Two people I am close to keep me honest about how hard it can be to change. One is a smart, successful, emotionally accessible man who is overweight; the other is my smart, successful niece who writes poetry and fiction. The man wants to weigh less for health and appearance reasons; my niece wants to get more of her work published so she can justify spending more of her time doing it.
A few steps toward these goals might seem obvious: eating less, and sending more work out. My overweight friend recently made the kind of comparison most of us find easy when we’re struggling with something.
“What doesn’t make any sense is that my wife eats more than I do and she’s skinny,” he said.
“She has a completely different metabolism, and of course it’s not fair but there it.”
I left unspoken the rest of what was obvious. He still has to eat less. My niece compares herself to others who have had wonderful books, stories or poems published and still doesn’t send her work out. We probably all have similar tactics when we would like to change without having to give up old patterns.
Often we keep talking about the things that bother us, and the talk can be important, even healing, yet at some point the rubber meets the road.
For my friend, less has to be eaten, and for my niece, more work has to be sent out.
Recently at the end of one of our discussions, my overweight friend said, “It’s just hard to believe that the gunk inside of me can be stronger than my impulse to be healthy.” He said that so forcefully and graphically that I imagined a balancing scale with the gunk on one side and the healthy desire on the other. Then I changed the image to forces tugging on a person because people often talk about feelings as forces that they feel compelled to obey or run from.
If the gunk is stronger the person stays in place and doesn’t change behavior, if the healthy impulse is stronger, the person changes, moves forward at least a step. That’s part of the emotional work I see a lot of people do: strengthening the impulse to change and move forward. Few of us like it that significant change is a step by step process. We’d rather the idea of some mind- blowing realization that transforms us. The trouble with wonderful insights is that they still have to be put into practice.
These days, there’s a lot written about our chemistry, neurons and brain patterns but I think the way people speak about feelings is more relevant to how we experience trying to change. Acting against a compulsion to eat can feel like acting against a very strong force. “I can’t stand my anxiety,” my friend says, “and food just brings me such immediate comfort.” He’s right that no matter how much insight he gets, he probably will have to stand at least a bit more anxiety and lack of comfort. Another friend, a psychiatrist recently said, “anxiety has gotten bad press; I think it needs a public relations campaign. Win strength through tolerating anxiety and changing behavior.” It’s going to be a hard sell.
Often the behaviors that we want to change have become the pathways we use to avoid certain feelings.
Anyone who has coaxed and stood by a friend trying something different and difficult could try to be more understanding of his or herself taking one step forward and two steps back. and then two steps forward and one back, and then three forward and four.
At some point in the future, it can seem like it was easy; the climb up the mountain is forgotten and the climber is excited about what lies ahead.
People look back and say, why didn’t I do that years ago.