Teaching is a demanding profession, physically, mentally and emotionally. You probably already know that you need to look after yourself better. You make resolutions to eat better, exercise more, get more sleep…
And yet within weeks they’ve fallen by the wayside. Some of this is undoubtedly about the very real pressures of the job….yet for many of us there is also a lot of resistance to doing things which we know are good for us, and which we may even really enjoy once we actually do them.
So, what’s that about? Why do we resist doing those things which we know make us feel better, and help us to manage our lives better?
Different kinds of resistance
I think there are two main kinds of resistance: resistance to change and resistance to looking after and taking care of ourselves.
Let’s start with the first one (it’s easier). It is said that around 95% of brain activity is subconscious. This means that most of what we think and do isn’t a conscious decision. In many ways this is a good thing- we couldn’t possibly cope if we had to think through all the movement involved in walking for example, let alone breathing. So a lot of what we think and do is on automatic pilot.
However, this isn’t such a good thing when we are doing things that don’t actually serve us well. The fact is that the brain has spent a long time building up short cuts and programs called neural pathways, and on one level it isn’t logical to change them.
This is why, despite your best intentions, you just find yourself reaching for a biscuit, or inhaling the packet without even being conscious of it.
There’s no point getting angry with yourself about this, it’s simply that your brain has invested in this behaviour, has ‘decided’ that this has got you so far, and must therefore be a good idea.
The brain, or the part of the brain we’re talking about – the more primitive amygdala and limbic system- is not concerned with you being particularly healthy, relaxed or happy. Those things don’t matter. All that matters is that you survive, so if you have survived so far doing what you’re doing, then it’s safer to keep doing it. That’s why the brain hates change.
Four main ways to deal with resistance to change.
Firstly, make it as easy as you possibly can to make the changes you want. For example, if it’s around food, then plan and decide in advance what you’re going to eat so you’re less likely to get hijacked when you’re hungry. If it’s exercise, smooth the path by getting into your yoga kit first thing even if the class isn’t until lunchtime. Don’t try and rely on will-power- most people don’t have much in the first place, and it runs out the more you use it- honestly! Instead set things up so you have the very best chances of success, and the least amount of friction that might stop you
Secondly, small changes are generally much better than big ones. If you try and implement big changes all at once, the brain tends to react with loads of resistance. That’s why after dry January, so many people have Binge February.
Small incremental changes is the way to go. Rather than deciding you’re going to run 5 miles a day, and then only doing that for a week or so before you give up, you’d be much better off deciding that you are going to get off the bus two stops early and walk briskly every day, as this is something which will fit into your life and which you can keep up.
Most people don’t understand this, any more than most people understand compound interest (including me), but over time those small changes really add up, and we’re more likely to stick to them because they don’t trigger resistance to change in the same way.
Thirdly, work on getting more mindful. As I said we spend most of our time going round in automatic pilot. A regular mindfulness and/or meditation practice will spill out into our everyday life, and enable us to make more conscious choices about what we do or don’t do, rather than sleepwalking our way into trouble. You want to avoid those moments when you’re looking down at the empty biscuit packet wondering how they all got into your mouth. We can also become more mindful about the triggers and emotions coming up, which brings me to my third point.
The fourth and final point is to start to look honestly at what is going on beneath the surface. If you have been trying to change certain habits for years, and you keep sabotaging yourself, or slipping back, then no amount of goal setting or habit formation is going to help- you have to look at what’s going on in your subconscious.
What’s at the root of resistance to change?
At the root, it’s usually that we have been brought up, often by entirely well-meaning parents, to consciously, or subconsciously believe and act on unhelpful, or even harmful beliefs.
Young children don’t have the experience or the understanding to work out how the world works for themselves, so they swallow whole what their parents tell them- and show them through their behaviour. This is known in psychology as introjection.
Here are some very common ones that I often come across with clients, see if these resonate with you:
1. It is selfish to put myself first. This belief means that you won’t get exercise or take time to meditate or relax because there is always something that needs doing for someone else. Obviously this is not going to result in you looking after yourself properly, but, in fact, this belief doesn’t just harm you. Why? Because you will inevitably build up layers of anger and resentment- however much you deny it- which will damage your relationships anyway. It is in no-one’s best interests for you to starve yourself of love and attention, and it isn’t fair on those around you for you to be always waiting for them to give you permission to look after yourself, or for them to have to look after you because you won’t do it.
2. I have to be strong. This is similar, but a slightly different angle. In this case you aren’t depriving yourself as you see it, because you are strong and don’t need to look after yourself. This can work for a while, sometimes years, but unfortunately people with this be strong driver often fall the hardest when they do crack. Don’t wait for that to happen. However good you are at coping, keeping calm and carrying on etc., we are all human, and we all need rest, good nutrition, exercise, fun and so on. If you think you don’t you’re kidding yourself and it will bite you in the bum one day.
3. I don’t deserve kindness from myself or anyone else. This one is the doozy, and it’s surprisingly common. If we were brought up in households where people were very critical, and talked about not being self-indulgent when they actually meant not being self-compassionate, we will almost certainly have internalised this at some level. Self-compassion is not the same thing as self- indulgence. It’s simply treating yourself in the same way you would treat a good friend. Not indulging them, but being kind, thoughtful, helpful and so on. Do you do these things for yourself?
It can take time and support to work through these programmings, but ultimately that’s all they are. There’s nothing wrong with you, you just need to do some re-wiring and get back to factory settings. It may take a while, and you can be sure that your brain will throw up some resistance to change, but it’s well worth it to finally get off that hamster wheel.