Keeping Focus: We Fight for What We Value

This post had a rather odd inspiration; it was my sister’s dog.  For any of you who read my latest post about burnout, you know that my sister and her family have currently six dogs. They used to have seven.  The dog in question (Simon) started out as a foster from one of my sister’s friends who went riding at a local stable and the dog was a stray.  The stable owner wasn’t happy he was coming around and my sister’s friend lives in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets, so she begged my sis to take him.  He looked to be a pitbull puppy mix and he was already very friendly and lovable.  Until you fed him around other dogs, at least.  That ended up being the problem.  Once he became an adult, when they fed him around other dogs or if there was even food around other dogs, Simon became very defensive of the food and he ended up hurting the other dogs, who weren’t aggressive at all. Despite being neutered and going through obedience training, he was a friendly adorable dog who snapped and bit other dogs when there was food around.  He didn’t snap at people- they were the providers of food- but other dogs were fair game, and since he was bigger than most of their other dogs, he caused a lot of turmoil.  They made a practice of feeding him separately, but in a busy household, things fall on the ground and if it looked like it might be something to eat, he defended it.  They had had Simon for over a year trying to find a way around this issue, but eventually, after the last fight, they decided to re-home him.  My sister was very upset but some of the older dogs were getting injured and his behavior wasn’t getting any better so they found a rescue group to take him and let them know that he needs to be an “only dog.”

In contrast, the last time I took my dog to the groomer, we were talking about overweight dogs (she had just finished a porky poodle mix) and she commented on how my little guy is so thin and fit.  I told her it’s because he’d rather have a toy than a treat. When I stayed at my sister’s house for all those days, her dogs ripped open and devoured his bag of kibble, destroyed a couple of his toys and rummaged through my suitcase and he didn’t protest one bit…. until the retriever stuck her head in my lap! Then, he let her know that was NOT allowed! It made me laugh a little at the time but once Simon was sent away, it started me thinking: we all fight for what we value.

I realized shortly after I brought him home that my dog, Remy, is very jealous of my attention: he pushes the cats away from me if he can and gets very upset if he can’t.  I figured that at the home I got him from, food and toys were plentiful, but individual attention was harder to come by, so as a result, Remy is less concerned about defending food (even ‘people food’ treats) with the cats (they just help themselves), and will even share most of his toys, but since I am the only person at the house, he will fight for my attention.  It’s what he values most, whereas for Simon, growing up as a stray, food is what has value to him.

As humans, we seem to over-think things.  We tend to rationalize our behavior.  If what we want is to be fit, lean and healthy, we should fight for that.  We should be defending our routine and habits that will help us be more lean, fit and healthy, but what most often happens is: “that pretzel bagel looks really really good, so…..I’m going to eat it and then I’ll work out harder tonight/ tomorrow/ this weekend.” Instead of putting our energy towards eating healthy foods and getting plenty of activity, we are fighting to eat the unhealthy junk food and to keep our couch potato lifestyle. We don’t think of it that way, of course, but maybe we should.  If we did, we probably wouldn’t do it.  No one looks at a bagel or a bag of chips or a slice of pizza and thinks, “by eating that, I’m fighting to stay overweight and unhappy!” Instead, we think (usually): “by not eating that, I’m denying myself a treat!” which makes us feel pretty miserable emotionally.

But is it really a treat? One of the post-its I had next to my recliner said “It’s NOT a treat if it HURTS you!”  It was my reminder to myself that eating things like garlic bread, pretzel bagels and pretty much everything else I ate at the time weren’t really treats because they were keeping me overweight, unhealthy and unhappy.  By eating them, I was actually hurting myself, especially since the grain products (like bagels, bread and pasta) aggravate my arthritis. Not only was I not losing weight by eating them, I was making my joints ache.  I realize now- two years later- that instead of emphasizing improved health and mobility, I was emphasizing the few minutes of pleasure from eating whatever ‘treat’ I wanted.  It wasn’t until later, when I had stopped eating the so-called treats and started feeling much better physically and emotionally, that I realized that feeling good was the real treat.  It made it a lot easier to say no to five minutes of “yummy!” in exchange for all-day, all-the-time “my knees don’t hurt.” I learned to value the feelings that came with losing weight, sleeping better and being able to walk without creaky old-woman knees.  Compared to those long term benefits, five minutes of a so-called treat didn’t stand a chance.

Of course, we sometimes forget that because we get used to feeling good and start taking it for granted.  It becomes ‘normal’ and often it isn’t until after a few too many deviations from our healthy routine that we remember: “oh yeah, that’s why I stopped eating those!”  It’s easy to be led astray since there is always a new flavor of something hitting the market and every season, fast food places are promoting something new. The more they can get you to eat, the more money they make, and the more unhealthy we become, the more money is made by the weight loss & fitness industry.  We are trapped in a vicious cycle.  Lately, there are also lot of health gurus out there making the argument that humans are opportunistic omnivores: we find food, we eat it, whatever it is.  It’s hard-wired into our brains, and, although I agree with their assessment of our biology, this is where I think our brains beat our biology!  All we need to do is change our focus and fight for what we value.  We need to remind ourselves of what is really valuable to us when we are tempted to ditch our healthy routines in favor of the five minute treat.

In theory it’s not that hard to do, and we all know how much harder it is when that lemon cheesecake is right in front of us, smelling and looking so good.  I am lucky: my dog is my reminder.  He gets ‘people food’ treats on a daily basis and it’s flip a coin whether he leaves them for the cats or not.  Dogs are also opportunistic omnivores (one reason Simon jumped on whatever food was around): food is a biological imperative but playing with a person or toy is not.  Several times a day, he opts for the latter over the former: he chooses what he values over his biological drive.  How much more intelligent are we than a dog? We need to remind ourselves as often as we can of what we really value.  We need to stop defending the opportunity to stay overweight and feel cruddy and start fighting to feel better and be leaner. [FYI: this post is brought to you by Simon the pitbull mix and too many Trader Joe’s pretzel bagels!]

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