I am thinking a lot about forks lately. Not the eating utensil kind (though I have been wondering where the heck ours have been going… thrown in the garbage? Under someone’s bed?), but as I’m Waking Up in my own life, I’m looking at the forks in my day. I’m discovering there are a LOT.
The kind of forks I’m talking about are the proverbial Forks-in-the-Road. If you prefer to be more plain about it, they are the myriad Choices we make in a day. It’s like living in a Choose Your Own Adventure story (remember those?). Whatever words you put to it, I’m finding that there’s a lot of power in becoming aware of these moments of choice– it can be rather daunting too, because when you discover that you are indeed choosing your own adventure, well, who is there to blame for your choices?
Who chose this path? Um, that would be, Me. (gulp)
Of course, there are big adventures and small ones. It’s easy to see the big forks like “should I go to college?” or “should I marry this person?” or “should I have kids?” Those forks pop up right in your face and there’s no way getting around them. You either choose, or your non-choosing will lead to an outcome anyway.
I’m talking more about the smaller forks that show up in our everyday life. Life is really a series of choices. There are simpler ones like what to make for lunch or when to go to bed. But what I didn’t realize for a long time is that I make so many impactful choices every day about myself— what I think about myself, how I feel in relation to events in my day, how I am in relationship to others, how I treat myself and others, what stories I choose to tell myself about my past, present and future. Not seeing the choices deprived myself of my own power.
For so many years I lived on automatic pilot. When you grow up in dysfunctional circumstances or environments, it’s easy to develop rather twisty, skewed and warped ways of surviving. Didn’t get the love you needed? Heard too many negative messages about yourself that you just believed and absorbed? Having or expressing feelings wasn’t safe? Tried to make sense of your parent’s alcoholism with your child-mind? These kinds of things, especially in your formative years, are a perfect set-up for developing a whole array of coping mechanisms that help you to survive your childhood, but can totally mess you up as an adult.
For instance, my eating disorder really helped me survive as a kid. Focusing on food, fantasizing about it, and overeating it gave me a way to soothe and numb out feelings that were too threatening for me to deal with, and handle the chaos that affected my psyche. I could go on and on about how my emotional eating helped and affected me as a kid, but you get the gist. At the time, it was pretty painful to feel out of control around food, but I also needed it.
Skip ahead to me as an adult, and food was still my coping mechanism for dealing with my feelings and issues in my life. But now I wasn’t a vulnerable kid– I didn’t *need* it to survive anymore, and yet I still didn’t know how to deal with my emotional life. I continued to use food (mixed in with a whole lot of body image stuff, dieting, attempts to change my eating, and therapy), and eventually this led me to weigh 350 lbs, big-time depression, problems in my marriage and other relationships, being stuck in my life, and a continuing practice of beating myself up.
What changed for me was– well, many of you’ve read what I wrote about my transformations in the last year (start reading here if you want to catch up). All my ruts and routines in life were blasted away, and I got to take a good hard look at how my life was going. I could see quite clearly that the way I was using food was ruining my life. I didn’t want that anymore. For a long time I had no appetite, so it was easy to change my eating. But after many months, my urges for food came back. I was faced with it all again.
Here’s where the forks come in: everyday I find myself seeing them, a moment when I have to make a choice. Today there is a counter 5 feet from my desk at work where someone has placed a half-dozen bags of treats: chocolate-covered nuts, caramel-glazed chex mix, cookies. In the past, I might have filled up a plate and binged while I worked, then wanted more, obsessed all day, eaten more, and beaten myself up about it. This would have been automatic-pilot behavior for me, and I wouldn’t have seen I have a choice.
Now I can see this fork. I pause,examine it and make a decision. I might eat none of the treats, because I don’t want them, or I like how I feel when I don’t eat them. I might have a piece or two and then set that as a limit for myself. I might choose to eat a lot of it and use it emotionally, guessing how it will affect me. These are all choices (among others). I make this choice based on how I want to feel and what kind of life I want to live. At least I see I have a choice!
I now see all kinds of forks I couldn’t before. Awareness is cool and empowering, but that doesn’t make the choosing easier. It’s part of our brain chemistry to follow the neural pathways that are familiar to us. Just like walking in the snow— it’s a lot less effort to walk on a path that’s been stomped on a hundred times. Forging a new path in fresh snow takes a lot more conscious effort. So making new or different choices can be hard work, or uncomfortable.
(I love brain science, but I’ll leave the real explanations to the folks at MIT: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2005/10/20/mit-explains-why-bad-habits-are-hard-to-break)
Recently, I was getting upset by a situation between Bob and me over the holidays. Now that I allow myself to have and express feelings (not use food), sometimes my feelings get real big, real fast (like a teenager, in my 50s!). I was arguing with him over text, making up my own interpretations to the situation, and I found myself staring right at a Fork that had popped up in front of me.
I could see I had at least 2 choices. One was that I could continue to believe the story I was telling myself. I could continue to feel the feelings associated with that story. I could continue banging my head against this argument.
The other choice was that I calm myself down, listen to my feelings but quit believing the martyred version of the story I was telling myself. I could soothe myself, trust that things would work out.
I stared at that Fork and knew that I could let go of the rope I was holding in our tug of war, that I didn’t have to follow my old ways of behaving, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to. The pull of the old path was too strong. I stubbornly chose to argue in the same old way.
It made things much harder for myself and not much fun for Bob, but in the end, we worked it all out. That moment at the fork stands out for me though– I’m amazed that I could see that choice in front of me. That was new. That gives me hope that I’m leaving my old automatic-pilot behind, and I’ll be able to make better choices for myself in the future.
I’m not sure where my journey with forks will take me, but I’m learning to trust that facing discomfort and learning to forge new paths will lead me to a much more vibrant life than my old automatic-pilot one. With that, I’ll leave you with a snippet of a Robert Frost poem, from “The Road Not Taken.”
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.