You’ve got a stride in your step, the sun is upon your face, and your outlook on life is looking pretty damn good. All of your fears, past mistakes, and errors in judgment feel integrated and are all just water under the bridge now. You feel pretty confident that moving forward, your decision making skills are no longer impaired because you’ve been riding the self-help train pretty regularly. You’ve been doing a 21 day vegan challenge, you haven’t been spending money recklessly, and you’re not waking up every morning smelling like a brewery. You even went to Zumba AND yoga last Saturday. Then, just as life would have it, your car needs new tires, your unpaid medical bills are so extensive you need a spreadsheet to keep track, daycare still hasn’t been paid, and you and your beloved haven’t been getting along so well. Suddenly, you find yourself somehow wandering into the beer aisle at the store looking for deals and there’s a BOGO special on your favorite nacho flavored chips. Brace yourself. The only train you will be riding now, is the one headed for Self-Sabotageville.
According to Psychology Today, a well known online resource for therapists, “behavior is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems and interferes with long-standing goals. The most common self-sabotaging behaviors are procrastination, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting. These acts may seem helpful in the moment, but they ultimately undermine us, especially when we engage in them repeatedly." From a yogic and western psychological perspective, the core beliefs we have about ourselves are formed very early on in our lives, leading to the formation of the ego, or "Ahankara" in Sanskrit. For most people, unless our core beliefs are congruent with our actions, internal discord will arise. In addition to congruency of beliefs and action, our nervous system must interpret sensory input as either “safe” or “unsafe.” On the level of the nervous system, impending stress and multiple stressors at once can be interpreted as if one was being attacked by a tiger. Anticipating change can trigger the same nervous system stress response as a bear attack would. For some, change is exciting and for others it is terrifying. Moving past the grasping of what will no longer be and the judgment of what is to come can be the most difficult obstacle of the process. When the level of discomfort is high, food, alcohol, drugs, and/or excessive shopping are all attempts to dissociate from unwanted feelings. Acknowledging and tolerating the inner sensations and emotional experiences that arise when standing at the intersection of change without acting upon urges is an optimal departure point for intercepting self-sabotage.
The Bhagavad Gita discusses the concept of action in inaction. When we cease to take action (i.e reaching for the bag of Doritos or the double dirty martini when the going gets rough) we remove ourselves from the habitual patterns that perpetuate our suffering. Not taking action to soothe, fix, numb, or repel the emotions that trigger discomfort, but rather embrace the discomfort, allows us to release attachment to the outcomes of what would be our actions.
The hope is found here. The first word of the Yoga Sutras is “Atha.” It refers to readiness and commitment. Much like in mental health recovery, and in the context of change, we embark upon self-study, known in Sanskrit as svadhyaya. To understand who we are, where we are, and how we can cultivate gradual changes to both our internal and external worlds, invites us to be more aware of how we interpret sensations and feelings, in addition to how our actions perpetuate the behavior we so desperately want to change. This is key to understanding why so many diets, exercise plans, etc don’t work. They have not addressed the core beliefs that drive the behavior nor have they helped a person build up a tolerance to distress. Change is sustainable when ongoing awareness of how the subtle body feels when exposed to a potential threat is welcomed and allowed, rather than pushed away.
PRACTICE: AWARENESS BUILDING
Find a comfortable seat and begin to visualize one of the main areas of your life that you feel you are realistically able to change right now. It can even be reducing the frequency of a certain behavior (i.e cutting back on alcohol or cigarettes rather than quitting cold turkey.)
Imagine how you will look, feel, speak, think, and exist in this world when you have made that change. Who will notice the change first? How will others notice this change? Notice what happens to the breath as you imagine this optimal version of you.
Then visualize what it will take for you to get there. Notice what sensations arise when you imagine getting from point A to point B. Do you feel immediately tired? Anxious? Confused? Notice if there is a change in the quality of your breathing. (i.e are you suddenly holding your breath?) Are there any sensations that begin to arise? Pain? Tension?
Return to taking full inhales through the nose and longer exhales through the nose. To close your practice, find a movement or stretch that feels nurturing or allows any tension to dissolve. If you feel you can sit in meditation for a few minutes, set a timer and try to simply feel what is present, returning to the breath when necessary.
Journal about your experience for a few minutes.