Building A Solid Road for Weight Loss: The Bottom Layers Count

One of the alleged perks of being an English Major is that literature isn’t created in a vacuum, which was my see-through excuse for minoring in history. Basically, people write about what they know and what happens around them. For those of you rolling your eyes, I’m volunteering Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll. Both of their most famous works (Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland, respectively) are brilliant satires on the England of their time. 

The beauty- and flaw- of this interconnection is that it lends real depth and strength to the stories, which is why we remember the mini Lilliputians and the Red Queen shouting “off with their heads!”  The flaw is that the stories are strong enough to stand on their own and no one remembers why the Lilliputians are so little and why the Queen wants to behead everyone. 

So what does a didactic Queen Victoria and petty self-absorbed 18th century Englishmen have to do with weight loss? One word: foundation. Actually one adjective and one noun: strong foundation. When we build a strong foundation for weight loss, or rather a healthy lifestyle, the healthy lifestyle will eventually stand strong on its own. The sum becomes greater than its parts. We don’t need to know the ins and outs of the history behind Swift & Carroll to enjoy the stories on their own. Usually only nerds like me care about the history; the rest of the world just likes the story. 

Since literature is rather ephemeral,the history geek in me is going to give you a more concrete example: the Appian Way, or virtually any Roman road. The Romans understood- probably better than any other culture- that if you’re going to build something, you should build it to last. All across the former Roman Empire, the modern civilizations currently living there are still using the roads, aqueducts and bridges (among other things) built by the Romans a couple thousand years ago. The solid foundations of those ancient roads still hold up better than modern creations, putting up not only with 2000 years of traffic but also continuing to withstand our modern trucks, buses and cars. One of the major frustrations of modern engineers is- again- the Why behind the strength in the Roman roads. Why do they last when something “modern and sophisticated” collapses after some rain and a couple decades of use? The secret is literally the concrete in the foundation. Roman concrete and the foundation of the road is why they last. It’s the bottom layers that no one sees and everyone forgets that give them their staying power. 

So when we go to build our healthy lifestyle to eat better, be more active and lose weight, we tend to focus more on the superstructure than the foundation: we want something that “looks dramatic” rather than the mundane stuff no one notices. Example: we decide to do a 21 Day Detox or a 6 Week Keto Reset or a Five Day Fast rather than something ‘dull’ like tracking for 14 days. Why is tracking so important? Simply put: we can’t measure what we don’t monitor. How can we improve our diet if we don’t know what our diet really is? We might think that we’re ‘eating clean,’ ‘eating high protein,’or that we’re ‘eating less,’ but studies show we really do have selective memory. We may remember “breakfast, lunch and dinner,” but forget we snacked on the peppermint patties after lunch or the latte we had after breakfast or the peanuts we got on the way home from work. Likewise finishing the last slice of pizza in the fridge after dinner or the marshmallows and hot chocolate while watching tv. Those little memory lapses add up over time and eventually tip the scales, literally. Until we know what and how much and how often we eat and drink, we can’t measure any healthy progress or make real healthy changes. It’s not glamorous or exciting, but it’s a solid foundation for positive changes. Once we know what we’re eating, we can begin making real changes and even more importantly, we’ll know what works and what doesn’t. This last simple truth is priceless. Example: if you think you’re eating low carb but “don’t count” the peanuts you have several times a week after lunch, you may not be as low carb as you think, and if you’re trying to get into ketosis, those peanuts might be getting in your way. Or it might not be the peanuts: it may be your ‘few times a week’ latte or the combination of the three times a week latte and the handful of peanuts each afternoon at the office. We might think of these as ‘occasional indulgences,’ but how ‘occasional’ are they really? You’d know if you tracked. 

The same is true if you’re trying to improve your insulin resistance: the longer you go between meals, ie fasting, the better it is for your insulin, but if you’re not tracking, you may not realize that “supposed sugarless, calorie-free” snack you’re eating multiple times a week is what’s getting in your way. If you’ve changed everything else and it’s still not working, that snack may be the culprit, but again if you’re not tracking, that snack might keep sneaking by. 

Most people don’t like to track because they don’t want to measure or walk around with a notebook to write things down. It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Personally I like a paper journal because I keep other notes in it, like my mood or any pain (arthritis aggravated by grains), or just simple things like sleep quality. Most of us don’t realize we’re walking around with mini computers in our hands all day long. Tracking can be putting down what we eat in our notes app, downloading a tracking app like MFP (My Fitness Pal) or Fitbit (especially if we have a tracker), or something as simple as taking a pic of everything we eat! It can be as complex or as easy as you want, as long as it works for you, but until we have a clear picture of our bottom line, anything we try to build on top of that is off to a shaky start! 

Burdens, Blessings, Obstacles and Opportunities: Using Them to Your Best Advantage in Weight Loss

I know from experience that when most of us begin making healthy changes to our lifestyles, or even just start planning on these changes, we are met right away with burdens and obstacles.  It’s like the world, Fate or the Universe is plotting to keep us fat and unhealthy!  Even though we know that’s not the truth, there’s a lot of days when it sure feels like it!

Then there’s just the whole matter of logistics: family members, work schedules, school schedules, and every day annoyances like meetings, luncheons, conferences, traffic and the always popular seasonal parties.  How do we integrate our plan for healthy choices in the middle of all we have going on? Most of us try to work it in for a few days or a few weeks and then collapse under the burden of all our obstacles.  “There’s just too much getting in the way!”  Sometimes, the Universe wins despite all our best plans!  The tricks I’ve found are: 1) not to be discouraged; and 2) how to turn a ‘burden’ into a ‘blessing.’

I am certainly no philosopher or theologian, but through my reading and my Liberal Arts education, I’ve learned a few things.  One of the books I had to read in college was the Teachings of Chuang Tzu, a 3rd Century Taoist philosopher.  It’s definitely what I refer to as a ‘sponge book,’ meaning when you read a parable, it probably won’t make sense to you right away- you have to let it soak in.  Gradually, you begin to understand the meaning.  It’s a difficult philosophy to get through and unfortunately, our professor began his course (Humanities) with that book.  Our class went from about 50 to about 20 in a few short weeks.  But the overall gist of his teachings on the Tao is, in my opinion, not that different from Stoicism (the Greco-Roman philosophy with the capital S) or Zen Buddhism: we are all part of the One and until we learn to accept that, we will always be unhappy.

That doesn’t mean that we just have to accept that we will always be fat, unhappy and unhealthy.  It means we have to find ways to make what looks like a burden or an obstacle be a blessing to us instead.  Believe me, I am certainly not one of those happy little “turn that frown upside down” perky people!  Most of my Disney stuff has either Grumpy, Eeyore or Donald Duck on it- not the happy campers! But, basically, if sh*t happens, I can either wallow in it, or find a way out of it (this is Trick #2). Example: I commute 2 hours every morning and every evening five days a week.  Essentially, all those fitness gurus who say “move every hour” are wasting their breath on me during my commute because I’ve got at least 20 hours a week on my butt in my car.  I can either use that as an obstacle or an excuse not to exercise or lose weight, or I can find a way to use it to my advantage.  So, all those podcasts that I listen to? You got it- in the car either on the way to work or on the way home! The same with audiobooks or just to de-stress either by listening to a favorite playlist or using my Bluetooth to catch up with friends.  And yes, I realize the irony of de-stressing while stuck in traffic.  That’s the other trick: traffic, like sh*t, happens! I can either freak out about it or just accept it as part of life! My current boss is pretty sanguine about it- I am usually more irritated by being late than he is, but either way, my freaking out isn’t going to change the flow of traffic and all it’s going to do is raise my anxiety and blood pressure.

