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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Weight Loss Lies We Tell Ourselves

I am a really good liar. I know I shouldn’t be proud of that but truly I can tell some real whoppers with a completely straight face, so much so that even people who know me well are wondering. Part of it is that my dad’s family loves practical jokes and you’ve got to be straight-faced to pull them off. Part of it is also growing up in a family that was pretty screwed up and so you learn to lie so the rest of your classmates don’t know how screwed up your family really is. Unfortunately I got a lot of practice.

I’ve learned over the years that there are three kinds of lies that work really well. The first is Double Talk; the second is the Big Little Lie; and the third is the Bold Faced Lie. Double Talk is when you just bury your listener with words. You over-explain and essentially confuse them with terms and procedures so they lose the thread they’re trying to follow. It has to be done carefully, as if the explanation is simple and obvious. The trick isn’t talking fast or giving too much detail (a common mistake of novice liars): it’s slowing it down as if you’re not quite sure why they’re not understanding the obvious. A lot of times the listener gives up trying to understand because they think they’re missing something and don’t want to look stupid.

The Big Little Lie follows that old chestnut: “the best way to hide a lie is between two truths.” You tell the truth about 90-95% but the 5-10% you lie about is the important part. This usually has the benefit of the Plausible Deniability defense: “W, X, and Y were true, so I just assumed Z was true also! How was I to know it wasn’t??”

That last statement happens to be a good example of the third category, the Bold Faced Lie. I know most people call it “bald faced” but you need to be bold to lie flat out to people. And I’ve found the bigger the lie, the bolder you need to be, plus you need to believe it yourself to pull it off.

And that is the reason we’re discussing lies in a weight loss blog. We want to eat healthier and we want to keep our calories low while keeping our exercise burns higher. Kind of the definition of weight loss, right? But sometimes, the lies we want to believe get in our way.  We lie to ourselves because we want our lies to be true: we want to believe that one donut isn’t going to get in the way of our weight loss.  We want to believe that we can blow off our workout to go shopping- we really will make it up later in the week and hey, walking all over the mall is aerobic, right?  We do the Double Talk technique where “we heard that ABC was good for burning calories even though we don’t understand it, it ‘obviously’ works,” so we’ll figure it out after we have the Fettucine Alfredo.  We tell ourselves the Big Little Lie because we know that “cardio burns calories and walking is cardio so all the walking at the mall is going to burn almost as many calories as our workout would have.”  “We will make it up later in the week, so we’ll be ahead!”- the Bold Faced Lie! If we all had noses like Pinocchio, we wouldn’t be able to turn around without poking each other in the eye!

We believe these lies when we tell them because we are looking for an excuse.  We want to justify our behavior and believe we are “still doing the work!” What we are really doing is setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment and self-recrimination. The truth is eating the donuts and the sweets and the junk food is not going to help us get healthier, and it sure won’t help us lose weight! It doesn’t matter how much of the magic pill or powder we take- eating unhealthy food is eating unhealthy food.  Yes, walking is healthy but is shopping going to be a ‘cardio workout’ or is it going to be a lot of stopping and looking and trying on stuff? As for ‘rescheduling our workout,’ need I say more?

Since I know I am a really good liar, I have learned to cut myself off before I even finish the lying thought.  I ask myself one question: am I being consistent? Did I miss my workout for a legitimate reason, ie something else that cannot be moved has priority? Or am I blowing it off because “I don’t feel like it”?  Am I choosing the pasta/ bread/ cake because it’s healthy for me or because “I’ll eat less tomorrow”? I don’t even try telling myself that “I’ll reschedule” because it never happens! (Sad, but true!)

We need to slow down and make a considered choice when we are trying to justify our behavior.  The justification/ explanation is the first clue that this is really a lie.  We’re trying to lie our way out of the behavior we really want to do! If we can’t be proud of what we are doing, maybe we don’t need to be doing it.  The same with explaining it: if we have to explain why we chose the cake or the garlic bread, maybe we don’t need to eat it.  Do we really have to explain spinach or baked chicken? And unless we are picking up a friend from the hospital or something else that can’t be moved, we really have no excuse for blowing off a workout.

There is nothing wrong with owning inconsistent behavior: sometimes pushing ourselves hard is enough of a reason to say “I’m taking a break before I burn out.” The problem comes when we use that excuse over and over again.  If you feel chronically burnt out, there’s a bigger issue going on! Maybe instead of blowing off workouts or ‘cheating on your diet,’ you need to make some serous adjustments to a schedule or eating habit you can maintain.

This is the flip side of lying to ourselves: if we are really pushing too hard, we are still going to end up with failure, disappointment and self-recrimination.  We need to be realistic about our goals and our strategy for getting there instead of biting off too much.  If we lie to ourselves when we say we’re going to make five workouts a week and then beat ourselves up because we only made three, the solution isn’t to push ourselves to make the five we scheduled! If five really is too many for you to handle, then schedule a number that’s realistic for you! Not only will you be more consistent, which builds good practices, but you’ll feel pride in your accomplishments instead of disappointment in yourself.  The same goes for your eating: if you eat great all week but regularly “blow it” out with friends, then set a realistic goal, like only eating certain foods when you are out with friends!

