For most of my life, I was an undisciplined wreck. I guess there was a time in my pre- and early teen years when I got up at the same time each morning, made my bed and tidied my room, but probably only because Mom made me. The last couple of years of high school were a mess. College was a complete train wreck up until at least halfway through my junior year.
I remember so many days when I had failed to read the assignment or do my homework. I would show up to class knowing I would flunk the test or quiz (“That thou doest, do quickly.”), then I would walk back to my dorm room wanting to cry. Many days, I did. There was an incredible sense of depression, self-hatred, failure and doom upon my life. I was avoiding my problems with all the energy I could muster, just hoping somehow by some miracle things would work out and the pain would finally stop.
It didn’t. The bleeding only continued until, three years after college graduation, I reached an all-time low. I was a quivering bundle of anxiety, self-loathing, shame and depression. I had no friends, weighed in at an obese 335 lbs., and was going straight to a hell of my own making.
Yet here I am to tell the tale. Having struggled so long to overcome the tremendous obstacles I placed in my own way, I have reached a point where I have my self-respect back. I’ve lost 130+ lbs., overcome my depression and started working towards a better future. I’ve let go of my past shame and frustration. Now I know it doesn’t have to rule my life. The door to my cage is unlocked. I’m free to go.
There are many important lessons I’ve learned over the last few years, but one of the most important to my sense of self-respect is the idea of keeping my word, especially to myself. You see, back in college when I was failing classes (some more than once), I would make little promises to myself. “I’ll do the reading tonight after dinner.” “Tomorrow, I’ll make a homework plan for the semester.” “I’ll get up early and study for my Accounting quiz, but tonight I’m going to play Super Mario Kart.”
With every small self-slight, every commitment broken, I would become more hopeless, more avoidant. I may not have even been aware of how my behavior was impacting me, but I hated myself for not being the kind of person I could depend on. If you can’t trust yourself, if you don’t respect yourself, you’re going to remain in a constant state of inner conflict.
With my whole life in shambles, I felt utterly overwhelmed, but I had to start somewhere. At the center of all my problems, I thought, was my issue with binging and obesity. If I could just start to get a grip on that one thing, I could regain some sense of control. I felt as if there were a wild man inside me that I just didn’t have the strength to handle. He would come into my house and trash things up, then leave me to pick up the shattered vases and furniture stuffing.
Over and over again, I tried diets (vegan, raw food, South Beach), calorie counting and exercise. I couldn’t seem to make anything stick. I remember vividly doing a three-week stint on a 2,000 calorie diet plan and then at the end of that third week, binging and falling completely off the wagon. When I talked to my dad about my failure the next day, I was aggressive and combative. The disappointment, frustration, fear and pain that come with a lack of control over your own behavior can be devastating.
When you’re trying to achieve any major goal, there are always practical hurdles to be overcome. For me, there was a need to find a diet and exercise program that allowed me some flexibility in what I ate, that wasn’t too restrictive, and that I could actually follow. It took me a while to find something that clicked, and seeking the help of a Registered Dietician helped tremendously. But there was something else that I think really made the difference to my long-term success.
It wasn’t until I discovered Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as the word, not spelled out) through the self-help workbook Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life that things really clicked for me. There were a lot of aha! moments reading the book, but the concepts that were most helpful to me were acceptance and willingness.
Acceptance is about seeing your emotions and thoughts for what they are, fleeting and changeable states that are important to pay attention to, but that can be helpful or unhelpful in the service of pursuing what really matters. Accepting our thoughts and feelings as they are instead of trying to change them or avoid them can free us to take positive action.
Willingness is fully accepting the thoughts and feelings that come your way when you move in the direction of something you value. Willingness says yes, I realize that some negative stuff will likely come up when I try to make this change. I may feel frustrated, anxious, feel physical pain, etc. I realize that all this may happen to me and I am still willing to take this action. I fully accept whatever presents itself as a result of taking this step, no matter what it is. And why? Because this step is valuable to me. Taking this step aligns with my values, those principles on which I freely choose to base my life choices. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and look back on it regretting having not followed this value. I am surrendering myself, I am embracing this path, good, bad and ugly.
When I became fully willing to engage with diet and exercise, valuing them, pursuing them no matter how I felt or what negative thoughts turned up, I had success. Before I would let thoughts like “I don’t feel like taking a walk today” or “I’m hungry” stop me from taking action towards my goals. With an accepting, willing mindset, I would say no, I don’t feel like taking a walk today, but I’m not doing this because it feels good in the moment, I’m doing this because this is a valued life direction. Following this direction will lead to a richer life, while not following it will keep me stuck and in pain. A lot more pain than I am about to experience by taking a walk anyway.
So willingness accepts that there may be pain involved in an action, but it says hey, I’m OK with that. I’m not going to die. This may be uncomfortable, but it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. Feeling uncomfortable is part of being human. The way I see it, life comes with a lot of pain. There are no two ways around it. The only important question is whether we choose to avoid the pain of the moment, of taking action towards our values, and reap the consequences of long-term pain and the devitalization of our lives, or we choose to follow our values, accepting the short-term pain and reaping the long-term rewards of a rich, vital life.
Willingness and acceptance allowed me to start keeping my word to myself again. I began to regain control, seeing that even if I didn’t feel like doing something, if it was a valued activity, I could still engage in that. And what happened as I did so is that the activities actually became more and more pleasant to engage in. They become linked with your values in an inextricable way so that even though they may be hard in some sense, they are so richly rewarding that the difficulty itself becomes part of the pleasure of the experience.
If you’re struggling with keeping your word to yourself in some aspect of your life (and really, aren’t we all?) I encourage you to try to use these concepts. Maybe even get yourself a copy of the ACT book I mentioned. It could open the door to new ways of thinking, more workable attitudes and ways of dealing with troubling thoughts and emotions. And remember to keep cultivating willingness for the journey.