Photo: Ann Cutting
Think of the binge eater saying, "I'm a hundred pounds overweight," the drunk admitting, "I'm an alcoholic," the plastic surgery junkie acknowledging, "If I get one more facelift, the sides of my mouth will meet in the back and bisect my head." Now consider an area of your own life where you feel pronounced uneasiness mixed with a desire to avoid specifics. With that area in mind, fill in the following blanks. Honestly.
Here's what I know is true, even though I wish it weren't: _________________________________________________________.
Here's what I really feel about it, even though I don't want to: _________________________________________________________.
Note that this information, in and of itself, is a colossal bummer. Don't panic. You've bravely begun the process of change by letting yourself know what's wrong. Now it's time for the next step.
Accepting the Truth
Many people will tell you that rejecting your present situation is the way to create positive change. You may notice that these people achieve virtually no positive change themselves. That's because, paradoxical as it seems, the best way to improve your situation is to accept it. Unconditionally. Warts and all.
Rejecting our failures is the reason that denial exists and that most of us never learn to draw. If it's unacceptable for you to be as chubby or poor or sluggish as you are, the truth is sheer horror. You become a walking version of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream, hands clapped to your ears, mouth open in a continuous shriek. Yet lots of people think this kind of self-loathing is "motivational." If you're one of them, please join me in the following thought experiment.
1. Think of something virtuous you haven't been able to make yourself do: consume only green smoothies until you lose 20 pounds, keep a strict budget, finish all your work on time, what have you.
2. Now feel the anxiety of believing you must do this undone thing. Really rev up the intolerance. Hate on your fat thighs, your weak will, your laziness. Insist on immediate, total, permanent change. Scream at yourself.
3. Notice: Do you feel more or less inclined to fall back into your bad habits? Do you feel more or less like eating, spending, or stalling? And by the way, how happy are you?
4. Designate the next ten minutes a time-out from life—a little vacation you're going to take for the sake of this experiment. Release your anxiety, self-hatred, and nonacceptance. You can have them all back in a jiffy, but right now, as writer Anne Lamott says, just leave everything lay where Jesus flang it. Say to yourself, "For these ten minutes, it's all right to be as fat as I am," or "For these ten minutes, it's okay to be in debt." If judgment and criticism arise, tell them to take ten.
5. Next, drop your resistance to your emotions. If you're angry at yourself, tell yourself, "It's okay to be angry." If you're scared, say, "It's all right to be scared." You don't have to like these feelings. But let them be as they are.
6. While accepting your outward truth (what's really happening) and your inward truth (what you're really feeling), notice how tempted you are to indulge your bad habits.
Next: How to correct your mistakes