Changing habits are hardest in the beginning. Motivation may be high, but the absence of familiarity can be difficult. This is especially reflected in kicking sugar, a substance to which we easily develop both physical and emotional addictions (along with salt and fat – our brains just love those tastes).
Barry Friedman, of 30 Days Sugar Free, does not have diabetes, didn’t have to stop eating carbohydrates, but chose to do so initially for the challenge. He then continued because he felt so much better mentally and physically without sugar being a part of his diet. Barry interviewed me recently about the difficulties involved in avoiding sugar, and one of the mindfulness practices I use to help coaching clients.
You can listen to the interview here.
During a recent walk in a Redwood grove near our home, I watched my 11 year old Bernese mountain dog, Dharma, navigate the terrain strewn with fallen branches and leaves. Glancing up, taking in the majestic trees soaring skywards towards a vanishing point, my gaze kept swiveling back to Dharma, with her dramatic thick white, black and rust colored coat standing out in the muted forest colors.
Bernese mountain dogs average lifespan being just 7 years, she was now at 11 1/2, clearly not eager to leave this life. Led by her nose and sense of smell, she ambled along slowly, inhaling what were no doubt to her stimulating aromas from the forest floor. I couldn’t help noticing however, she moved far more cautiously than when younger, picking her way among the tree stumps and other detritus.
Despite a body lacking in youthful flexibility, she continued to exert effort, even with her gammy leg, to reach the next enticing smell.
As I observed her being engrossed in her habitual sniffing, I pondered the issues that clients tell me become obstacles to being able to sustain what habits they want to cultivate or adhere to.
Most commonly, I hear about new, healthier habits being started. After a short period of time, these new habits drop off. Not many of us like to admit having started a new habit, but then are able to confess to losing momentum until quite some time has passed, long enough to warrant it being history.
An exercise program is frequently quoted as being in this category, along with healthier food choices. For my both my clinical and coaching practices, I contemplated new perspectives I could offer in order to help my clients instigate better self-care choices. Ones that will become enduring.
So rather than reviewing my “standard” tied and true behavioral change suggestions, as I watched Dharma, my mind entertained the notion of what could I learn from my dog?
I happen to be one of those people who ardently believes our pets are tremendous teachers, if we could just absorb their lessons!
Her behavior hadn’t changed since she was a puppy. But as her aging body cooperated less, her mind continued its relentless investigation of smells. Granted, I doubt whether she exerted much mental effort, relying more on instinct. But clearly, more physical effort was needed.
As humans, blessed and cursed with an unruly, restless mind that seems to have a mind of its own, it’s mostly about what we choose to do.
Wise choice means being able to effectively weight up the pros and cons of various options. Educating ourselves as to what they are allows for informed decisions. Even learning the ‘best’ way to implement the winning choice can be done…but what happens after that?
Initially, novelty and desire for something different carries us through the early stages of a new habit. But once that lessens, as it inevitably does, many of us power on through, or utilize increasingly more effort to not slip back into old ways.
I’ve been there, gritting my teeth and intent on maintaining what ground I’ve gained. Maintenance becomes the mantra.
But wait, maintaining? Or should it be sustaining…? And what difference does it make?
Turns out, there is is difference.
Maintaining something takes effort, lots of it. It’s not a smooth experience, as much as constant exertion, a slog which turns out to be draining energetically.
Sustaining, on the other hand, moves along well-oiled tracks. An occasional nudge, a check-in or monitoring with a light touch to ensure all is going well.
Sustaining generates its own volition. No heavy lifting required.
Learn to tell them apart
Contemplate how they feel different in the body, in the mind.
With maintenance, notice any gripping in the mind, clinging to an idea. Often it shows up as tightness, clenching, determination to the exclusion of all else. Granted, there are times that it gets us through something. But at a cost to overall balance.
Alternatively, contemplate sustaining a habit. It has a lightness, an ease surrounding it. Less gripping, more spaciousness, flow. It seems to float rather then being driven along.
It still needs attention, but a tad less. And a lot less hard-driving effort.
