It’s that time of year again. The fitness and diet resolutions that were made with the last of the Christmas wine in a glass, a full belly and a book by the fire, only half a moon ago, already feel very distant and unreal. Work stress has undermined our best intentions and family squabbles put paid to the rest.
Before we pull ourselves up for the last desperate battle to regain our willpower, or begin to beat ourselves up over our lack of it, it might be time to look at the hidden reasons we made those resolutions in the first place. Trying to understand a bit better what we were actually seeking with “the new me” might help the next resolutions to become reality, and help scupper the useless ones right up front.
Let’s take weight loss as an example. It’s a perennial favourite, and has figured on my own list for at least twenty years. It seemed really strange and highly irritating that a capable, intelligent, controlled woman like myself was helpless in the face of a few kilos. How could I not get rid of them? Why was I consistently failing to make the necessary changes in my eating habits, when I knew exactly what to do, and was actually very motivated to follow through?
This last December I had an epiphany. Some of my eating, the bit that was keeping those extra kilos on, was for deep-rooted emotional reasons, not out of hunger or gourmandise. Sweet foods were my way of modulating my moods: the physical, pleasureful jolt of a piece of chocolate melting on the tongue would dispel (for a moment) tiredness, stress, loneliness, even anger or guilt.
Once I realised to what extent emotional eating is addictive behaviour, it began to lose its grip on me. It took a while to deal with the shock of it – how could I not have noticed it before? It was a situation a bit similar to baby blues all those years ago: there’s literature on emotional eating all over the place, and I like to think of myself as having a good psychological eye, a fairly good understanding of who I am.
Perhaps the answer is that it worked so well that I didn’t want to give it up. I was not in a strong enough place in my life to do without it – so I suppressed the knowledge. Of course I had had a theoretical understanding that there is a link between me eating chocolate and feeling better, but I had not understood it in all its Technicolour glory before. Now that I have dug into the embarrassing underground of my relationship with food, in more detail than I care to write out here, it is highly likely that those pounds will come off and stay off. It’s only partially a question of willpower. The greater part is understanding why we do what we do.
But just as important is setting another question: why do I even want to lose weight / become more fit / learn to paraglide? What are we actually trying to achieve with it? Hardly ever are our resolutions and plans just about the visible gain. We are either seeking some hidden goal or trying to get away from something unpleasant. What are they for you, for your resolutions, your dreams and plans?
Naturally the goals seem appealing in themselves as well, and are worth pursuing for themselves. But often that is not enough for us: what we are really looking for is not the fitter body or the thrill of weightless freedom paragliding gives, but something to do with our self-image: we will be admired, and hence we will be loved. Perhaps we feel we are not lovable enough as we are. Why would we think that? Where does the thought stem from? And onwards it goes. The deeper we go, the better we can assess whether paragliding really is a goal for us, and fun in itself, or whether we are using it merely as a hold-all for our wish to be loved and admired – or for freedom, or for whatever it is that we think we lack.
We live in a culture of doing, of progress and dynamic change. We seldom allow ourselves to just be. This easily leads to a state of mind where nothing is good enough as it is, that life itself is not worthy and beautiful as it is. There is always a void in ourselves that needs to be filled – with chocolate, for example! Or a resolution! That is why surrendering to the status quo can actually be such a brave, meditated choice, and why dreams and plans need to be looked at from more than one angle.
Anything we do can be turned either into filling the void, or done for the pleasure of its own sake. Distinguishing why you do what you do is crucial to happiness. Small kids do it right, even when they are acting in a goal-oriented way. Why do we lose that, and how do we get it back? Perhaps by asking ourselves the following questions:
What is it that you want at the heart of it? What is the thing that your dreams or resolutions represent?
Are the dreams really the way to get that? Or could your dreams even take you away from the final goal? Or are they a really long way to get there?
Is the pursuit of the dream, the action itself going to give you happiness?
Or could you actually – gasp! - be happy as you are?
In a way it’s hubris, a kind of reverse pride: it’s very hard for us to accept that we are ”normal” human beings, like everyone else. In other words, that we are human at all, that we have failings. We always strive to be something more, something better, to appease that dictator inside ourselves, the one we never can measure up to and whose love we cannot seem to gain. This year, its time for a revolution of a resolution - for the status quo.
Swedish researchers Lisbeth Stahre & Veronika Ryd have written an excellent book on emotional eating, which is available in Swedish and Finnish, but unfortunately not in English.