Today I came across this very simple and straightforward blog post from Kristen Barton Cuthriell about behaviors and consequences. The post is full of sound advice about what happens when you make particular choices, and how thinking through the consequences can help you make the right ones. A few examples:
When you choose to stay up too late, you choose to be tired the next day. Do you want to be tired?
When you choose to show up late for work three days in a row, you choose to lose your job. Do you want your job?
When you choose to eat unhealthy foods, you choose to be unhealthy. Do you want to be unhealthy?
When you choose to be kind, you choose to have friends. Do you want friends?
And so on. It’s simple, or so it seems. So then why is it that so many of us have so much trouble making the right choices so much of the time? As Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple writes in his post on akrasia, or acting against one’s own better judgment,
Staying up late to watch one more episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ will leave us comatose in tomorrow’s big meeting. Skipping yet another workout keeps us on track to lose all the gains we’ve built up the last few months. Stewing over the day’s stresses and playing out angry scenarios in our heads will keep our kids and partner at arm’s length and us up half the night with stomach pain.
But damned if we don’t make the choice anyway. Why? What’s wrong with us that we go down these roads when we clearly understand the fallout?
And it’s a good question, one that philosophers have pored over for millennia and that keeps the diet and fitness industry in business, not to mention liquor stores, bakeries, and therapists’ offices.
Cuthriell’s simple action/consequence layout is inspiring, and a good reminder. But I wonder at its efficacy, given the strong tendency of the human being toward akrasia. Sisson’s approach to this problem is self-knowledge: getting to be aware of the things that knock you off track, and cultivating healthy self-interest. I especially love this formulation of his: “If we’ve decided what rational self-interest looks like for our life, what do the forces that contest it look like in our imaginations – relics of the past or ambiguities of the present as they so often are? What shape do they take? What voices do they have?”
In Rubenfeld Synergy, we call this process “moving from habit to choice,” and according to my mentor Joan Brooks, it’s one of the biggest things that draws clients to her practice. What does it take for a person to get to the place where making those simple decisions well, in light of the consequences, most of the time?
Listening to the voices is a good first step; in this work we often find ourselves tuning into and giving voice to those parts of ourselves that are usually silent, or at least unconscious. We’d like our shoulders to be more relaxed and not painfully bunched up around our ears, and we would make that choice if we could, but it’s often not so simple as that. Frequently, it’s not even as simple as getting regular massage, or going to physical therapy, though both things can be very helpful. Sometimes, there’s a story in those shoulders – a “relic of the past” that works against our rational self-interest. We’d love to move more freely and without pain. But something is holding us back. A cascade of more conscious choices against our best interest might follow from this: we don’t exercise as much, we load up on anti-inflammatory drugs to the detriment of our stomach lining. We may even make different social choices, as our tight, closed shoulders make us feel distrustful or cold toward others without knowing why – or make others see us that way.
In this work, through talk and touch, we initiate a conversation with that part of us. Not to judge, not to eradicate, not to stuff it down and tell it to be quiet because we’ve got rational decision-making to do. But to find out what its story is. What put our shoulders in that position? What’s keeping them there? What are they holding onto for us, in case we need it? What burden are they carrying, that they haven’t been told it’s okay to put down now? In what ways did they act as shields for us in the past, shields that were crucial then, but are no longer necessary?
Until we engage in these dialogues, we can’t know what keeps drawing us back to the habits that harm us, in order to come around to the choices that free us. “Akrasia” comes from the Greek, “lacking command over oneself.” But in RSM, it’s often more about coming to an understanding with oneself. If we approach a client from the “GROUND” of RSM – that is, Gentleness, Respect, Openness, Understanding, Noticing, and Discovery – then moving from habit to choice becomes a question not of making the “right” choice, but of actually understanding what the choices are, and being able to see them clearly.
From there…well, it’s not a straight line. But awareness is the first key to change.