Reminder: Your Latest and Greatest Pursuit Just Might be a Decoy!

When I first posted this article back in June, it resonated with many people. Now that we are a month into New Years resolutions, I figured it would be a good time to post it again.  We can never have enough reminders that we tend to be excellent at self-trickery and avoiding the challenging, yet important, path of introspection and self-evaluation.


By Allison Belger

In my twenties, I ran a lot.  I’d never done any formal running, except as part of training for the sports I played competitively in high school and college. Running became my thing while I lived in San Francisco post-college.  One of my most consistent and avid running partners was a dear friend who had picked up running as a way to lose weight.  Carrying extra poundage around since her college days at a particularly social school, she had struggled for years to come to terms with her body as it was.  Running and mountain biking had become her refuge, and when she dialed in her nutrition, the pounds finally came off.

Prior to losing weight, my friend, approaching age thirty, would often lament the fact that she was single.  She longed to be in a long-term relationship, settle down, and have a family.  Her single status, in her mind, was the result of the extra pounds, plain and simple.  Ups and downs at work?  Yep, those were weight-related, as well.  Indeed it seemed that almost every nuance of her functioning was related to the number on a scale, which she watched like a hawk multiple times each day.  The funny thing was that when she finally lost the weight—after a few months of extreme levels of exercise mixed with more restrictive food choices—her life didn’t change much.  She still navigated the rather clumsy world of city dating, she still had ups and downs at work, and, perhaps most importantly, her mother was still nuts.  A few months into being “skinny” and living the same old struggles, my friend insightfully recognized the shortcomings of her thinking with regards to her weight-induced plight in life: it wasn’t actually the extra pounds on her body that hindered her.  She now had to reckon with her psychology in ways that her focus and on, and obsession with, her larger body had rather conveniently prevented her from doing.

We humans are exceptionally good at creating and maintaining psychological defense mechanisms.  The psychological and emotional demands of being human are intense, and we need ways of defending ourselves.  However, and rather unfortunately, it is often these same defensive strategies, which serve us well superficially and for the moment, that prevent growth and become stumbling blocks when they are nurtured past their prime.  While they may temporarily distract us from the real sources of our angst, their tricky ways make progress unlikely.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of immersing yourself completely into a newfound endeavor of some kind—be it physical, spiritual, or mental—making huge changes in your life for a relatively brief period, only to have those changes unwind almost as quickly as they arrived.  Ever had a friend become obsessed with a certain exercise routine or sport of way of eating, with significant but very temporary results?  Maybe your nephew ended up in a commune of some kind, convinced of his new way of viewing the world and spiritually transformed—but only for a few months.

Human behavior takes time to change for real and for the long haul.  Brief, severe, bouts of change, often borne of obsessive focus and thinking, are unlikely to last.  What I’m interested in for this post is the psychological purpose served by these intense times of focus and change.  Obsessively watch what you eat and lose fifty pounds?  Run fifteen miles every day for three months en route to your first marathon?  Read every Ayn Rand novel ten times over and join four book clubs on the road to a new, intellectual you?  Become a Buddhist in four short months?  Frantically strive for that bodyweight snatch while tracking every single lift for five months straight?  What’s the deal?

At face value, these endeavors are meaningful efforts, accomplishments, and developments that might prove to be the beginning of long-term change and achievement.  However, since this blog is about delving deeper, let’s entertain the idea that at least some of these obsessive engagements serve alternate functions, more like with my friend in her twenties, whose running and dieting proved to be a way of avoiding underlying emotional and relational issues that had plagued her for years–far longer than she had been “fat” and far more pervasively than she had imagined.

We all have bumps in the psychological road and have all endured aspects of our upbringing that did not go as our caregivers intended, and certainly not perfectly.  We all have our issues–insecurities, fears, annoying behavior patterns.  We are the psychological products of millions of interactions with our caregivers, first and foremost, and with multiple significant others along the way.  Each of these interactions is influenced by the psychologies of all parties involved, totaling exponentially more complex relating than any single one might involve.  There’s simply no way these can all go smoothly.

When we suffer from particularly challenging underlying “issues,” we often find ways of distracting ourselves from them (i.e. defense mechanisms mentioned earlier).  Did you have a dad whose expectations were always slightly bigger than your capacity?  Did your mom loathe her body and make you uncomfortable for not loathing yours?  Maybe your sister was a superstar, and you were stuck in her shadow for years.  More extreme versions abound, including abuse, neglect, premature exposure to sexuality…the list goes on.  As survivalists, we all put up walls and find ways around knowing our own discomfort and pain.  Maybe we drink too much.  Perhaps we obsessively clean our home.  Maybe we jump from bed partner to bed partner or shop on eBay with money we don’t have.  Maybe we train for a marathon or become a religious devotee.  The idea is that these endeavors provide a nice, intense, reliable go-to when our psyches threaten exposure of our most painful and complicated content.

Some of these strategic behavioral decoys last far longer than a few months or even a few years.  Sometimes we jump from one to the next, as though we realize the purpose served by one has a rapidly approaching expiration date, and we’d better find another, right quick. We go from running to Yoga to CrossFit to Buddhism to knitting, and back again.  We lose forty pounds and gain forty-five.  Along the way, we avoid the underlying complications of our most formative relationships and how they play out in our lives in the present.

The problem is, the setup is flawed, and the defenses don’t work forever.  Remember, human behavior takes time to change, and the quick fixes and obsessive interests rarely last.  Our psyches have a tricky way of catching up with us, and ultimately we are better served by trying to address ourselves head on.  The good news is that doing so might save us from further disappointment down the road.  Regaining weight once lost, losing our capacity to run 26.2 miles, or realizing that the book club was a bore can all be a real drag after we have put so much effort into each journey.  This is especially true when we realize that we still suffer from the anxiety, self-loathing, or general malaise from which we unconsciously sought refuge in the first place.

This all may sound a little depressing or insurmountable, even, but hopefully these ideas come as an invitation to seek help when it is needed and to do some hearty soul-searching regarding the functions of your chosen activities.  That sport you just cannot get enough of, those calorie-counting spreadsheets you complete nightly, or those late-night online shopping “trips” you take might actually be decoys.  Heads up: pay attention and figure out for yourself if your current engagements might be an effort to avoid something that you think will somehow be fixed on the other side of your pursuit.  “If I lose the weight, I will be lovable.”  “If I reach that personal best lift, I will prove that I’m a strong and successful person.”  “If I have great clothes, I will fit in.”    The thinking is powerful and seductive, but flawed nonetheless.  Much like we all are, really.  The idea is to access the powerful and seductive in us in spite of what is flawed.  Doing so means we cannot become too distracted from ourselves by the activities we pursue.  Seek help (find a professional if need be), talk to friends, explore your inner life.  It’ll always catch up with you if don’t, so you might as well expedite the process, address who you are, make peace with yourself and your history, and forge ahead.  Losing weight won’t hold a candle to that kind of work.  I promise.

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