If you listen to someone like Chuang Tzu, when we have something that looks like a burden or an obstacle, changing our perspective changes the obstacle itself.  Many of my friends groan when they think of my commute, but to me, it’s an opportunity.  Seriously, without being ‘trapped in the car for so many hours,’ when would I find the time to listen to podcasts and audiobooks?  I’d have to find it somewhere else in my week! This situation is perfect for it! Not a lot else that I can do in the car but listen!

The same is true for one of the most common complaints I hear: ‘no one else in my family wants to eat healthy!’ Awesome!! Seriously, when we live alone like me, I don’t have any of those temptations in my house unless I bring them in. Don’t want them tempting you? Don’t buy them! Then we go out to a conference and there are those evil bagels daring me not to eat them! It’s hard, because I don’t face that temptation at home.  When you are constantly looking at your kids’ chips or spouse’s ice cream or garlic bread, then you get used to seeing all the foods that aren’t on your healthy diet and even more important, you get used to not-eating them! Their siren song of “eat me!” fades away because you have stopped listening to it- you are stronger than the garlic bread, ice cream, chips or bagels.  The key of course is not-eating them, which does take some strength to start out, just like it takes some strength for me not to put them in my cart at the store (“I can have one and give the rest to my dad/ sister/ friends”- riiiight!! Not happening!!) The trick is to look at this obstacle as practice.  If you face these temptations every day at home, the pizza at the work luncheon is no match for you!

The other trick is not getting discouraged when you either give in to temptation or something gets in the way of your success.  In other words, those times when the Universe wins.  In my case, the Universe won recently: I usually have a water aerobics class on Mondays and I got stuck on Sunday (my prep day) helping my mom, so I planned on going grocery shopping after my Monday class.  Those were my best-laid plans upon which the Universe wrought its usual havoc. I ended up working an hour and a half later than usual, due to delays at court and with clients, so I figured I’d missed my workout class, but then thanks to traffic (yay?), I ended up getting home even later still: those two hours took three and grocery shopping at 7:30 p.m. was really not appealing.  I opted for the healthiest fast food I could get: grilled chicken and coleslaw- yay…. The trick is that yes, the Universe won on Monday, but Monday is one day.  It’s not the rest of my life! (at least I hope not!)  The key is to make more healthy decisions that unhealthy ones.  One bad day or one bad week should not be the end of your healthy plan! I didn’t get to be 438 lbs by eating one bad fast food dinner at Jack in the Box; it was a pattern of bad choices that built upon itself and resulted in my being miserably unhealthy.  My choices are give up and be unhealthy and unhappy and fat, or keep the faith and try for better.  Even when the Universe wins.  Even when it feels like the deck is stacked against me (hey, 438?!?)  Even if it’s just as simple as taking a seeming failure (“I had biscuits with my chicken and coleslaw! Ugh!”) and using it as a teaching tool for you not to do it again (those stomach cramps during the night? think it was from the flour in the biscuits?? Hello!!)

There are a lot of Motivational Gurus who like to use phrases like “be the captain of your destiny” to encourage you to ‘be in control.’  While I think it’s really motivational, I also think it’s setting you up for a big fall.  A lot of ‘your destiny’ has to do with things that happen around you and to you.  A big part of my outlook and my weight loss success is accepting there are things in my life that are in my control and as for everything else, all I can do is control my reaction.  Like Monday, when I realized I was not going to get off work in time to make my class, when I realized I was stuck in traffic and was getting home way later than I thought- I could have gotten angry, I could have had a tantrum and what would I have gained by that? Just stress and anxiety! I’ve got enough of both of those in my life and I sure don’t need to make any more for myself! It happened, so I made the best I could out of my situation (although I did get a bit snippy at the car in the drive thru ahead of me at 7:30! And that didn’t get me anything either!)

Seriously, it’s taken me a really really long time (like forty-plus years!) to realize that not getting angry at the Universe is an option and it’s not admitting defeat.  It’s simply changing strategies.  There’s an obstacle in your way? Go around it! I can gripe and whine and b*tch about spending 20 hours a week in the car and it won’t change my situation; it’ll just make me tense and upset and angry. What can I do that’s productive while I’m in the car? I can listen to something informative or enjoyable- problem solved! It’s not an obstacle anymore; I made it an opportunity instead!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Weight of Self-Worth

A friend of mine on MFP (My Fitness Pal) recently posted about “Plus Size Day.” Apparently it’s a day to celebrate being “plus-sized.”  In his post, he mentioned a parade full of larger people and how the news snippets were full of larger women making nasty comments about skinny people.  He concluded his post about how this day is to promote being the best You you can be, whatever your size, and he voiced his own concerns that maybe the best You doesn’t carry an extra 100 lbs.

While I realize he was just putting his opinion out there, this is the attitude I have lived with all my life. I’ve been overweight all my life and I’ve heard all the comments, from sad & pitying, to nasty & snide, to the passive aggressive- all of them.  Most of them now I just ignore: ignorant people will continue to be ignorant no matter what I tell them, but occasionally, they still make me mad. I understand why some of those larger women are angry: like me, they’ve spent their entire lives being told there is something wrong with them; they are somehow broken/ substandard/ a failure; or they are just flat out ugly. They don’t meet some arbitrary social standard of what is ‘pretty’ or ‘acceptable.’

People might think that thin has always been pretty but there was a time when plump and curvy was the standard for pretty.  Having curves, wide hips and an ample bosom meant you were prime for bearing children and survival.  Thin meant poverty, possible miscarriage and malnutrition.  When the most important thing a woman could bring to a marriage was her ability to produce offspring, choosing thin meant betting long odds, whereas plump was almost a sure thing. (For men, plump meant being a successful  provider.)

Obviously those days are long past, but the idea of beauty being relative hasn’t changed.  Every February, the media is full of biologists’ reports about the ‘biological recipe for attraction,’ and how some physical attributes or gestures cue us on a biological or subconscious level that someone is a potential mate or is attracted to us.  Whatever science and biology may dictate, attractiveness is still defined by the individual.  We still bring our own personal values to the table, and these include our values about ourselves.

In one respect those old platitudes are correct: if we don’t value and respect ourselves, no one else will either.  When we look at ourselves and see someone who is disgusting, unworthy, ugly, stupid or hopeless, it shows.  We communicate those ideas and attitudes to others, and worse yet, they are reflected back to us by them and over time, those beliefs become firmly entrenched in our psyche.  We are unworthy and unlovable and we have nothing of value to offer anyone else.  Whether those ideas start in ourselves and come back to us or come from outside and become part of us is irrelevant.  If we believe it, it becomes our truth. 

