"The point isn't to walk. The point is for your puppy to feel confident in the world."
This was the answer our puppy kindergarten instructor offered a graduating pup-parent when they asked about walking, "Sometimes the puppy just wants to sit down. How do I get him to walk?"
In my previous post, I discussed the nonlinear process of letting go of destructive thoughts; a topic inspired by a new puppy entering my life. In an effort to better support us both, we enrolled in a puppy training school. Needless to say, we've learned a lot and have also been reminded of what feel like universal truths.
The trainer's response made me think of our own preoccupation with where we are going during recovery. In all fairness, the journey is hard and it does require committed focus. And depending on where we are in our recovery journey, sometimes we do just have to "do the walk" because that's the only way we meet a very necessary need. But sometimes we are in a place where we can begin to prioritize our desires and in addition to the aforementioned focus, it also takes patience.
Depending on where we are in recovery, if we push too hard too fast, it's easy to simply reinforces that the scary thing is indeed scary. Sometimes we want so badly to have peace with food, we fake it 'till we make it, we "finish the walk," we eat the thing at the place with the people; but we're barely able to breathe through it all. And then we're expected to do it again? That is a tall order.
If the point isn't to eat the food at the place with the people, then what is the point?
That answer is very personal and at the same time, often sounds like, "I want to be able to enjoy food again... I want to be able to eat with people and engage in conversation... I want to be able to eat something and think about something else before, during, and after... I want to be free from the stress I feel after eating... I want peace... I want to be present to my life."
That matters; your point matters. What you want to feel while you eat the thing at the place with the people; that matters. Even for those of us who have to fight to experience peace or presence for most of our waking hours because society has deemed our bodies divergent from what is acceptable; our desired feelings matter.
So how do we get there? How do we go on a walk AND feel confident in the world?
Again, there are many answers to this question but one of them is an approach therapists call, Exposure Therapy. This approach expands a person's "window of tolerance" for any given stimuli (such as food or an insect) by systematically exposing them to tolerable forms of that stimulation. All the while, the person is also practicing grounding techniques that helps their nervous system go from flight or fight to rest and digest.
Below I've shared a watered-down version of this approach. If you'd like more details or support for your particular situation, I'd love to hear from you!
Consider what supports a feeling of peace and calm in your body. Maybe it's a texture, something in your hand, a mantra. Whatever they are, we'll consider these things "grounding tools."
Make a list of foods or food-situations that you'd like to feel peace and calm with but don't currently. Be specific and identify the end-goal; maybe it's eating the thing at the place with the people. Or perhaps it's eating a specific version of a thing, or coexisting with food at a place, or talking to people while eating any old food.
Now for each item you wrote down, consider baby steps; a version of that thing that is hard to feel calm about but not as hard as the end-goal. Make it a version that your grounding tool could support you with but it may take 5-10 minutes to get there.
Grounding tool: a rock I got from my happy-place beach.
Eating popcorn by myself in a movie theater.
1st: eating home-made popcorn at home. 2nd: eating microwave popcorn at home. 3rd: Eating a pre-portioned amount of microwave popcorn in a movie theater.
In our puppy example, Ulap's grounding tool is to sit down and take some breaths. The stimulation he was stressed by was; well, everything. But most notably fast-moving cars. That said, he could keep from panting and stay focused as long as we were about 10 feet away from the cars and he wasn't being asked to do anything else. We would do this for 5-10 minutes every day. Now, he's still cautious around cars but from what I can tell, he's also confident.