There’s this advice in all those lady mags, the ones that tell you how to get Thin Thighs in 30 Days and promise to tell you What He’s Really Thinking. The recommendation is to post a picture of yourself back in your thinnest days or pictures of women you wished you looked like up on your refrigerator so every time you go get something to eat you’ll be shamed away from the kitchen.
We act out versions of this all of the time. We berate ourselves for missing deadlines or for not getting chores done. We look at other people “for inspiration” but then play back their success to remind ourselves that we are failures.
But what if we decided to feel good about ourselves anyway? Even though it’s been more than 30 days and our thighs are not thin? Even though our carpets are not vacuumed and we turn in projects late? What do we have to lose if we liked ourselves anyway? What might we gain?
When I talk to clients about being kind to themselves they sometimes worry that if they take the heat off they will run roughshod over their own lives. They will eat M&Ms for every meal! They will stay in bed watching Jersey Shore reruns instead of going to work! They will leave the dishes in the sink FOREVER! Then sometimes they point to people who have done just that.
Well, I say, we’re not talking about those other people — we’re talking about you.
Most of us will get sick of M&Ms on our own. Most of us will also get sick of watching Jersey Shore episodes. And most of us will eventually do the dishes, even if we do them reluctantly. We will find our own best balance, which doesn’t necessarily need to look like anyone elses.
It’s easier to be good to ourselves when we feel good about who we are already. It’s easier to meet goals when we trust ourselves to meet them. Jettison the shame for the new year and you might be surprised at how far you can go.
I read this article, The Power of Negative Thinking, over at 99.u with great interest because I have a knee-jerk reaction against unbridled optimism and break out at hives if I’m seated at a dinner party next to someone who is relentlessly positive.
It’s not that I’m a pessimist; I’m an optimist who worries.
Article author Christian Jarrett notes, “By thinking realistically about the obstacles to success, it helps us pick challenges that we’re likely to win and avoid wasting time.”
It also helps us stay on track, ensuring we’re not derailed by inevitable setbacks since we’re prepared to overcome them.
The problem is when our pessimism is so strong that we don’t even make the effort. Remember what I said before about just showing up? Well, the pessimist doesn’t show up. The optimist who worries shows up but has a Plan B.
The pessimist is so sure of failure that she doesn’t try. The optimist who worries tries but plans for failure just in case.
I know that The Secret says otherwise but negative thinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In small doses it can make you more effective, more efficient and better prepared for success.
Just remember that a little worry goes a long way.
When I was eighteen I dropped out of Ohio State and spent the next few years working and trying to get my head on straight. While I was in school I skipped a lot of classes, skipped a lot of homework and generally wasted my money by sleeping through my 9am classes. When I went back to school at Portland State University I was super committed and ratcheted my GPA up by actually showing up to class and doing my homework.
I was very proud of myself.
Towards the end of my junior year I saw a notice in the school paper that the new University Studies program was looking for Peer Mentors, which was a scholarship position for juniors and seniors. Portland State was radically changing their curriculum to be more integrated and cross-discipline and the Peer Mentors would work one-on-one with professors to help incoming students in the Freshman Inquiry classes. To qualify, we had to have a certain GPA, get references from professors and offer a writing sample.
I wanted to apply but I was nervous. Even though my grades were much improved I still felt like the college slacker I’d once been and I was sure they’d see right through me. But what the heck, I thought, it won’t cost me anything but time to apply. I took a leap of faith and I got the position.
Twenty-one of us (plus an alternate) met that first day at orientation and I was positively gleeful. I’d finally proved that I had what it took to be a successful college student! I’d overcome my lackluster college (and high school) career where my bad attitude was more important to me than turning papers in on time to arrive here, in a scholarship position that would look great on my curriculum vitae. I felt like a big shot.
It was only later that I found out that exactly 22 people applied to be Peer Mentors, which meant that every single person who bothered to fill out the application got the job.
At first I was grouchy about this. I wanted to know I was a Peer Mentor because I’d beat out a bunch of other over-achievers. I wanted to believe that I’d been the best woman for the job and not just the default applicant.
But then I got to thinking. I wondered how many people were more qualified but talked themselves out of applying. Maybe the gauntlet we had to run was applying anyway — in spite of the fear and insecurity.
That made me think about how many other opportunities I’d probably missed out on by thinking there were surely a bunch of other people who had a better shot than I did. How many other things could I have done just by being brave enough to show up?
With this in mind, I started sending my writing work out. I got rejections, sure, but I also got a few acceptances. (My first published piece was a poem that showed up in an obscure literary magazine published by Eastern Washington University. I was thrilled. So was my mom.) Then a few more and then a few more. And so on and so on.
This is my message to you: If there’s something that you want to accomplish but you’re scared to try, recognize that the fear is your biggest hurdle. That fear will stop a whole bunch of other people and narrow your playing field but you shouldn’t let it stop you. In fact, that fear is your friend because it’s going to winnow down the competition and make more room for you to do the thing you dream of doing.
What the heck, right? Just show up. Who knows what might happen?
Some of my clients like assignments. They like it when I give them jobs to do or worksheets to fill out or homework to complete so I do. But I tell them that it’s ok for them to not do well at whatever I’ve asked them to do or to not be able to do it all. I tell them that their real assignment is to notice what they’re doing and report back. If I ask them, for example, to write a gratitude list and they come back to say they couldn’t do it then we’ll talk about why. I’m not grading their gratitude list. I’m not even grading their effort. What I want to hear about is how it felt to write or to not write it. For me — and I hope for the client — both experiences have equal value.