This is what I and almost every overweight person has been told for as long as they have been overweight.  Most of you reading this have been on the receiving end of a lot of free advice about how to lose weight; unsolicited attempts at ‘motivating’ you to lose weight; plenty of incentives to be thinner; and more than a few nasty comments about being a glutton, including the not-so-subtle implications that gluttony is a mortal sin and my being fat is sending me to Hell (thank you, Catholic school!) As a kid, I got them all the free and supposedly helpful advice about how to ‘fix’ what’s wrong with me; what I didn’t get was the idea that I’m fine just the way I am. When I was a kid, I probably carried an extra 20 lbs through middle school but the more people tried to ‘fix’ me, the more weight I gained, so by the time I hit high school, I was probably close to 200 lbs if not there already, and I kept slowly gaining weight. By the time I hit college, I was definitely over 250 and heading towards 300.

And the bigger I got, the more I heard about how flawed and unacceptable I was. My mom (the chief proponent of this attitude) pretty much gave up on me at that point.  Whatever was wrong with me, she wasn’t going to waste her time trying to fix me.  But I still got lots of criticism from the rest of society, because by then, I wasn’t just ‘plump and curvy’; I was certifiably FAT! I was the definition of ugly; of lazy; of gluttony. I had no redeeming values at all, because I was defined by my weight.  Whatever my mind or spirit might have to offer is completely negated by my fat body.

This idea that who I am is defined by how much weight I carry and what I look like eventually completely p*ssed me off.  Someone else was determining my value based entirely on what he or she saw, rather than who I actually was.  I was repeatedly being told by my professors and administrators and -yes, the same society that was condemning me- that it is flat out wrong to judge someone by their ethnicity, sexuality, religion, or physical capabilities, but it’s totally okay to call me a loser because of my weight! How stupid is that? Everyone is to be judged on the content of their character, except for that fat chick over there- she’s worthless because she weighs 300 lbs.

This is why I stopped listening to other people’s opinions of me and my weight.  It’s why when my mom decided to try and ‘fix’ me again (after my sister stopped talking to her), I pretty much ignored her attempts.  I would come home and find diet books left on my doorstep followed by a voicemail asking if I got the book she left: I just stacked them in a corner, and over the years, the stack got taller and taller, and dustier and dustier.  While I realize that part of her motivation was my slowly declining health, her attempts at ‘fixing’ me were accompanied by more of the same dangling incentives: I’d have all the guys I wanted; she’d buy me a brand new wardrobe; I’d be ‘gorgeous.’  Because obviously, I wasn’t attractive to anyone at my weight! (FYI: I didn’t tell her about my boyfriends because they sure didn’t share her attitude!)

I can’t lie and say I didn’t want to lose weight despite ignoring my mom’s and everyone else’s criticisms.  My desire to lose weight came not from thinking of myself as worthless, but instead came from my growing inability to do the things I wanted to do.  It’s hard to walk around and be active when you’re carrying 400 lbs.  The pain in my knees had more to do with my desire to be thinner than anything my mom had to tell me. I didn’t want to walk with a cane or end up diabetic or have to sleep with an oxygen mask because my independence was far more important to me than the opinions of strangers. While I wasn’t happy being 400 lbs, I did my best not to allow it to dictate my life any more than I allowed other’s opinions of me to do so either.  I lived my life the way I wanted to live my life.  I became the best Me I could be, whatever my size.  For the most part, I am still that same person: I do what I want, say what I want and think what I want. The only difference is that now I weigh 185 lbs less. I am the best Me I can be, despite carrying that “extra 100 lbs” my friend mentioned in his post.  Although I am still losing weight, it’s not so that I can hit my “ideal weight” or some arbitrary “goal weight” set by some doctor or BMI chart; it’s because I value my independence.  I like being able to do all the things I want to do, and I like trying new things.  Being thinner and healthier has added more valuable activities and abilities to my life, but at the same time, I also know that I am still obese. That “extra 100 lbs” is still there and strangers still judge me by my weight.  And you know what? I still don’t care. Who I am is not what I weigh, nor am I defined by what other people think of me.

Making Problems: White-Knuckling, Deadlines & Ultimatums with Weight Loss

For many years, I worked at a bankruptcy law firm aka The Job From Hell.  The job was great, but the boss was ‘Insert Expletives Here.’  One of the things I learned at that job was that most of our clients’ problems were problems they had made themselves.  I used to quip “our clients make their own problems, and they are good at what they do!”  It helped me realize that, yep! I’m also good at making my own troubles!

When it comes to fitness and weight loss- especially- we need to face this reality: most of our problems are problems we made.  Part of it really is our own manufacturing and I think part of it is problem-solving mentality.  We’ve all heard the expression “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” and I’d like to change that to “if you’re focusing on the problem, you’re not looking for the solution.”  I was talking to another legal assistant recently whose boss was on his way back from a cross-country flight.  Part of their practice requires that they publish legal notices and, short version, they need to pick up the court filing in one city (not where their office is) and submit it in yet another city, none of which are close to their home office, so the assistant was saying: “that will be an entire day on the road right after he’s back from his trip and he has a court appearance that morning.”  I asked him about sending a messenger. (Court runners/ messengers are an entire industry for just that very reason.)  “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea!”  The assistant was so focused on the problem that he was missing a very obvious solution (anyone not so involved would have suggested a runner.)

We do the same thing: we focus on the problem to the point that we can’t see any solutions that present themselves. Some people will do it out of a need for drama.  They like being frantic or being the center of attention: look at me! I have so many problems! Just FYI: no one gets points for being a drama queen/ king! In order to find a solution, you have to step back from Drama Mode and start looking at ways around or through the problem. Sometimes it really is hard, because the problems can cause anxiety (the cause of the drama) and it’s hard to remain objective. This is where you might want to talk to someone who isn’t emotionally invested in the problem and get some objective opinions (like my fellow legal assistant did).  Sometimes it’s embarrassing to admit your problem to someone else (“Every time I fight with my mom, I eat a pint of ice cream or all the cookies or anything that’s left in the house.”) No one likes sharing dirty laundry but if you really want a solution to the problem that you are too close to, then you need to get an objective opinion from someone who is: 1) not going to point fingers; 2) not emotionally invested; 3) can offer a reasonable solution.  If your spouse is tired of listening to you complain about fighting with your mom or your eating everything in sight or is just going to tell you to ‘deal with it,’ then do not ask your spouse.  This might be one of those problems that you post on My Fitness Pal or you ask a level-headed friend about.

Then there are the Problems We Make Ourselves.  (I’m not including mom in here because ’emotional eating due to mom’ is kind of a reaction that we can learn to get a handle on once we’re feeling more confident.)  The Problems We Make Ourselves are things like white-knuckling it or creating deadlines and ultimatums. These largely come from Dieting Mentality aka tunnel-vision.  Dieting Mentality is thinking along the lines of “I just need to get to X date or X goal, and then I’m done!”  I see this a lot on My 600 lb Life, but we’ve all done it: “I only have to hang on until I lose 20 lbs and then I’m good!”  In the case of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients on the show, prior to scheduling them for weight loss surgery, he always has his patients lose a certain amount of weight to prove they can control their eating habit.  Many times the patients fall right into Dieting Mentality: I only need to control myself long enough to get the surgery and then the surgery will solve everything!  NOT SO! and Dr. Nowzaradan is the first to tell them that the surgery will only limit the amount of food they can eat at one time; they can still eat all day and still gain weight after the surgery! Dieting Mentality is pretty much the default mentality for a lot of us when it comes to losing weight or changing our eating habits.  It’s natural, and not just for weight loss.  We do the same thing when it comes to money also: I can’t buy anything until after payday, and then I can go shopping!  But weight loss, fitness or money, it’s all the same thinking and it’s that thinking that gets us into trouble with eating, going to the gym and draining the bank account.

