A process for personal change

I’ve been thinking recently about the process I used to lose weight, as described in my book on weight-loss.

When I first set about trying to lose weight I did so with determination but also with confidence in my ability to solve problems in my own unique way.

Losing weight was just one application of a process I’ve slowly developed and refined. Maybe it’s a process uniquely suited to my own temperament and experiences, or maybe it has broader application for others?

Recently I decided to apply the same process to the goal of feeling good.

Why feeling good?

Like trying to lose weight, I’ve tried for a long time to feel good without success.  A combination of temperament and experience has made it seem more complicated or elusive than it ought to be.

By “feeling good” I mean a consistent and persistent change in my emotional set-point. I’ve been describing it lately as a shift from a pessimistic outlook to an optimistic one.

1. You can’t see the answer from where you are.

If you’ve been stuck in a persistent, negative experience for a long time, then you won’t be able to see the answer from within that experience. You have to recognise that the answer or solution will be something different and new; it will require a true change in perspective.

2. The goal itself is easy to achieve.

Goals like weight-loss and feeling good are easy to achieve. To lose weight all you need to do is eat significantly less food. To feel good all you need to do is focus on thoughts and experiences that feel good rather than those that feel bad.

Recognise the simple, practical solution to your problem, and the real culprit will rear its ugly head as you realise:

3. You don’t want to achieve your goal.

You might start with “I want to feel good, but I can’t or don’t know how.” Or “I want to lose weight, but I can’t or don’t know how.”

If you accept the simple, practical method in step 2, then this thought has to change.

Eg. “I want to feel good. I know that if I just focus on good-feeling thoughts I will feel good. But nonetheless I don’t.”

Eg. 2. “I want to lose weight. I know that if I eat significantly less food I will lose weight. Nonetheless I don’t.”

I think most people implicitly realise this conundrum, but instead of concluding “I guess I don’t really want to lose weight/feel good”, they instead conclude “I guess eating less/changing focus isn’t really the solution”.

But what is the solution? Denying the obvious solution just leads us into endless pursuit of fads or gimmicks and demoralising struggle. It’s far more valuable to accept the obvious solution, and accept that:

4. You may not like your experience, but it’s what you want.

I never liked being overweight, but as I worked through these steps I came to realise that part of me was resisting the simple solution of eating significantly less.

Why?

Because that part of me wanted to escape regularly into the immersive experience of eating.

Somehow, my mind hadn’t joined the dots between this part that wanted to eat, and the part that was unhappy with the side-effects of so much eating.

Likewise, parts of me are resisting the simple solution of focusing on thoughts that feel good. Intrusive negative thoughts are serving a purpose for some part of me. I want to focus on them, even though I don’t like the consequences.

5. A total change in perspective.

There’s a whole lot of ancillary realisations and shifts in perspective that supported and facilitated losing weight. For example, I realised early on that I couldn’t control my weight per se, I could only control my eating habits.

I realised that there was nothing “wrong” with being overweight, considering that I was overeating. Overeating makes you overweight…that’s normal. So there was no point feeling bad about being overweight when in reality I should feel bad about my dysfunctional eating habits.

Likewise, it’s normal to feel bad when you focus on negative things. It would be weird to feel good about bad things, wouldn’t it?

We fixate on our feelings as if we can change them directly. But our feelings are actually responding to our point of focus, our thoughts and our beliefs. Focusing on bad things makes you feel bad, focusing on good things makes you feel good.

So fix your focus and your feelings will take care of themselves, just as your body will find its own balance if you stop overeating compulsively.

Being overweight feels bad, but really we should feel good about being overweight. If you could overeat compulsively and remain thin, there would probably be something drastically wrong with you.

So maybe we should also feel good about feeling bad, when we focus on negative things? Isn’t that a sign that your psyche is in good working order?

The real culprit is not your feelings, it’s your point of focus. Take your bad feelings as a sign that part of you wants to focus on something negative.

And if that’s the case, then you’re already where you want to be, right? You want to be somewhere you don’t like. Maybe you haven’t thought about it like that before. Maybe you have some misconceptions about how the world works. But this perspective shows that you really are in control after all.

I wanted to overeat, even though I didn’t like the consequences. I want to focus on negative things, even though I don’t enjoy feeling bad.

Being aware

I love looking at myself from this kind of perspective. It shows that I am actually in control, even when I really don’t enjoy my experience.

It’s a little disconcerting to find that parts of us are running on auto-pilot. I liken it to a computer with programs running in the background, consuming resources, conflicting with other software.

