Do you remember the snakes and ladders game? You got to a certain point on the board, then the roll of the dice would land you in the square where you’d have to go back again. I wonder, if like me, you had that reeling feeling of disappointment and frustration of having to go over old ground? You’d have to cover the tracks, where you’d been before, when you were just wanting to get to the end? You’d been there before, you knew the route.. yet here you are again back near the beginning. For anyone who’s ever tried to change their eating habits it can be very similar when our good intentions go awry.
A friend and I were chatting and she said how her recently healthier eating habits, had now gone back to old ways, in this current climate, because of the stress that she was feeling. Like many of us, we resort to what we know, what is familiar, during times of stress. Learning something new can be very difficult when we are in survival mode. Have a look at the image below, it can help us to understand where we are at right now.
Maslows Hierarchy of Needs
You may already be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, its a a very common depiction. It demonstrates how we need to have, or build on, good foundations. Those foundations are that which meet our physiological needs, our safety and security. Until they are in place it’s more difficult to do much else. It’s very much like the concept of the root chakra. These good foundations to build upon are vital (literally) to reach the peak of self-actualisation, where we really truly ‘get it’ and can ‘live it‘ and importantly stay there in that place. Self actualisation points to mastery of ourselves. These are the moments of expansiveness at the peak, ‘I truly know how to do this‘ type moments. It can be the feeling of accomplishment, of being on a good run of snakes and ladders game. Pride tends to come before a fall in my experience and back down the ladder I go!
Stages of Change – all this back and forth business is quite normal
When our foundations have been rocked, like many of ours have right now, it is unsurprising that we fall down the ladder or take a backwards step, if new habits aren’t yet ingrained. During such times it’s common to fall back to our default and resort to the old. Let’s take our eating choices as an example. There are stages of change when we learn something new. The first is called unconscious incompetence, when we aren’t aware of our choices, so we unmindfully or unskillfully reach for the cake. We do it without even being aware or thinking, ‘mmm yummy, lets eat’. It’s automatic, with no real regard for the consequences, it’s our default programming.
As we begin to gain the awareness that our choices aren’t benefiting us anymore, the next stage is called conscious incompetence. We know consciously that what we are doing may harm our health. During this stage we may feel quite powerless if we don’t know how to go about making those changes. We may feel out of control until we find methods by which we can change our behaviour.
When we do, we then take steps to change. We may make a decision that we will only have cake twice a week instead of every day and practise a mindful approach to eating. We may mindfully notice the effects that cake has on our body and how we feel physically if we eat it. We might not have paid much attention to that before, we are learning. We start to build an awareness at the level that is called unconscious competence.
Unconscious competence is where our inner programming and our old habits are still running the show in the background. In the foreground we are gaining mastery and the ability to make more skilful choices. We are mindfully pushing, forcing or willing ourselves to do that. The unconscious is the familiar place that drives us automatically, it probably still wants the cake rather than the apple. It is now doing battle with that part of our awareness that reminds us that ‘eating the cake 7 days a week isn’t the most skillful choice for us, particularly as we aren’t getting any exercise…etc etc‘. I’m sure you recognise your own self talk.
It’s literally a lot of food for thought and at that stage it is very difficult to digest.
What can help?
Practising mindful eating. That is to stay present and pay attention. We focus on how we are when eating the apple or the cake. We may notice that our body feels more vibrant, more alive when we eat the apple. There’s a part of us that still wants that cake, but we are determined. At this point we may go back and forth, between apple and cake. Apple or cake. Apple or cake. And when we lose the battle and arrive at cake we may think that we are going back to the beginning, of the snakes and ladders game. However, we aren’t, we never go back to that stage of unconscious incompetence because we have noticed and become aware, we are conscious.
So the good news is that, we never go right back to the beginning. We know the journey, we’ve been there before and worn the t-shirt. We have more awareness, we have experience to draw on. What we have learnt is still in there somewhere, we know the route now, that is within us. It’s just that, for whatever reason, we have resorted to the pre-programmed way of old. We have not reached the mastery yet which holds our decisions more firmly in place. So, as we go back and forth between apple and cake, we go back and forth between the stages of conscious incompetence and unconscious competence. If we focus on this as being part of the learning experience, we can allow ourselves to cultivate an attitude of acceptance which takes the negative self talk or pressure off. We are still learning. It’s okay.
Note also, I don’t refer to good or bad decisions. Good or bad are value judgements and not always helpful. They can compound a stick beating, self-deprecating approach. Instead using the terms ‘skilful’ or ‘unskillful’ can encourage a more compassionate, kindful approach to self.
So each time we go back and forth between apple and cake, we notice where we are at mindfully. We cultivate awareness of our inner process. We can ask ourselves: How does this make me feel when I eat cake? What am I feeling when I reach for cake? What is cake substituting in my life? What is driving me to do this? What are my triggers..?
Nurture and self-compassion
We can then follow that up by further asking ourselves, how can I take care of myself now? Would I benefit from doing a RAIN meditation (where we allow ourselves to feel our feelings) having some counselling, hypnotherapy, EMDR, reiki or Holistic Therapies to relax? What can I do for me instead of eating the cake?
Noticing our triggers
Helpful at this stage is to notice and try to shift the old blocks that maybe causing us to go back to old ways. This may be achieved by some of the methods above. Looking at the things that keep us in the same old patterns, what keeps us stuck. We look at the underlying triggers such as feelings of shame or sorrow that we may want to assuage by stuffing those feelings down, because we don’t know how to deal with the feelings. As I sat in meditation and allowed myself to feel the feelings that I was suppressing with my love of sugar, it came to me that I wasn’t very ‘sweet’ to myself. I was looking for a kindness substitute, because my self-talk was without compassion for myself.
Allowing ourselves to feel the underlying emotions can let them go. I sat with the sadness for my lack of self kindness, and allowed myself to feel that feeling of sorrow until it dissipated. You can find out more about this by listening to the RAIN meditation. Our competency increases by being still with our issues. As those issues are noticed and accepted, it frees us up. Also through the practise of continued mindful observation ‘the apple feels good, the cake makes me sluggish’, we can reprogramme ourselves.
Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy, when life throws us the curve ball and our security and survival are tested, it is completely understandable that we go back to old choices. Our underlying programming is indicating another layer of experience has emerged or surfaced to be addressed, it is a process.
If we are still doing inner battle, it can help is to remember that ‘What we resists persists’. It is but an indicator for the deeper work that we’ve looked at above. We haven’t truly got there yet, if we are going back and forth and that’s okay. I think it’s comforting to recognise that conscious incompetence is just another part of our journey and perhaps cultivation of patience for example could be addressed . It is one of those slippery ladders. Allowing ourselves to feel that, with acceptance of our resistance, can be helpful. Just naming whatever is going on for us right now, not judging it, for example ‘I’m resistant right now and that’s OK it’s a journey’.
The Destination to unconscious competence
Over time we then reach the level of unconscious competence. If we are lucky and have an epiphany, we roll the dice to climb the snakes and ladders and have a short cut to this place, but most reach it through hard worth and back and forth. This stage of unconscious competience is where we do it naturally; it becomes automatic. We naturally choose the apple because we know on a deeper level that our body and mind want it. We are making choices automatically now. The thought of the cake isn’t as appealing and we don’t have that inner battle of having to deliberate between eating the cake or eating the apple and trying to resist it.
This level of change may seem odd in itself. It’s a strange new place when all of your life you may have wanted cake and now your body says ‘apple’. It is poignant that we have come to a place where we do actually listen and pay attention to our true selves. I liken it to the ‘want, want, want’ inner child that runs riot in the sweetshop .. instead it’s now become the mindful adult calmly making choices in the greengrocers. It’s allowing ourselves to feel the vibrancy of certain foods and how they suit our systems. We come to the end of that game board and realise that it doesn’t really matter whether someone’s got there before us or not. We notice the benefits of getting to our destination, that self-mastery is about becoming the winner of ourselves, noticing that and making unconscious, healthful, vibrant food choices that truly reflect our inner selves.