Dieting Mentality has a deadline attached to it: this current way of eating ‘ends’ either on this date or when you reach this weight, so we just need to white-knuckle it until we ‘get there.’  This tunnel-vision thinking keeps us from looking at our situation any other way, which keeps us in the same vicious cycle: “I need to lose 20 lbs for Special Occasion, so I’m going to white-knuckle it until I reach Deadline and then I’m done!  I have to make my Goal or I’ve failed!” With Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients, it’s much more drastic, since they need to lose hundreds of pounds because their health is at serious risk, and I think it contributes to much of their Dieting Mentality, but 20 lbs or 220 lbs, when we approach weight loss, working out and better nutrition, we all tend to have the same focus on an End Point, whether a Goal Weight or a Date. We go into the process thinking that I only have to ‘be good’ until the End Point, and then I can go back to eating the way I like to eat.

Our thoughts and our focus are creating these problems.  If we don’t approach weight loss, good nutrition and fitness with a Dieting Mentality, how much easier would it be? How does not having an End Point change our thinking about losing weight, eating better and being more active? For some of us, it is pure panic: “Aack!! I have to eat like this forever?!?”  Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m telling you, and that’s why I’m also telling you- as several much more educated health professionals will also tell you- that diets don’t work for this very reason!  If you only want to lose enough weight to fit into an outfit you’re going to wear once at the aforementioned Special Occasion, then follow the diet.  But, if you want to improve your health overall by losing weight, being more active and getting better nutrition, a diet may get you there temporarily.  Staying there means sticking to the diet forever.  The problem is that most diets- as we all know- are pretty extreme, which makes them impossible to stick with long term.  This is why Dieting Mentality is the curse that keeps us trapped in the vicious cycle of constant dieting: we lose the weight, gain it back off the diet, go back on the diet, lose the weight, gain it back, ad infinitum. 

Try looking at it this way: we didn’t gain that 60 lbs because we went to Disneyland and ate all the treats or we went on that cruise and at two desserts every night.  Those probably contributed a few pounds to the 60, but the real cause of those 60 lbs on our butt and thighs is eating a bag of Cheetos during The Walking Dead each week and half a bag of Oreos during Survivor, and grabbing a donut in the break room each Friday and scrolling through Facebook and Instagram all day on the weekends. Those 60 lbs are the product of a LIFESTYLE, not an event like a Queen of the South binge with pizza and beer.  Dieting Mentality is focused on the ‘events;’ real permanent change comes with a lifestyle. If we approach weight loss, fitness and nutrition like a new lifestyle (as in smaller healthy changes that are permanent), then we don’t have to worry about white-knuckling it, deadlines or any ultimatums, because there are none!  How many of us beat ourselves up when we get emotional (as in ‘fight with mom’) and eat all the Cheez-its? (Me, raising my hand here!) Same goes for the donuts in the break room on Friday or going to a friend’s for a Game of Thrones binge with burgers and beer. We don’t have to white-knuckle it and bring our veggie coconut wrap and lime-infused water so we can ‘be good.’ (I’m also not saying eat five double cheeseburgers and finish off a six-pack!)  But if we approach this as a lifestyle of choosing healthier foods and activities that is on-going rather than an extreme race with a finish line, then we can have a burger and a beer and maybe even some chips without beating ourselves up.  We can have half a donut or even a whole one and we can enjoy a scoop of ice cream as we’re watching zombies get blown away.  The biggest problem with weight loss and good nutrition isn’t what to eat or how much to eat; it’s the problems we make ourselves by putting a deadline on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perspective: Seeing the Elephant in the Room

One of the best things about being an eminently employable English major is that I come across a lot of different literature from many different cultures.  One of my favorites is “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”  It’s an Indian parable about perspectives found in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts, so all we really know about its origins is that it is ancient.  The story goes that six blind men learn that an elephant was brought to their village and having not experienced one before, they go to “see” the animal with their hands.  Each man touches a different part of the elephant and comes away with a different viewpoint than the others.  One feels the tusk and determines that an elephant is like a spear; another feels its tail and concludes it looks like a rope; another feels the ear and thinks it looks like a fan; another feels its leg and says it looks like a tree trunk; one feels its side and believes an elephant is like a wall; and the last touches its trunk and believes the elephant is like a snake.  From there, the story varies with the text but the point is that each is seeing only one part and one perspective of the elephant. In order to really determine what an elephant looks like, they need to see the whole creature or at least compare their findings, because each of them is correct about the part that they touched, but none of them is correct in what an elephant truly looks like.

Perspective is massively important when it comes to weight loss, health and fitness, and it’s where so many of us get in trouble.  It’s easy to lose weight if you don’t care about being healthy, and the same is true about fitness. Most of us think in terms of “losing weight” or “getting fit,” but neither of those are important if we don’t think in terms of Being Healthy (the whole elephant.)  When I was in college, I had a roommate who was also overweight.  We really commiserated over it because we both liked a lot of the same foods and we both tried being vegetarian and both of us ended up gaining weight.  I ran into her a few years after she moved out (both of us were in the pharmacy line, FYI) and I didn’t recognize her because she had lost so much weight.  Unfortunately, it was due to Type I diabetes.  Her pancreas had stopped functioning and now she was insulin dependent. She had to check her blood sugar several times a day and inject insulin before every meal to control her blood sugar. I remember her telling me she had always dreamed of losing weight, but this was not how she thought it would happen.  She was over a hundred pounds thinner than she had been when she lived with me but she certainly was not healthy.  Even worse, she was pregnant with her second child which put both her life and her baby’s at risk!

When we approach weight loss or fitness, we can’t just focus on the one aspect that we want to prioritize, otherwise we lose sight of the whole elephant. “Being thin” or “being muscular” is of no importance if you aren’t healthy also.  Some of you know that I lost an aunt in 2003 due to complications from anorexia.  She’d had a gastric bypass, which in my opinion she did not need as she barely weighed 200 lbs, but the end result was that she stopped eating, which is not an uncommon side effect of the bypass.  Ultimately, she ended up collapsing, catching an infection and dying. She was the same age as I am now, and while I’m not exactly young anymore, I have a lot to look forward to and so did she. But she had also always dreamed of being thin, and for months prior to her death, family members had been begging her to see a doctor, because it was so painfully obvious that she was not healthy or happy.  Unfortunately, no one could help her.

Some of us do the same thing with exercise: we lose sight of our overall health, which is what really matters.  We’ve all heard the stories of people who over-exercise, or eat and then work out super hard to burn off all the calories they ate.  Some of us try to “out exercise” a bad diet, but most nutritionists and doctors will tell you that 90% of weight loss comes through your food choices and the remaining 10% is your activity. Basically, you can exercise until your arms fall off but if you’re eating donuts and drinking Pepsi every morning for breakfast, you’re not going to be accomplishing much!