If you notice how much energy you use to continue with a new habit, that your mind or body grips, clings, feels smothered, try connecting with your breath. Take two or three deeper breaths whilst keeping your attention on the breath.
Mentally picture yourself effortless achieving where you hope your new habit will take you. Imagine yourself in a large roomy space rather then crunched up in a tight one. Loosen your mental grip on the habit, approach it lightly, see it as surrounded by spaciousness, working effortlessly on your behalf.
Someone emailed me recently in response to a post I wrote. Like myself, this person lives with Type 2 diabetes. But astoundingly, aside from their doctor, they have told no one! That they disclosed this information to me speaks to the sense of safety in the anonymity of email. This person confessed to be ashamed of having this condition, hence the “secret “. They also carried the burden of the belief of not having been able to avoid developing Type 2.
Maybe they’d taken to heart the frequent urging found everywhere in the media. If you just lose weight, eat “right”, exercise, choose different parents, you can avoid ending up with diabetes. Reading the email, my heart softened, and I felt sadness imagining their loneliness around such a massive part of their life.
Although I don’t know this person, it sounded like they carried such a level of responsibility towards this outcome and had made their condition so personal that having become diabetic equaled failure! They obviously felt they hadn’t done the “correct” things, having allowed this condition to develop due to their own bad habits, and now was paying for a lackadaisical attitude by developing this chronic condition. As if Type 2 isn’t sufficient on it’s own to manage, they have to put in considerable effort keeping it hidden. I can’t speak to if there is any physical suffering, but I can read the immense mental pain they’re enduring.
Shame…secrets…the difference between them, and why we keep certain things hidden.
If someone leans in close to you, clearly wanting to share something and starts off with the statement “I’ve never told this to anyone…”, how do you react?
Like most of us, your ears prick up. You’d pay attention, intrigued maybe honored that you’ve been chosen to receive. Your curiosity gets triggered by what deep secret is about to be
Let’s take a deeper look at this. Chances are the person sharing either no longer has to hold onto the secret, or has decided they need to let go of something they feel shameful about. On the surface, these two options may appear quite similar. A secret about to be shared is often prefaced by “Don’t tell anyone…” or a version of that. It’s far less personal, maybe something to do with a person, but not specifically about a person.
“I’ve never told anyone, but…” usually pre-empts a disclosure about the self. But the belief they’re about to disclose is an unacceptable, yet integral, part of themselves, something kept hidden, often convinced they’ll barely survive it being known, it’s that despicable in their mind. Just thinking about it fills the body/mind with shame, a deep emotional energy that makes us feel if others only knew this shameful fact about us, they’d see we’re unworthy, or utterly unlovable.
It’s a rare therapy client who hasn’t eventually led up to haltingly admitting an aspect of themselves, a dream, a behavior, a long-ago choice made but now second-guessed that they buried under layers of more acceptable stuff to show the world. The common belief is that if they don’t let anyone know, they’ll eventually come to believe it didn’t happen!
How can you recognize shame, this emotion behind feeling deeply embarrassed? One clue – do you entertain many judgmental thoughts towards yourself and others? Investigate this concept if you’re unsure. If you harbor negative critical attitudes about yourself more frequently than not, and (not so coincidentally) notice an absence of kindness, odds are your thoughts tend towards the similar in others.
Those who’ve developed judgmental attitudes are frequently shame-based. You have to dig around deeply, because these attitudes can be deeply encrusted. For others, you’ll know immediately what I’m referring to, even if it rarely sees light outside of your own mind.
The connection here is that shame makes us smaller, contracted. Judging distances us from others, and from ourselves.
Feeling shame around illness
So back to the person who admitted feeling ashamed, because I know they’re not alone…
The body will do what it has to. Sure, we can often influence it, be proactive, take better care, make wise choices…and still genetics may trump all that. Despite our best efforts, our bodies can be robust, they can be frail. Universally, they traverse the full range over time. Eventually, sooner or later, virtually every body has the audacity to malfunction! Let’s face it, we rent the physical body for a few decades. Once born, or coming into being, there’s no other way out, it must whither, and die off.
