Shifting from a state of control, to a healthy commitment
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
°12 september 2022, the deeper nature of changing behavioural patterns
So this whole past month of august has been about regulating my food-intake, I'm only talking about the ingredients, not the amount. That was the deal, a bit like a parent raising a child: the parent decides what the ingredients are, the child decides how much it wants to eat. I joined a 30-day challenge and decided to -for 30 days- say a radical no to all sorts of temptations, going from my beloved morning coffee to the embrace of an early evening glass of wine, the comfort of a piece of chocolade or the delight of ordering a very decadent dessert.
Admittedly it wasn't that far removed from how I was managing my food-intake before. The biggest obstacle for sticking to 'the healthy choices' -in my current idea of health, those are the unprocessed foods and the ones without, or with the least 'anti-nutrients'- were sociale occasions or eating outdoors. Each of them serving me with an excuse to have something, something that I know I'm going to have to pay the price for in the future, but now... Well sometimes now seems to be the only thing that matters. I'm the first to praise mindfulness, though this has nothing to do with that I'm afraid, this is quite the opposite, these are our impulses ruling over our kingdom.
Coffee was the only thing -on that list of forbidden fruits- I did have in my daily routine, no one had to convince me of that, that was all me. One, two, three cups of espresso -with a dash of coconut cream- in a day. Might seem little to you, but to me the third was enough to become slightly nauseous and a tad jittery. Then why have it? Well yeah, excellent question, why do we keep on having those things, even though we might even feel very bad afterwards, even though we 'know' with our rational mind they're no good to us.
Why do we?
Ask 5 different experts and they'll give you 5 different answers, all based on their own field of expertise and probably also their own experience. Mine will therefore be focused on the psychology of it all, and mostly on my own direct experience and the shared experiences of my clients.
You might wonder what motivated me to change my diet over the past few years and what motivated me to eat very strict over the whole month of august. I could give you a lot of good reasons, going from wanting to feel energetic and wanting to take care of my body. Wanting to know what they meant when saying 'radical health' and 'thrive'. Wanting to clear my skin of imperfections. Hoping to lose some excess weight. Wanting to up my athletic performance. Wanting to see how it would effect my overall mood. Though I think, most of all, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
That I am fully in charge of what goes into my mouth and what not.
That I am in this way, fully present.
So yes, I was pretty motivated to stay on track and to see what would happen.
It wasn't as miraculous as I had imagined, then again, our reality is often a bit more humble than our 'hollywood-inspired' imagination. However that made me all the more proud, proud for pushing through, even in the absence of miracles. I was proud to be, for once, the person at the table not drinking any alcohol, not having fries or pizza or ice-cream and not having to feel the nausea, going hand-in-hand with a good portion of guilt, afterwards. That was nice, that in itself made it worth it.
The biggest surprise was this: around the midpart of the month I had a pretty 'severe' -not the worst ever, but quite nasty nevertheless- episode of acne. For me, my skin is the most noticeable part of my body that will signal, something is up (for another it could be the gut, energy levels, getting sick often, etc). So my skin, being quite troubled and sensitive -funnily enough that would be a perfect description of myself to some extent- started to react quite visibly. It was definitely -at least to some extent- hormonal, that was clear. But our hormones are influenced by a lot of things, one of them being food. So I would've expected that my skin, aside from the occasional toleratble pimple, would stay clear. But it didn't. It felt almost as if it was laughing at me, saying: hah, you thought you could fully control me. Think again.
Also, even more striking: I was relatively fine with it. Now, that was completely new to me. The thing is, this time, I knew I couldn't really blame myself for it -which in the past I most definitely would've. I would've rehashed -in my mind- all the potentially 'bad' food I had eaten beforehand and guilt-trip myself over it. And now I couldn't, I had done nothing -that I could think of- to cause this myself. It was a strange relief. It's still no fun you know, I'm 34 years old, and I'm wanting to tell the universe: this was not the deal!
I had once asked my mom, as a struggling teenager, until what age she had had pimples. I needed some perspective, an ending point. I don't remember her exact answer, but I can tell you, it wasn't 34. It was however too far away to accept. And so at the age of 16 I started taking the pill - not because I had a boyfriend nor was ready for sex - but because a friend of mine took it too and she had no more pimples, and at age 16 that's really all I cared about, that was probably -in my perspective then- also the only way to ever have a boyfriend and/or ever have sex. So maybe if I hadn't done that, my skin would have had the chance to grow out of it. But I took the easy way out for 10+ years and now it seems to be biting me in the ass. Okay wait... I just realized, I'm guilt tripping myself again.
This shows exactly how sneaky our mind can be in proving itself right. Even if I did nothing 'wrong' now, I probably did something 'wrong' in the past that caused this. What a jerk sometimes. At the same time, and I've had a lot of conversations with clients about this: it probably serves us something. As a behavioural therapist, I got trained in raising the question: what's the function? Our mind is doing something, and the things we do repetitively, usually have a benefit of some sort. They serve a purpose. At least in the short term. So what the hell could be the benefit of searching for someone or something to blame?
Before you read on, just think about this for a little while for yourself. What would be the thing that you gain from thinking: it's either my fault, or the other persons fault or society's fault, or foods fault, or whatever you might be pointing your finger towards when you're struggling?
