Monday, March 18, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Nine!

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Nine of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. This week we're covering Chapter Nine, "Don't Read This Chapter." This chapter (which I did read!) has proven to be one of the most-helpful chapters in the book for me, and reading it again, I think I'll be able to use the techniques even more effectively.

To start this week's post, I want to show you my New and Improved Linen Closet! (A decluttering project that took 5 days deserves some upper-case letters, don't you think?)
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I'm not sure what I'll do with that nearly-empty shelf, but it sure looks better empty than it did crammed with stuff. Again, I have no Before pic--and I might have been too embarrassed to share it if I had taken one!

And, this is what I've been dealing with today:
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That's my poor Zoodle, who fell asleep watching TV today (multiple times.) He is really sick. Vomiting, fever, lethargy, the whole works. This picture proves that there are valid reasons for not doing decluttering (which I probably won't get done today.) I sure hope my little guy feels better soon. And I'm committed to continuing my decluttering, even when I do take a day off (very) occasionally.

I'd like Sonnet to give her input on this chapter first, and then I'll explain why it's been so helpful to me.

My oldest daughter is nine years old, and has ADD (and is normally extremely well behaved.) As I mentioned last week, my parents have been here and have been spoiling the girls rotten in wonderful grandparent fashion. So on Sunday evening, we headed home from their place and my daughter had to sit at the kitchen table and put in some time with her homework before bed. She was overstimulated, exhausted, and homework was the last thing she wanted to be doing right at that moment.

“I’m too tired to be doing this,” she whined. Then a few minutes later she got up and went looking for a snack. Maybe two minutes later, after eating it, she started crying that her tummy hurt too much to face homework. Then her head was hurting. She kicked her feet, slumped over in her chair, flicked pencils across the table, and chewed on her hair. She started yelling that she hated school and was never going to go to school again and definitely not on Mondays. After a while she bolted from the table, ran downstairs “just to change into pj’s so she could work better,” and we heard the TV turn on.

If you’re a parent, have you ever faced this battle? Kids can just pull every excuse in the book out of thin air in order to avoid doing something they don’t want to be doing; ranging from the likely (I’m too tired) to the impossible (I’m never going to school again.) Well guess what? We adults do it too, and we add our own layer of self-destructive impulse behaviors onto our avoidance. That’s what Chapter Nine deals with: How we use and abuse impulse behaviors to avoid feelings, cravings and compulsions we’d rather not be dealing with… and how that doesn’t work.

My daughter tried pretty hard to get out of doing her homework this weekend, but in the end she still had to do it. In just the same way, no matter what method we try and use to dodge our uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, they’re going to come back and force the issue. They’re going to insist that we deal with them one way or the other. I’m pretty sure everyone has heard of the famous psychological experiment where subjects are asked not to think of white bears (or white elephants, or a pink rhinoceros?) Well once you try to control your thoughts, once you try to shove something away from you and suppress it, it comes back ten times stronger, doesn’t it. If you’re dieting and try tell yourself you don’t want chocolate cake, guess what you will dream of all day long. A recovering alcoholic will fantasize about the forbidden martinis. Tell yourself you can’t check email until your work is done for the day and you’ll spend a good portion of the day wondering what’s in your inbox.

We can’t just pretend like impulses, cravings and strong feelings aren’t there. If we avoid them, they demand our attention by becoming stronger. The trick is to recognize them and the place they have in our lives without giving them too much power, and without becoming afraid of them. If you can face a negative feeling head-on, and just be with it, you learn that you don’t have to give in to impulse behavior to handle it. It’s just a feeling, it doesn’t have any special meaning, it is just a part of life and it happens. You learn that you are a strong enough person to handle hard feelings. Cravings and compulsions lose their power.

This all sounds very zen, but I also think it’s extremely powerful. What are so many of our unwanted behaviors if not our unconscious ways of trying to handle uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that frighten or upset us? Learning that we can let our emotions flow through us instead of master us is remarkable stuff and opens up so many possibilities.

