It is only day 10 of the self-imposed quarantine, and I am already battling my inner demons: Defensiveness and Judgment. They rear themselves at the worst points. My husband comments that I shouldn’t be touching all the grapes in the serving bowl (sharing his own fear of contamination) and I bite back “These are my grapes. I am going to eat them all.” Really? Did I really need to attack back? (I finished the entire bowl followed by a stomach ache, but nevermind this).
Defensive Demon: 1. Open Heart: 0.
My daughter invites me to join her in a yoga class. I notice that she is not doing the pose correctly and I ask, “Does it hurt to squat any lower?” Yes, her knees had been hurting her and I was concerned, but my comment was interpreted as being critical.
Judging Demon: 1. Open Heart: 0.
After our nightly family quarantine dinners, my family has been watching the television show ”The Good Place” together. Through its humor and evolving plotline, the show’s theme of conquering one’s inner demons is prominent. We see the evolution of Eleanor, the show’s main protagonist, as she learns to lead an ethical and caring life. Michael, the show’s literal demon, eschews his old ways to advocate for his new friends. We see that change is not easy (except for Michael – why does he have such an easy time giving up his old behaviors?). Eleanor struggles daily, falls back to old habits, and then again commits to change.
How does she succeed? And what can I learn from the show in this time that requires adaptive change? First, she commits to change. She chooses something that has great personal meaning. For her, the stakes of failing are high (being discovered or going to Hell). But don’t we all face high stakes? If I don’t exercise or eat right, it’s not just about gaining weight, it’s about early death! If I don’t meditate daily, I will be more reactive at work, with my children and especially with my husband. Sure, my clients can quit at any point in time (and yes, I would be disappointed), but the impact on my marriage is far greater.
Eleanor also uses another tip for habit change: she lets others know of her goal to become a better person and subsequently enlists their support. She has people surrounding her that teach, coach, and remind her along the way. Unlike most people that try to change alone and end up falling back to old patterns, the key to success is having a support network that can encourage you and keep you on track. The first step of openly sharing goals helps make one more accountable. So, while I didn’t post it on Facebook, I did share my struggle with my family in the hopes they can hold a mirror on my behavior. (Note to husband: if I get defensive, don’t say that I’m just sensitive. That makes me even more defensive). My 12-year-old son reminds me to breathe, thereby creating a space between a trigger and my rote defensive reaction. Unfortunately, the reminder usually comes after my reaction. But at least I’m breathing.
Second, Eleanor is surrounded by other ethical people. Her previous bad influences are no longer in view and so she is no longer tempted to behave unethically. Habit change is all about clearing away obstacles, or as Dr. Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick, calls it “friction,” the force that gets in the way of practicing good habits. Giving myself space and avoiding those things that trigger my inner demons may be a useful option after the quarantine. For now, hiding in my bedroom or taking a walk around the block is the best I can do.
And finally, Eleanor makes slow progress. She doesn’t become perfect overnight. Consistency is important in habit change (missing a day is fine, two days in a row puts you at risk) and so is patience. Most people won’t see change overnight. But the repetition and practice that provides you with those small steps forward impact the neuroplasticity of the brain, building new neural networks. In Eleanor’s case, her habitual response changes from negative to positive. I, too, must practice self-compassion. I will miss days of mediating or reflecting. I will get defensive or judge myself. If I make small changes each day, in my awareness and in my reactions, then hopefully when we get out of this mess (whenever that happens), I will somehow be a better person, too.