Most of us are in a hurry to reach our goals- I know I am! But over-training and starving ourselves isn’t the way to “get cut” and/ or “get thin.”  Drastically cutting calories and working out really really hard are stressors on the body, so our body goes into conservation mode if we stick with these practices for a long time.  We will probably lose some weight and maybe build some muscle at first, but the longer we stick with it, the more the body begins to conserve its fat stores.  This looks like it might be a famine or some kind of catastrophe: basically a lot of hard work and not a lot of calories coming in.  The body’s first priority is survival: nothing else matters if it (i.e. YOU) don’t survive another day, so it takes steps to make sure you last as long as possible.  This is why Biggest Loser ‘winners’ end up gaining weight eating 1000 calories a day: their bodies have slowed their metabolisms so much after a prolonged period of starvation and hard exercise (i.e. the tv show), that now any calories coming in over the subsistence level gets stored! The body is trying to protect itself against another catastrophe where it (the ‘winner’) drastically lost weight.

Obviously, that is not a healthy situation to be in.  I really want to lose a lot of weight and I’d really like to have more muscles, especially as I’m getting older.  I don’t want to be the helpless old lady (with the zillion cats!) but I also know that it’s going to take some time to lose weight and gain muscle in a healthy way.  That means growing long term healthy habits like eating for nutrition without starving myself and being more active without over-training or injuring myself.  Both of those mean that it’s going to take some time, since my body and metabolism are going to make slow healthy adaptations to my new lifestyle.  I need to keep my eye on the ultimate goal of Being Healthy rather than my chosen perspective of Being Thin.  As I’ve learned the hard way, being thin doesn’t count for much if you’re too sick to enjoy it.

Connected: Being Part of a Pack- er- Tribe?

I recently heard a podcast about ‘Longevity village’ in China.  This is an isolated village (or at least it used to be!) where the residents routinely live 100 years or pretty close to it.  Once researchers found out about it, they naturally had to figure out why these people were living so long and were so healthy. From what I heard, most of it was the obvious: hard physical work that keeps them mobile most of the day; getting up and going to bed with the sun; clean fresh food and water; natural optimism when it comes to stress; and strong social connections.  The strong social connections is what catches a lot of people by surprise.  What does it matter if you have a positive social network?  Being a devoted pet parent, it’s easier for me to understand than for someone who doesn’t spend 90% of their time around four legged individuals.

Some of you know I am a hard core TLC addict, and I’ve been seeing ads for a new show called The Putmans, which has yet to premiere.  It’s about an extended family all living in one home, which is about 25 people.  I grew up in an atypical family and although we didn’t all live in the same household, we regularly interacted.  If any of you have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, my family was really similar.  There’s the scene where Tula gets busted because her cousin sees her with her boyfriend who tells her aunt who gets in her face about him.  That was pretty much how I grew up: lots of relatives who all live in the same town so we run into each other all over.  We also had a tradition of getting together on Sunday afternoon/ evenings.  We would eat dinner and spend time talking, playing games or passing around parts of the newspaper.  Usually the television would be off and any devices would be put away.  This was time we spent being together and holidays were simply to ‘all day version’ of Sunday afternoons.  These weekly get-togethers ended when my grandparents passed away (we met at their house) and they are one of the things that I miss most.  Although I still connect with my family, it’s mainly over the phone or through social media.  While the host of the podcast feels this is still a viable connection, for me, it lacks the real connection of being in the same room with them.

SinceI grew up having my family around me, it was normal to stop at a bakery or business where a relative worked.  Seeing them in stores or around town was and still is normal.  Even as a child I was very aware that this was not how it was with most of my classmates and colleagues (my grandparents lived into their 90’s, so this tradition lasted well into my 40’s).  I also came to realize that for friends and colleagues who grew up in other countries that this was very normal for them.  For them, running into a relative while shopping or having coffee with friends was just part of every day life and most of my foreign-born friends soon came to realize that most American families have a different idea of ‘family.’

I’m not criticizing anyone’s idea of ‘family,’ but having grown up with one version and now living a more ‘standardized’ version, I know which version I prefer.  I miss the connections and interactions with family, and while many of them are happy connecting through social media, I’m pretty lame when it comes to apps like Facebook or Instagram. The important aspect is the Connection.  Humans are social creatures and we don’t do well in isolation. This is what makes positive social interaction important to our health.

There is a reason that solitary confinement is a punishment, not only in prisons but also as children.  Remember all those times we misbehaved and got sent to our room?  It’s solitary confinement: if you can’t work well or play well others, then you’re going to be alone.  Across the world, cultures have traditionally used a form of isolation or ostracism to punish those who disrupt the society at large, and it tends to be successful.  Loneliness is a huge problem, even in our cyber-connected society, and it leads to a host of health problems.  As the author of The Longevity Plan pointed out, people who have strong and positive social connections live about seven years longer than those without them.

Having grown up with pets all my life, I have seen the interaction among them.  Dogs are as social as humans are and while we travel in ‘tribes’ and dogs travel in ‘packs,’ it’s all the same thing: this is my social unit.  We eat together, we sleep together, we play together and we work together.  This is how we survive. (Cats are less social, but they also strengthen their societal bonds in the same ways.) If any of you are familiar with Dr. Jane Goodall’s observations of chimps, our closest primate cousins also travel in tribes and follow the same kinds of bonding behaviors: grooming; sleeping; eating; playing; working.  We are more successful, productive and safer in our groups. A chimp, dog, cat or human is far safer in their group than on their own.

I have a very clear memory of when I began living alone, or at least being the only human in my house. It was the day my sister moved away to college: I said good bye and watched her drive away and as I walked back into the house, I realized that I was alone.  More specifically, I realized that changing the lightbulb in the garage had new implications for me: if I fell off the ladder, it could be days before anyone realized something had happened to me. This is one of the reasons ’emergency pendants’ are such big business now: more of us live alone and face the same dangers.

Falling off the ladder aside, positive social connections promote a positive outlook.  When we’re happy, we have others to share our joy and when we’re upset or angry, we have others to commiserate and share our burden. We have others to help with a project, come up with plans or even help with the physical labor. Remember the expression ‘many hands make light work’? Being alone makes everything harder, even the every day tasks most of us don’t really think about.  Living alone, if I don’t do the dishes, they sit in the sink until I do them.  The same with throwing out the trash, making a meal, doing the laundry, and the shopping and the rest of the housework.  If I don’t do it, there is no one else in my house who will.  That means all of the work falls to me, which means I have less time to pursue things I enjoy or to socialize.

Even taking care of my pets falls to the sole human in the pack (2 cats, 1 dog, 1 human).  I notice a lot of the same bonding behavior among us even though we are different species: they will all groom each other, play with each other, sleep next to each other and eat together.  As the lone biped, I am not exempt: they include me as much as they can with playing, licking and sitting on me.  When we go to sleep at night, all four of us end up in the same room and usually on the same bed. I realize that most people think it’s pretty weird to consider animals as part of a family unit, but I really grew up treating them as people (they are a Who not an It.) I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter so much what we interact with so much as the fact that we do interact.  If we feel we are connected and feel the benefits of those connections, then it doesn’t matter if the connection is with a phone, a tablet or a dog or a cat.  We benefit from knowing that we are not alone.  Recently, in fact, I was at home without my dog since I had returned from a trip on a Sunday and could not pick him up until the following day.  When I went to bed that night, I was very aware that there was no dog in my house and I didn’t feel as safe as I do when he is there (he’s all of 12 lbs!) The cats were also aware that one of our pack was missing and were looking for him in the house, which felt oddly empty without his bouncing around. I know my furry little family unit looks a lot different than most and while they may not be human, they are most definitely my tribe.