Until we go looking, we may have forgotten we set those programs running in the first place. We might wrongly assume there’s something wrong with the computer, that it’s too old or too slow, or that it’s just not compatible with the software we want to run now, or that the new software isn’t any good.

I think that once we become aware of the programs we’re running, the things we want but have forgotten about, then our mind can start to connect the dots. We realise there’s a trade-off, or better yet a trade-up.

If you learned to overeat when you were young, it might be because eating was your only accessible means of feeling good and having control over your experience. But when you’re an adult you have much greater scope for finding happiness and meaning in life.

The trade-off might be facing some of the negative feelings you’ve been escaping from. But the trade-up is repairing your relationship with food, bringing your body into balance, and finding healthier sources of enjoyment.

Likewise, you might focus on negative things because you thought you had no choice, or you thought it was important to be “realistic” or in the midst of negative experiences that seemed beyond your control, you sought to adapt to those negative aspects and find some consolation in them.

Perhaps you found it more bearable to feel like a victim? Or to harbour thoughts of resentment and revenge? Or to feel that you were persevering against enormous odds?

These might have been consolations at the time, but now that you know you can change your point of focus there’s a possibility of trading up. You don’t have to remind yourself constantly that you’re a victim, or that you resent life, or that you are still bearing up despite great adversity.

The only caveat is that you have to do so from outside the recurring patterns of thought, otherwise you’ll turn this effort into another instance of your negative experience. You need to first recognise that you want this negative experience, even though you really don’t like it.

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Are you really a cynic?

I thought I was cynical, until I read the following chart courtesy of etymonline.com:

humor

As the table indicates, for me to be a cynic I must be exposing moral nakedness to the respectable for the sake of my own self-justification.

This is not what I thought cynicism was. It’s not what I do.

What I do is much more like privately expressing pessimism in the face of adversity for the sake of my own relief: sardonicism.

A cynic is someone who justifies their own actions by exposing the moral “nakedness” or hypocrisy of others. Like a drug addict who argues that “we’re all addicted to something”, or a thief who argues that “the rich cheat on their taxes”.

Sardonicism is instead like bitter laughter during hard times. Pessimism – expecting the worst – becomes a defense against adverse events.

Are you truly cynical, or sardonic?  The two are not mutually exclusive – I can use sardonic pessimism to cynically justify my actions, and use cynicism to justify being pessimistic. None of this is very positive, grounded as it is in defensive and negative perspectives of life. Like any defense, it may well be our least-bad response to danger and adversity, but it’s not good to live for long in a defensive state.

A response to adversity ought, ideally, to free us from adversity. Once we are free we can abandon the response. If we never abandon the response, it is either because we are unable to free ourselves – suggesting the response was futile – or because we anticipate recurrences – suggesting the response is only barely sufficient.

Unpacking sardonicism further: I use my expectation of the worst to provide relief when bad things happen. Adversity is easier to deal with when it falls short of one’s worst expectations. “Is that how hard you can hit me? I’m kinda disappointed.”

But pessimism is a self-inflicted injury designed to dull your sensitivity to disappointment, hurt, grief, and longing. Expecting the worst might limit your disappointment, but it also leaves you mired in a kind of desolation where nothing really good can happen. “Good” is not simply the absence of evil.

Time and energy devoted to pessimism could be better spent cultivating that which our pessimism seeks to defend: the full integrity of our own selves. Yet as a defense, pessimism doesn’t even try to avoid life’s blows, merely to soften them. Like bracing for impact, it hopes merely to not be taken by surprise.  Such a strategy makes sense only if we already believe that the evils in life are unavoidable, that we will be surprised unless we exert the constant vigilance of a pessimistic mind.  Pessimism is an attempt to take control of a hostile and adverse environment by adjusting one’s expectations to it.  It treats fear – the anticipation of evils – as one of life’s indelible characteristics.

That the world is full of evils is hard to deny. That these evils sometimes take us by surprise is also evident. To adopt pessimism in an attempt to at least forestall surprise makes sense, but is ultimately a terrible way to live. I didn’t understand this when I was younger, but time has exhausted my patience with pessimism.  Avoiding sorrow is not the same as pursuing happiness, and rejecting the pursuit of happiness for fear of increasing the risk of sorrow shows an incomplete understanding of happiness and sorrow, good and evil, in the first place.

I have arrived at a position in life where the greatest obstacle to my own happiness lies in my efforts to avoid suffering and sorrow. More importantly, the need for positive direction, for creativity, and an inspiring purpose demands that I put aside pessimism and attend, for once, to the makings of a pleased and happy frame of mind.