When I was a child I had what my mother called “growing pains”- aches and pains in my legs that would not let me fall asleep at night. Who knows if they were in fact caused by growth (although I did reach my current height of five feet nine inches when I was twelve so there was some serious growing happening,) but they were excruciating. If I moved my legs around in bed they would feel a little better. Until I stopped, and then the pain would be much worse than it had been before I’d started tossing and turning.
What I figured out was that I had to hold still and bear the discomfort if I wanted it to go away. So, that’s what I did: I would lie very still, and pretend to send my breath down into my legs (divine grace must have prompted this idea), imagining I was breathing out the waves of pain that came. If I could keep this up for five minutes, resisting the overwhelming urge to move my legs, the pain would begin to dissipate. It was short term discomfort for long term relief from pain.
I think of this early experience when I or someone I know is trying to change an old habit we know is not serving us. Because the truth is, the habits we’ve developed, like moving my legs in bed, at some point seemed to serve us even if they simply offered a bit of distraction from or numbing of some discomfort.
For example, people often ask me how they can change the habit of people-pleasing, a pattern of always looking to meet the expectations, or adhere to the standards or preferences of others, a behaviour that often renders us unable to act on what has value for us, even if we somehow manage to stay in touch with what that is. Usually this change involves saying, “No,” where we have too often said, “Yes,” and “YES!” to a few places where we have not allowed ourselves to follow or act on what is truly of value for us
But here’s the catch: as soon as we change a habit, even one that is truly not serving us, our anxiety rises- sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Because whatever fear the habit was placating begins to stir. If we tend to be habitual people-pleasers, and we start saying “No,” fears or beliefs that others will think we are uncaring or cruel or worse will be stirred.
This is why it's often difficult to make changes we can see would be good for us. Change often raises anxiety that can present in a whole host of uncomfortable ways- worry; fear or dread; guilt; anger and self-righteousness; the physical discomfort of indigestion, headaches etc; general agitation and speeding up, or a sudden loss of energy and sluggishness.
Here’s where I go back to what I learned about growing pains when I was a child: growing often causes discomfort; if we try to avoid the discomfort, it gets worse; if we can hold still, recognize and be with the discomfort, breathe through it and not let it drive us into unconscious motion, the discomfort or anxiety will begin to dissipate (often much faster than we would have imagined.)
Jungian analyst James Hollis maintains that one of the tasks in the second half of life is to learn to tolerate anxiety. It’s a hard sell. Anxiety is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and we are programmed to avoid pain for survival. But recognizing that the discomfort we are feeling can indicate real growth may help us stick with the choice to create change in our lives, feeling and acknowledging the anxiety as it arises but holding still (not reverting back to the old habit that does not serve us) so that a deeper level of freedom can be discovered.
(c) Oriah 2011