If only we could wish away bad habits and unwanted traits. We would all be like the population of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon - "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." Instead, we are stuck with our imperfect selves. While we enjoy shining moments of accomplishment and virtue, we also struggle with the less stellar aspects of ourselves; such as unhealthy eating, low self-esteem, depression, or untold anxieties.
Part of being human is the experience of always being a work in progress - never that final, perfect person. This can make life an exciting adventure; as long as you continue to move in the direction of growth.
Two important steps in encouraging growth are really being 'in' your life experiences - not always thinking about other things - and accepting those experiences. When you acknowledge, experience, and fully accept your feelings, you are essentially accepting all aspects of yourself and gaining a sense of being 'at home' in you. Even when you don't like your emotions or are unhappy, they can still feel right. A perfect example of this is when you grieve the loss of someone important in your life; you don't like the experience, but you have a sense that it is a genuine expression of your feelings, and so it feels right.
You might be thinking; This all sound great, but how can I find such inner peace? There is one very good way to do this that I am hesitant to mention because so many people misunderstand it... meditation. Although increasingly more people are learning the benefits of it for themselves, there are also many others who immediately 'know' it is not for them. They might be right, but they dismiss it before they really even understand it.
People often think of meditation as achieving a state of bliss, or at least a deep calm. Although it's true that meditation can be relaxing, that's not its main purpose. It is a practice of being aware of, and directing, your attention to your moment-by-moment experience. And it does this by teaching people to see when they become distracted or carried away with thoughts or feelings; and to return their attention to the moment (often focusing on their breath).
This process can be applied to people's lives outside of meditation, helping them to change things about themselves. So, for example, the emotional overeater can note her urges to eat; learn to tolerate them - along with any accompanying unpleasant emotions - without reaching for food; and return her attention the tasks at hand in her daily routine. Importantly, she is neither denying her urges, which might send them underground to sabotage her later; nor chastising herself for having them, which would undermine her motivation to treat herself well and make healthier food choices.
Stated succinctly, meditation helps people change by teaching them to be inside their experience and simultaneously outside, watching it with perspective. By being in the moment without feeling overcome by emotion, people can become adept at seeing themselves repeat patterns. Then, while acknowledging and experiencing an old pattern, they can choose to respond differently. It's in this way that meditation frees people to make the personal changes they so desire.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the 'Relationship' expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.
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