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  • by Alona Pulde, MD

You can’t make me, can you?

The other day I was in the car with my 5 year old daughter and we were listening to a song. A few minutes in she said with indignation and some frustration, “ You see mom, he says live like you wanna but I can’t do that because you are always bossing me around!”

Looking at my little one, her jaw was set and her eyes were beady and she appeared truly bothered. Can you relate to feeling your body tighten when someone tells you what to do? It feels like every fiber of our being wants to resist that message. You might say in your head: “Don’t tell me what to do!” or “You can’t make me.” It’s even more painful when we do things we don’t want to do and harbor resentment toward the activity, the person who asked, and ourselves.

What we are aiming to protect here is a basic need – autonomy. We want to be in charge of our own choices and we don’t want to be told what to do. This crosses the spectrum of our lives and includes the foods we eat and the habits we create. And for this reason, even going to the doctor’s office can cause a lot of pain and resistance. You expect to be told what to do and what to change and what to eat and how much to exercise. But what is a common way we react when we feel our autonomy is challenged? We resist doing things (even things we would otherwise enjoy or want to do), we say “no” (even when we might otherwise say “yes), and we avoid contact with people we think will try to make us do something we don't want to do.

How does that manifest in our health? It can show up in a variety of ways including avoiding medical appointments, not taking our medications, and even sabotaging our efforts to make healthier changes in our lives. Basically, anything we feel “forced” or “coerced” to do we will work hard not to do.

Hearing my daughter share her grievance was a wake-up call to me. Specifically, we needed a different approach to meet both of our needs. And maybe in your journey to a healthier you that is what you need as well.

Here are some suggestions for preserving your autonomy:

  1. Check in before starting a conversation – In any given situation it is important to check-in with yourself and see if you are available to hear another person. This may sound hokey but the reality is that avoiding this step may land you in resentful listening. If you are listening to direction or advice from- another person but you really don’t want to be you will most likely become irritated. That state of mind can result in rigidity and zero desire to connect with another person. Basically it becomes a lose-lose situation. Save yourself the aggravation and if you are not available, let the other person know. An easy way to practice this is to say: “I really can’t hear this right now, can we try again in an hour or tomorrow?”

  2. Recognize reactivity in yourself – This may be your body getting tight, your heart racing, your jaw clenching, your desire to run or resist rising. Reactivity is an indication that you have been triggered and an opportunity to check in with yourself and your needs.

  3. Affirm your reactivity – Once you have recognized your reactivity, sharing it with the person you are engaging with is very helpful. It brings to both of your attention that something in your interaction is not working and offers an opportunity to do something differently.

  4. Strengthen your muscle to “choose” - Remember that, in every decision you make, you have choice. Your needs matter so voice them and work to meet them. When you are in doubt, ask for more information. Sometimes it helps to take a pause and reflect on your options, how they align with your needs and values, and then make your decision.

Give these practices a try and see if you find yourself more receptive to suggestions and directions that can support you on your path to a happier healthier you.


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