In my twenty five years of helping people to improve their emotional and physical well-being, I have seen an interesting pattern. People begin to make progress, start feeling better about themselves and begin to make new decisions which bring on more success. Yet this lasts for only a short time , and then people often return to old patterns, feeling discouraged about not having made meaningful change.
People have often told me that when they start doing things in new ways, they also begin to feel anxious, simply because they're not used to the new ways. It’s like they're out on a limb doing things in a different way, and while they feel good they also feel kind of shaky. I began to wonder what thoughts are going on in them which make it so hard to maintain a new way of living even if it makes them feel better. What I've observed is that we all live with beliefs about ourselves and how to live our lives that we learned early in life from the people most close to us. Many of these ideas served us well and become a big part of our value system. Yet many of these can limit us, because as we grow up, we learn about life through our own experiences. Many of the earlier ideas become obsolete, but because we've lived with them for such a long time, we aren't aware that they're still within us, and don't make a whole lot of sense. I've heard people say things like, “that's what I'm thinking and telling myself, I know better than that.”
Most of us place meaning on to things based on our early ideas, and this can keep us from seeing the things as they actually are and as we could get to know them if we paid attention to our own personal experiences. When I work with people with the primary goal of taking better care of themselves, especially around weight loss, I frequently hear the same thing. “If I start making the ways I eat and exercise a priority, it means that I will not be caring to others. I don't want to live that way. I've always been a person who cares about being caring to others.”
You can see how such thoughts would lead to placing more importance on the needs of others, and abandon making our own goals a priority. To make matters worse, the comments we often get from the people we care about and know well can make us feel even more that we're not being considerate of others. When we’ve had the pattern of always being available and always joining in the fun (no matter what the cost to us) we might hear from others comments like, “come on, we're all having ice cream, why aren't you having any? What happened to you? You used to be so much fun, now you're being a party pooper.”, or “What do you mean you can't come shopping with us, because you're going to the gym. You can do that any time.”
Comments like these can derail us, especially when we're already feeling kind of shaky about our new way of living. Such comments can make it really difficult to stay clear in our minds about what we really know, which is, that we can be caring and careful to ourselves while still be caring and considerate of the people we care about.
Having a mindfulness practice can help maintain clarity, and help us discover that we are placing meaning on to things where there doesn't need to be any. In an article in the February issue of The Saline Post, written by my colleague, Dr. Smita Nagpal. The practice of mindfulness is “to simply take an observer stance in relation to the thoughts that arise in our minds. Anxiety, depression, and inattention can all be reduced as we practice observing our thoughts.” By taking only a few moments to do this observing, we can see the meaning we are placing on to ourselves about being an uncaring person when we take care of ourselves. Dr. Nagpal also explains that being mindful brings on a sense of calmness. In this calm state our thinking becomes clear, we can “see” that we are being governed by an inaccurate thought, and then realize that we know better. We can come to understand at a deep level that it is quite possible to take care of ourselves and still be a person who is present and helpful to others. Once this clarity is restored, we can continue with our plan for eating well and exercising, maintain progress, and successfully reach our weight loss and fitness goals.
Allen Finkel, M.S.W., L.M.S.W. has been a psychotherapist since 1990. He has worked with a wide variety of adults and teens in individual, couple, and group treatment modalities. Besides holding a Master of Social Work Degree, he also holds a Bachelor's Degree in Fine Arts. As a Certified Personal Trainer, Allen has developed a practice model which integrates fitness training with psychotherapy, where people gain a sense of well-being by breaking through obstacles which may be holding them back. He can be reached at (734) 944-3446 or [email protected].