Motivation: Why v How

Let’s start with the obvious: motivation is hard.  I don’t know anyone who jumps out of bed, saying “I can’t wait to get to the gym and bust my butt doing burpees and pull-ups!” (If that’s you, please introduce yourself: I’d like to know what planet you’re from!) The irony is that most of us usually feel pretty great after we’ve been to the gym or the pool or done whatever workout we prefer.  Even if we’re exhausted, our mood is usually up and we feel proud of ourselves and a lot of times, we feel really strong physically.  That’s pretty much our reward for getting our butts out of bed and working our bodies.  The problem is that before we get our butts up, we pretty much feel like slugs- at least I do anyway! I don’t want to get up; I don’t want to change into workout clothes or my swimsuit; I don’t want to get down to the gym.  Why can’t I just stay at home and do other stuff I want to do?  Whiny, I know!  Actually, the first thought that usually goes through my day when the alarm clock goes off is “I hate getting up!” It’s almost reflex: the clock goes off- “I hate getting up!” and yes, there is an emphasis on the word ‘hate.’

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell myself that I really like my job and my boss, I like driving the commute everyone else thinks is horrible and that once I get to work or in the car, I really like my day. It’s the getting up and getting started that’s hard, and that’s because we have to find the motivation.

Purists point out that there is a difference between Motivation and Inspiration, but as far as the dictionary is concerned, they are synonyms.  Motivation/ Inspiration is the reason for doing something.  In the Weight Loss world, they like to talk about your Why, as in “why do you want to lose weight?”  People usually say things like “I have kids and I want to see them grow up and have kids of their own”; “I want to take a trip to Wherever and I want to enjoy it”; or “I don’t want to be old and helpless.” Experts always point out that ‘revisiting your Why’ is a good way to keep yourself motivated.

But seriously, the connection between your Why and getting your butt out of bed to go to the gym or not eat the pretzels or buying the healthier whole foods is a lot like the old nursery rhyme: you remember the one that goes “For want of a nail, a kingdom is lost”?  [“For want of a nail, a horeshoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost; for want of a horse, a rider was lost; for want of a rider, a message was lost; for want of a message, a battle was lost; for want of a battle a kingdom was lost, and all for the want of a nail.”] It’s about drawing the connections between the Big Picture and the Little Picture, but this is usually where we lose our motivation. Most of us rationalize our decision to give in to what we want now: we’ve been under a lot of stress; we’ve been working really hard; it’s just one day/ donut; the store doesn’t have the brand of whatever; does this one thing really really matter in the Big Picture? This is where we need to connect the dots and remind ourselves of our Motivation: “I really want to enjoy walking all over Disneyland/ New Orleans/ Paris”; “I really want to have fun playing with my kids/ grandkids/ dogs.”

I’ll be honest: trying to connect to my Why doesn’t work much for me.  Yes, I’d love to be really fit and strong and be able to take the steps to the top of the Tower of London or wherever else, but telling myself that this oatmeal raisin cookie and caramel macchiato are going to stop me from doing that really doesn’t work.  In the Big Picture, it’s not that 11 oatmeal cookies and a dozen macchiatos are still okay but 12 cookies and 13 macchiatos are just too much and my body is going to give out when I’m halfway up the Tower because it’s just one too many of each of them! (Drama city, here I come!) For me, it’s about creating a habit. When I moan and groan about how I really don’t want to go to the pool or my workout and I really just want to go home and play with my dog and read my book, I don’t even try connecting to my Why- I tell myself that I don’t want to get into the habit of blowing it off.

I work out in the evenings, so for me, it’s stopping at the gym before I get home and there are a lot of days that I try talking myself out of my work out on the drive home: it’s too hot; I’m really tired; I’m not feeling really good/ have a headache; I have too much to do at home; blah blah excuse excuse.  But because I am such a creature of habit, I find myself driving to the gym even as I’m telling myself why I’m not going to my work out. My ‘Motivation’ is that I’ve done it so many times, I do it almost out of reflex.  For me, my true motivation for working out and eating healthy is simply staying in the habit. If I start blowing it off, blowing it off will become my new habit.  That’s what keeps me grabbing my gym bag and finding myself at the gym even when my brain is whining about being too tired.

What really works for me is telling myself that going back to eating cookies and super sweet coffees drinks is going the wrong direction; it creates bad habits that lead me away from what I want, just like blowing off a work out.  The distinction is small, yes, but it’s enough to connect the dots for me.  When other people look at a cookie or a donut and remind themselves of Why they want to be healthier/ thinner/ fitter, I look at the Forbidden Action and tell myself ‘this will lead me to a bad habit.’  Instead of focusing on my goal, I focus on my actions: one cookie now leads to another cookie and then more cookies and then I have to learn not to eat cookies again, and that was hard the first time, so I don’t want to go there!’

For a lot of us, our Why is important, but it’s only important if it keeps you motivated. Motivation is what gets us up and off to the gym.  It’s what stops us from eating the junk food and keeps us buying the healthy stuff.  We can have the greatest intentions and inspirations in the world, but until those inspirations become actions, they are really just pipe dreams.  Why we want to lose weight or be fit isn’t as important as How we get there, because it’s the Getting There that really matters!

A House of Cards: Building Tolerance

This is a tough topic for me.  I try very hard to cultivate patience and tolerance, mainly because letting circumstances stress you out is just so unhealthy in every way.  There are some situations that I tolerate that make other people absolutely nuts and they think I am some kind of Zen meditation guru because I don’t flip out. These are mainly things like traffic or the general public.  I commute two hours each way five days a week and flipping out whenever there’s an accident slowing everything to a crawl or complete stop isn’t going to speed things up one iota.  Dealing with the public takes a little more patience, but people are people. When I was in college once, I was reading in the cafeteria and a small group of students sat down right next to me (although there was plenty of space) and they started pawing through the parts of the newspaper I had finished and they were chatting loudly, and I just ignored them.  It wasn’t until one of them grabbed a napkin off my tray and sneezed that I started to leave.  That’s when I found out they were actually psych students and they were testing personal boundaries: how much do people tolerate others invading their personal space.  They asked me a lot of questions because I had put up with a lot, and basically when you are in public, you are in a shared area, so I put up with it.  Just like in traffic, I am one of many in a shared environment.  I do like a bit more manners than I used to (meaning use your blinker when you change lanes, dammit!!) but like the table in the cafeteria, it’s not all mine and I am not the boss.

Believe me, I am not as patient or as tolerant as I seem. There are a lot of times where I am swearing under my breath or I am biting my lip to keep from saying something rude.  I just have no tolerance for a lot of things anymore.  I remember one day I was at the supermarket and a family with a lot of young children was basically letting them run wild through the store.  They were really running through the aisles, and one little girl in her pretty frilly Sunday dress was happily poking a rainbow trout in the meat department, calling out “Mami!  Mira! Mira!” (Mommy, look, look!”).  I have no patience for situations like that (it happened again just the other day).  It’s not that I don’t like kids: what I don’t like is when people don’t exercise a few manners.  I feel the same way about people who let their dogs run wild: you aren’t doing the kids or the dogs any favors by not teaching them manners or self-control.  It just makes things harder for them later on. When I go to someone’s house and their dog jumps on me, I doesn’t bother me. Odds are, I already have dog and cat hair all over me, their dog is smelling my pets and unless they have muddy feet, I’m okay with a big ‘doggie hug.’ But I have to take my cue from the dog owner: if they are telling him to get down or lie down, I have to back them up and tell him no because they are trying to teach their dog manners.  Not all guests are as dog friendly as I am. The same is true with kids: we’ve all been talking to a parent when the kid comes rushing in and interrupts. The kid doesn’t know any better and a responsible parent will gently instruct him. What tries my patience are the parents (of kids and pets) who don’t teach manners: it creates problems for the kids/ pets who don’t understand why people react negatively to them as well as creating problems for the rest of us who have to deal with out of control kids/ pets.