I do have to say that this chapter really only applies to I WON’T challenges. Try as I might, I could not find a way to make these theories work for I WILL challenges like the one I am working on. Still useful stuff, but unlike so much of the rest of the book, this info can’t be simply flip-flopped backwards and forwards to work either way. You can’t ‘ride your physical craving sensations’ and come out the other side motivated to do something.

We convinced my daughter to get moving Sunday night by acknowledging her discomfort, (“I’m sorry you’re tired and headachy. It’s been a busy weekend.”) providing her some means of physical support (snacks, hugs) and working together with her so she had the emotional support she needed to face her I WON’T fear and get her job done. I think the same techniques can work for all of us when we’re struggling. Listening to those feelings and recognizing them, along with paying attention to our bodily needs and a healthy dose of love and support from others, can get you pretty far in life.

All right, it's time for me to open up a bit.

My biggest and most-destructive willpower challenge is not the clutter in my house, though that's the main thing I've focused on through this Willpower Experiment. The bigger challenge I'm talking about it something I'd started working through a few months before I read this book. And I don't even think I realized it was a willpower challenge until I came to Chapter Nine.

My Big Huge Challenge? WORRY. Since I was very young (early grade school) I've struggled with worry. We all worry about different things. My major source of worry tends to be tied to my desire to please people (and God). When I'm afraid I've disappointed someone, made them angry, or had some sort of relational break, I can get positively torn up inside about it. Little tiny things--interpreting (possibly misinterpreting) someone's text, or lack of response to a text, or tone of voice--can put a big cloud over my day, and that's just not cool. And when it's bigger stuff, when someone is actually upset with me, I can have trouble focusing on anything else.

So I tend to reach out to people and try to smooth things over, even apologizing for things that really weren't my fault. I feel I have to do something, but doing something isn't always the best plan. Because by the fact is, I worry about relationships waaaaaaay too much. That means I apologize and try to make things right waaaaaaay too much. While jumping straight into action gives me a temporary reprieve from my anxiety, it doesn't ever teach me to actually deal with other people's negative feelings towards me (or my perception of their possible negative feelings). So that anxiety ("Did I make that person upset???") returns, over and over.

Chapter Nine teaches some very powerful things to help worrywarts.
  • Don't try to shove that worry away, or think about something else. You may be able to temporarily, but it will come back. (White bear/purple elephant, anybody?)
  • When a worry comes up, acknowledge it. Describe it to yourself. ("I am worried that this person might be upset at me because she (fill in the blank).")
  • Think about how that worry feels, physically. Does it put a sinking feeling in my stomach? Am I breathing faster? (I've been forgetting this aspect of acknowledging worry and am so glad I reread this chapter.)
  • Breathe deeply. Man, deep breathing comes up over and over, doesn't it? Focus on what that breathing feels like. Think about the worry dissolving as you exhale.
  • Know that you don't have to act on the worry. It's okay to feel worried, and if I acknowledge the feeling and DON'T act on it, it will run its cycle. I am finally learning this, and it is so freeing to realize I don't have to do what my worry tells me to do! Eventually my mind comes to a point of greater peace, without me taking that action that I always thought was necessary but was actually perpetuating the cycle!
There is so much more amazing stuff in this chapter. For someone who tends to fixate on a problem or potential problem, and worry about it, this chapter could be worth the price of the whole book.

But of course there are other books that deal specifically with anxiety and with other negative thoughts, and I'd like to recommend a couple that have been helping me.

The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques by Margaret Wehrenberg (Written from a secular perspective but easy to adapt to a faith-based framework)

Living Beyond Your Feelings by Joyce Meyer (Deals with negative feelings in general, not just anxiety. Christian book.)

This book in willpower is helping me in a way I never expected. I'm so excited to be seeing changes (sometimes itty bitty baby steps, sometimes two steps forward, one step back) in something that has held me back for so long--unnecessary worries!

Next week is Chapter Ten, the final chapter! It's really short. I think Sonnet and I will just recap how we're doing and sum up what we've learned. See you then!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

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