Every January I try to ignore people’s declarations of resolutions. Not because I don’t want to be supportive, but because I know that soon after I will want to ignore the signs of said resolutions collapsing.
I’m not so cynical, however, that I can’t appreciate the need for self-motivation, particularly at this time of year. Mostly I hear variations of:
“When I lose _________ lbs, I’ll do _________ for myself”
“When I look like _________ , I’ll do _________ to reward myself”
“When I earn _________ dollars a year, I’ll _________ in celebration.”
The intentions are good, I know. But I try to ignore this sort of commentary because I find it too discouraging. I know it doesn’t work for me because I used it for a long time.
Years ago, I was overweight. Because I was overweight, I was always harsh with myself, with my own variations of those lines: “Once I weigh _________ , then I won’t have to be so harsh whenever I’m eating or thinking about food.”
I was harsh with myself anytime food came to mind. At mealtimes: You’re so ugly. At snacks: Why can’t you get yourself together? Anytime I was hungry: You’re such a mess. Even when I thought about what to put on my grocery list!
And thus I was mean to myself all day long. On a day when I felt particularly discouraged, I took a meditation break. I sat in my favorite sunny spot at home and gathered my icky, nasty thoughts. You’re so fat and ugly. Why can’t you control yourself? You’re just a disaster.
For a few minutes, observing these hostile thoughts was the meditation. I witnessed myself being my cruelest critic. But staring down those thoughts was exhausting. I was desperate for an alternative point of focus.
My mind wandered to contrary commentary—things my spiritual teachers had told me over the years. For example: you’re already divine. You’ve always been divine. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re always worthy of love and respect.
Sitting in that sunny spot, I considered switching camps. I wondered how it would feel to change from self-hater to self-supporter. I wondered if I was even capable of not being a self-hater. But as mentioned, I was desperate—desperate enough to try what felt like woo-woo cheesy hokey BS. Gritting my teeth, I took a deep breath.
<There’s nothing wrong with you.>
[eyeroll] Yeah, but I still want to be better.
<You’re already divine.>
[grinding my teeth] Well, that’s a little easier to accept. Fine. I believe it.
<You’re always worthy of love and respect.>
[big sigh] Umm, yes. OK, yes. I think so.
So much resistance. But I continued this meditation of sorts, repeating that dialogue. And even though I didn’t believe that it would benefit, I did feel a bit better when I stood up again.
The real insight arrived soon after, when I realized the true meanings of that kind of incentive. What I thought I was saying:
“Once I weigh _________, then I won’t have to be so harsh whenever I’m eating or thinking about food.”
“When I look like _________, I’ll deserve to appreciate myself.”
Actually, I was saying:
“Once I weigh _________ , I’ll be kind to myself.”
“Because I don’t look like _________ , I don’t deserve to appreciate myself.”
I understand linking rewards to accomplishment. But that self-talk signified that I had to wait until I accomplished something to be worthy of something other than the hostile critiques.
I also noticed that my standard ways of thinking were EXHAUSTING. Sustaining meanness requires tremendous energy.
I had always considered a “soft” approach to be a cop-out. But my new understandings convinced me to try the opposite approach—to consider that a soft approach didn’t have to equate to avoidance. And even though I worried about becoming lazy, the possibility of expending less energy on nasty thoughts was appealing enough for me to try something else.
So instead of the hateful conversations I was so conditioned to having, I had loving ones instead. Rather than the goal being prerequisite to a loving conversation, I talked to mySelf as though I’d already reached it. “Once I weigh _________ , I’ll be kind to myself” changed to:
“You’re deserving of love now, regardless of your appearance now, regardless of whether your appearance changes in the future.”
“You deserve to feel nourished every time you eat.”
Eventually I expanded that perspective to other situations.
“It’s ok not to get everything done immediately; take care of yourself.”
“You deserve to sleep enough so that you don’t feel exhausted all day.”
And then even more broadly:
“There’s no reason to be mean to yourself.”
Guess what happened? I lost weight. I don’t want to tout this as a miracle story, but rather that kindness was the catalyst for making better decisions. I cut down on sweets because they didn’t feel as nourishing as more balanced meals. I slept more because I gave myself permission not to prioritize work over my well-being.
We all need incentive. For me, everything changed when I realized that kindness motivated me far more than any meanness. Not to abandon working towards better health, but to deliver the message more constructively, to have a better tone of communication.
I thought I needed sternness. But I really needed love. Not superficial teddy bear Valentine’s Day love, but the kind of genuine love that inspired the holiday in the first place.
SK © 2015