Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Be Gentle on the Path of Change

Forest Dream! by VinothChandar, cc license

Part of the fun of this blogging endeavor is that my husband now loves pointing out instances when I'm not honest and/or gentle. He finds many opportunities to help me in this way, including yesterday when we were out having lunch. Our family is currently on vacation near Burlington, VT, which is the site of Ben and Jerry's flagship store. Getting ice cream at this location was on my "must do" list for the trip, so we purposefully saved room for ice cream afer lunch. When our waiter came over to ask if we would like to see the dessert menu, I replied reflexively, without thinking, "No, we need to get the baby back for her nap." As he went to get our check, my husband gave me a look. "I know, I just totally lied." 

The path of change is just that: a path. The path may meander, go uphill, contain switchbacks, or be so overgrown and badly-marked that you end up at the beginning several times. Nevertheless, it's a path that must be travelled if you are going to become the person you want to be. I find that my paths of change start consistently with a time of intention. During this part of the journey I spend a lot of time thinking about how I would like to be different, articulating my goals and values (e.g., I value honesty. I want to treat others with empathy and myself with compassion, consistently.) The second part of my path is typically characterized by bringing more attention to the behavior I want to change. Right now, I'm attending to the times that I'm not honest with others, specifically by saying something that isn't true. During the first steps of intention I often feel optimistic and idealistic. This time of attention, though, can be a bit of a drag. 

I find it hard to be patient with myself when I want to change but only see all of the times I engage in an undesired behavior. The example I described above, lying to the waitor, is a good illustration. These little white lies really catch me off guard. They seem so small, silly, and harmless, but it bothers me how easily they slip out, almost like a reflex. As I've become more aware of them, I've been able to catch myself and stop, but I've also been more annoyed when they do occur. When that happens, I'm not always gentle with myself. Often, my mind says something like this: 

"Mary!! Your are such a hypocrite! Here you preach the virtues of honesty and you just lied!! What is wrong with you?!?"

This is a lose-lose situation. It feels bad in the short run and serves only to sabotage my efforts in the long run. It is much more helpful when I can be gentle and non-judgemental with myself. When I conduct empathy skills training in the context of crisis intervention, I encourage trainees to nurture their natural curiosities - to allow the scientist within to ask questions and fully explore the context and meaning of the crisis at hand. I propose we extend this same technique to ourselves to learn more about the meaning and circumstances around behavior we want to change:

"Well that's interesting. I just lied to a stranger for no apparent reason. I wonder what prompted me to do that? What was I feeling at the time? How else could I have handled the situation."

By removing judgement and nurturing curiosity, I'm able to find some clarity and see the path to change. (As I write this, it occurs to me that I should try speaking less in polite encounters with strangers. In the above scenario, a simple "No, thank you" would have sufficed in place of an explanation. Sometimes saying less is the most gentle approach.)

And now I extend my curiosity to you - what behavior causes you to be hard on yourself? What strategies do you use to practice compassion towards yourself? How do you remind yourself that you are a good person who deserves love and compassion while also acknowleding that there are things about yourself that you would like to change? 

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  1. As you and likely many who will read this know, I tend to catastrophize. And, for an agnostic, I tend to land firmly on "right" and the fight like hell against anything that feels "not right." Feels. There's a key word. I am led, often, by my immediate emotional reaction. Additionally, it is a personal goal to reduce my tendency to judge people harshly and then gossip, comment, tease, or publicly criticize. When I fail at a personal goal, when I don't reach the unrealistic ideal of perfection that I've set for myself...I then shift to the catastrophe. That I've spouted some opinion out loud and caused others to feel uncomfortable and/or judged means that I am a complete failure. It's not often that dramatic, but it can get there. I also find it very difficult to admit that I am good, that I cam kind, that I deserve love and compassion. Why? Well, I think that I've built into my definition of "right" that I should be humble, that I should not be pretentious or vain...prideful. But then, the alternative in that world of black and white, on and off...with no gray area or room for "in between," my only alternative is to tear myself down.

    Moments of meditation often work. Becoming present and mindful, returning to my breath and certain simple, positive mantras. Yoga helps. Running helps. Perhaps if I added a mantra to remind myself that, in your words, "I am a good person who deserves love and compassion," I could change my cognitive-emotional reflexes and reactions.

  2. Isn't it strange? We don't feel that it's prideful or vain to feel that we deserve air to breathe, and yet love and compassion are just as important for living in this world.

    Sending you love, G. Here's to changing our inner wiring!