(or, does gentleness lead to indulgence?)
Last night I had a big pasta dinner followed by one of my home-made brownies. After another hour or so I wanted chocolate chip cookies, and so I ate one – and then another. It had been a long and difficult day, and I was being ‘gentle with myself’. It led me to wonder, if I was even more gentle with myself, would I eat another two cookies? And then two more? Is being gentle with ourselves a slippery slope that hurtles us into over-indulgence?
There are certainly parts of me that hold this belief. These are the parts that manage my system for me, like good little real life managers. These managers keep a close (and disapproving) eye on the parts of me that use sugar to soothe and distract me. They are all too aware of the health disadvantages of over-eating, and of the strong cultural norms about having a smaller body. They are afraid that if I surrender to these parts that want me to eat cookies, I will eat and eat and end up much bigger and less attractive and at a higher risk of diabetes or heart disease.
Of course, they have a point about endless cookie eating. And yet. My experience is that when I ‘double down’ on my cookie-eating part (let’s call him cookie monster for convenience’s sake) the cookie monster goes crazy. He finds sneaky ways of getting the cookies anyway – some convoluted reasoning that makes sense at the time, or by giving me a really strong feeling of ‘f*** it’. Not only does he get the cookies but, because he’s mad at being told what to do, or because he’s panicking that it may be the last time he gets to eat them, he eats half a packet. And then that bit of ice-cream that’s left in the freezer. And then just a single posh chocolate to round things off.
Managers vs. Distractors
These battles between our ‘managing’ parts and our ‘distracting/soothing’ parts are familiar to most of us – sobriety vs. too much alcohol, overwork vs. a day binge-watching Netflix. It was a relief to learn that according to the Internal Family Systems model, a relatively new theory of mind, my system was working exactly as it should be.
Our managing parts get us out of bed and help us to do stuff, plan for the future, keep us socially respectable, and distract us from our suffering. Our distractors stop us from becoming work-robots, help us to have fun, and also distract us from our suffering. These two groups are in a constant back-and-forth negotiation. Mostly we don’t notice them as they grumble away in the background.
Things only go wrong when they both get really loud – when our urge to drink overwhelms the manager’s warnings about needing to drive and pick our children up later, or when our manager’s workaholism pushes us towards a heart attack. This happens when our suffering, those vulnerable parts of us that hold pain from the past and that get prodded by events in our life, also get louder – the managers and distractors have to go to extreme lengths to drown them out and to stop them from bursting out all over the place. When we don’t tend to the pain it gets even louder and the manager and distractor tactics get even more desperate (a violent outburst, deep depression, a panic attack, the sudden inability to get up and go to work).
What to do when things get difficult
So what can we do when our managers or distractors are starting to yell? First of all, we notice that they are shouting – with gentle kindness. ‘Oh, I’ve really been self-critical this week. I wonder why that’s been around?’ ‘Oh, I’ve been numbing out on Youtube videos all day. I wonder what might be underneath?’ Another way of saying this is we become mindful of what’s happening inside us.
If you are feeling curious or compassionate towards these shouty parts of you as you notice them, then great – be curious. If you are feeling upset towards them, or scared by them, or anything else, then pause and acknowledge these feelings before you proceed. Gentle curiosity is always the key. As we get to know them and understand their motives, everyone will start to relax.
When our cookie monster parts are just speaking in a loud voice or even making a polite request we can acknowledge them in the same way, with gentleness and kindness. This doesn’t mean doing what they tell us to – sometimes it will be better to do this, and sometimes not. It does mean that we are acknowledging that they have a good reason for their request, and that just sending in our managers to sort them out isn’t always a good idea. Sometimes we just accept that we eat so many cookies that we feel sick, and that it’s not the end of the world. Sometimes we just accept that send our managers in hard will lead to a ‘backlash’, and that’s not the end of the world either. See if you can take a third position – not either side, but being able to see the merits of both side’s arguments and empathising with them both. The Buddha knew about the wisdom of the middle way.
Over time, I have built up better relationships with both my cookie monster parts and my strict managers. I know that they are both necessary for the smooth working of my ‘ecosystem’, and I let them know that I appreciate them. In my experience, although it takes a little trust to get there, gentleness leads to less indulgence than before.
Go gently _/|\_