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The Matrix of Choice

Photo by Taylor Dawn Fortune

In 2012, for health reasons, I needed to eliminate gluten and dairy from my diet.

I needed to, so I chose to. It wasn’t a life or death in the strictest sense–my diagnosis with an auto-immune disease did not require me to make any dietary change–but after trying it out for a brief period, I realized that diet did have an effect on my condition.

But food is controversial. People who omit things from their diet are suspect. Some people point out some research factoid they’ve read that says that diet doesn’t make a difference. Others say, condescendingly, that gluten-free is “just a fad.”

The biggest rub? That giving up certain foods would drain the joy out of life. Since I could continue to eat gluten or dairy and still mostly, basically, pretty-much get through life, then: How could I give up bread? Cheese? Ice-cream?
But before we get too far, this is not actually a piece on food, or food choices.

This is a piece about how and why we make choices that hurt our lives, even when we have access to other options.

This is a piece about why it can be difficult to change, and how to re-think our approach to change.

Violence to the Self

Initially, going gluten-free and dairy-free were choices I made because I felt like I had no other choice–it completely and totally freaked me out that I, a runner and brussels-sprouts lover, was sick.

Aren’t runners supposed to be some of the healthiest people in the world? And isn’t anyone who truly loves kale and quinoa a health nut?

How do those people get sick?

I’m here to tell you, they do get sick. In fact, I was sick as far back as 2008, but blood work drawn at the time was not read properly and I was not diagnosed. I spent another four years exhausted, achy, getting colds several times a year, and physically cold even when bundled in sweaters.

For reasons I don’t understand, in late 2012, things spun completely out of control and I was so tired that my runs exhausted me and I began to gain weight, rapidly–15 pounds in only a few months.

I share that to set up context for why I would make such a drastic diet decision.

Here’s the thing, though–after getting a diagnosis and changing my diet, I “cheated” at first. I’d get a little gluten in here, a little dairy in there.

What happened? I felt sicker. Often, I felt sick almost immediately. The one time I had real pizza, the ultimate gluten-dairy combo, I had a sinus infection within 24 hours.

So here’s the question:

Why did I make those choices? Why, when I knew what made me feel better and had access to better choices, did I sometimes “cheat” and choose things that weren’t good for me?

Why do we, collectively, not do what we know is best for us?

This is the million-dollar question.

I think I have a million-dollar answer: When we choose what’s not in our best interest, we’re committing a form of violence to the self. We’re acting from places that are wounded or under-developed.

What’s more: we all do it.

Everybody’s Doing It

  • When we procrastinate, even though we have time?
  • When we argue with someone, even though a little voice has popped up to remind us that we swore we’d never argue about this same issue, again?
  • When we put food into our mouths, even when we know that it’s not going to make us feel good and even when we have other options?
  • When we fill our lives to the brim, even when we see clearly that doing so doesn’t make us happy?

These are little pinprick wounds that collectively add up. Every day, we’re making choices, and again and again those choices add up and begin to weave the fabric for our quality of life.

Why do we do this? I think we do it from a place of either wounding (something hurts, I need it to feel better) or something within is under-developed (I don’t yet have the skill-set to know what it’s like to choose something different).

Most of us can understand the first–the wound–while there’s a collective disdain for the second–the lacking skill-set.

“Oh come ON,” someone will say. “It just boils down to laziness. People who do things when they know they shouldn’t do them are just lazy about making better choices.”

Perhaps you’ve even internally criticized yourself in this way.

But really–there’s knowing how to make a choice, and then there’s knowing how to make a choice (emphasis intentionally added). I’ve worked with one-on-one clients for going on 8 years, and the truth is that most of us think we know how to choose, but we don’t.

Sure–logically, yes, we know how to choose. We know “how to.” We know what we’re “supposed to” be doing.

Somatically, however–in the body? In the felt sense of our being as we walk around, doing what we do? Often, we don’t know how to choose. We lack the skill-set for checking in with feelings in order to decide what it is that we truly need.

“Feelings are facts” is a popular self-help adage that’s been roundly criticized because it’s interpreted literally.

I don’t think it’s a literal statement; I think it’s intended to express how, even when all logic and reason would seem to indicate that we “should” make choice A, we will choose choice B. The “fact” of how we feel has a powerful sway.

