Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Relapse


Livestrong.com featured an article today called "The Stages of Change: Understanding your Motivation." According to the article, there are six stages in lasting change:

1. Pre-contemplation
2. Contemplation
3. Preparation
4. Action
5. Maintenance
6. Relapse

At first I was pretty depressed to see #6 on the list. Relapse? Really? None of us can ever change for good? We're all doomed to go back to our old behaviors?

Well, I guess there's a reason that you're supposed to read the whole article. The author explains that relapse doesn't mean that all our work was for nothing, but rather wants us to understand that relapse is actually PART of the process of change. These are her words:

"It is completely normal to lapse into former behaviors. If you notice that you've slipped, instead of beating yourself up, consider relapse as an opportunity to examine what helped you succeed and what were your blockades. Coming up with a new plan to address obstacles, whether they are old or new, may give you the adjustment you need to dive back into your new behavior."

I love this idea. Regardless of the nature of your goal, I think it's important to be mindful of your progress and to think critically - albeit optimistically - about your setbacks. In my own life, I feel as though I'm finding my way back to healthier behaviors, although I'm sure I still have struggles ahead. The last month has really got me thining about my "blockades." Habits I thought were gone - stress eating, making poor choices at restaurants, buying tubes of cookie dough - were really just dormant and waiting to be resurrected in a weak moment.

I still haven't fully picked apart what led to my relapse. Certainly the food challenges inherent in my job play a role, but I noticed a lot more "ah well, the week is ruined so just pass the cupcakes" behavior than I expected, especially since I never had trouble hanging on to the towel (i.e., not throwing it in) before this summer.

In any case, for those who are struggling with relapsing after attempting to change a behavior: doesn't it feel great to read the line, "It is completely normal to lapse into former behaviors?" It's amazing how mean and negative our self-talk can be when we fall short of our own expectations.

Martha Beck, the author of The Four Day Win (which happens to be an EXCELLENT read for those of you who aren't embarassed to be seen in the "self help" section) has a fabulous visualization exercise that has helped me be more gentle with myself when I exhibit bad behavior:

Hold out your right hand, palm up. Imagine that standing there is an inch-tall version of yourself—the part that insists on losing weight. We'll call her (or him) the Dictator. The Dictator wears a uniform, carries a whip, screams insults and orders—the things you tell yourself when you're feeling fat: "You'd better stop eating now, you disgusting blob of &*%$!" Let these words, and the Dictator's hostile energy, fill your consciousness.

Now notice: Do you want to eat more, or less?

Both Lisas, along with everyone else I've ever guided through this exercise, respond, "More."

Interesting.

Now hold up your left palm. Standing on it is another tiny version of you; the animal part that isn't verbal or logical, and doesn't understand what the Dictator wants. I call this the Wild Child, because it's like a kid who's continually assaulted by the Dictator's attacks and privations. The Wild Child is tired, afraid, and frightened. Notice: Is she planning to obey the Dictator in its effort to starve her? No?

Interesting.

Now hold out both hands. See the Dictator in your right, Wild Child in your left. This next part's tricky: Notice that both mini-yous are essentially good. The Dictator gets frantic when you gain weight just as you would if you saw a toddler wandering into traffic. It screams and yells, pushes and forces, because it's trying to save you from a terrible, fat fate. And your Wild Child isn't remotely malicious, just devastated, confused and afraid. Consider both perspectives until you can empathize with them.

At this point, it's time to realize that the Wild Child and the Dictator deserve compassion. Offer it to them. Say this: "May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering." Repeat it to both Dictator and Wild Child, until you mean it. Take your time.

All right, now answer the following question: Where are you in this picture?

The only reason you can "see" both the Dictator and the Wild Child is that you're not either of them. You've moved into a third realm of consciousness, in a different part of your brain. I call it the Watcher.

The wisdom traditions of every culture teach techniques (meditation, prayer) for aligning with this compassionate, observing self. Monks who do this regularly have unusually abundant neural activity in brain regions associated with happiness. The OCD patients Schwartz treated used similar techniques to change their brains. In short, the unassuming visualization you've just done is a portal leading away from futile conflict—including the diet wars—to a place of peace.

Notice: When you feel genuine kindness toward your Wild Child and Dictator selves, do you feel more compulsive about eating, or less?

Interesting.

You can replace "eating" with any habit you're trying to change, and I think the power of the exercise remains the same. My "dictator" has ruled me for the last few weeks - in an increasingly mean and frantic manner, I might add - and I'm resolving to let that go and just ride this out. This phase is normal, and is just part of the process as the scales of my new healthy lifestyle eventually balance out.

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