The hidden influence of competing commitments.
If simply understanding what it takes to create a happier life were enough to achieve that goal, reading a book, listening to a tape, or watching a DVD would be sufficient for any person seeking this goal. As many of us have noticed, however, knowing what to do isn't necessarily enough to get the job done. "I know what to do, so why don't I just do it?" is one of the most frequently asked questions that we get from clients and students in our workshops. It's puzzling to many of us that although we may believe that we know what life changes will make us happier, we often cannot bring ourselves to make them.
Newton's third law of motion applies to this situation. It reads: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body. Substitute the word "desire" for "body" and you have the answer to this mystery. For every desire that we have for some form of a change in our lives, there is a corresponding degree of resistance to change that arises from the all-too-human tendency to maintain the status quo. Even changes that we see as positive or that will result in improvements of our current situation will be met with resistance which will often sabotage a conscious intention to make things different than they have been.
While the desire for change is something that we are aware of, there is a counter desire that we may not be aware of to prevent change, regardless of what it is. When we fail to recognize and understand our attachment to the status quo, it is easy to become frustrated or angry with ourselves, others, or the circumstances that we believe are in the way. This anger often gets directed inward and when it does it amplifies our resistance. This begets greater resistance, which generates a vicious cycle and... well, you get the picture.
Consider this example: Phyllis had been looking forward to a friend's party. When trying on a dress that she had planned to wear to the event she found that she was no longer able to fit into it. "That did it," she told us. "That was the day I made the commitment to lose thirty pounds. I had been feeling unhappy about my weight for years, but simply living with it, hoping that something would just happen and I'd lose it. I think you call that 'magical thinking.' Anyway, on the day that I couldn't get into that dress, I decided that I had to do something. Now.
I knew what I had to do that would help me to lose the weight. It was simple: take in fewer calories and burn more. I know what kinds of food I needed to eat and what quantities would be appropriate. I also knew that I had to join that health club I'd been promising myself I would join, and maybe even get a personal trainer, at least for a while. I was totally psyched and motivated enough to finally do what I knew it would take to keep that promise to myself. Or so I thought."
You can guess the rest of the story. Phyllis started strong, with high hopes, and made many of the changes that she told herself she would make. She even got herself a personal trainer. And for a few weeks things went well, and then she started to slip. About a month into her program, she started skipping some of her scheduled workouts. Then she stopped working with her trainer. She started finding reasons to go off of her healthy eating program. "I kept making exceptions and justified them with excuses like, 'It's just this time or it's a special occasion, or just one or two won't hurt or I've worked hard, my life isn't easy. I deserve a little pleasure once in awhile.' I'm a master in the art of making excuses."
It turns our that most of us are equally adept at excuse-making, particularly when our conscious intention comes in direct conflict with our hidden commitments. Through diligent self-inquiry, Phyllis was able to discover the nature of the competing commitments that were diverting her energies from her conscious intention. "There was a part of me that wanted to keep the weight on because some how I felt more protected, safer with more meat on my bones than when I was thin. It also felt like a way of being closer and more connected to my mother who has struggled for her whole life with her weight. I also saw that I was judging myself as being self-indulgent and irresponsible for focusing so much time, energy, and money on my health and appearance when 'the world is filled with so many people whose problems are much bigger than yours,' Another "momism" that my mother drilled into my head while I was growing up."
As it became clearer to Phyllis that her inability to do "what I knew I needed to do" was not a function of stubbornness, laziness, or ignorance, she became more able to uncover her true source of her "resistance." As she did, she found herself feeling less critical towards herself. In feeling more accepting and understanding of her situation and of the bind that she saw that through no fault of her own, she found herself in, Phyllis's feelings towards herself shifted from frustration and anger to compassion and forgiveness. Her self-compassion made it easier for her to be more forgiving of herself for being a "failure" in the weight-loss Olympics which allowed her to ease up on her self-judgments, which relieved her of some of the weight of the pressure that she had been putting on herself.
"I just got clear that I wasn't willing to keep torturing myself with threats that no one would like or respect me if I was overweight and decided that I would accept myself even if they didn't, even if I didn't lose the thirty pounds." Then a strange thing happened. Phyllis found herself losing weight. Not despite the fact that she had decided to stop trying so hard to lose it, but because she had.
"I've stopped beating myself up, and that habit had made me feel heavier than my body weight ever did."
It is in our nature to resist change, and it's in the nature of the world that things change. A conflict is inevitably set up when we consider any kind of change in our lives, even if it seems to be one that is for the better.
When we uncovering our competing commitments we ease the pain that comes from punishing ourselves with angry self-talk, a practice that often fuels the suffering from which we seek to free ourselves through our efforts to change. Change is possible but it rarely comes from judging, coercing or criticizing ourselves with hurtful judgments directed at ourselves. Paradoxically, we are more predisposed to transform negative behavior patterns into positive ones when we stop trying to change ourselves and instead bring greater acceptance and compassion into our lives.
"Miraculous" things can happen when we bring compassion and greater understanding to our relationships, including our relationship with ourselves. Try it and see.
Linda and Charlie Bloom are excited to announce the release of their third book, Happily Ever After . . . and 39 Other Myths about Love: Breaking Through to the Relationship of Your Dreams.