Why Call Change Work?
I’ve been noodling about why we call the act of self-transformation “work” and whether giving it this label may not bias us against it. After all, most of us think about work not as something we love to do, but as something we have to do, like it or not. You know—yard work, homework, housework. Perhaps calling the journey toward “normal” eating work does a disservice to it and makes change more difficult. Maybe it’s time to reframe the process into something more positive and enticing.
To begin with, “work” implies a beginning and an end. We start and we finish, but do we ever really fully achieve human potential? Can we coast or rest when work is complete if what we’re working on is our imperfect selves? If learning is work, does that mean we stop learning when work is done? A more helpful approach might be to think of lifelong knowledge and skill acquisition that constantly and consciously moves us toward self-actualization. Problems come up and need to be solved. We devise solutions and have no problems until more crop up. Such is the course of life and we should expect that we always will have problems—and solutions! If we consider problems natural challenges and learning experiences, they’re not such a hardship, such, well, work.
When people say they’re working to become “normal” eaters, they mean they’re willing to put in effort and be uncomfortable in the present—learning new behavioral skills, changing thinking, developing more effective ways to handle emotions—so that eating and life will be easier in the future. In that sense, work is an apt word to describe the process of facing hurdles and overcoming them. However, we have to be careful not to make the process into so much of production in our heads that we’re biased against and overwhelmed by it. Even the word “struggle”—which I use a good deal in my writing and professional work—is steeped in negative connotation.
Therapists often use the word “work” to indicate the need for clients to put energy into achieving a positive outcome and to reinforce the principle that change is most often the result of intentional effort. When therapists say to a client that she needs to “work” on her eating problems, we’re giving the message that change will not happen without it. But maybe we should use the word less frequently and focus on simple cause and effect, removing the negative nuance, as in, “If you do this, X happens” and “If you don’t, Y happens.” Think about whether the word “work” triggers a negative reaction in you. If you’re put off by it, find another word or phrase (like recovery or problem-solving or making progress) which is easier to accept and that keeps you moving you forward.