Life lessons can turn up in the most unexpected places. Today, I found a lesson in the kitchen drawer. For the umpteenth time since we rearranged a few things in our kitchen, I opened a drawer looking for the utensils that have been moved to the only other drawer in the room. My instant reaction was a groan of frustration that I can’t seem to ‘get it right’ and that I go to the wrong drawer every damned time. In a moment of ultimate awareness, I noticed the grunt and made a priceless connection.
It’s been a topsy-turvy month in my world. I’ve been up, down and all around. Mostly, I’ve been simmering on the realizations I’ve made since my last post and focusing on being more gentle and compassionate with myself. That isn’t an easy thing for me and is, in fact, much more difficult than I ever anticipated. The main challenge is navigating between compassion and complacency. This can be said for any number of areas in my life or habits I wish to engage with more or less frequency. In the past, I have used my dissatisfaction with myself to be the motivator for changes I made. While effective in the short term, this has never proven a sustainable approach for me. How do I love myself as I am, even while working to make positive changes in my life? How do I show compassion to myself, even while I challenge myself to improve?
I understand that lifestyle changes are hard and that it takes consistency and time to make them, but I’m also a human that has emotional responses when I don’t succeed. My sense of self worth gets all tied up in my ability to follow through with the goals that I set for myself and the related behaviors necessary to achieve those goals. When I fail to follow through, I feel all sorts of icky things ranging from shame to worthlessness. It takes some time to wash those icky things away before I can get ‘started’ again and start the cycle over. This might explain why it took me a full decade to quit smoking, even though I was fully aware that it was making me sick and I was ‘trying’ that whole time. Two years with no cigarettes, and I can’t even imagine smoking one now, even if I do have stress dreams occasionally that involve me smoking.
To lend that intangible emotional stuff some tangibility, there are these biological structures in our brains called neural pathways that help us to sort through all the information we encounter on a daily basis by finding the short cuts to life’s rewards. These neural pathways allow us to go into ‘auto-pilot’ mode so we don’t have to pay attention to everything all the time. Unfortunately, they are also what make habits so hard to break, even if the rewards those habits offer are incongruent with healthy outcomes, like my former addiction to nicotine. So, my hand on the wrong drawer knob for the 50th time is due to the hardwiring in my brain that expects the utensils to be in the same place they have been for three years. I don’t even think about going to that drawer, I just DO. Until my brain can rewire with the new information, I will likely continue to open the wrong drawer.
That drawer is a metaphor for my entire life, people! I am in the midst of rearranging several areas of my life and sometimes I fall back on old habits. This isn’t failure, it’s learning. It seems so simple and obvious to me now, but I learned about the connection between neural pathways and habits several months ago. Yet, it took that aha! moment in the kitchen this morning to really get it in a sense that is applicable to my life. This new understanding gives me permission to be compassionate and gentle with myself. I will mess up, and that is okay. I can not express how much liberation I have found in that knowledge and hope I’ve manage to share just a bit of that with you.