Yes, Drill Sergeant!
The Huffington Post recently posted “10 Tips to Achieving Your New Year’s Resolutions.” Tip number one is for folks to adopt “all or nothing” kind of thinking, suggesting that one has to be intensely motivated and unwavering. The Huffington Post article suggests you anticipate that you may have to SUFFER, and they recommend you have a look at your self-talk to check for NEGATIVITY. Yes, Drill Sergeant! I have to say, there was a time when I was younger when this kind of driving motivational forcefulness would really work, and I’m sure it works for a time for lots of folks. Not so much anymore for me. And I’m guessing that for those of you who’ve lived a little—and struggled a little—and failed a little (like me) all the hype seems, well, a little hyper.
One thing I know for sure: there will be no 5 AM boot camp for this soldier! Who are these people RUNNING at 5 AM? Well…they’re probably a lot younger than me.
When we’re in our 40’s and 50’s on up and trying to do something like lose weight or eat better or have better relationships, and when we fail because we can’t force ourselves to struggle and strain like we could (if we could) when we were younger, we start thinking something might be wrong with us, or maybe we start to feel depressed or hopeless. We never consider that something might be wrong with a forceful kind of approach—whether it’s a boot camp kind of forcefulness or a constant flow of thinking and obsessing and banging one’s head against the wall. Perhaps trying to force one’s self to change is along the lines of trying to force one’s spouse to change. It can’t be done. So, we might consider a different approach. Maybe. I mean, if you REALLY want to.
Recognizing Our Eusociality
Within the microscope of conventional psychology we find theories and hypotheses and tools and tricks and techniques that locate the problem or challenge as well as the solution for that problem or challenge within the individual human brain. It’s all in your head, so the thinking goes.
But is it? Maybe we just need our computers to work properly. Can you feel me?
Certainly some popular techniques like brain entrainment (brain.fm), neurofeedback training, cognitive behavioral therapy, and meditation make a difference in people’s lives. And I recommend learning about any of these useful tools and more. But the reality is none of us live in a vacuum, and none of our brains do either. The permeability between brains is astounding sometimes, frustrating at others, and yet glorious at still others. What do I mean by permeability between brains and what does it have to do with New Year’s Resolutions?
Have you ever finished your husband’s sentence for him? Or have you ever known what your wife was about to say before she said it? Or what about this scenario: My daughter and I were riding in the car recently on our way to Starbucks. We were listening to music. She was texting. I looked over at her at one point and said, “You know when we get there you can’t have an icy drink, right?”
“Oh my god!” she said. “I was literally just thinking in that moment that you weren’t going to let me have an icy drink and that you were going to tell me that!” We both had a chuckle at the “synchronicity” of having the same thoughts at the same time. (If you must know about the icy-drink-in-winter thing, google it.) And before you say this was just a coincidence, I have to tell you: It happens all the time in families!
So, brain permeability? Yeah. It’s a thing. (It’s my thing, by the way. Just made it up. The phrase that is.) But seriously, we are a highly connected species, and what one of us does (or doesn’t do) impacts others in automatic and often times invisible ways. It’s like a centripetal force is working on us, constantly pulling on us, making it difficult to separate and do our own thing. Kind of like an ant colony with its clear but too-small-to-see-with-the-naked-eye lines of communication that seem to direct or control every action of every ant, keeping every individual in line and keeping the colony in good working order. Interdependence at its most efficient.
As a matter of fact, biologist Ed Wilson, two time Pulitzer prize winner, identified nineteen species that he considered so interdependent, that each family or colony or hive could be considered a single, complex organism. He called them eusocial. As a direct result of their extraordinary interdependence, all nineteen of these species dominate the planet in number and/or weight. Most of the species are various kinds of ants, a few wasps, termites, and yes, humans.
Our lives are intricately interconnected with the members of our colonies…I mean families…both nuclear and extended—whether we are speaking to them or not—and perhaps so is our success or failure when it comes to New Year’s resolutions and goal setting (and achieving) in general. As you read Jennifer’s story below, consider the ant colony in all its complex communications and patterns that keep them all moving together.
Jennifer Tries to Lose Weight, 2014 New Year’s Resolution
Jennifer had been married to Jason for 13 years. They had 3 kids who were then 12, 10, and 7. Jennifer is the older sister of a brother, Jason the younger brother of a sister. Neither talks to their extended families very often. They are “a lot of trouble,” so Jennifer and Jason look to each other for most of their day-to-day moral support.