Life is made up of mistakes, right? The more things we do and try, the more likely we’re going to rack up some failures. Sometimes we have to find out what we’re not so good at to find out where we really shine. And sometimes we have to spend some time with the wrong people (friends and lovers) before we know what qualities we need in the people who surround us. That’s why I picked a maze to illustrate this post — sometimes we have to walk into a lot of walls before we find our way out.
Fortunately, counseling is a judgment-free zone. I don’t mean that my clients and I toss critical thinking out the window — just the opposite. We apply our critical thinking but we leave the shame behind. We recognize mistakes and failure for what they are but I try to help my clients understand that in every wrong move is the chance to get a better understanding of what the right move looks like and feels like.
Back to that gratitude list. If my client can’t or won’t write one then we talk about why. Is she not able to make time for self-care? Why not? Is this an internal or external reality? In other words, is she setting up roadblocks on purpose or is her schedule really overwhelming? If she started to write it but came up short then I want to know how it felt to try. Did she feel resentful about the assignment? Is she not ready to give up on some of her sadness or anger? Because change is hard even if it’s for the long-term good. Giving things up — even lousy things that hurt us like bad attitudes and fear — is still giving something up. Sometimes we need to confront and talk about that loss before she has room to try again.
So see, failure counts as a win in therapy. It helps shape our next efforts together. It helps in our understanding. And it gets us closer to success.
As we wind down to the end of January, many of us are contemplating where we are regarding our New Year’s resolutions around eating well and some of us are feeling pretty grouchy about our progress. Changing our diets is hard — it takes new planning, new habits, new skills and sometimes new tastebuds.
There’s no such thing as failure
Most of us, especially when it comes to the food we put in our bodies, view failure as a big, shameful black mark. We carry a lot of other things in our plans to eat better like negative attitudes towards our bodies, fear-fueled concerns for our health, and values we learned at our childhood dinner tables. Suddenly a stalk of broccoli or a bite of white bread gets awfully mixed up with a bunch of other emotionally-charged ideas. This is why we need to learn how to be kind and patient with ourselves.
Here’s the good news about missing our New Year’s resolutions: Not reaching a goal is an opportunity to get a better understanding of what works for us and what doesn’t. When we’re talking about how we fuel our bodies, we need to look beyond our physical well-being and look towards our spiritual and emotional well-being. Changing how we eat confronts essential ways we nurture our bodies and souls and sometimes restriction confronts the ways we need to do a better job of covering ourselves with kindness.
There is no one way to “eat right”
We are all carrying different bodies. We are not physically, culturally or spiritually identical to any other person. How our bodies respond to different foods and ways of eating is unique. Some of us do better with a greater variety of foods or less of a certain kind of food and that’s just fine. If your plan was to eat less carbs or more greens and you’ve found yourself heading back to your 2012 ways of eating, it may be that you do better with a menu that’s different than what you envisioned when you were making your new year’s resolutions. Choking down a food you don’t like or depriving yourself of one that you love isn’t the best way to long-term physical or emotional health. Think of yourself as an explorer lovingly discovering what suits your life best and honor the fact that you are an ever-changing human being. What works for you today may not work tomorrow; be flexible.
Going beyond dieting
If you have missed your goal perhaps it’s time to write a new one and use the information you gleaned over the past few weeks as an impetus for loving change. Perhaps you can look back and tune into what your Self (not just your body, but your heart and mind) were trying to say. Did you feel nurtured, nourished and cherished? Or deprived, afraid and resentful? Were you hungrier than was comfortable? What did work? Even if you didn’t succeed in all of your goals, did you discover a new food that’s delicious and makes you feel good? Or a new routine that makes you feel more energized? Celebrate that new information and give yourself permission to incorporate those “imperfect” successes.
You can also take The Fat Nutritionist‘s tagline to heart: “Eat food. Stuff you like. As much as you want.” When you give yourself permission to eat “too much” or “too little” and do it in a mindful, present way you can learn an awful lot about what works best for you. Instead of cutting out whole swaths of food on someone else’s say-so, you may want to give yourself the time, space and attention to eat those “offending” foods and see if they actually are a problem for you. I know that leaning on a plan can feel very comforting but you may find that someone else’s “perfect” diet only works for you when you let go of the rigidity that defines them. Paleo, primal, raw or vegan can be guides to what makes sense for your body in general instead of inflexible how-tos that set you up for failure.
Stay in it for the long-term
Being healthy goes beyond fueling our bodies a certain way; we also need to take care of every other part of ourselves. For some of us, the spiritual or emotional costs of giving up a certain food may be greater than the physical costs of eating it. By all means, add a green smoothie to your morning routine if it makes you feel great but don’t beat yourself up if you find that it’s not a habit that makes long-term sense for you. It’s ok to have one when you can but skip them on the days you’re over-scheduled or just don’t feel like cleaning out the blender. After all, adding green smoothies to your routine is supposed to make you feel better not worse and if it’s not improving your life, feel free to chuck it and try something else.
Remember, none of us will ever be perfect so instead aim for good enough and know that with every new thing you learn about yourself, you’re also getting better.