The most significant one to me is this: it feeds our need for control.
Because if it's someone's fault, if there's a clear-cut cause for our troubles, we feel in control. If only that terrible boss leaves my life, or if only I stop eating chocolate, or if only I move to another country. Not that there's not much to be gained by making those changes, though if it's full control your aiming for, you'll be disappointed. My own life-experience, and the 10+ years of clients I've seen, is enough to spare you the trouble: there's no such thing.
Coming back to the example of nutrition. Is it important to regulate our impulses when it comes to our food-intake? Yes, surely it is. Is there a major connection between nutrition and our overall health? Yes, definitely! There's more and more evidence of the gut-brain-connection, which makes it very relevant in managing mental health just as much as physical health.
Should we therefore approach and manage our nutrition in a radical way?
Well... for the most of us, I don't think that will serve us with a sustainable strategy. I've witnessed the trouble this can cause up close in the years I worked in a centre treating people with addictions. I've seen the friction between radical anti-drug policies and those it was meant to be 'helping', only causing them more trouble with law enforcement, their relationships, more shame and more guilt. You might think, well that all doesn't apply to me, I'm not prone to any addiction. Well, I would, on the first sight say the same. I've done my share of experimenting and it in fact did not lead to any addiction.
But it does become interesting for a lot of people when they have to say 'a radical no' to: sugar, dairy, glutens, carbs, cafeïne, their occasional glass of wine, chocolate, a shopping spree or let's not forget: our phones (and other screens). Would we say again then, that we are not at all prone to any addiction? It might be interesting to realize, we're all to be put somewhere on this continuum of 'addiction' to some extent, as we all have impulses, and we don't have full control over all of them at all times.
What happened to me, now, was this: I said a radical no for 30 days. And then in the first 5 days that followed, I found it very very hard to say no to just as much anything 'bad'. It's as if my 'no-power' was completely depleted. Am I proud for holding on for 30 days? Yes. Did I afterwards reward myself with those things I was saying no to. Also yes. Which is a bit of a wicked thing to do, is it not? The thing that kept me going when times got tough, was the knowing that there would be a day, in the near enough future, that the stretcher was going to come off again. Maybe if my moms answer, to the question, how long am I going to have to deal with these pimples, would've been "30 days" I wouldn't of felt the need to solve it with meds.
But so I must say, the thing I've learned - either from my own experience, or from my clients- is that radical stops, enforced by outside influences, can on the one hand be exactly what we need to take a u-turn and on the other, they can be exactly the thing that bites us in the ass afterwards. It's as if the power we use to fight something, comes back -like a boomerang- to hit us in the face.
It's very strange on the one hand. Yet at the same time it makes perfect sense to me. It's a bit like an elastic band, what happens when you stretch it and then let go?
Yes, you know the pain.
However, we should also admit this: afterwards its shape might've changed. It expanded. So is it then a bad strategy? Well no, aslong as you see it for what it is and realize that it's by no means a life-philosophy in itself. We shouldn't build our lives upon not-doing certain things, not-seeing certain people, or eating certain foods in this case. We should rather be more concerned about those things we do want.
So I think, whether we're talking about food, or any other habitual pattern that you're trying to change for the better, we should view it as a circle. Not as a straight line that goes from A to B. It's as if we'd be travelling the earth, going in a full round circle. And thus, ending up right where we started, isn't abnormal.
The biggest advice I have for you is this: don't be discouraged when you realise: you're right back at the start. Be happy! This is -exactly- how change works. This is exactly the sign that you are on track. This isn't a sign of failure, this is the nature of changing patterns. It's the nature of any true accomplishment in our lives, falling and getting back up; over and over. The willingness and the patience to stick to it anyway. To keep on learning and returning, over and over. A bit like my handstand-practice, some days I'll think its utterly useless, but that's because I'm not really paying attention to the overall process.
The deeper nature of changing deeper behavioural patterns is this:
We are reminded of a value
We decide to make a change
We undertake inspired action
We stay on track for a little while
We fall into a pitfall
We realise what has happened
We decide to come out of the hole
We undertake -once more- inspired action, this time tweaked a bit by our experience, by what we've learned the previous rounds.
We do this
And we never, play the blame-game. Guilt trips belong to the past. In the present there's only our direct experience that interests us. We see ourselves as part of a bigger context, constantly responding to a bigger context. Every setback is something you needed to learn in the process.
and stay curious.
That's the recipe for commitment. It has nothing to do with being in full control. On the contrary. It involves accepting that you're not and still staying committed to your cause, in this case quite an important one, your own wellbeing.
And that's also exactly why I tell, pretty much every client, at some point, that they should build a meditation-practice. Because all of the above is exactly what you'll learn whilst meditating, and if you're unsure about this, let me know. I'd happily write about this in a future post.
But so I hope, if you're reading this post, because you're wanting to make a change, that you can take something with you. Maybe not the exact content of your strategy, because that can be highly personal, but mostly an attitude.
An attitude formed by the knowing that healthy commitment has nothing to do with full control.
All the luck with smashing a couple of outdated habits to the curb!