Usually, those kinds of situations just result in me swearing quietly and rolling my eyes.  It’s the ‘trigger’ situations where I really need to build tolerance.  Those are the situations where I usually have to deal with someone difficult.  I don’t mean someone in the general public, although it can be. It’s usually someone who is inconsiderate or self-absorbed or who is just plain rude and/ or ignorant. One of my little mantras used to “I have no tolerance for the intolerant.” Yeah, it’s pithy but it also doesn’t mean much! Rude intolerant people are the ones we should be most tolerant of, and they are the ones who cause me to lose it almost every time. Being rude back to them only reinforces their wrong behavior, while being more accommodating to them and ignoring their rudeness (ideally) should make them more aware of how wrong their actions are.  In other words, it makes them feel stupid. I find this is pretty much the only thing that makes them aware of how inconsiderate and foolish their behavior really is.  Basically, someone is being obnoxious and when you don’t rise to their bait, it only emphasizes how childish they are.  This is the person in the store who is obnoxious or condescending to the person behind the counter (and you are standing right there next to Ms. Loudmouth), or this is the person who has a tantrum because you won’t drop everything to handle their problem.

I would like to say that I handle these situations with grace and aplomb and I make them feel stupid and ignorant every time.  Oh hell no!! I usually do the exact opposite and have a fit at them. I feel my stress level starting to rise; my sighs grow deeper; I start grinding my teeth and then I usually snap at them.  I just lose my patience.  These are the times that I really need to work on building more tolerance.  It’s easy to be tolerant in difficult situations where everyone else is being calm and understanding. I’ve been the caller who’s trying to get information and the person on the other end trying to give me what I want is having a hard time finding it. It’s easy to listen to apologies and commiserate patiently with them. When someone is polite, even if you are not in a good frame of mind, it’s easier to be patient and understanding, but when they are rude or childish and you are not in a good mood, this is when it’s hardest to be tolerant of bad behavior.

So why does this matter? Because stress has such a negative effect on our health: it manifests in things like poor sleep, poor concentration/ focus, poor food choices (as in “I’m having a bad day so I need a treat!” or “I don’t have the patience to cook tonight!”) It also effects our blood pressure (no kidding!), our cortisol levels (which lead to fat storage and increased hunger) but also other things that we may not attribute to stress.  In my case, I have noticed that the more stressed I am, the more I am likely to grind my teeth (bruxism) when I sleep, which leads to jaw pain and toothaches, which in turn makes it hard to eat, especially things like healthy crunchy vegetables. Aside from having trouble eating anything that isn’t highly processed, walking around with a painful jaw isn’t a whole lot of fun either!

We can’t always avoid unpleasant situations, so the best action is to be more tolerant of obnoxious people.  When we allow them to trigger our stress and our own obnoxious behavior, we are the ones who suffer. Our quality of life is less because we allowed their bad behavior to influence ours. Their quality of life is most likely not good to start with: can you imagine how it must feel walking around all day every day believing that you are constantly under attack? (I think this is how most of them feel because in my experience this is how most of them act.) Unfortunately, we learn how to cope in bad situations by living through bad situations.  It’s how I learned to be more ‘Zen’ about traffic and it’s how I learned to be more tolerant of the public in general.  Maybe because I am around the ‘problem people’ in my life so much that I have lost patience with them.  Maybe I should try taking advantage of all the opportunities to practice and be more grateful for the practice, but so far, it just keeps getting harder…..

 

Baggage Claim: Love, Apathy & Forgiveness

One of the mantras we hear about a lot from therapists and other health care professionals is that “forgiveness is for you, not for the person who hurt you.” The bottom line is that as long as you are hanging onto the anger and hate, the person who hurt you has some kind of control or influence over you.  People often say that the opposite of love is hate and that’s not true: the opposite of love is apathy.  Basically, if you truly don’t care about the other person, you don’t care enough to think about them or allow them into your life at all.  Hating that person keeps him or her in your life; apathy removes all traces.

I was watching the TLC program 90 Day Fiance: Happily Ever After? where one of the women had just gotten a divorce from her foreign-born husband and made a big deal of getting in his face to make sure he knew that “I’m over him!” The truth is, no matter what she’d telling herself, the fact that she is going so far out of her way to get in his face and make trouble for him with Immigration tells me that she is most definitely not over him.  While I think she has a valid point that her ex is a slug who used her to get a green card, the fact that she allows so much of her life to be influenced by him and what’s he’s doing shows that she’s not ready to cut ties with him. While she probably does not love him anymore, she still ‘cares’ enough to want to hurt him.

Apathy means letting go of the person who hurt you entirely.  It means you don’t care if he or she meets someone else, moves away, or drops off the face of the planet. It means you have gone on with your life and this person is just someone in your past who no longer has any effect or influence over you.  It’s a wonderful thought to contemplate, but much harder to accomplish than it sounds.

Therapists like to promote the idea of ‘Forgiveness,’ so you can have some kind of ‘Closure.’ The point is that this is all about you and not about them. I frankly prefer the “I-Don’t-Give-A-Damn” philosophy that comes with apathy.  Who they are and what they did is all over with and they can either go to hell or go to Texas because I don’t really care anymore. For me, the idea of Forgiveness means I have to care enough about what they did to me to warrant closure, and while I like to talk tough, sometimes letting go of the anger is much harder than I’d like it to be.

While I am definitely not a therapist or any kind of health care professional, I know my own emotional landscape and its pitfalls pretty well.  For example, I know it takes a lot to make me angry, and I mean really angry.  Irritation comes up pretty quick and usually fades about as fast. (I admit I am easily irritated which is getting worse the older I get.) Real anger takes a long time to build up and it doesn’t go away anytime soon.  If you’ve gone to the trouble to make me that angry, I’m going to stay angry for awhile and if you try talking to me, you are flat out wasting your breath because 1) I am too angry to pay any attention to what you’re saying; and 2) I am not done being angry yet. You’ve gone to a damn lot of trouble to get me that worked up and it takes me a while to expend all that energy that you’ve stirred up.  Once I’m done being angry, I’m much more amenable to listening to what you might want to say, but until then, fat chance!

The point is that holding onto negative emotions like rage/ anger, hurt, hate and fear keep the person responsible in your life.  That means if you are trying to grow into a healthier person, you aren’t going to get very far dragging all that baggage with you. These kinds of negative emotions are what keep us eating all that supposed ‘comfort food’ and it’s what keeps us reliving traumas that drive us to eat.  Plain and simple, they keep us from moving forward with our lives: we never move beyond the point where they hurt us.  When we hang onto that anger, hurt or humiliation, we keep reliving the moment and ‘refreshing’ the negative emotions. Letting go of those emotions and the person involved with them, whether through Forgiveness & Closure or plain old apathy,  allows them to fade away at last.  We all know that negative emotions can make us eat more, can undermine our confidence, cause us to doubt our judgment, make us feel insignificant or stupid, but they also make us physically ill.  Those who hang onto negative emotions have more physical health problems and illnesses (including things like cancer) than those who learn to let go of them. Some health care professionals theorize that the negative emotions fester like an infection until they actually take a physical form.  In other words, our negative emotions can be strong enough to kill us if we aren’t careful.