We need to tell ourselves the truth, even if it’s things we don’t want to hear, like I’m not going to reschedule my workout, I’m eating the Krispy Kreme because I want it, and I’d like to think I can make five workouts a week and get to sleep by nine p.m. each night, but nope- not happening! Realistically, I eat a couple donuts now and then, I make it to three workouts a week and if I’m asleep by 10:30, I’m doing better!  That’s a key phrase: doing better! I don’t have to lie to myself about being perfect, because I don’t need to be perfect as long as I am consistently trying to be better.  Telling yourself the truth is one step to being better!

 

 

Stop the All the Drama and Take A Lesson From Johnny Depp

Most of us probably realize that we make our own obstacles.  One of things I used to say about our clients at my old job is that they make their own problems and they are good at what they do!  It’s not only true about our clients (it was a bankruptcy law firm) but it also reminded me that I’m pretty dang good at it too!

We are really good at getting in our own way: when we buy things at the grocery store that we know we shouldn’t be eating; when we schedule things right in the middle of our workout appointments; when we choose restaurants and other eateries that we know won’t have a great selection for us.  We make things harder for ourselves when we do these things.  Sometimes we make these decisions in a fit of optimism- “I can buy my kids the Oreos and not eat any!”; “I can meet my friends for drinks and make one beer last all night!” When we are successful, we feel really proud of ourselves and that adds to our growing confidence, but the reverse is also true: failure usually means we come down on ourselves pretty hard.  Normally, we don’t just criticize ourselves- we annihilate ourselves! It isn’t just that we were ‘foolishly optimistic’ in thinking we could say no to the Oreos, drinks or whatever: we were stupid! how could I be so weak?! how could I think I could say no when I never have before?! what’s wrong with me?! and so on and so on.

Yes, because we could not say no and stop eating the Oreos, we are the worst person on the planet.  Talk about drama! We eat a whole sleeve of cookies and we treat ourselves like something the cat threw up! I know: I’ve done it to myself more times than I can count- pointing the finger at the woman in the mirror here.  I have had to slap myself metaphorically to put things in perspective.  It’s cookies, not nuclear weapons! I’m not roasting puppies or running over helpless little old ladies! Frankly, I don’t think I treat myself as badly as some of my fitness friends do: the things they say about themselves when they screw up are shocking and a more than a little scary sometimes.  Maybe it’s because I have more distance on the situation than they do and I am not emotionally tied to their mistake, but yikes!

The truth is that we are much harder on ourselves than we are on others.  The same friend who says horrible things about herself will be genuinely sympathetic and encouraging to someone else who made a similar mistake, and I think that’s key in learning to deal with our own failings.  If you can’t say it to someone else, don’t say it to yourself!  That is pretty much the philosophy that I am using with myself now. When I screw something up, #1) I try to learn from it; and #2) I don’t beat myself up over it.  Yeah, we blew it- so why did we blow it and how can we move forward from here?  I treat myself like I am one of my fitness friends. I admit, it was a little weird at first (it still is!) but so far, I think it’s working. I’m not letting myself wallow in recrimination, self-pity and melodrama. Instead I am focusing on moving forward.  In a way, it forces me to stay positive, focus on my goals and making the next best choice.

One of the other things that happens to us when we keep crushing our own spirits because we don’t meet our expectations is that it makes us afraid to try anything new or different.  This whole aspect of ‘Fearing New and Different’ usually gets overlooked in all the drama we heap on ourselves, but this is just as important as not burying ourselves in criticism.  I came across a quote from Johnny Depp this morning: “I like the challenge of trying different things and wondering whether it’s going to work or if I’m going to fall flat on my face.” We don’t grow if we don’t push our boundaries. If we stay in our safe little routine, all we do is stagnate safely .  I am a good one for loving my little routine: if it’s 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, I’m at my water aerobics! If’s it’s a Sunday afternoon, I’m usually at the grocery store! et cetera, et cetera. Being a routine-a-holic works for me and against me: it’s harder to get me out of my safe routine, so I am less likely to get into trouble, but at the same time, it keeps me locked into doing things one way all the time.  Trying something new, whether a new food, new exercise plan, or new way of eating means I risk screwing up.  I might not like the new thing, or I might be really bad at it, or it could really derail the progress I’ve already made.  We’ve learned to fear failure and I don’t think it’s a good thing.  New = risk while routine = safe.  It looks like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Stay safe and keep doing what works for you!  Most of us only try new things when our safe routine stops working for us. (OMG! Now what do I do?!)

