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Letting Go of Stuck Habits With as Much Kindness as You Can Muster Being a health coach, I try to help my clients make positive changes in their lives. So whether a client wants to let go of their sugar habit, inject some oomph into a tedious exercise routine, or stop out-of-body-snacking (you know, “What did I just eat? ”), I want to help them do that with gentleness. Recently, a student asked me: “Don’t you worry that if you encourage your clients to cultivate self-compassion, they will just sit on the couch and make excuses for themselves? ” This is a common belief — that if we are too compassionate with ourselves, we won’t get anything done. We have to be at least a little self-critical, a little hard on ourselves, or we won’t take responsibility for our lives. Maybe the necessity of self-compassion is clear to me because I hang around yoga people who experience how much easier it is to face challenges once they have been stretched and strengthened, lovingly grounded and centered, and finally invited to rest in that pure, humming goodness that is so palpable in Savasana. Maybe it’s because I had a mom who encouraged me to be extra-nice to myself when I had a hard day.
Or because of my sister, with whom I shared a bedroom for 17 years, who set up a sickness-ritual: If one of us was sick or sad, we had groaning rights. Kira groaned more in bed than I did (she was gutsier that way), but letting her groan when she didn’t feel well felt loving and right. Plus, sometimes she’d let out a good one, and we’d both start laughing. Granted, there is the less helpful, grumbly kind of groan that can become self-pitying stuckness. I think this happens when we “tune out” or “forget” about our common humanity. We forget about our interconnections with others. We forget that others have similar difficulties, challenges, pains. We think we must be the only one who has it this bad.
And then there is is the active, self-healing, kind of groan. Acknowledgement of your sadness, sickness, or suffering is most helpful when it has an active element of self-tenderness, of wanting the best for yourself, of wanting to heal, and be at ease. When we emotionally soften toward ourselves and open up to our experience, we have compassion for others who are hurting too. The student who is reluctant to encourage self-compassion is likely afraid she will invite her patients to “get away with anything. ” She worries a patient will say: “I’m trashed today, so I will be “nice” to myself and watch three hours of cringe-worthy reality TV, and eat ice cream until I’m stuffed. ” And she’s concerned her patient will do that again and again, in the name of self-kindness. Being self-compassionate is not about repeatedly checking out to our detriment — it’s about loving ourselves up in a way that nourishes our well-being in the long-run. It’s about protecting the person we really want to be.
Sometimes cultivating well-being involves some discomfort, and we can hold that discomfort with kindness too, while we take steps to heal. Sometimes when we acknowledge and fully meet our suffering, we recognize it’s time to make a change. If we can move toward changing habits with self-compassion, it’s more likely we’ll lay down a path we can travel over the long haul. I have witnessed clients being exceptionally mean and self-critical — they think the best way to whip themselves into action is with increasing doses of guilt and shame. And it doesn’t work. What tends to happen instead is seasoned self-evasion. It becomes way too painful and scary to look at self truths because of the hateful meanie-backlash that will follow, so understandably, they don’t look, and they can’t acknowledge what is really happening, and they get stuck. Being tender with ourselves creates a safety net for the truth.
We can see what needs to change without worrying we’ll fall into a venomous pit of self-condemnation. Tuning in with support and kindness, we can look at ourselves more clearly, make conscious choices, and take constructive steps. When we cultivate self-compassion, something wonderful tends to happen. We awaken the most durable kind of motivation. We are motivated by love, and with self-love comes the desire to care for ourselves as best we can. We want to change behaviors that are causing us harm, and love ourselves healthy. It’s reassuring that loads of psychological research backs up what I have witnessed over and over with my clients: those who are self-compassionate are more likely to take personal responsibility for slip-ups than self-flagellators, are more likely to remain motivated to make long-term changes, and are more able to accept the emotional discomfort that arises when transforming entrenched patterns. Scientifically-backed, ultra-official, and certifiably-trustworthy permission granted.
If you’re having a hard day, week (or month) — you are invited to be extra-caring to yourself. You may remind yourself you’re not alone. And if you feel like it, groan out loud until you make yourself giggle. If you treat yourself with compassion, you really won’t want to groan forever. Your self-tenderness will wake up the best motivating force of all — LOVE. Hi all you shiny, flexible, strong people! Many of you found me at our “Triumph” party to express your gratitude. I’m writing in a “look-what-they-did,” very public manner, to thank each of you right back in a big, heartfelt, expansive, smiling, joyful way.