Jennifer thrives on being a mother and on keeping things in order at home, but she has tended to neglect taking care of herself for the last several years. She has tried to lose weight repeatedly, but can’t seem to pull herself away from the kids and the house long enough to work out, etc. Being an oldest Jennifer is accustomed to taking on a little more responsibility than is really hers, and when she tries to back up a little and let others take the lead, no one seems to step in quickly enough. She feels that everything will fall apart if she were to really focus on herself. Jason and the kids are supportive of her efforts when she makes them, but it seems almost like an invisible force is at work that makes it difficult for Jennifer to take care of herself. She has tried the personal trainer and Weight Watchers and any number of diets. She feels she has no one to blame but herself…and man does she ever! But maybe there’s a larger picture to consider.
The Five Things that Helped Jennifer Achieve her Goal
Tip #1: Sought help from a neutral 3rd party
For Jennifer, it started with seeking help from a therapist. Over the course of therapy, she became more aware of the invisible and automatic forces at work in her family. For example, she became more aware of her automatic urge to protect and provide for her children. She began to see it as instinctual rather than thoughtful. As she became more thoughtful about her parenting, she became more sensitive to the older two’s resistance to all her doing-for-them…and the amount of energy their resistance was taking out of her. Little by little, she began to let them do a little more for themselves. Their relating became more peaceful. The centripetal force slightly smaller.
Tip #2: Broadened her definition of the problem
Jennifer’s problem wasn’t that she was over weight. Her weight and difficulty losing it were symptoms or net effects of a particular pattern of interacting. One that was automatic in nature as described above, based in instinct rather than thought and calm reflection. When Jennifer stepped back and looked at her little ant family from above—as if through a telescope from a long ways away, rather than her usual microscope—she noticed she felt a little calmer. A little more objective. (When I say “a little” I really do mean just a little. It’s the little bit that can begin to shift the tide of typical family interactions.)
Her definition of the problem went from one of “weight gain/loss” to one of a dynamic, constant, ongoing interaction pattern that had certain predictable results, namely one that made it too hard for her to take care of self. If the problem was about weight, the solution would be to go on a diet. If the problem was about an interaction or relationship pattern, the solution would have something to do with changing that pattern.
Tip #3: Began to calm herself
As she continued this process of stepping back, she began to observe her little ant family more and more rather than just react to its constant demands. Over time, the urgency to fix or protect grew slightly less powerful. She began to see patterns. She began to think longer term regarding her parenting. To borrow from Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting, she began to take on the idea that she was not raising kids, but rather launching adults. She had to get them ready to be without her, and she wasn’t going to wait until they were 18 to start. While this was a significant goal that would take significant time and energy and thought, it gave her clarity and direction.
Tip #4: Visited home more regularly
Through her work with the therapist, Jennifer began to recognize the importance of expanding her social and familial network. She realized that staying disconnected from her extended family ended up putting too much pressure on too few. She and Jason were looking too much to each other, and even too much to the kids, to keep everything afloat. She recognized that her distance from her siblings and parents was increasing the centripetal force between Jason and her and the kids.
Since her parents were “such a pain,” she started with her siblings, but over time this expanded to include her mom and dad. She was surprised to discover it wasn’t as toxic as she’d expected. She was even more surprised to discover that the more relaxed and kind she was toward them, the less of a ruckus they stirred. Just like with her kids, Jennifer recognized that if she shifted her part of the pattern, the pattern would be forced to shift.
Tip #5: Focused on feeding herself
With a little less self-blame and a little more awareness of the forces at work within and around her, Jennifer started working on feeding herself. She put effort into cooking for herself, sitting still for meals, and not allowing herself to be distracted (even if that sometimes meant eating alone, without the children’s constant demanding-ness). Once she was able to feel satiated and relaxed during meals, she started a program with a nutritionist. After a few months, Jennifer started feeling (and looking) much better.
More Telescope, Less Microscope
In the absence of a more telescopic (or broad, systemic, and long range) view—one that considers context, as much as, if not more than, individual functioning—people generally end up with their heads so far up their…well…you know…that they can no longer see straight. I’m not being mean here. Just speaking from experience.
When we locate too much of the responsibility for things going wrong (or right) on the individual we miss the context in which that individual lives. The emotional systems in which we live are not an excuse. They are part of the puzzle. A part that becomes much more intriguing—and workable—when we can observe from just a tiny bit more of a distance. Via telescope.
Jason’s New Year’s resolution for 2016? Figure out what in the heck happened to his wife! Jason had a little catching up to do…but maybe he would be up for the task, given the right context.
If you haven’t subscribed to the blog yet, would you consider it? I would LOVE you forever if you did! Just fill in your email at the top right side of the page. More posts to come soon!