How to stop doing things that hurt you
Thinking Out Loud No. 43
I was meant to be in Portugal this week, but the UK government decided to change the rules around holidaying in Portugal. And when life gives you lemons, write newsletters. Or something.
In this edition I write about a longstanding loop that I find myself in and how I get out of it. It’s a reminder to self that I share with the hope that it might be helpful to others.
Let me first describe the loop.
There are certain behaviours that I know cause me to suffer. I know this based on years of self-experimentation: I do the thing and I suffer; I don’t do the thing and the suffering goes away. In my case it’s eating certain things (bread, sugar) and drinking certain things (caffeine). Both of these, it’s pretty clear by now, make me depressed, anxious and fog up my thinking.
Okay, seems pretty simple? These things make me feel bad, they hurt me, so I would be better off if I just didn’t do them… right?
Yes… and let me tell you about the rest of that loop.
It starts with the phrase, whether verbalised or not, “I know I shouldn’t, but…”
I know I shouldn’t have a coffee, but…
I would really enjoy it
I feel like I should be able to drink coffee without feeling bad, other people can do it, why not me
it’s just this once (ha)
I deserve a treat
I’ll feel fine this time
I’m really tired
I want to get some work done
I want to rebel against your tyranny, ‘should’ voice
At this point the game is already close to lost, but not quite. Suddenly there are two parts of my being in opposition to each other. “Don’t do it!” “But I want to!” “You’ll feel bad!” “I don’t care!” “Why are you always like this?” “Why are YOU always like this?”
And around and around. Does this sound familiar? Do you have internal “I know I shouldn’t, but…” conflicts?
Well, here’s the big reveal, the way of out this loop, which is simple but not necessarily easy.
The way out is to take the advice of the WOPR computer in the 1983 film “WarGames” as it runs scenario after scenario of all the different ways in which a global thermonuclear war couldn’t possibly be won.
A STRANGE GAME.
THE ONLY WINNING MOVE IS NOT TO PLAY.
The only winning move is not to play.
Consider, which of those two voices “I know I shouldn’t…” // “… but I want to” do you identity with as you? The frustrated parent voice or the rebellious child voice? Does it change?
This loop is a kind of game, one that can only be ‘won’ by not playing.
But how do you stop playing this game? What most people seem to do is try to play a kind of second-order game by taking up a judgemental, hostile position against the game itself.
“Urgh I can’t believe I’m doing this again, caught in this loop.”
“I need to stop yelling at myself, I should just be more kind to myself.”
“No, I must suppress all this infantile back and forth!”
Do you see what’s happened? It’s the exact same loop! One part of ourselves yelling at another with the result that our whole system breaks.
Yes, there is an internal resistance to being yelled at (“… but I want to!") and yes the way out is to stop yelling at yourself.
But yelling at the part that’s yelling is still yelling and only makes the yelling part stronger. It’s yelling at itself and it doesn’t realise.
This entire problem is caused by the yelling part not knowing that it needs to shut the hell up and it can’t shut itself up anyway.
The way to step out of that loop — the only winning move — is to notice what’s happening in a non-judgemental way and then to do absolutely nothing. Instead, notice “oh hey there goes that loop again, how interesting” and just allow it to be there.
Don’t take sides. Just keep noticing, moment by moment. If you start judging something, like how hard this is, just notice that, too. It’s noticing all the way down.
And here’s the core of it, because what exactly is it that is able to notice this loop, this bizarre mental tennis match? It certainly isn’t the part doing the yelling. This part of you that notices is somehow bigger and wordless. It seems to contain the loop, the yeller, but as long as it’s able to notice, moment by moment, this wordless part that notices can remain unaffected by all the noise.
As I said though, this is simple, but not easy, because the experiencing of all this can feel uncomfortable. It takes a kind of courage and skill to be able to keep noticing all this without getting caught up in it. I ‘fail’ a lot. But I’m definitely trending up, and each time I ‘fail’ I find myself better able to notice that too, and my system slowly corrects itself as I allow this un-judged information to be seen, understood and integrated.
Incidentally, this is what the Alexander Technique stuff I talk about is all about, but this newsletter is not the place for that. Go and read expandingawareness.org and sign up for that newsletter if you want more of this.
For those of who you see yourselves in this, give it a go. Notice and then don’t try to fix, because any attempt to fix is that same “I know I shouldn’t” voice and just perpetuates the loop. Just notice, over and over again. Stay bigger than it.
Stumbling upon a delightful thing
Woah that was intense wasn’t it?
Well, here’s something delightful. There is a big festival in the UK (when festivals can run) called Glastonbury, which is not far from the local town of the same name. One of the institutions of Glastonbury is a big installation called Arcadia, which looks like this…
I have danced many times under this magical spider.
Anyway, I was staying in a converted van operated by Arcadia (the company), and in the grounds I came across this… and it made me very happy.
And if you want the full experience…
Until next time!
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