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Do you find that you have the best of intentions about, say, learning how to eat intuitively, getting more sleep or not letting how you feel about your body stop you from taking that fun dance class? Do you actually start to make a few changes or at least a few plans, only to slide right back into old behaviors that are getting in the way of living a satisfying, fulfilling life?
You might want to end a cycle of chronic dieting, get more enjoyable physical activity, feel more rested, and generally take better care of yourself. That’s what you want on paper…but are you actually making it happen? If your answer is “no,” what happens when you look closer at what lies beneath your lack of action?
What you might not be aware of are other, hidden motivations, such as adhering to our society’s thin ideal so you “earn” approval from friends, family, coworkers—and maybe from potential romantic partners. You might also want to hold on to the comfort of doing what you’ve always done before. You may fear what will happen if you give up counting calories or otherwise loosening your control around food.
Sleuthing for the truth
A good clue that something does lie beneath is when your intentions aren’t aligned with your actual behavior. When you really want to make a change that you know intellectually will help make your life better, but just can’t. This is a sign of unconscious conflict. For example:
- You want to stop feeling like your hunger is out of control in the afternoon, but you continue to skip – or skimp on – breakfast and lunch.
- You want to start taking yoga classes at that new studio near you, but you never go online to sign up.
- You want to give up dieting, but you don’t do the work to learn how to be an intuitive eater and unlearn diet culture programming.
You might accurately call this self-sabotage, but be careful before you label yourself as being lazy or unmotivated. It may not be simple procrastination, either. It’s more likely that you’re conflicted about changing, and that this conflict is unconscious. For example:
- You are aware you want to go for more walks…but you’re not aware that you’re afraid of being visible at the size you’re at (internalized weight stigma).
- You are aware you feel physically uncomfortable when you overeat…but you are unaware that you are afraid of not having enough food (scarcity mentality).
- You say that you want to take better care of yourself…but you’re not aware of the deep-seated belief that you don’t deserve to treat yourself well (internalized self-judgment and lack of self-compassion).
A few keys to overcoming unconscious conflict
Accept that change is hard. When change is happening, it can feel uncomfortable and frustrating – even scary – but that’s OK. For these reasons (and more) it’s really common to feel at least somewhat conflicted about changing. Don’t treat frustration, discomfort or fear as an end in itself, a reason to quit, but don’t just grit your teeth and tolerate these feelings, delay all hoped-for gratification until the end. Show yourself some self-compassion, and tune into what your inner rebel is afraid of or concerned about.
Recognize your inherent value. When you love and respect yourself, flaws and all (and we all have flaws), you feel you deserve to live a full, rich and meaningful life, no matter what you do or how you look. When you don’t love and respect yourself, you feel you only deserve the best if you’ve been “good” or your body matches some ideal. This black-or-white thinking can block you from moving towards your stated intentions and stop you from living the life you want.
Add tools to your coping toolbox. There are no inherently “good” feelings or “bad” feelings—feelings are value neutral. Feelings are our internal guidance system—they provide us with important information. While we may like some feelings better than others, but all feelings pass if we give them the space to do so. That said, you probably want to have tangible ways of comforting yourself, and what works for you will be unique to you. Some classic ideas are deep breathing, yoga, being in nature, losing yourself in activities you love, going for a walk. When you have success using these techniques, if food has been your coping go-to you may find that you rely on it less.
Embrace experiments. One reason that diets can be so seductive is that you’re being told what to do—which often seems great until it isn’t. Either what you’re trying to do is unsustainable, or your inner rebel kicks up a fuss. When you allow yourself to experiment, with what kinds of movement feels goos or what foods – and amounts of food – really satisfy you, it’s easier to rely on your on internal compass for guidance, rather than external rules.
5 more smalls steps to become less conflicted about changing
When you’re feeling conflicted about changing, these practices can help you become unstuck and clearer on what you really want, what you’re afraid of, and how to move past the fear to get where you want to be:
- Be honest with yourself. Denial delays real healing, whereas honesty and awareness give you a base from which to move forward.
- Cultivate curiosity. Now that you’re being honest with yourself, be curious about why you are behaving the way you are—without judging yourself.
- Reflect. What did your curiosity uncover? See if you can make any insightful connections between your feelings and fears, and your behaviors.
- Practice self-compassion. I see SO many clients who have very little self-compassion, even when they have abundant compassion for others.
- Ask for help. You don’t have to go it alone. Stoicism isn’t the virtue you think it is. Sometimes, asking for help when you really need it most helps you become stronger.
Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health.