Thank-you — with all of those qualities infused! It’s been about week since you completed “40 days to Personal Revolution” and from what I’ve witnessed, you’re quaking with new found insights, connections, and deep truths. I have a hunch, too, (gleaned from the number of sparkling-sheeny eyes), that you’ve kneaded your hearts — through consistent daily practice — into ever softer, wiser, more receptive ones. Epiphany-rejoicing of the best kind! Your softness and sparkliness have inspired me to spend more time in stillness – on the yoga mat, sitting in meditation, reading good-heart-expanding-stuff, writing, and opening up to the present. I am equally roused to love more fully, hence my gratitude letter to you. I’ve heard the third time is a charm, yet this was the second time I co-guided this program with Scott, and it was revelatory! During my maiden voyage co-steering 40-days, I had this crazy confused idea that it was, at least, in part up to me, to ask a life-altering question, or say something, one thing, that would be, you know, the epic thing, to send you sailing toward your right life.
(No pressure or anything. ) So, before each meeting, I dutifully scribbled sage teachings and brilliant guidance into the margins of my class outline, just in case the opportunity arose to blow open a soul or two, catalyzing a transformation toward a deeply fulfilling life. Ok, everyone together now: Big guffaw! Still guffawing? Yeah, I am too. Looking back, I can see that this came from a place of fear, rather than a place of faith. My attempt to over-control was a kind of forgetting. I had forgotten to trust the process, and have confidence in the practices.
This time around, I let go. I trusted the practices to do their thing. My revelation: Have faith in the methods! Over the past few years, a deep sense of confidence has arisen in me, from the recognition that if we slow down, look within, become more familiar with our minds, and care lovingly for our bodies, we are more able to face all of what life delivers with an inner well of strength and freedom. It can be a freaking crazy-storm of crappy circumstances in our outer life, yet with a healthy interior state, we always have a reservoir of peace. Now, I am certain, as in no doubt about it, that no matter what might be swirling around in our outer life, there is always, at our core, a potential for flourishing. I know, too, as in no doubt about it, that we’ll never find a fast-food outlet dishing up inner freedom. We have to practice our way toward a life full of meaning.
And oh, how all of you dedicated 40 day-ers practiced! You chose to arrive on your yoga mats, six days out of seven, inhabiting your bodies, attending to your breath, and tuning inward. On the mat, in flow, you were invited to be still in motion. And yoga did its thing, as it tends to do: sensations rise and dissolve, emotions rise and dissolve, and thoughts are dropped, as the postures and the breath call for your focus. Again and again, you are invited to unhook from rambling thoughts, and allow and make space for visiting sensations and emotions. You chose to sit in meditation — twice a day for 40 days. This is a commitment in the world we live in, twittering with easy distractions and ways to escape. I could write a Whitman-esque “Song of Meditation,” but you know the song already, because you practiced.
You nod knowingly when reading the research about how meditating 20 minutes a day for 6 – 8 weeks strengthens the power of attention, reduces anxiety, and increases one’s general state of well-being. If you’ve meditated longer, perhaps you’ve found you can get disentangled from the mental static that perpetuates suffering, and find clarity and peace. This makes you happy and you can share that lovey-happy-goodness with others. You chose to give up food insta-stimulants and food insta-chill-axers, plus every possible food attachment you might have had! Breaking your food routines helped you establish more mindfulness around eating. You were invited to notice areas in your diet where the force of habit had become strong. And you practiced eating and living in ways that were conscious and creative rather than habitual. You chose to engage in weekly meetings, at the end of a work-day, and brought your authenticity to your fellow 40 day-ers.
In showing up fully each week, you created a community where there is kindheartedness, support, openness, creativity, vulnerability (and shelter), play, strength, levity, and love. I am tremendously grateful to all of you for reminding me to continue cultivating a way of being that is not so subject to patterns of habitual thinking. A way of being that is about growing in love, inner freedom and lightheartedness. I appreciate you, and I celebrate you, your dedication to practice, and your personal revolution! Methods which aim to master, reduce, challenge, eliminate, ignore, deny, or get rid of food cravings are not likely to work, and may even backfire! While, we at the FCRS recognize food cravings are single-minded and tenacious, they don’t tend to back down when quarreled with. In fact, the more desperately you try to make the cravings go away, the more they may begin to bother you. Psychologists call this cognitive ironic processing, or the “White Bear Principle,” — try not to think of something and the thing you are trying to get rid of gets more insistent, or tightens it’s grip.
It’s like when you try to get a song out of your head, and on and on it sings. So what do you do if the food cravings won’t leave? Do you have to give into them? In this situation our minds tend to spit out two choices: “I have to get rid of this craving,” or “I have to eat this now. ” This FCRS bulletin is intended to present another possibility – - one that might be more helpful and empowering in the long run. This new approach is based on simple, but very powerful magical skills, borrowed from a school of psychology called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. We’ll also be getting a little help from our colleague, Severus Snape. But first, four helpful facts about food cravings: Fact one: Food cravings are strong or intense urges to eat a particular food, often “highly palatable” foods.