The Skill Set of Choice

Making choices that work for our lives involves having a skill set for making choices.

Perhaps all these years, you’ve just thought, “Oh, I make a choice! Simple.”

Nope, not so simple.

The skill set includes things like:

  • Truly knowing what you truly want (truly!).
  • Feeling you deserve to have what you want (if you don’t feel you deserve it, you won’t go after it).
  • Trusting that you are safe in making a choice (if you came from a family that ridiculed or criticized your choices, this might be a challenge for you).
  • Trusting that you are equipped to deal with the outcomes of your choices (if someone fears an outcome, they’re likely to not make any choices, at all).

And the skill we’re really talking about, here?

  • Knowing how to work with the feeling states that arise when we are making choices that are challenging or unfamiliar.

It’s Not That We Don’t Know

  • We procrastinate not because we don’t “know” that we shouldn’t–we do it because some felt sense in the body makes procrastination the more alluring option. In that moment, procrastinating quite literally “feels” better.
  • We argue with someone not because we don’t already realize that arguing is usually ineffective–we do it because of some feeling in the body that’s present, that makes arguing, venting that anger, getting the last word in, “She’s not going to get away with talking to me like that!,” not “putting up” with it…so appealing.
  • We put food into our bodies that isn’t even really food, or that we know doesn’t make us feel good, not because we “don’t know better” but really, because we don’t feel better–and what we want is to feel better, right now, in this moment, not twenty minutes from now or an hour from now or a diagnosis from now.

So what does this all boil down to?

If you have struggled with making choices, or making choices that stick, or making better choices among the array of choices available, you’ve got to stop thinking logically.

You’ve got to start regarding how you feel.

  • How am I feeling now?
  • How am I likely to feel, twenty minutes or an hour after having made this choice?
  • What do I know about how this choice has made me feel, in the past?
  • What’s an alternative choice that I could make, and am I willing to choose it in this moment?

These are critically important questions, and you can’t ask them logically. You’ve got to close your eyes and –ugh, I know, I know– feel your feelings.

In regards to whatever life change you want to implement–to start meditating, to quit fighting with your partner over the same damned thing, to not procrastinate in starting that novel you wanted to write–they will be questions you’ll need to ask again, and again, and again.

Lasting Effects of Change

Almost a year after my diagnosis and subsequent dietary changes, how am I doing? Good gravy, it’s just so utterly ordinary. I eat what I eat, you know? What felt like a Big Deal in the aftermath of the diagnosis now largely feels like a shrug of the shoulders.

How can you get to that place with your own choices–a place where they don’t feel quite so hard, or so dramatic?

It comes down to checking in with your somatic response often enough that something clicks into place, and you realize:

When I make choice X, I feel like shit. Thus, I won’t make it.”

When people ask me how I could give up milkshakes or fresh, oven-baked bread, it barely registers.

In my mind, “giving up” those things is a small price to pay for waking up in the morning with energy, saving my fertility so that I can have children, not having a body that is riddled with inflammation in the joints.

It seems so clear to me that I am the winner in this equation.

Choices aren’t easy to make, especially if you don’t actually know how to make them because the skill-set for how to choose hasn’t yet developed.

The good news is that you can parse out what pieces of this skill set you need, so that you can find your way to making choices that are lasting and meaningful, and aligned with your true desires for your life.

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About the author

Kate Swoboda is a life coach, speaker and writer who specializes in courage. You can learn more about her at YourCourageousLife.com, where she writes about courageous living, integrity, and ferocious love. Life Coaches can check out her resources for business and leveraging your practice over at YourCourageousBlueprint.com

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9 thoughts on The Matrix of Choice

  1. When we want to make change long lasting it is far better not to focus on what we are giving up. Rather focus on what the change will bring us. You have to want the end result more than whatever comfort or pleasure the existing behavior brings.

    Sounds like you hit on this by focusing on the positive energy and feelings you got by eating differently.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. LOVE this! So rarely do we stop and notice that even the smallest decisions are truly based on how we currently want to feel, rather than the logic of what we think we should be doing! I think part of it, too, is learning to accept that our current condition, even if it is uncomfortable at the time, is TEMPORARY. I find that being okay with how things currently are can go a long way in helping us feel okay about making a decision that will increase our well-being in the long-term.

  3. Arrrgg… you hitting a painful nail on the head for me. I’m stuck in this habit of munching on a packet of chips and a chocolate every day. I have to have it. I will even make sure I go and buy one if I notice I’m out. Yes chips and chocolates are my downfall, but what I keep wondering – and I’ve asked myself this question a few times now – WHY THE HECK AM I DOING IT?
    I know it’s a bad habit and apart from being unhealthy is going to pack on the kilos. Yet, I persist in this behaviour.
    But it’s filling some void in my life, I think. I haven’t delved into the feelings around this issue and maybe I am too afraid to face it.

  4. Kate – this article is fantastic! It came at just the right time, too. I have been struggling with making choices that I know aren’t good for me. It’s maddening because intellectually I know better, yet I make poor choices anyway. I guess feeling good now was winning over feeling good later. Luckily, I’ve shifted and started valuing feeling good later over feeling good now. Yay!

  5. Hey Kate,

    Loved your article! I had to make the same decision by choice… to eliminate 8 foods as I was continuing to get
    sick when I ate. My friends say they feel sorry for me when they learn that I can no longer eat gluten, soy, corn, dairy, eggs, chicken, peanuts.

    I tell them please don’t feel sorry for me, I’m so excited to have found out which foods were making me sick. And the truth of the matter is that there are more and more food companies that are making gluten free products and even products that are free from:
    – gluten
    – dairy
    – soy
    – corn
    ———-
    Now if we could get those companies to also eliminate eggs I’d have a lot more choices.

    I’ve even found local companies in my area that are making very very yummy foods that I can eat, even breads. Yet at the same time, I remind myself that keeping it as simple as possible and eating whole foods is the best for ME; but it certainly is fantastic to have found a company, local in fact, that offers incredibly yummy breads and treats.

    Marion
    p.s. Was curious if you’re a part of any FB groups for those of us with food allergies/intolerances.
    It would be so great to have a local community where we share with each other the following that are gluten free, dairy free, etc.
    – local restaurants
    – gluten FREE, etc. products we can find in the local chains.
    I’d rather join an established group, however, if there aren’t any then I’ll create one.

  6. Thank you for this inspirational message. I think that more people should read it.

  7. Deevra, I wonder if there’s something to examine around what you would want *more* than the habit–or–something to examine around the pain that continuing that habit will cause.

    I was just thinking about this more, recently–about how we can strive for something better, and that can be useful, but we can also use our dissatisfaction to push ourselves to change. How would you answer the following?

    Do you truly know what you truly want (truly!)?
    Do you feel you deserve to have what you want (if you don’t feel you deserve it, you won’t go after it)?
    Do you trust that you are safe in making a choice (if you came from a family that ridiculed or criticized your choices, this might be a challenge for you)?
    Do you trust that you are equipped to deal with the outcomes of your choices (if someone fears an outcome, they’re likely to not make any choices, at all)?

  8. Kate,
    “Knowing how to work with the feeling states that arise when we are making choices that are challenging or unfamiliar” – oh so true! You are really getting to the heart of something so rarely articulated. When I was younger I had an overeating problem (that’s the polite term). As found my way out of that habit through trial and error, what I noticed was that when I didn’t overeat, I didn’t feel bloated and tired all the time. When I didn’t feel bloated and tired all the time I had a whole bunch of new possibilities and choices in front of me – what was I to do with this new found energy? THAT could get scary. I think that’s why people need coaches through significant positive change. Because one change opens new doors- and as you said, that’s when you need to know what you really truly want! That’s why it was easier to stay stuck in overeating for so long. But once I had new things I wanted energy for, my habit fell away more easily.

  9. Thank you for the great article, Kate!

    Some great perspectives on this issue, which I think a lot of us struggle with, but cannot quite put into words what is really happening to us and why.

    For me, personally, it used to be so easy to be disciplined and stop myself from reaching for all the bad stuff I knew was not doing me any favors. Thinking back, it was probably because I had a very strong motivational factor; I wanted to lose weight so badly, that it sort of became an obsession to stick to the diet. I NEVER touched anything I considered remotely unhealthy.

    Now a few years on, my will power has waned, and I do eat the occasional biscuit or chocolate, without the guilt and not feeling that I ruined myself. Sometimes it is very hard to say no, but we we have to ourselves to have a choice, even if it doesn’t seem the right one in hindsight.

Your thoughts?

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