The other day when I was reading the chapter on change in The Rules of “Normal Eating” I had a tragicomic recollection of my first major breakup. I was 19, struggling with depression, and despite the fact that I had caused this breakup, I was utterly devastated. I sobbed in the middle of a lecture on the ecology of crops. I whimpered to my mother over the phone that I didn’t think I could keep living. But at some point, I became very tired of myself. I went to a book store and picked up a self-help book.
I was super excited about this book and felt like it contained the keys to being happy in life. I went from feeling completely miserable to feeling exuberantly joyful in a single day. Of course, I felt like I needed to tell my ex all about it, to somehow prove to him that I could be a better version of myself than the one that he endured. He was patient with me at first, but at some point he snapped and told me that he was sick of me being a “living, breathing self-help book.” It sounds harsh, but I deserved it. I mistreated him and then lectured him on taking control of his own happiness. Seriously.
His words knocked me right back on my butt. I struggled to remember all the empowering words I had read. My returning misery seemed to prove that I hadn’t changed at all, and thus began a cycle that became very familiar. First, become unbearably miserable. Then, decide to make a change. Next, become euphoric about the perceived change. Inevitably, at some point, the change becomes challenged. Then, the illusion of change crumbles. Back to the beginning.
Anyone who’s been on a diet (or twenty) will be familiar with this cycle. You are so tired of yourself that you become desperate enough to start on a diet. At first you are full of enthusiasm, following all the rules to a tee and telling everyone how great you feel (or how miserable but at least virtuous). But of course it falls apart at some point. You deem yourself lazy and incompetent and give up on your diet. You feel worse than if you had never attempted the diet in the first place.
It took me a long time to figure out why I kept repeating this cycle, but I eventually realized that I simply did not understand the nature of change. Over time I’ve come to understand that true, lasting change requires the following:
- Patience: Like it or not, your behaviors reflect your identity. When you try to make a major change too quickly, you risk an identity crisis. Changing at a moderate pace allows you to feel safe and sane.
- Determination: When you’re driving somewhere, you generally don’t give up until you reach your destination. You may need to pause sometimes and reroute, or you may need to change your destination, but you don’t just give up and stop trying to go anywhere if things aren’t working out they way you hoped.
- Self-compassion: If beating yourself up made you grow, you’d be a giant by now. Having self-compassion and being kind and gentle with yourself, is essential to growth and meaningful change.
- Curiosity: One way to avoid beating yourself up is to view your behaviors with curiosity rather than judgment. Under every undesired behavior is a limiting belief. Every thing we do is for a reason, but often not the reason we immediately suspect. True change involves uprooting limiting and illogical beliefs and replacing them with rational and helpful beliefs.
What does this look like in action? Here’s an example: You notice that you regularly eat past the point of fullness at restaurants. You decide to figure out why. Through repeated gentle inquiry you name and notice the limiting beliefs that cause this overeating. Perhaps there is a part of you that believes that leaving food on your plate is wasteful. Later you realize that you also feel like you should be eating if others at the table are still eating, in order to have a sense of belonging. One by one, you challenge these beliefs and practice reminding yourself that the purpose of eating is for you to feel satisfied. While you are in the process of changing, you still sometimes overeat at restaurants, and when you do, you take the time to figure out why. You feel compassion for your struggle. Over time you notice that you overeat less and less, until finally you stop altogether.
Another challenge is that we often don’t realize how big and complicated our goal is. Becoming an intuitive eater, for example, is a huge goal. It absolutely cannot happen all at once. As a coach, part of my job is to help you break down your big goals into smaller sub goals. Then, I help you think realistically about how you can begin working towards those goals.
This isn’t easy for most of us because we’re surrounded by absurd media messages. “Get a flat belly by doing this one simple thing!” “Lose weight instantly with no effort!” “End your insomnia forever in 3 simple steps!” Before you take on a goal, ask yourself: “When I think about doing this, how do I feel?” If you feel scared, overwhelmed, anxious, elated, excited, or any other strong emotion, you’re probably biting off more than you can chew.
If thinking about taking on a new goal feels a bit different, maybe a bit challenging, but pretty reasonable, you’re much more likely to be successful, which builds up your sense of self-efficacy (“I can make things happen!”) If you didn’t meet your goal, it’s an opportunity to learn about your hidden limiting beliefs (we always have a reason). If you did meet your goal, you give yourself a high five and start forming your next goals.
The more you practice this effective change process, the easier it gets, and you’ll find yourself able to make major life changes. I get seriously excited when my clients reach the point where they’re masters at creating and accomplishing their goals. When you’re still learning to to do this, it’s not quite as exciting as the empty promises you get from sensationalist media, but it’s real and it works.