These foods also tend to be high in fat and calories. Food cravings are distinguished from other urges to eat, such as those occurring in a true state of hunger, by their intensity and specificity. Intensity refers to the tendency for people to go out of their way to get their hands on the desired food. Specificity implies that only a certain food, or type of food will satisfy the craving. Fact two: Food cravings are on the rise due to dark forces that conspire to bring cheap, tasty, delectable food to the corner nearest you. You live in what social scientists call an “obesogenic environment,” which simply means food that hijacks your brain to want-want-want is available pretty much everywhere. Fact three: We are biologically wired and physiologically choreographed to want to seek out and eat calorie-dense foods. Dopamine releasing neurons rev up when a desired food is near, and powerfully promote more wanting.
Eating the craved food results in a surge of natural opioids in your brain. These “pleasure chemicals,” are soothing, reduce pain, and produce an elated high. Skip a meal, and you’ll find evolution has put a gnawing pain in your gut to keep you alive. So you can’t just NOT eat. Fact four: Strong emotional states, particularly sadness, boredom and stress are related to increases in food cravings. Humans tend to do things to avoid experiencing unpleasant emotions. We may not like having certain feelings and thoughts and sometimes we struggle with trying to make them go away. And one way some of us do that is to emotionally eat.
This appears to work in the short term, bringing on a relief of tension and a rush of biochemical pleasure. In the long term, it sets a pattern of more weight gain AND increased persistence of the emotion we are trying to get rid of! So given that food cravings are normal, natural and expected, what should you do when food cravings arise and you’d rather not act on them? While we may feel wholly at the mercy of the dopamine neurons firing in our brain, we have an inherent and uniquely human ability which can make our cravings a heck of a lot less compelling: self-awareness. “If you can get some space and distance from the craving,” says Professor Snape, “you can see that there are choices about how to respond. Just allowing the craving to exist can take away its insistence. Regardless of whatever you are craving, feeling, thinking, or experiencing internally, you have a choice over what action you choose to engage in. ” FCRS psychologists call this process of watching a craving, “urge surfing.
” Like waves, your cravings rise, and then pass away. Eventually the cravings recede — you don’t have to act upon them, or push them away. The more willing you are to get on your board and ride the craving out, the less your cravings will hook you, and the more space you’ll have to make a choice that you’ll be content with in the long run. Fortunately, Professor Snape came up with a handy acronym to help you remember how to practice these skills, so you can make choices that will help you head in a direction that enhances your life. S: Set an intention. What do you value about learning how to manage your food cravings and eat healthier? What personal qualities do you want to cultivate in the process? Set your intention to grow those qualities — whether they be persistence, focus, courage, flexibility, self-kindness, freedom, gratitude or some other personal quality.
Keep your intention at the forefront of your mind. While it might not always be easy to turn down the glazed donut twist, it feels good to cultivate the best parts of yourself! N: Notice the craving. When a craving arises, simply notice it. Step back and see it from a distance, “I see myself having a craving for a cookie right now. ” You might find it helpful to say something like, “Stepping back,” or “Watching my mind. ” A: Acknowledge the craving. The craving is here and you may not like it, or want it but you can open up to the reality that this is what you are experiencing in this moment.
You may notice feelings in your body, and you can acknowledge those too, “Here’s a feeling of boredom,” “Here’s a feeling of insecurity. ” Or you may notice judgments, “Hmm, I see my mind is busy with the same old judgments. ” Whatever cravings or feelings or thoughts your mind churns out, they are okay and don’t have to be changed or extinguished. P: Practice making space. While noticing and acknowledging, it’s normal to get hooked by a thought or a feeling, or get caught up in the intensity of a craving. Experientially, this feels like a tightening in your body. It’s like being locked in a crowded broom closet with the craving pressing on you. Imagine opening the closet and letting your cravings, thoughts and feelings roam amidst a wide open space.
In time, they’ll recede. The easiest and most direct way to do this is to bring focus to your breath and your posture. Roll back your shoulders, open up your chest, extend the crown of your head toward the ceiling, and take deep breaths into and around the strong cravings or feelings in your body. Keep breathing into the craving and you may notice, little by little, you are making more space around it. It can be helpful to say “Making space,” or “I don’t want this, but I can make space for it. ” E: Engage in what’s happening around you. Notice what you can see, hear, or touch around you. Notice your head, neck, shoulders, arms, legs.
Have a nice stretch or let out a big yawny-yawn. Continue to notice and ride the wave of your craving while simultaneously increasing your connection to the world around you. In this powerful state of awareness and engagement, you can make choices that are consistent with your health goals and values. Presto, you’ve surfed your first wave! And if you’d like to become better at riding out cravings, watch your mind trying to dissuade you from practicing… Look out for next month’s Food Craving Rescue Squad Bulletin in which we’ll give you some troubleshooting tips and another fun strategy discovered by some innovative neuroscientists!