If you want to change, get ready for a fight... right?
I've worked with hundreds of clients both in therapeutic and coaching settings who have believed and outrightly expressed to me that in order to change themselves and their behavior, they would need to gear up for battle. This perspective was always difficult for me to understand. I used to think that gearing up for a fight was admitting defeat out of the gate. It was like saying to an opponent, "I will give you my power!"
Understanding the nervous system, and being my nerdy, scientific self, it also didn't make sense based on what research shows us. You've all likely heard of the fight, flight, or freeze response. If our nervous systems are activated to the point at which we react in one of these ways, no longer are we in a state where we can learn, explore, problem-solve, or reflect. In fact, we've moved into agitation, potential resignation, and then disconnection! Many of us are always looking at our behavior and ways of being in the world, and if we were to move into each new goal with a fight mentality, we would in fact burn out. A chronic state of sympathetic nervous system activation is a maladaptive stress response!
What my clients revealed as we dug in together, and in the spirit of the fight, got deep into the trenches of our work together, was a legitimate belief that the change process would be hard. And hard demands digging in. They uncovered specific ideas, from previous experiences, about self-sabotage, and how they felt it best to counter their familiar thoughts, urges, desires, emotions, and actions. In a fight, you push back. You resist. You avoid vulnerability. Right?
I agree with some of this! A change process will be hard at various junctures. A change journey does demand or invite digging in. And, precisely because these points are true, resistance will guarantee more difficulty, more actions taken that are misaligned with one's intentions, and more frustration! In essence, it's the fight mentality that undermines the success of the changes we want to make!
But don't take my word for it. Reflect on how your personal change journeys turned out when you employed an all-out war against yourself.
I get it. Most fights start because we've noticed something that we don't want to see. We are confronted with a truth we're not ready for or don't know what to do with. We observe that an action we're taking or a way in which we're thinking has powerfully negative consequences, often impacting our relationships, our health and well-being, our jobs, etc. Often, fights start because we feel vulnerable and don't want to. This does not mean that the vulnerability caused the fight, however. The defensiveness you employed to cover up the vulnerability, the stonewalling you engaged in to look tough, and the criticism you leveled to protect from discomfort and pain is what started the fight. This means that if we change the relationship we have with vulnerability, the fight might never have started in the first place!
Change itself is vulnerable.
I'd like to tell you a story about one of my clients. Brianna (name changed for privacy) came to me with a desire to learn how to eat intuitively. She had a history of binge eating, food restriction, dieting, body image disturbances, and significant rules about food and exercise. She was also suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and would spend hours each day engaging in specific rituals not only with food (preparation, eating, cleaning up after eating) but also around her day to day activities (going to the bathroom, getting dressed, cleaning the house). All of these behaviors were robbing her of a life that felt meaningful. She was detached from her husband and children. She couldn't hold a job. She couldn't leave the house to visit her mother, go for a bike ride, go to the grocery store, or do what we both considered were normal everyday activities for most people, because her meals had to be eaten at a certain time, and her rituals had to be completed exactly the same way every day. She felt like she was in prison.
I have been coaching Brianna for over a year now. She no longer weighs and measures her food or plans every meal to be exactly the same every day. She has let go of the majority of the rituals she was engaging in. She has gone on a few vacations with her family, eating the foods they eat and choosing not to exercise. She has made significant progress and feels empowered to continue. If you asked her though, she would absolutely tell you that her process has been very hard. She would tell you that she "fights through" the urges she has, every single day, with some days or moments feeling easier than others, and overall, vastly less effortful than when we started. But she would also tell you that her "fighting through" is only possible because she has learned to soften and change her mindset about it being a fight in the first place.
Brianna is looking at each moment in which she feels tension as an invitation to slow down, take off the armor, move out of the belief that she needs to protect herself, and connect more deeply with what's inside. The fight disconnects her from herself, and her success has come because she has learned how to be fiercely compassionate toward herself.
I'd like to share with you what happens when we drop the armor. It's not a rumble that we're stepping into when we embark on a change journey; it's a reckoning. That's entirely different, as you can see from what Brianna and I wrote out together as we reflected on a single difficult moment she experienced just the other day. As a foundation, she is practicing viewing any anxiety that arises inside of her, as a cue to learn more about herself and how her mind is working. She's developing awareness of her tendencies, not so she can beat herself up about them, and start rumbling, but so she can honestly reflect and begin the reckoning.
Below, I will share Brianna's email to me, and following, you will read what we extracted from it. Please, if this feels triggering for you, because you are struggling with disordered eating or similar behaviors, take the space you need to take care of yourself. I'm offering this real-life example so you can see what the work looks like.
