Body & Fitness

What happens when you give up trying?

Deborah Hill Cone finds out that your ‘bad’ self, the one you’ve spent years trying to avoid, is actually your salvation after all.

Things I have started: Te Reo; Latin (kia ora, ex animo. Gave up); law (part-time study is hard. Gave up); creative writing (I did that in Cambridge – not the fancy Oxbridge one, the horsey town in the Waikato with a lot of souvenir shops. Didn’t have much of a literary vibe. Gave up); biology of the brain (had to go to Palmerston North. Gave up); guitar (I learned from a lovely guy in Auckland, and I got to walk on the beach like a troubadour. Gave up); yoga (got the Lululemon, the mat is gathering dust next to my guitar. Gave up).

See, I am ultra-good at starting things. Unfortunately, I am also ultra-good at quitting.

More recently I started writing a novel. I am older now, and time is running out. In the most eye-bulging, tooth-grinding way, I don’t want to give up this time. I want to learn how to stay committed to doing something.

It’s not just about being willing to work hard. I know I can be a lazy slackarse, but jeez, look at the amount of effort I’ve put into trying to solve my self-sabotage problem! That takes dedication! I’ve done affirmations (“The universe applauds my life!”). I’ve filled 12 journals. I’ve tried focus and positive self-talk and candles.

Burst of clarity

My laptop has a Dymo label stuck on the top of the screen. ‘What are you committed to?’ (It is next to another more useful one that says ‘Get off Facebook’.)

I have tried to break down my goals into manageable, realistic mini-goals and tried to not compare myself to others, and to repeat: “The work does not have to be perfect to be seen.” Yet, even having read the entire archive of Psychology Today hasn’t helped me to get out of my own way so I could stay committed to the things that mattered most to me.

Thinking rationally, visualisation, white-boards, laminated cue-cards, listening to motivational podcasts does not seem to work. Shouting at yourself in manner of a Marine Corps sergeant major definitely does not work. So what does?

I think I started getting closer to a bit of the answer one day when I found myself, automaton-like, eating a white bread, processed cheese and mayonnaise sandwich and a packet of Fruit Bursts for dinner (just the purple ones).

I ate this, inhaled it really, even though, that very morning, I’d told myself I was committed to eating healthily and losing weight. I thought I was committed to getting back into my leather pants.

But for once, I could see that what I did, and the results I got, told me I was actually committed to staying the same size. Maybe it was the spooky dye in the Fruit Bursts, but for some reason, this time, for once, I managed to stop and notice that reacting in my usual ways wasn’t helping, and maybe I needed to try something else.

I’d spent so long fighting, and it wasn’t getting me anywhere. Life was passing me by; I didn’t want to carry on duping myself. I tried to be honest with myself, even if it was painful and embarrassing.

So I had another Fruit Burst and decided to try a different approach.

Say hi to the snark

First, I just gave up trying. Trying to be better, trying to be different. This was hard in itself.

“It is pretty hard to overstate how emotionally charged the act of quitting actually is,” write Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein in Give Up to Get On: How to Master the Art of Quitting in Love, Work and Life.

After quitting trying, what I did instead was just be curious. (Latin and Te Reo and leather pants would have to wait.)

What I noticed was part of me certainly wanted to achieve my goal. But another part of me – my anti-self, my inner snark, where all my dark shit resides – doesn’t want to. We are all divided. But running away from that anti-self, trying to squash down or eradicate that other self by bullying it into submission, had not worked for me. And boy, I had certainly tried. But trying to be good never brought me the results I desired.

Trying to be good was based on the idea I was bad. So here was a wacky idea. What if, instead of oppressing that anti-self, I tried to make friends with it? I’d spent my entire life running away from that part of me so this was not easy.

The way back

My anti-self goes back a long way. It was probably made up of all the very young feelings I had boxed up a long time ago and spent my life trying to avoid. But now I had to listen to it.

Instead of judging myself, or seeing my compulsions as proof of how weak-willed I am, I tried to understand they were trying to tell me something. And I realised it wasn’t until I listened to them, and respected what they had to tell me, that I was going to be able to stop struggling.

“If you listen to that which is upsetting in your life, it will show you the way back to yourself,” were words I liked from Mary O’Malley, author of What’s in the Way Is the Way. (Mea culpa, that’s Latin for ‘my bad’: I was obviously still giving in to my self-help book compulsion. Life is full of contradictions, eh?)

What I learnt was: part of myself just wanted to be loved and accepted. Yes, loving the shitty part.

Turns out when we are compulsive – mmm, mayonnaise sandwich – what we’re really longing for isn’t white carbs, but to reconnect with ourselves.

“Compulsions are now your ally, for you know that whenever you are compulsive, another part of you is asking for your undivided attention. Rather than becoming lost in eating, drinking or gambling, you are reminded by your compulsions that a part of you needs your understanding attention,” O’Malley writes.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news. Even knowing this is no quick fix; it takes time. Going astray is to be expected. But now at least I know the way out, even if I can only get there some of the time; the way out is through acceptance.

Now I’m thinking I might take up pottery as well as finishing my novel. I could fit the pottery wheel in next to my dusty guitar and my dusty yoga mat.

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