How many times have you struggled with a decision, knowing exactly what the right option was, only to find yourself unconsciously and irresistibly drawn in the other direction? Even when armed with facts, persuasive statistics, or solid reasons, why does the desire to make good choices so often create resistance?
This type of dilemma occurs over and over again regardless of how well our minds know what we should do. Many of us wrestle with intense longing for something more in our lives…yet still keep choosing the same unhelpful behaviors. For me, the struggle came most often in my attempts to lose weight through dieting. I spent years searching for a flawless strategy that would help me drop my post-pregnancy pounds.
I read every book, purchased every program, and knew all the diets inside and out. I could recite any stance on macronutrients, meal plans, or healthy foods. What I couldn’t do was actually stick with any diet or nutritional philosophy. Vegan, raw food, paleo, mindful eating…I tried them all.
It wasn’t until I questioned my overeating patterns that I managed to start making choices which nourished my body and soul. This isn’t a post on weight loss or finding the “perfect program.” Rather it’s about taking a deeper look at behaviors that are sabotaging your dreams and goals.
I could setup any plan, buy the right ingredients, and prepare perfectly healthy meals. Yet I always seemed to end up face first in the snacks and sweets—often enough to wreck my efforts. I spent decades yo-yo’ing through the same fifteen pounds, moaning about my lack of self-control and bashing myself for failing at the one thing I desperately wanted.
Until I finally got curious about how my overeating was helping me.
Through lots of reading and self-searching, I’ve come to understand that human beings don’t choose to sabotage ourselves on purpose. Our unhelpful behaviors often have a reason for their existence. When we first adopted them, they most likely provided a useful solution to a problem. The trick is to make an honest inquiry about what benefit you are receiving from your unhealthy or limiting choices.
For me, I came to realize that I ate in response to my emotions. Stress from a busy day with too much to do? Snack. Frustration when the kids are pushing all my buttons? Sweets. Sadness about not following my passion or contributing professionally the way I longed to? Cheer myself up with a glass of wine.
All the calories added up, and for a long time they obliterated the truth of what I was doing. I was choosing to push my painful emotions down with food and alcohol. Not enough to spiral out of control—I only drank socially and wasn’t morbidly obese—but often enough to avoid feeling anything. Carrying around the extra pounds insulated me not only from experiencing my negative emotions (a temporary good thing), but from processing and healing those experiences (a poor long term solution).
How is it these undesirable patterns become so entrenched in our lives? Usually it’s because at one point they genuinely worked for us, instead of against us. Unwanted habits may have once helped, or developed out of coping strategies from our childhood.
When I examined the origin of my struggle with weight—both the physical burden and the constant mental chatter—it began around the time of my first pregnancy. I almost didn’t need to ask the question of why I started stuffing my feelings with food or how this habit benefitted me.
You see, five months into my pregnancy, in the midst of painting the nursery with Pooh Bear stencils and picking out baby names, we received the unexpected news that our child had spina bifida—a life-long medical condition with an uncertain prognosis.
We devoted weeks to seeing doctors, having difficult conversations, and considering impossible choices. A month later, I underwent experimental maternal-fetal surgery, knowing it wasn’t a cure, but hoping and praying it would give our little girl her best shot.
For the next three months, which I spent mostly on bed-rest, I had ample opportunity to worry (and eat) over all the possibilities of what might come next. Every time my monitor recorded more than the safe number of contractions per hour—I would bury my anxiety with a snack…or two. Every time I worried over whether our daughter would ever walk—how about some ice cream, there’s calcium there! Every time I stared into the vast unknown of what the future would look like for my family—I pushed those uncomfortable feelings away with food.
In the short term, those behaviors helped me survive an unbelievably scary and uncertain time. They gave me the sense that I was nourishing my child and at the same time protecting my fragile heart. The only problem was…my emotional eating didn’t end once I held my beautiful baby girl in my arms.
There were lots of other stressful moments in our lives…therapies in order to meet milestones, multiple surgeries, and insurance battles. My subconscious mind remembered how eating had helped in the past, and it just kept urging me to return to the food. So I did, because hey…for a little while, it had worked. In the long term, though, I longed to break free from the daily struggle with my weight.
A huge aspect of parting ways with these unhelpful behaviors is understanding how they got started in the first place. And recognizing where you continue to benefit from poor choices frees you to seek out better options.
Once you’ve made these inquiries and listened for your answers, finding your next SMALL STEP just takes one more question:
Can you thank the part of yourself that has been looking out for you…
WHILE acknowledging it’s time to find another way that doesn’t cause harm or sabotage your goals?
I’ve acknowledged that my over-eating wasn’t a failure, a lack of self-control, or something to be ashamed of. I realize it was my own way of sheltering my heart against painful moments—those real and immediate, as well as the terrifying, imagined ones.
So my SMALL STEP was to seek out the space to open up and feel my emotions, while offering myself the compassion, strength, and peace necessary to meet my fears.
I invite you to read through the post What Are You Afraid Of? if you haven’t already, to recall my four step method of moving past fear. This can help you see what’s holding you back from acting in the interests of your Highest Self.
When you find yourself staring down a choice, not wanting to act in a manner that you know is in your best interest, take some time to assess the benefits of how your behaviors are serving you. Consider other options, ones which might fulfill those needs in gentler, healthier ways.
I can attest the alternatives won’t seem easy at first—those old, ingrained behaviors are your default for a reason. However, knowing how those bad habits developed, and how they serve you as well as harm you, will make it easier to drop the struggle and see your best choices clearly.
My daughter recently graduated from high school and has a bright future ahead. I still worry about her though. Every single day. But I don’t eat over it anymore. I feel the worry, and experience the fear.
And then I feel deeper and find the love. Embracing that makes the discomfort bearable. Every single time.
So keep looking at those situations where you endeavor to do the “right” thing. Your choices might never be easy, but your decision doesn’t have to be such a painful struggle.