathleen and I lived in Miami Beach. She was a skilled driver with keen senses, finely tuned instincts and quick reactions - and experience. She had coped with the legendary traffic of Houston and Miami for over 20 years. Like every other veteran of these urban traffic wars, she had learned how to defeat the inevitable slow-downs. A banker, she had places to go and people to see, and she wasn’t about to let some “pea-brain road slug” make her late for an appointment with a client. She would head for the expressway as if going into battle.

She had a sixth sense for traffic momentum. If she saw an opening, she’d whip her Toyota into the fast lane. Also, her understanding of the Miami road system was encyclopedic. When she saw red brake lights ahead, she’d quickly change lanes to exit the expressway for a less-traveled route.

As a newcomer to the big city, I was a little unsettled by this kind of driving. It seemed to me that the risks weren't worth it, that her maneuvers didn’t save much time, if any. Once or twice I asked her not to hurry, just go with the flow. But she explained that her tactics were necessary. Also, she pointed out that I was a stranger to Miami traffic, and I didn’t understand how to drive in it.

One day she drove me to the airport, and she used her best skills to get me there a few minutes early. I knew her driving habits were deeply ingrained, but I was upset that she had put both of us at risk unnecessarily. Determined to be heard, I said: “Kathleen, you just put both of us in danger for no good reason. I can’t handle it! More than that, I’m about to get on an airplane knowing that you drive like this, and I can’t get this horrible image out of my mind, of having to identify your body, mangled by a car accident.”

When I saw the tears in her eyes, I hugged her and said. “I’m sorry I talked to you that way, but this really bothers me.” It wasn’t the kind of loving goodbye I imagined.

While I was gone, Kathleen made a list of changes in her driving practices, such as leaving early for appointments and playing Mozart on the car stereo to create a calming mood. When I returned from my business trip, Kathleen had made dramatic changes in her style of driving. During the weeks following, there were only a few lapses. She had become a safe, conservative driver. What’s more, she has continued this pattern to the present day.

I give Kathleen all the credit. Her motivation was intense - she didn't want to scare me and she didn't want to risk our lives. She committed to a completely different way of driving, and she stayed with it until it became a new habit.

Habits are hard to change, because they’re physically wired in our brains. It takes a consistent, long-term effort to change a behavior pattern. To replace a bad habit, you have to construct a new superhighway of interconnected brain cells so that the old pathway falls into disuse.

I admit that to be a safe driver, I still have more work to do. Changing a behavior pattern is never easy, no matter how beneficial it may be. Kathleen's story inspires me that if I want to change badly enough, I have the power within me to do it. She did it, which means that I can, too.

And so can you.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photo purchased from

No comments: