There is nothing in our once healthy previous lives that can prepare us for what’s involved in getting good at pacing––at least in the way that the very limited energy of illnesses like ME/CFS, Fibromyalgia and Lyme disease demands. Pacing to someone healthy, might mean something like keeping their speed down on a long-distance run, or having a couple of breaks when pulling and all-night study session. It tends to be only for special occasions that demand a long haul of energy expenditure. When you have a chronic illness, pacing is about every day. Day in day out, we aim to be careful with energy so that we can minimise flares and do what we can to get the most out of a now, very restricted life. Unfortunately, taking good care of our energy means unlearning automatic patterns of behaviour that no longer work for us. These behaviours became our automatic program only because they were so successful when we had a healthy body, so unlearning the automatic is hard!
Overcoming the Completion Compulsion
One thing that will regularly trip us up is the urge to finish something once we’ve started. It’s such a common obstacle to good pacing that I’ve named it the “completion compulsion.” In a previous healthy life, seeing something through, pushing to get something finished, usually equated to success. Now, though, it means pushing our cells into a less efficient emergency energy production state than can result in pain and post-exertional malaise.
The first step to unlearning is always awareness: we have to be able to notice that the urge to push to complete in happening. Only when we notice it can we make a different choice. If you’re not noticing it until after you’ve already pushed too far, there are a couple of strategies that can help.
- When you start any task, set a timer so that you can check in with how you’re feeling when it goes off, and ask yourself if you need to stop. Don’t forget to reset the timer if you decide to continue!
- Journaling can be very helpful too. If you don’t notice something in the moment, but journal about how not noticing it did you damage, you’ll help prime yourself for noticing it next time.
- Mindful practises are all about developing more awareness that will help overcome automatic pilot behaviour. I found that practising mindfulness during regular daily tasks like taking a shower or making a drink, helped me to become more aware at other times of the day too.
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The next step is choosing a different action. Sometimes even with awareness, we can think, “I know I’m running out of energy, but I really want to get this done.” When this happens, it’s because our old programming is tempting us with an unconscious feeling that it will be better for us to continue; there’ll be some kind of reward. Our new knowledge––that it most certainly isn’t better for us to use too much energy––isn’t yet a strong enough neural pathway. Our subconscious doesn’t have as much evidence that it’s better for us to stop than we do for pushing through. In this case, we have to let go of our subconscious feeling that it will be better to keep going and make a conscious choice to do something different.
However, we need to be careful not to put up a resistance. First of all, resistance wastes energy, but also when our subconscious is resisted, it tends to fight harder to be heard. Whenever I’m trying to tackle an old impulse that is no longer serving me, I first offer it acceptance and thanks. I talk kindly to the impulse, “Thank you for trying to help me be successful, but things are different now and it’s no longer the best thing for me to do. Now I need to put taking care of my energy first to get the most out of life.”
Looking for evidence
Unfortunately, our subconscious has another trick up its sleeve that makes unlearning difficult. It is biased to only look for evidence that supports what it already knows. In order to strengthen the new neural pathway that says stopping and resting instead of pushing to complete is better, we need to consciously pay attention to the evidence that it does, in fact, serve our well-being. Without actively paying attention to that evidence, our subconscious will ignore it. Journaling can play a really important part here. Every time you do manage to choose to stop and not complete, it’s really important that you show yourself that there was some kind of benefit from it. By looking back on the day and being able to make note of how your energy lasted longer because you did stop and rest, or that the task still got completed easily despite being done in several sittings, or even that despite it not getting completed, all is well, you’ll be helping rewrite the new neural pathway by showing how it served you as a whole!
Making unlearning a positive
Another way to become more successful at unlearning, is to make sure it’s about moving towards something positive rather than moving away from something negative. Although avoiding pain can be a strong motivator, moving towards pleasure is an even more effective one. If you choose to ‘unlearn the completion compulsion’ because it will mean you’ll have more energy to do nicer things, rather than just to avoid the pain and disappointment of a flare, life will feel lighter. Your new neural pathways will be written faster because the result of better well-being will be clearer to your subconscious.
Unlearning the completion compulsion might be a bit of a challenge, but it makes pacing so much easier to practise effectively and allows you so much more control over how your energy is spent.
Julie Holliday, ProHealth’s Inspirational Editor, is a holistic life coach and writer committed to helping people take back control from energy-limiting chronic illness to live a more relaxed, balanced and fulfilling life. Julie loves spending time in nature, growing her own vegetables and spends as much of her day as possible in a comfortable pair of yoga pants. Writing as the ME/CFS Self-Help Guru, Julie shares tips on her weekly blog. You can also follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ or join her Facebook group focusing on finding purpose despite chronic illness.