The Pendulum of Desire and Discipline
An excerpt from Sarahjoy Marsh's Hunger, Hope, and Healing
Photo Credit: kzenon/Thinkstock
If we’ve struggled with disordered eating, we’ve known the swinging pendulum of out-of-control desire and discipline. We’ve been driven by, fought against, and punished ourselves for giving in to, our desires. When food issues swing painfully out of control toward compulsive, feverish, regretful behaviors, we desperately seek to “get ourselves under control.” Increasing deprivation or atonement strategies, discipline becomes punitive, self-loathing. We hope for relief. To motivate ourselves, we may intensify the insanity. Yet, sadly, swinging between longing and frenzied coping, between unhealthy desire and unhealthy discipline, painfully entrenches our thinking and profoundly limits us from tasting lasting freedom.
Yoga suggests recovery is possible by developing new relationships to both desire and discipline.
Disordered eating causes struggles with confusing, painful, even conflicting, desires. We may desire nourishing companionship but seek solace with ice cream. We may desire purposeful work, but turn to bingeing for self-soothing. We may desire radiant health but compulsively seek control through self-denying diets. Our desires for nourishing companionship, purposeful work, and radiant health, are not bad, problematic, nor unrealistic. In fact, these are the intelligent desires of a life force that wants you to thrive, in body and mind. Much like the force that enables gladiolas to bloom, this life force has a unique expression through you.
The predicament? Ice cream, bingeing, and rigid dieting provide just enough immediate relief that our deeper desires get supplanted. We divert ourselves, repeatedly, with what worked historically. Turning to food made sense: it was available, do-able, and produced biochemical “satiation” and anxiety reduction. However, repetition programs us to robotically initiate and enact behaviors. Even the thought of behavior-driven solace provides immediate relief.
Painfully, this greatly reduces our ability to tolerate discomfort and also flattens our desire “landscape.” Our conflicting desires become merged with each other. How did this merging occur?
The Merging of Desires
Our brains develop via experience. In early life, we cry because we’re hungry, cold, wet, tired, lonely, etc. We can’t discern the source of our impetus to cry. (Sometimes our crying baffles our care-providers, too. They try food, diaper changes, and playful attention to soothe us.) We may register a feeling of hunger, but underneath we’re lonely and don’t know it. Slowly, through experimenting, we learn to identify and satisfy needs.
Some of us had this process interrupted. We may have believed that our physical signals were bad or wrong when they went untended, that our base desires were overwhelming (to others, then overwhelming to us, too), or that something about our desire was dangerous and could not be trusted (if, for example, it overwhelmed a parent’s ability, or caused them to feel frustration to the point of shaming us). Likely, we didn’t learn how to tend to our body’s signaling of desires and needs, nor its way of announcing its satiation. We internalized messages about what we could and could not safely feel and express.
Because this occurred when our brains were tremendously malleable to reflexive shaping, it’s not surprising that we bring behaviors with us as we mature. We may still instinctively turn to certain foods for solace. We become more capable of complex thinking, but early self-soothing strategies, if they provided relief (even short-term) and went unchallenged, remain intact. This can be confounding to our now more grown-up intelligence!
When we label behaviors as “bad,” unearthing deeper desires gets lost in a sea of badness. Without even identifying our underlying desires, we lump them into badness itself. Afterall, those desires produce this bad behavior, don’t they? To some part of us, this thinking makes sense. We merge the badness we feel about these painful rituals with “by association” badness toward our deeper desires, the very ones that represent the intelligence of life trying to transport us from suffering to vibrancy.
Another painful outcome is a greatly reduced ability to tolerate discomfort. We’ve programmed our need for immediate relief. Our ability to leverage discomfort for learning and discovery atrophies. Yet, like our physical muscles, yoga also develops and strengthens our self-awareness and discomfort-tolerance muscles.
Recovery requires us to practice getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Life requires us to get comfortable feeling both unpleasant and pleasant experiences. Many struggle with the discomfort of feeling extraordinarily good, radiant, or content. At times, feeling tremendous triggers our painful behaviors. Therefore, we use the skill of getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable (GCFU, Chapter 3) for recovery and to prepare ourselves for what life feels like when we aren’t in constant pain.
Getting Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable (GCFU): Just for This Moment
Giving yourself permission to feel what you feel, to experience what you experience, if this wasn’t available in your developmental years, can feel unsettling, like you’re breaking a rule or about to get into trouble. If you resist feeling because you’re afraid it will last forever and be too painful, you’re not alone. This also reveals that this fear has been trying to protect you from feeling for a long time. Thoughts of “forever” and “too much” are requests from your brain and body to move more incrementally when you’re in the realm of bigger feelings. Discovering that feelings are occurring just for this moment helps make opening up feel safer and more manageable.
“Just for this moment” is the process of feeling, noticing, and acknowledging your experience; staying current; neither suppressing nor denying. To bring attention to and experience body sensations, you begin to get comfortable feeling.
Become still and quiet. Relax your breathing. Bring your attention to a tangible body signal. Explore these reflections:
• I’m feeling [this body signal (achy muscle, droopy eyes, thirst)]. I accept that this is a sensation, a signal, my body is producing — for this moment.
• Just for this moment, I do not need to override my body signal. What I am experiencing is legitimate, changeable, and temporary.
• Just for this moment, I do not need to alter my experience. This body signal is a valid expression of the human body, my body.
• Just for this moment, I do not need to dismiss my experience. All on its own, this body signal will continue to change.
• Just for this moment, I do not need to suppress what I feel. I can courageously admit, without shame or guilt, that this is what I am experiencing right now.
All of our body signals—and all mind-psyche-emotion signals—express the complexity of what it means to be human, including signals of desire and discipline. Observing what is, just for this moment, lessens the likelihood of compulsive reactivity. We see ourselves experiencing our humanness, with greater acceptance, courage, and faith in the underlying life force that wants us to thrive.
Sarahjoy Marsh is a yoga therapist and educator with a master’s in counseling. In her new book, Hunger, Hope & Healing, she fuses yoga with psychology, neuroscience, breathing interventions, and mindfulness techniques, to bring readers with disordered eating and body image issues a practical and accessible guide to recovery. The book is available on Amazon.com and www.SarahjoyYoga.com.