It's Not About Willpower
I went from “hell no!!” to “let’s do it” in two weeks. So, now we have a puppy. Bruno is absolutely adorable. I lose myself in his folds of soft fur and his gleeful licks. Since we got him 12 days ago, I have spent hours observing him, figuring out what type of ground-sniff means he’s about to pee, what type of nip means he’s overtired and needs his crate, and mesmerized by his absolute fascination with pieces of wood out in the yard. My “hell no” to “yes” was mostly because it occurred to me that while a ton of work, Bruno would force me to simplify and to hone my focus, bringing it to things that really matter. Like that piece of wood, that acorn, that pile of deer poop.
Mostly, the reasons I said yes have so far panned out. People have come to the house to see him, which has been wonderful. My kids have emerged from their rooms and do their homework downstairs in the kitchen. I am going to guess their screen time has gone down. They have also seen how much work he is, and have stepped up to help as much as their busy student, athlete, musical rehearsal commitments will allow. Last night in puppy training class, Bill and I beamed with pride as our puppy, the smallest and youngest by far in the class, came when called, sat and then stayed. He may not be bilingual like the dog in the corner, but we know it’s just a matter of time.
But it’s not all fun and joy with a new puppy. There is a part of me that is thrilled at my change of heart. That part of me that agreed to the puppy and saw its merits is grateful. The part of me that looks ahead and sees Bruno as a therapy dog helping me in my work with clients seeking better brain wellness, is happy and hopeful. But there are other parts of me that are not so satisfied with the adorable invasion. I am not able to work long shifts any more, as the rehab does not allow dogs, so I am only working there now when therapists need a fill-in for group sessions. I pulled out of a conference last week because getting puppy coverage for 12 hour days was going to be too challenging. The parts of me that cherish independence, spontaneity, freedom, peace and quiet have been extremely challenged the last 12 days. The part of me that wants to be go! Go! Go! Is challenged by the tedium and monotony of essentially having a newborn in the house.
I am very familiar with ambivalence. When I talk with clients, I spend a lot of time exploring their mixed feelings about their goals and expectations. If they are seeking sobriety, we talk about how a part of them may want to be sober because of the way a body and brain and life without alcohol and other drugs is far healthier, more compassionate, more present, and more connected. And, we talk about their part(s) that may feel rebellious, may fear being different (which is always the case with people seeking sobriety, since we live in a booze-centered culture), may fear a life of boredom, isolation, lack of adventure etc. Even if you haven’t thought about sobriety, you have probably at some point considered embarking on a new health challenge, or business-building endeavor. You get the idea, feel super excited, start going, and then the energy starts to fizzle. Maybe something in your life sidelines you for a bit and you lose the momentum, and you never quite regain it. So you once again berate yourself for your lack of willpower, your laziness, your inability to commit and follow-through.
I don’t believe you are lazy or lack willpower. I believe that the part of you that initially felt that excitement and drive, was the part of you that loves to feel in control, organized, determined, successful. But the thing is, when we make a lot of our decisions, especially these big ones that are often tied to our ego, we don’t usually check in with all the other parts of us. How about the part of you that prioritizes your family? When you signed up for Ironman, was that part asked how it felt knowing that your ass would be on a bike more than in a chair at the dinner table or on the bleachers cheering on the kids? When you got pumped about doubling your business income, did you confer with your part that is devoutly committed to community outreach? When you invested $3,000 in a course that guaranteed you would write a book ready to publish, did you consult with your part that would rather sleep than get up at 4am to write before anyone woke up?
Every day, I hear ambivalence, in my brain and in those of my friends and clients. Here are some of the most typical ones:
And so on. I actually don’t believe anyone is lazy. Or crazy. Actually, we are all crazy, just some of us hide it better than others. And I believe we all have an inner self that is kind, compassionate, wise, optimistic, generous, hard-working, committed, loving. But from what I know about trauma, and how it affects our brain health, I believe we learn different ways to cope, to organize the world, and to feel a sense of control. In IFS (Internal Family Systems - I am a certified IFS Coach), we believe that we are all a collection of parts. Some of these parts were developed when we were in certain traumatic situations in our life, and perhaps their go-to reaction to situations is to disconnect, hide, lash out, numb, etc. When we are in situations that feel stressful, or where we have a decision to make, we may feel ambivalent because our different parts are polarized. The part of me that prioritizes simplicity and a peaceful environment feels resentful and exhausted after hours of managing a puppy, an older dog, a coaching business, volunteer commitments, and figuring out a healthy plant-based dinner while getting in my workout, my 2 daily meditations, and my studies. That part is mad it was not given a veto vote during Puppy Decision. Someone observing me may think gosh, she was so happy an hour ago with the puppy, why is she suddenly so exhausted and cranky and regretting having agreed to the puppy? You should have given it more thought, woman! But the thing is I did give it a lot of thought. And I did consult with my different parts. And, even in the midst of a crankfest, if I remind myself that it is OK, I did not make a huge mistake, I just need to listen to the parts right now that are feeling angry and tired, I eventually reach a calmer state. This works with other scenarios from the above list. Whichever of the scenarios applies to you, I guarantee you can (with me, or another IFS coach or therapist) start to identify different parts within you and as you start to listen to them, with compassion and curiosity, you will most likely lessen your resistance and your self-judgment and even self-loathing.
A client I was working with the other day had an a-ha moment when I explained this to him and did an exercise with him around his parts. I mentioned that sometimes it is helpful to visualize a board meeting, with each of our parts in a chair. And rather than a hostile scenario where everyone is interrupting each other and there is an obvious hierarchy, we turn it into a scenario where each part gets to feel heard because we pass a talking stick around, like in a Native American council. Each part gets to speak while they are in possession of the stick, and then they pass it to the next person, who then gets to be heard. And like in 12 step meetings, there is no cross-talking, so the parts can be assured that no other part will try to fix them or give them advice. And then, ideally we are in a more calm state and we can recognize which part needs to be making the executive decisions right now, but the other parts feel satisfied they have been heard. A high-powered executive, this client lit up at this idea, which made complete sense to him.
I hear the puppy waking up now, so the part of me that loves peace and silence and writing feels heard, and now the part of me that wants to go hug that bundle of love and take him out to pee and look at daffodils is going to take the reins.
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.