At some point in our lives, we have probably come across someone or several people that told us that we should change something about ourselves. It could have been a casual suggestion like a new hairstyle, a personal probe about our health and diet, or social concern about how we come across to others.
For most people, unsolicited inferences can put us on the defense and imply that we are doing something wrong and need to be corrected. That’s not to say that there can’t be any truth to others’ observations–or advice. But on the other hand, how good does it feel to be judged?
If each of our starting points are unique, then our capacity to change will be relative and somewhat contingent upon our biological makeup and our environment. For example, if my hair is very curly, trying to make it frizz-free and straight (in humid Florida) may never look quite like my beautiful friend, Julia’s hair, because her starting point is straight, non-frizzy hair. Of course, there are short-cuts, I could blow dry my hair straight or get it chemically relaxed, but my hair would suffer substantial damage in order to make that change (and still may not have achieved the look I had hoped for).
Struggling with weight is something that many of us have either personally experienced or know others who have. We hear of ‘success’ stories, yet later see how easily it is to fall back into old patterns and habits, fluctuating with weight again and again. I once knew a woman that was very thin who was talking to a friend of mine that was struggling to lose weight. The thin woman just looked at him and said, “If it bothers you so much, why don’t you just eat less and exercise more?” I cringed inside, because of the callousness of her comment. Perhaps my friend’s issues with his weight were due to a condition concentrated within his family. Maybe he grew up in a house where fruits and vegetables were not introduced or incorporated in meals. Or perhaps he felt a void in his life, and food was the way with which he coped. Regardless of why he was overweight, changing his biology, environment, and habits were not something he could simply reduce to ‘eating less and exercising more’.
Different people have different habits. This is why a person who is born with a fast metabolism, and who never struggled with weight in their life, may have a hard time understanding my friend’s struggle– because their starting point is different than his. Maybe they grew up in an environment that supported a healthy lifestyle, or perhaps physical and mental balance came more readily to them. However, expecting a person with a family history of diabetes– accompanied by years of poor eating habits– to lose weight by simply ‘eating less and exercising more’, is like suggesting to someone who wears glasses to eat carrots and practice eye exercises in order to see better. It is easy to see how ridiculous this sounds with the person who has vision impairment, yet why would anyone apply those same principles to someone with a predisposition to a weight condition?
While it might seem quite obvious that my friend should ‘eat less and exercise more’, we all know that breaking habits aren’t as easy in practice as they are in theory. If they were, then we would all spend a lot less time on our phones and in front our screens.
Advising people to change something about themselves doesn’t only come from friends or family, it is also pervades in every form of advertisement that there is. Whether at the grocery store or online, you can find a million magazines or commercials telling you all of the things you could and should change about yourself. This goes beyond making suggestions about new hair styles or improved health. Unsolicited advice can dig straight into how we manage our emotions. Showing too much of any emotion can get you easily labeled or stigmatized. You can show anger–but not too much, because that could be viewed as ‘aggressive’. Don’t be too happy either, that could be perceived as phony or overly enthusiastic. And be careful about looking inordinately melancholy. You may get asked if you suffer from depression or anxiety.
Despite the incessant need that pop culture seems to place on wanting us all to look and behave in a certain way, if history is any indication, most trends have been as transient as the weather. Once curly hair was celebrated (think 80s and early 90s perms), there was a time when voluptuous women were the definition of beauty (see Rubens’ painting, “The Three Graces“), and being sensitive used to mean that you were more in-tune with your own feelings and those of others (High Sensitive Person, or HSPs, notice subtleties that other people miss) as opposed to being labeled a mental case.
I say all of this as a person with curly hair, who fluctuated with weight a lot in my teens and twenties, and who is highly sensitive. I’ve been advised to straighten my hair countless times, tried every diet under the sun, and can easily bawl my eyes out while watching the movie, Mama Mia (Meryl Streep’s rendition of “The Winner Takes it All” gets me every time).
Changing one’s habits is perhaps one of life’s most arduous challenges. The deliberation about what and how to change is often more grueling than the change itself. Yet the hardest part is recognizing what our habits are.
Every thought that we have is a response to an external or internal stimuli. We react to innumerable stimuli everyday, and these responses become habitual so long as they are not recognized. These habits then emerge as behaviors. For example, looking at an image of someone who represents a form of beauty that is celebrated (which may greatly differ from your own beauty) may make you tense your neck and tighten your jaw, unbeknownst to you. You may not feel it or recognize it, unless you pay attention to what you are doing while reacting to a certain stimulus. Is it really any wonder that Facebook has caused depression in numerous people? Social comparison is a big trigger for most people, and revisiting that stimulus again and again only exacerbates a well-established habit. How are you sitting as you scroll through images (stimuli) on your social media, several times a day? Are you sitting upright, or slouched over in front of your screen? Professor Erik Peper from San Francisco State University, found that a slouched body posture can lead to feelings of depression or decreased energy levels, while a more upright body can improve mood and energy levels. Therefore, it is not surprising that sitting with a rounded back, while scrolling through images on social media, could trigger tension in the body and alter one’s mood. One solution: Delete your Facebook account. Yeah right. Do you see why it is so hard to change?
The good news is that we have more control of our thoughts and reactions than we think. The first step towards real change is acknowledging and recognizing the need to change debilitating habits. The next step is asking for help. One of my beloved teachers once told me that anyone who thinks that they can make it through life without any help is fooling themselves. For me, the Alexander Technique, an educational tool used to recognize undesired habits that interfere with the body’s optimal well-being, was the help that brought me out of a funk that I didn’t even know I was in. I didn’t know that I wanted to change, nor that I was capable of it. I just knew that I wasn’t really happy, and I wanted to be happy.
The next time you decide to peruse a stimulus-laden arena like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or even the arena of your own thoughts, try to focus on your own body. Think about the relationship between your neck, head and back. In the Alexander Technique, we refer to this as the Primary Control. As described by London based Alexander Technique teacher, Hilary King, FM Alexander (the founder of the Alexander Technique) referred to the Primary Control as the way in which our Head Neck Back relationship is a primary influence and dynamic organizer for the coordination of our whole body mechanism and all our movements. In other words, it all starts with the relationship between the head, neck and back. When you sit at your computer, focus on your neck being free, your head moving forward and up and your back lengthening and widening. Every time you see or feel a trigger, whether it is an image or a comment, or your own internal dialogue, acknowledge the stimulus. Then pause. Next, redirect your thoughts to: I want my neck to be free (and not full of tension), my head to move forward and up (as opposed to back and down), and my back to lengthen and widen (instead of shrinking and contracting). When you stop engaging in repetitive habits, you allow something new to take place.
Change can be scary to many people, because it can mean acknowledging how harmful our habits were to ourselves or others. However, change also gives us an opportunity to start anew. Becoming more self aware of our harmful habits is empowering and allows us to take control of our habits, rather than let them control us. My journey of recognizing and changing harmful habits was not quick, and it is still ongoing. Habits are strong and cumbersome. As long as there is a stimulus, the possibility of falling back on old habits exists. Yet, with gained insight and awareness, along with the right tools, we can take control of how we choose to respond to our thoughts, and direct where they take us.