One of the most common questions I get from women in Pathway™ groups at The Women’s Center for Binge and Emotional Eating is, If I follow this plan, how long until I stop bingeing or overeating?
If you do a Google search on how long it takes to change behaviors or break habits, you can find literature claiming 21 days, some 30. I believe if you search enough, it’s probably possible to find literature saying whatever we want to hear.
Sure, all other factors being equal, if we can put ourselves in sterile environments where variables can be controlled, we can probably pick any behavior and change it in 30, 21, maybe even 7 days.
Unfortunately, in our ‘real’ lives, we’re dealing with all sorts of varying factors – stress, relationships, demands, changes, etc…each of which are difficult to predict.
The truth is that we don’t live in a bubble. (Except of course, what women describe as the Green Mountain bubble, referring to the safe haven of the retreat.)
I look at behaviors as Old Roads vs. New Roads.
Old Roads vs. New Roads: The Analogy
You know when you’re driving on an old familiar road, and construction workers start building a new road along side of it? Then after a while it’s done and you get on that new road…aaahhhh…that new road is smooth and you sort of glide as you drive on it… so much nicer. Less bumpy, no potholes.
That old road is still there; you just don’t drive on it anymore. It just sits there for a while. Maybe weeds grow through the cracks in the pavement.
Then one day, you accidentally veer in the wrong direction and get back on that old road again. As you’re driving on it, you notice something doesn’t feel the same. It’s bumpy and uncomfortable, and you realize you’ve mistakenly taken that old road just out of old habit, so you veer back over to that new, smooth road again.
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The point here is that the old road is like our old habits, our old behaviors. These are our old neural pathways in the brain. They’re deeply ingrained because we’re so used to doing things that way, it’s just an ‘auto-pilot’ behavior.
When we change a behavior, it takes a little while to build that new road (to ingrain the new neural pathway in the brain). But when we start living in a new way, it often feels so much better, like a new smooth road.
It’s Okay if You Take the Old Road Sometimes
But that old pathway is still there. And things in our lives sometimes just happen to veer us over to it – a stressor, a relationship issue, etc. And suddenly without realizing it was happening, there we are on that old road. Engaging in that old behavior.
HERE’S THE DIFFERENCE: it’s old and bumpy, with potholes. It’s uncomfortable. So we soon realize something’s amiss. It doesn’t feel smooth like the new road. In other words, after engaging in a new behavior and getting accustomed to it, we usually like how it feels.
When we go back to the old behavior we were trying to change, it doesn’t feel as good. We NOTICE that we’re not feeling good.
That moment of noticing is the key to getting us back on track. This is not a failure, instead a very important success in the process of change.
Noticing IS mindfulness. We notice we’re on that old road, so we veer back to the new one.
In the past, we didn’t even know. It took building the new road and driving on it for a while to realize how good it feels.
Instead of getting caught up in the ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking and viewing it as a total failure, we can recognize that change is a process, and this is part of it.
The beauty of noticing and veering back is that we’re ingraining the new behavior even further, especially if we’re kind and gentle with ourselves along the way.
Let me share a personal story to paint the picture of how this might play out.
One summer day last year, I decided to stop at my favorite ice cream shack for a soft serve. This shack sits in a beautiful spot, along a river so I planned to enjoy a cone and the beautiful surroundings for a little while. When I got there, some rain clouds rolled in and it started to rain so I couldn’t sit outside by the river. Fine…instead I got my cone and sat in the car.
There I was, sitting in the car eating my cone. As I was eating it, I noticed that I was starting to eat faster, and feel guilty. I realized that I ‘veered’ over into old diet thinking “I shouldn’t be eating this”, “this isn’t healthy”, “I’m going to gain weight” and was feeling guilty. I was trying to hurry up and eat it before the diet monster took it away.
When I noticed this was happening, I paused and took a breath, reminding myself that I was back on an old road. I shifted my thinking back to the moment, and out of the story, savoring the cone and commending myself for noticing the guilt ridden though patterns.
It’s like that saying “old habits die hard”. It takes a while.
But the real success happens when we realize we’ve veered off. Instead of considering it a failure, beating up on ourselves, and giving up, we can instead recognize the mindful awareness, be kind to ourselves and veer back over.
It’s in this way that the new behaviors become more deeply ingrained.