Brianna's Email to Me:
I am probably putting a lot of pressure on myself to do this the right way. Better pull out my journal!
I don’t want to fall back to safety all the time…
My son mentioned he would like to do hard shell beef tacos… and my husband mentioned going for pizza…Those give me some anxiety.
Does that mean I should do them?!
Also, the thought of eating more and exercising less… I have to change my mindset, and remember that would actually be a really positive amazing thing to do!
I swear, I felt like I had this in the bag 2 days ago! So inspired, no anxiety whatsoever. maybe reality hadn’t sunk in.
My husband just keeps simplifying it… And again maybe it is that simple.
“You just wake up and decide what to eat, according to whatever you feel like and then the next meal you do the same thing… if we feel like waffles tomorrow let’s have waffles tomorrow, if we feel like eggs and bacon, let’s add that!”
Maybe I should make a list of all the foods that I want and crave and start just trying them?
I mean, really, I should be indulging right now, considering I need to be gaining weight!
Perhaps changing my mindset, and really embracing that?!
This is exactly how it works... vacillating between a sense of efficacy and then uncertainty. Each time you feel powerful and positive, you take a step that serves to bolster your competence, and that bolsters your confidence. But you don't know everything, you will never know everything, so there will always be something that may feel like it is different than what you've done before. And when that happens, it's really an invitation to learn about yourself and about life. That's called reckoning. Every time, you get to know both, better and better.
You're learning in these moments which beliefs have been allowed to run the show and that you've believed for a really long time. Let's spell them out, and outline what else you could be learning from what you're experiencing. I'll share what I've observed!
1. Certain foods (i.e., pizza, tacos) are labeled as scary, off-limits, bad, or binge food. (You get to explore this now that it has so clearly presented itself. Where did those beliefs come from? Did you subscribe to them willingly? Are they beliefs you want to continue living your life by? Who did they belong to before they belonged to you? Who do they outsource your wisdom to?)
2. You equate a certain situation or thing to being the cause of anxiety. (This is not true, like we talked about before. The anxiety comes from the way you think and/or it became a habit-emotion because other emotions are too hard for you to connect with or feel. Anxiety is a way you get to avoid other more vulnerable emotions).
3. You think a lot in black and white: all or nothing, yes or no, right and wrong, cause-->effect. (No, just because you feel x does not mean you should do y. Feeling anxious is a cue / a signal for a number of things you can do. Most things, when they occur, have multiple causes and multiple effects).
4. Your beliefs around eating and exercise have a strong connection. It's a common thing to believe that because you're not moving as much, you should not eat as much. But again, that's a black and white way of looking at things, and it's more nuanced than that. Your body is recovering, and that means it needs more nourishment. It's like an athlete who is in a recovery week eating less, when that's the worst thing they can do. That puts more stress on the body, and the goal is to reduce stress and replenish.
5. You have a tendency to feel positive and inspired and then believe one of the following: a) it will continue to perpetuity, b) that it shouldn't go away, or c) that if it does go away, you've suddenly crashed and burned and have learned nothing, know nothing, and that a catastrophe has occurred.
This is not about you never feeling anxious, it's about changing your relationship with the anxiety!
6. Your husband has a certain perspective about food and choosing what to eat. That perspective might apply to all situations or it might not. It's his, and that's awesome. It's awesome for you to be presented with the ways that other people eat so you can get out of the black and white and see that there are many ways to do it!
You are recognizing that your mindset (which by definition, is the way you dedicate yourself to the way you think) is a major factor in this, and you're right, B. Changing it takes time, patience, persistence, and a lot of curiosity. It is not a catastrophe when you notice you're thinking in "old" or "familiar" ways or patterns. It's a chance for you to reassess and realign with the new way. Remember, A+ work as a C- student.
Brianna is learning how the way she thinks and acts, and the relationship she has with herself and her emotions is all about control. When she feels uncomfortable, control. When she doesn't like the emotions she's experiencing, control. When she is faced with a difficult choice, control. Control is the fight. Control is the pushing back against reality. Rather than becoming curious, slowing down, and recognizing in the moment that we really are safe and that there is no imminent danger, we start throwing punches.
Your power is not in the rumble. Your power lies in the reckoning-- your capacity to become aware of the resistance inside of you, the ways in which you have been conditioned, and the methods of protection you've employed that no longer serve you. The reckoning allows for a shift from catastrophic thinking to curious thinking, from conditioned actions to choiceful actions, and from a controlling approach to a compassionate one.
Do you recognize some important changes you'd like to make? Are you trying to strong-arm your way through those changes and need a better way?
I'm here to help. Please reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org