Changing our habits can be one of the most frustrating battles in life. When other people get involved, this frustration is amplified by our friends, loved ones, employers, or doctors’ own bafflement at our failed attempts to “just” change.
Just stop drinking. Just stop eating too much. Just start flossing everyday. Just be on time. Just stop biting your fingernails. Just write a blog entry every week. Just exercise regularly. Duh.
Despite all logical attempts by others or ourselves to guilt, bribe or otherwise coax us towards (or away from) particular behaviors, we can’t seem to get with the program. And then comes the shame. The feelings of worthlessness. Hopelessness. What’s the use?
Because of my particular interest in working with food and body issues I’ve learned a lot over the last several years about eating mindfully. The idea is by slowing down and paying attention to what you’re eating (not eating in front of the TV) you’ll be more in touch with what your body needs, you’ll enjoy each bite more, and you’ll know when to stop eating. Sounds smart, doesn’t it? So why can’t I just eat mindfully all the time? Wouldn’t I feel so much better if I just ate mindfully?
If only it were that simple. Today I read another article on mindful eating and a little voice popped in that said “why can’t you do this?” Actually, I’d put off reading the article for almost a week. I realized that in my resistance to reading about mindful eating, I was playing out some of my resistance to doing mindful eating. Reading the article became another reminder of my failure to do this “simple” thing that would make me so much healthier.
I know we can and do change. Here’s why I think we can’t just change--why change is ridiculously hard sometimes. What doesn’t get acknowledged enough is the loss involved in giving up the status quo. If I were to start eating mindfully all the time, I would have to give up eating in front of a TV show, an activity that I now know provides me with a kind of comfort and pleasure I’m not sure I’ll find elsewhere. And while I intellectually know what I would gain and that the benefits outweigh the costs, I don’t always deeply trust that the needs I am addressing with my current behaviors can be met in some other way. So why would I give that up?
In addiction recovery, relapse is expected. It’s actually widely accepted that relapse is part of recovery. Going cold turkey after 10 years of heavy drinking with no other supports in place is definitely a setup for relapse. But even with all the supports in place, relapse is almost inevitable as you face the world without your most trusted tool for coping. Finding new tools you know you can rely on takes experimenting, messing up, and lots of time.
Change is uncomfortable because it means loss and uncertainty. No matter how blue the skies of the future look, something is left behind. And you don’t know for sure where you will end up. So here’s some tips for navigating change:
1. Find a part of you that can be patient and compassionate, like a loving parent helping a child learn to walk.
2. Find external support that is patient and compassionate.
3. Set boundaries with the people around you whose words only leave you feeling discouraged and ashamed.
4. Set boundaries with the voice inside of you that leaves you feeling discouraged and ashamed.
5. Remember that learning requires making mistakes.
6. Mourn your losses. No matter how destructive your habit or addiction has been, it developed for a reason. It was trying to help and in many ways it did.
7. Find a therapist to help you with all of the above. Individual, group, couples, and family therapy can all serve to support you in building the awareness and inner resources necessary to create lasting change.
You can do it. But you probably won’t just do it and that’s OK.
Most of these posting are excerpts from my podcast A Therapist Walks Into a Bar and articles I've written for Psyched in San Francisco Magazine I credit my words with the teachings of many people in my life, from authors I've read to friends, family, colleagues, and clients. These words represent my interpretation and synthesis of the things I'm learning. Topics vary but inevitably come back to the same thing: building awareness around how we interact with ourselves and the world around us.