For around a decade, from the mid 80′s – 90′s, I worked as a clinician in San Francisco, California, with those suffering with, and dying from, AIDS. I sat with patients on the medical wards or in their homes, during the time when it was certainly fatal, and before its name was universally known. Still striking mostly youngish gay men, I worked with my patients literally until their untimely, tragic deaths. In my personal life too, losses from this disease multiplied. Completing the immersion, my doctoral research was conducted upon the population of those with AIDS.
Countless of those brave, terrified souls taught me profound life lessons. Not least was the one about how to die. But the point is virtually universally they railed against it, the unfairness of it, the horror of loss of control, and yes, the shame of it.
But something unfurled the closer they came to the end of their life. The horror dissolved, the raging stopped, the desire for the sense of control evaporated. Acceptance regarding their inevitable fate seeped in.
And transformation appeared. You could visually see it, their ravaged bodies grew looser and movement became more fluid, their features softened, their words became more caring, even a little gallows humor snuck in. Process happened, in some cases reconciliation with family who had learned of their son’s gay identity the same time they had to absorb the news of their terminal diagnosis.
Any shame, and there was tons of it going around, took second place under the process of accepting what was happening. Eventually, it dissipated due to their growing ability to accept reality.
But back to the person who emailed me. Why would a person go to such lengths to conceal having Type 2?
In order to avoid feeling shame.
By contrast, my own reaction to being diagnosed was great disappointment, as I’d hoped I could manage to avoid dealing with the same illness that my father died from almost 50 years earlier. Aware that unchecked, disappointment may contribute to developing a degree of shame, I consciously took the pathway leading directly away.
I publicized it, which led to this blog you’re reading!
This isn’t a “my way is better than yours” point. I simply used it to illustrate how shame can lead to feelings of toxicity and isolation, while the other path of disclosure brings freedom. Actually, I’ll go further than that. Since beginning this blog, I’ve been astonished by the support I’ve received. A whole vibrant community mirrors back my experience, easing any mental suffering or resentment, minimizing any “poor me” or “why me” holes to fall into.
Hopefully you’ve stuck with me this far to receive the message.
Shame wants us to hide. It’s about who we are, not what we’ve done (that’s guilt). It’s powerful, and very uncomfortable! That which makes you squirm probably is something you’re ashamed of.
So what to do about it?
Deeply uncomfortable, the solution to feeling shame is unbelievably simple. The antidote is the very thing which you’d rather die than do…disclose it!
That’s right, you read it correctly. The instruction is simple, the action not so much.
Prepare yourself a little first. Don’t just take a deep breathe and blurt it out. First, soften the heart by cultivating self-kindness. Be especially compassionate, caring, open-hearted towards yourself. And include in your kindness and caring, all the feelings that you carry around this.
Acknowledge that you kept it hidden for protection, to be safe. That you needed, even deserved to be safe, still do. Perhaps back when, you didn’t feel safe, you were too vulnerable when that which you’re ashamed of happened.
If that rings true for you, cultivate and incline your heart to open lovingly towards yourself.
Don’t judge yourself. Chances are you didn’t choose to live like this. And if you can let go of
Like a mantra, repeat to yourself;
May I be safe.
May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I live with ease.
Repeat those phrases, the lovingkindness, or metta, “prayer” as often as you can. If other words feel better yet convey the same meaning, use those. Pay attention, and you’ll notice a softening in your heart towards yourself or another you’ve directed metta towards.
By hiding it, you perpetuate that sense of being vulnerable. You effectively freeze that moment in time.
Choose carefully who to disclose it to.
A family member, longtime intimate friend, a therapist, someone whom you trust not to judge you. The non-judging is more important than to whom. Tread lightly, ensure you’re ready, that the timing is OK for both of you.
Ironically, some find it preferably to disclose to a stranger, a person who has no past or ongoing connection to your life or anyone you know. If that feels safer, go for it.
And here’s the kicker, the more frequently you repeat this disclosure, the less triggered you’ll be. You know it’s become just another fact about you when it can be talked about like any other aspect of your experience.