Thursday, July 28, 2011

Expanding the Capacity to "Choose"

In previous posts, I talked about how I think we have far less control over our behavior than we realize and that "choices" are often shaped by our past experiences. This is my offering insight and explanation of a situation that I feel is frequently misunderstood in order to judge, blame, and simplify something which is immensely complex. In this post, I'd like to offer some ways in which I believe one can break out of the pattern of choices they are compelled to make based on how I have done this (so far). This is not a fast process, nor an easy one, but it does apply to all areas of life (not just altering your relationship with food) and can lead you to gradually becoming the person you want to be through time and focused effort.

This post is essentially a summation of posts and ideas scattered throughout this blog which I feel are useful to offer in this fashion at this time. I often feel I explain problems in my posts, and it would be useful to follow up with solutions rather than assume everyone has read and digested every post I've made in the past which have such answers scattered among them. Here is what I've done:

1. Complicate the situation.

First things first, don't try to reduce simple behavior down to simple reasoning or logic. If you overeat consistently, it isn't just because you "like food too much", "lack willpower", or are a certain type of eater (stress, boredom, etc.). There are multiple factors that play into the choices you make including genetic predisposition (emotionally, in particular), personal history, present environment, and psychological well-being. If you want to change, you have to know what compels you to do what you do and understand that insight will help you untangle the knots.

It's not enough at this stage to dig for the roots of issues and discover the lame, pat answers that are popular in the media. Analyzing your overeating and saying, "I eat when I'm bored," doesn't really mean much and is not helpful in making different choices. It's important to know why you eat when bored (as opposed to doing something else), why you are bored, and how eating fulfills your needs at such times in a manner that makes it the most favorable (or indeed, only) choice for you. The problem is more likely that you're tired and seeking the most expedient, simple, and gratifying stimulation. The root cause may be being overwhelmed or exhausted, not eating while bored. Dig deep and then dig deeper about what you have unearthed. Deal with the core issues and it'll be easier to make different choices since they won't be driving the ones you are making now.

Don't assume the core is the first answer you find. In fact, it may not even be the second, third or fourth one. Sometimes tunneling down into your motivations and understanding yourself is a years-long excavation project. It is worth the time and effort because it will free you to make different choices by removing the forces motivating your current ones.

2. Analyze "failure".

Failure is seen as a crushing defeat or the indication that one is unable to change. That is not what failure to change is all about. It's the ultimate consequence of making a choice you are not capable of at this point in time. It's too much too soon, more than you can accomplish at this time, or the result of setting things up such that you can't succeed. And the "you" in this case is very personal. I may be able to do something right now that you cannot because my life, body, and mind are different than yours. That does not mean I succeed and you fail or that I am in any way "better" or "stronger" than another person. It means we have different choices that we can make at this point in time based on individual circumstances. Make the choices that are in your current ability to make and be patient.

3. Anticipate and prepare for a psychological backlash, even for small changes.

People like to believe psychology is a ridiculous psuedo-science which has nothing of value to offer "sane" and "normal" people. Part of this is because they are ignorant of the complexity of psychological study and believe it applies only to "crazy" people or deeply effected individuals. Another is that they think only serious disorders can benefit from analysis and yet one more is that they fear that people with psychological study under their belts can see things they don't want seen so they reject psychological analysis out of hand. To this I say, "grow up and get over it". If you are so entrenched in your need to be "normal" that you reject all analysis as hooey, then you probably do have an issue.

Every action in your life happens because it serves you in some fashion. That service may be quelling a rumbling belly. It may be supporting your self-esteem. It could simply be that routine and the comfort it provides stabilizes your chaotic life. If you change your behavior, there will be a backlash from your mind and/or body. Expect it. Prepare for it. Try to figure out a way to mitigate it rather than simply buck up against it and grit your teeth. Don't think simple change means simple consequences when it comes to your mental health.

4. Be hyper-mindful of identity.

Who are you? No, really, who are you? Are you your hobbies? Your body? Your relationships? Deep down, do you really know who you are? You probably do on a superficial level, but not deeply and certainly almost certainly not if you are stripped of your exterior defining characteristics. We define ourselves largely by outside factors and forces, and having an identity is something which all people require. When you start altering outside factors, you tweak your identity and the more you change them and yourself, the more you strip away your core identity. If you don't purposefully build a new one along the way, you will go running back to your old one by returning to former choices. Losing your identity is a far more unsettling experience than people realize. Is it any wonder that people find it so hard to change when they focus on superficial changes and outcomes while ignoring this larger issue? Identity issues will hamper your ability to make different choices. Even dealing with them head-on won't make it easy, but it does expand your capacity to choose differently as you won't feel compelled to return to old patterns to keep your old identity intact.

5. Go slow, but steady.

If you don't accomplish a change successfully, then move the bar rather than keep failing to get over it. If you want to get up an hour earlier but keep sleeping in when the clock goes off, stop trying to get up an hour earlier and focus on getting up 5 minutes earlier instead and think about the value of the extra time for you. Make the choices you can make at this time rather than the ones you ultimately want to make in the future and consider the ultimate repercussions of such changes rather than focus only on the changes themselves.

Psychological studies show that small changes in and of themselves are not enough to really make much of a change, but that's because those studies focus only on the small changes as an end to themselves. It's about incremental change toward an ultimate goal, not about making a tiny change and stopping. Make a small change. Make it routine. Increase the increment after you are used to the routine. However, prepare to fall apart a few times along the way. You'll be going along fine and one day you'll feel like you can't go on anymore. Pause at this point and hold until you're ready to add in another increment. Treading water when you're overwhelmed is better than snapping back into old choices which took you places you didn't want to be.

6. Drop the punitive talk and silence the judgmental voices. 

Seriously, this business of deriding yourself in order to achieve something, it's counterproductive to the point of making me wonder if the people who do it are emotionally or intellectually impaired. People who denigrate themselves in order to empower themselves to achieve are children who haven't grown past the point of needing a mommy or daddy to scold them and push them to do their homework. You don't get strong by berating yourself about how weak you are. You get strong by understanding who you are, what you are capable of and applying yourself to making small changes that you are capable of.

Be a grown up and do what can be done for now and stop thinking being an asshole, being pushy, or negative talk makes you tough or cool. It just shows how insanely insecure you are. You can't make different choices by beating yourself up about the choices you've already made. You do it by telling yourself that you can do it and choosing ones that are within your capacity to make at this point in time. If you can't free yourself from the shackles of external voices that say you need to be abused into change or tell you who you should be, then you can't make different choices in your life for good. Work on ditching all judgmental talk and just address yourself as a rational human being in a mature and measured tone.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just a follow-up to my previous post where I talk about making choices. You can make different ones, but not if you think it's a simple decision that you stick to.