Yesterday when I met with my trainer I asked her to focus on two things: I said I needed it to be fun and I needed encouragement. Or, frankly, I was going to quit. She looked puzzled. I was dead serious. I had spent the car ride there in tears, and I had managed to pull it together as I went inside, but I was wobbly. I wanted to be there, but I also didn’t. I am pretty sure that I used up an entire week’s worth of self-control to walk through the door.
I was in a place of total frustration. Or, as I had told her, “This is a serious low self-esteem day.” I had started this project of regaining fitness in the late fall, but then over the holidays I got pneumonia and in that chutes and ladders game of behavior change, I had climbed a ladder only to get sick and slide all the way back to start. Then I traveled for work. And here I was, months later, at the beginning again. Maybe even a few yards back from it.
How do you start again? How do you find the motivation you had to begin a project in the first place? When I started this fitness goal in the fall I had such a strong vision for what I wanted to do, and why I was doing it. I was a rower when I was young, and I really want to get back in a boat. But I have had two back surgeries and I am out of shape, so it is a long project to get strong enough to do it safely. I was so excited about it in the fall. I could see the goal and I could feel it. And after a long winter of illness and recovery, I can’t feel it anymore. I can’t see it anymore. All I can see is that months later I am sitting at the bottom of the hill staring at my rock.
This is the part of change people don’t talk about because there really aren’t any pithy sayings that you can print on motivational pictures. This is the part of the change process that is messy and ugly and whiny. This is what my therapist called the ‘misunderstanding of commitment.’ I seemed to think that if I chose to do something there was no good reason to not want to do it. But it turns out that committing to change isn’t always fun. That it is perfectly normal for motivation to flag. Even if it is what you want. Even if it is something you love. Sometimes it is just a pain in the ass and you have to do it anyway. There are parts of change that you have to just slog through even if you love the things you are doing, or love the place you are headed.
The key to beginning again when you must, or struggling through the middle of change is this: you can’t abandon yourself. Here are the ways I typically abandon myself: either I just totally let go of the fight entirely and behave like some overly sweet babysitter who is going to let me eat all of the popcorn and candy if I want to so I will like her, or, I am so mean to myself about what I have to do, that at best I sometimes get short-lived fearful compliance, but more typically, I find ways to hide out from my mean self, the moral equivalent of pretending to clean your room, but instead, spending hours reading old Oprah magazines. I’ll save you the trial and error. Neither one of these strategies leads to real change.
So what does not abandoning yourself look like? It looks like good parenting, only in the case of adulthood, the conversation is between both sides of yourself: the side of yourself that doesn’t want to do it (or wants to do too much of it) and the part of yourself that THIS TIME isn’t going to leave, is going to stay and help you through it, even if it is a struggle. It is the part of you that is now going to say, “Honey, stop. What’s going on? What do you need in order to do this differently? I know it’s hard, but you need to do it anyway. I’m right here and I am not going anywhere.”
This self-parenting or compassionate, yet firm self talk is best learned from the outside-in. We learn this best from real people who talk to us like this. All language is receptive first—we take it in, and then expressive, then we can speak. Some people were lucky to get this as children and learned it a long time ago, and some people weren’t so lucky. If you didn’t get it as a kid, it is really, really helpful to find ways to learn it as an adult—and we learn it best through relationships: helping relationships. People who had no parenting or harsh parenting are always shocked in therapy by the simple phrase: let’s figure this out. This is what good parents do. They don’t have all the answers, they have the ability to stay in the conversation and help kids figure it out. They have the ability to say, yes, this kind of sucks, but you and I will get through this. One step at a time.
So, that day that I cried all the way to the gym, instead of turning the car around and quitting, I treated myself just like a kid who didn’t want to go to dance class, but had signed up and really needed to go. I said cry all you want to, but you still are going in. I didn’t abandon myself: I went in and acted like my own good parent: tell the trainer that I am having a bad day and ask for help. Ask for some fun to support my motivation. Yes, I made myself show up. But I did it with help, compassion and humor. And guess what? It worked. She did make it more fun. She was encouraging. And I got through the day. Was it perfect? No. But it was enough to get me to the next day. And that is what beginning again looks like. One step, then the next. Maybe a step back. Then another step forward. Until you are on your way again.
© 2016 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD
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