Feel like a Failure? A Metaphor for Change in Recovery

Today I had multiple sessions in which clients came to me distraught because they had found themselves dealing with old issues they thought they had “dealt with.” (a.k.a. “cured” – a word I find does not belong in the work I do – but that is another article all together!) This is something that happens often. Clients become excited and engaged upon seeing change and making strides towards their goals, only to become angry or pessimistic upon running into a road block or having to deal with their “issues” again.  They feel like this means they are failing.

Repetition is not failure – just ask the waves, ask the leaves, ask the wind.” -Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Change is a process

If I have learned anything in the work that I do, it is that change is not linear.  You don’t start off at some point in time labeled “bad,” work your way up to “better,” only to one day move up to “perfect place” and stay there.

Life isn’t linear.  We want it to be.  We try to believe it is. But it isn’t. Life (as far as I can see) revolves around cycles.  Just look at nature. The seasons.  Ocean tides.  Women’s Bodies.  The planets. Around and around.  Back and forth.  Ebb and Flow.

For what appears to be such a dominant energy cycle, it interests me that a lot of humans have a strong desire to do it differently.  We seem to be intent on moving “up” and staying there.  We don’t want to come down and seem to be set on avoiding certain aspects of the cycle (whichever one we are in at the time) we label as “bad.”

Perhaps it’s time for a paradigm shift.

Instead of moving up in some linear fashion, imagine change similar to the process of climbing a spiral stair case. If you found a fixture on the ground floor and stared at it, that fixture would be visible each time you got to the next floor up. It would be visible, but as you ascended, it would begin to change, looking smaller and smaller with each floor you climbed. This is a metaphor for change in recovery.

The fixture on the floor is a symbol for the ‘issue’ that seems to always be present. For many of us it is ED behavior, or the ED voice that exists in our mind.  Each time you move up a floor on the stair case, which is the metaphoric symbol for movement forward in your recovery, you continue to see the problem, but your perspective is different as you are in a different place.  You have moved up and away from the issue, and from this new vantage point, you can see things differently.  Your circumstances seem the same, but you are at a different level, making your approach and options different.

When you see your problems reappear, this is not a sign of failure.

Your “problems” are there, yes, but think of them as that fixture on the main floor.  Don’t get too focused on the problem, or you might feel defeated. This is a marathon, not a sprint. It is critical that you shift your perspective so as to stay in a compassionate and loving relationship with yourself as you navigate recovery.  The variable to focus on is you. You are changed and your experience will be different, each and every time.

These problems may continue to cycle in and out, but each time you are able to approach them differently.  The change is not occurring on the outside; it is occurring within you – on the inside. 

Change occurs in your thinking and your beliefs about the problem. Which does in turn influences your behaviors around the problem.

Using change to your advantage

If you have a moment when you eat too much or binge, change happens when you choose to respond to your perceived “failure” with kindness instead of judgment.

Change happens when you decide that it is not failure, but rather a part of the change cycle.

As a result, you are able to calmly go back to eating in a more moderate fashion instead of seeing the binge as a sign of failure and allowing it to careen into a week long relapse.

If you find yourself thinking diet or old ED thoughts, or harboring old thoughts of judgment or body hate, don’t TRY to not think them.  (Trying NOT to think a thought is like my telling you NOT to think of a pink elephant – impossible.)  It isn’t a sign of failure; it simply takes time to change old beliefs.

Each time you think these thoughts, you are changed.  See them with curiosity. Challenge them. Talk back to the negative thoughts.  Allow them to exist, knowing that they are part of the cycle of change too.  They are part of the lesson, not evidence that you are not succeeding.

Stepping into a new and healthy relationship with food involves bringing with you all parts of who you are up to this point.

That means all of your old thinking and behavior is coming along for the ride.  So when you see it show up, don’t be surprised it’s there. Of course it is there. It is part of the process of change.

Repetition is part of the process.  When you embrace it, you move through it and beyond it. When you resist it is when you see much of the conflict and “feeling stuck” that so many of my clients struggle with.

So the next time you run into “old problems,” be kind. Say, “but of course you’re here, why wouldn’t you be?” Focus on the ways in which you are thinking, feeling or behaving differently in the face of this old issue.

Focus on your amazing self, and your inevitable wisdom and growth in the face of these challenges.  All these years, while you have been viewing your actions as failure, growth and success have been there. It’s patiently waiting for you to see it.

Growth and success are waiting for you to notice and pay attention.

Now is the time to see it, Warrior.

Image: @vinganapathy

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  1. says: Sarah hicklin

    That article was the best piece of advice you could give to someone with a E. D. But fantastic advice to anyone as well! I will hold that in my head and pass it on to my daughter or anyone else for that matter, including myself. The metaphor of the spiral staircase is brilliant! Thank you.

  2. says: Trinity

    This article feels like it was written for me! I went 9 days binge free then binged 2 days and was distraught.

    I thought to myself, “but what about the power of momentum?! You had a momentum shift, how come the binge urge came back?”

    It’s very difficult to accept that change and recovery isn’t a lovely upward stair case that you climb in a linear motion. Sometimes it feels like the ED is so ingrained, it is with you for eternity.

    My counselor told me today that my ED habits can be “unlearned”, each time I choose a different behavior rather than succumbing to the urge..

    One can only hope that over time, the ED habits and voices will dim, and a new light will shine and take over.

    Thank you for this article

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