As I said above, we all know what we should do, but actually doing it is a whole other thing.  There is one particular family member in my life who is a completely toxic person and being around her is completely unhealthy.  I have developed a thick skin when it comes to her rudeness and narcissism, but it’s a lot like eating something to which you have an allergy, i.e. “eating gluten gives me terrible cramps, but I’m going to eat it anyway.” If only avoiding this person were as easy as avoiding gluten! Reaching a point of forgiveness with this person is nearly impossible for me, because- simply put- I’m not done being angry yet.  However, I have found that with each of her thoughtless narcissistic transgressions, I am getting closer to apathy.  I don’t want to ‘forgive’ her because, to me, that means I require some kind of closure to be shut of her in my life: frankly, I’d just rather close the door on her and move on. Right now, because she is still connected to other people in my life whom I care about deeply, that is not possible, so I am stuck in an unenviable middle ground.  Until I learn either to ignore her narcissism or not allow her to make me angry, I’m going to be carrying around a lot more baggage than I care to.

 

Unexpected Poisons: Toxic People & Relationships

Most of us who are trying to be healthier work at eliminating toxins from our lives.  These are things like chemicals in our food and environment.  Most of us know not to use Teflon or plastics with BPA and we avoid crops grown with Round Up.  We consciously choose organic and non-GMO to stay as healthy as possible.

But when it comes to the toxic people in our lives, we have a lot more trouble spotting them, and even when we do recognize them as being toxic, cutting ties with them is much harder than switching the brand of detergent we use.  For most of us, the toxic people in our lives tend to be the ones who are hard to avoid, like bosses, coworkers, or family members.  Realistically, if you have a friend who is an emotional drain on you, they usually don’t stay your friend for very long.  I had a ‘friend’ who only called me when he needed something; the rest of the time, he couldn’t be bothered with me, so one day when he called and asked me for a favor, I just flat out told him: “I haven’t heard from you in more than 6 months and the first words out of your mouth are ‘can you do me a favor?’ Call me back when you can be a real friend.”  He did call and apologize and ‘make nice,’ because he really needed the favor, but it was the last time I spoke to him. No loss there.

The toxic people we have real trouble with are the ones who are fixtures in our lives.  How can you cut ties with your boss or coworker without changing jobs?  Is avoiding someone who is a real drain worth the hassle of finding a new job? And why should you be the one to leave when the other person is the problem? Chances are they are a problem for others also.  Then there are the family members: cutting ties with them can be cutting ties with a whole section of your family, and if you happen to live with them, almost impossible.  In these cases, we usually just put up with the ‘toxicity’ rather than causing major upheaval in our lives.  It’s an unconscious cost-benefit analysis: is cutting ties going to be worth all the drama and uncertainty that’s going to come with it?

Honestly, this is where most of us sigh and ‘man-up’ and just live with the ongoing stress and negativity that comes with having these people in our lives.  To use another business analogy, it’s ‘the cost of doing business.’ There’s the sense that we are overreacting or being childish if we refuse contact with someone in our family.  We think we may cause a major family rift if we cut ties with someone or it could mean that cutting ties with one person means we lose contact with someone we really want to stay close with.

It’s not an easy decision to make either for work or for family, but sometimes the poison that is making you sick in your life isn’t what you’re eating: it is an actual person in your life.  If you were gluten-sensitive, you wouldn’t think twice about avoiding bread and telling others that you are gluten-free.  The same if you have a peanut allergy or any other kind of sensitivity: it’s a fact of life- XYZ makes you sick!

I have mentioned The Boss From Hell before in this blog and I know there are a lot of people who make similar references to ‘bad bosses’ in their own lives.  This woman literally made me ill and nearly killed me, and not just me either!  The Associate at this job also suffered from similar panic attacks, anxiety and stress related problems.  He and I both had trouble sleeping, concentrating and I actually developed a slight tremor and heart palpitations while at that job. What was worse was that it didn’t stop when I left the office: this woman would call and text me while I was at home, on my commute and on weekends, and as far as she was concerned, it was part of my job!  And she did the same to the Associate.  The last straw was when I was driving home and she called to complain about what I hadn’t done that day (namely call FedEx to see why she wasn’t getting a discount on the mirrors she’d ordered for her home that FedEx had delivered broken) and why I hadn’t finished my other duties that day (mainly because I spent much of my day on the phone with FedEx and the mirror retailer).  I practically had to pull over on the freeway because I was so upset.  The next day, I went to work and quit. And she could not understand why I was quitting or why a few months later, the Associate quit too!

Of course there was a lot of stress and uncertainty with finding a new job, but by the time I made the decision to quit, it was pretty much black and white: I either take my chances with the Unknown or I die at this job, because it was no longer a matter of ‘if this job will kill me,’ but ‘when this job kills me.’ [ Just as a point of reference, there were a lot of people who kind of giggled and said I had the boss right out of The Devil Wears Prada.  I didn’t see the movie until my job had already begun making me ill, and I could not (and still haven’t) seen the whole movie because certain scenes cause stressful flashbacks but if you have seen it, my boss was a lot like Meryl Streep’s character, only not as nice. ]

Most of the toxic people in our lives are not as black and white as The Boss From Hell, but the point is that they are just as toxic.  Sadly, most of us are familiar with the domestic violence situation where we are on the outside shaking our heads: why do they keep going back to their abusers? Because behind all the abuse, the victim remembers times when their abuser was kind and sweet and a different person.  Once they get some distance on the most recent abuse, they start missing the ‘good times,’ even if we can’t see or identify them as being ‘good.’ I think this is why we put up with toxic family members: underneath all the poison, they are ‘family’ or ‘blood’ and so we put up with being treated like trash, being taken advantage of or being verbally or physically abused.  “It’s family and that’s what we do for family.”

The truth is that ‘family’ isn’t any more synonymous with abuse than is ‘friendship’ or ‘work environment.’  We should not have to put up with being victimized or abused or mistreated because someone is a ‘friend,’ ‘family member,’ ‘coworker,’ or ‘boss.’  If a stranger treated you the same way, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to call the cops or walk away from them forever, but because there is this connection, we accept their bad behavior.  The result is that the situation causes you stress and quite possibly illness.  Oftentimes, once we get some distance on the most recent instance of bad behavior, like victims of domestic violence, we start remembering when times were better and that ‘they aren’t always like that.’  The truth is that when you go back to socializing or working with them, you are condoning their bad behavior of you. Many of them, like The Boss From Hell, do not even accept that their behavior was bad.  You need to decide if they are worth the abuse.  Looking back on my situation, I confess I stayed with her for much longer than I should have, because as is often the case, the relationship didn’t start out awful and I thought of her for a long time as a friend, even after people starting telling me- in earnest- that this job was going to kill me. Only you can decide if the toxic people in your life are worth the pain and stress, but frankly, the ones we love shouldn’t be the ones who hurt us.