I’m sure you’re aware of the ‘self-discipline’ approach to good health and wellbeing. The details vary somewhat, but the steps usually look a little something like this:
Look at fit healthy people and resolve to be like them.
Make lists. Choose diet plan and exercise program. Probably involves replacing alcohol or cigarettes with kale. Maybe even 5am alarms and positive affirmations.
Keep it up for 1-7 days. Slip. Shame yourself. Eat two litres of chocolate ice cream, while admonishing yourself for being a failure.
Do what you were doing before for some period of time.
Repeat, but this time with slightly more evidence that you’ll probably fail.
Why this (mostly) doesn’t work
I’ll level with you, I think self-discipline is bullsh*t.
I have never in my life achieved a single thing with a ‘crack the whip’ approach.
When we attempt to discipline ourselves to do something we don’t actually enjoy doing, we can create a kind of ‘split’ inside ourselves. Imagine you’ve got two parts at play here: an inner parent and an inner child (Freud called these Superego and Id), and your inner parent is waving a bunch of kale around shouting, ‘Eat this and get up early to go running even though you hate all those things!’
Even if you don’t have children, you probably know how that ends. A child may comply for a time if the demand is forceful enough, but it won’t last, and it’s likely going to create a whooollle lot of resentment and rebellion.
What if, instead, we issued a gentle invitation to all parts of ourselves to feel great?
We might need to start by recognising that we deserve to feel good. To wake up feeling enthusiastic about each new day. To treat ourselves with love, compassion, and kindness. To be able to laugh easily, and forgive ourselves for the lessons we call ‘mistakes’.
Let’s get real, sometimes, feeling good involves a pack of TimTams and a bingeworthy Netflix series. But you’ll probably find that that only works in occasional emergencies, and as a life practice, it’s unlikely to result in feeling great. If what you’re doing now isn’t making you feel great, you may wish to give yourself permission yourself to try something new.
What do you need?
If your answer to this question involves meeting the expectations of others or comes from a place of shame, you might as well be building a home on a foundation of potato chips and sponges.
What if you asked a little more gently and listened a little more deeply?
What if you gave every part of yourself a chance to answer?
My turning point was when I woke up one night from an upsetting dream, which showed me clearly that I wasn’t strong or reliable enough to care for my traumatised inner child. I haven’t touched alcohol since, and take ridiculous pleasure in showing her my newly developed biceps from all the exercise I suddenly love doing. And it turns out, swapping alcohol for exercise does wonders for your sleep and mood (who knew?), and the whole thing has spiralled quickly into feeling better than I have in a long time.
Because this time, I know, deeply and genuinely, what I need and why I’m doing it.
What do you need?
Having a supporter
I should mention here, that my own journey has involved the continual support of a therapist. While the effort has been my own, having his ongoing empathy, acceptance, and insight has certainly helped me find the path and open the right doors.
The Gestalt approach involves integration of all parts of ourselves, and taking responsibility and ownership for the way we want our lives to be. It encourages us to embrace all parts of ourselves with kindness and curiosity, understand each of our conflicting needs, and shift into a more harmonious and self-aware way of being in the world. And that may work better for you than more self-discipline splitting.