But staying safe really does mean stagnation and stagnation is boring. How can you know if you are good at something or even if you like it until you try it?  What keeps most of us from trying new or different is that fear of failure again.  What if I screw it up? What if I don’t like it?  What if I’m really bad at it? Here’s one: what if you like it even if you are really bad at it? A couple of months ago, I took a belly dancing class and I discovered a few things about myself: 1) I am really not coordinated!; 2) I really really suck at belly dancing!; and 3) I am so damn stubborn, I went out and bought a DVD after the class ended! I definitely fell flat on my face with that one! But even though I stink at it, I like it.  It’s a good exercise (the reason I took it) and if I quit now, I lose the opportunity to get better.  I also learned that it helps my balance, coordination and flexibility.  I don’t have to great at it to enjoy it; I just have to keep trying!  Even though I was probably one of the worst dancers in the class (if not the worst!) I learned a lot and I had a lot of fun while I was dancing badly.  I was also a little embarrassed, a little frustrated and really sorry when the class ended.  Hence, getting the DVD and I’ll be signing up in the fall for the next class. Yes, it’s challenging, and yes, it means I figuratively fell on my face, but it also means I challenged myself.  I refuse to be sorry for learning new things, for trying something different or for failing to be perfect.  Odds are I will keep pushing my boundaries. Another favorite Johnny Depp quote that works here? “Now bring me that horizon!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Are More Than Just Your Body!

I was listening to yet another podcast today and some of the things the guest mentioned  really irritated me.  It’s a viewpoint that I hear now and then, and each time it really makes me what to stand up and shout at someone: it’s the idea that women are emotional over how their bodies look because they are most often judged by their appearance.  As I said, this point of view really lights my fuse because it’s a freaking stereotype! Of course, that does not mean that it isn’t true: a lot of women get very emotional over gaining weight and all people are often judged on their appearance.  This entire idea that women are generally ashamed and emotional over their appearance is one of the few things that makes me angry, and frankly, I am pretty slow to anger.

This whole stereotype confused me for a long time while I was growing up.  I have been told all my life that I am an atypical female. (In our gender-fluid modern culture, I should clarify that I was born and remain a heterosexual female.) Maybe because I was mostly raised by my dad, I have been told that I lack certain ‘female’ mannerisms (like primping and flirting); that I tend to shop like a man (I go to the store, buy what I came for and leave), and that I approach problems like a man (offer a solution rather than commiserating).  I’ve read a few essays on the way men and women communicate and think (my favorites are by Deborah Tannen) and I have come to the conclusion that I have a male-oriented outlook about a lot of things.  This means that when men get confused or irritated when their wives/ girlfriends cry “my butt is huge!,” I am just as confused and irritated as they are: “so, what am I supposed to do about it? You’re the one who keeps buying the chocolate cake/ pasta/ frappucinos.” I don’t mean to sound callous, because I have also looked in the mirror and said the same thing: “damn, my butt is ginormous!!” but usually it’s without the wail of “this happened to me against my will.”  When I acknowledge my butt/ thighs/ ankles/ whatever is fat/ huge/ not looking the way I would like it to look, it’s usually accompanied by irritation at myself, because I am the reason it doesn’t look the way I want.  I don’t want someone to tell me what isn’t true- that my butt is not ginormous when I can clearly see that it is- but a few good ideas about how to make it smaller might be appreciated!  Of course, this is not what most women want; they want to be reassured they are still worthy of being loved, because for some women, their self-worth is wrapped up in a small butt and other assorted body parts.

For most of my life, my own self-assessments regarding body size were also accompanied by feelings of helplessness, disappointment and more than a little confusion.  Why wasn’t I able to make the changes that I wanted to make?  In most cases, it’s simply because it was hard work, but even when I did do the work, I didn’t get the results I wanted (I’m still blaming those 11 daily servings of ‘healthy whole carbs aka grains’ the USDA advised me to eat but whatever…!) I mostly missed the whole emotional stigma of being seen as ugly or unattractive by the rest of society, most likely because I have been overweight almost all my life. The constant criticism grew to be just more background noise in a sea of noise constantly telling me how I didn’t measure up to what ‘society’ says women should be. I wasn’t ‘girlish enough’; I made guys feel inadequate by being smarter than they were; I was too independent.  Geez! How dare I base my feelings of self-worth on my independence, intelligence and judgment! I was lucky: these were the things that were valued in my family. My dad never said he was disappointed my sister and I weren’t boys: he took us camping, shooting and fishing just the same. Nor did he encourage us to be “girly.” He did encourage us to read, make our own choices and do what we believed is the right thing to do.  Most of the women in my family are strong, opinionated and independent, even my maternal grandmother, who was not one of my favorite people. The men in my family treat them as equals, and although there were some traditional roles that were respected, it was never about ‘the women not being equal.’ No one in my family was judged on what they looked like, whether it was genetic (shortness and glasses run in my family) or whether it was about their weight (we have all sizes): any judgments were made on their choices.  If you chose to party all night and blow off your midterms, you really screwed up and they would let you know it! Being overweight, wearing glasses, being 4’10”, losing your hair, or being tall and thin- it was just a fact of life! You are who you are!

So whenever I hear people complaining about how ugly they look, how overweight they are, how some body part doesn’t look the way it’s “supposed to look,” I get pretty irritated.  I believe it perpetuates the idea that we all need to fit into stereotypical roles and if we don’t fit, we get dinged for it.  Somehow, we screwed up and we should be ashamed of ourselves.  I think it’s a little funny that if we don’t feel ashamed for not fitting it, we should be ashamed of not being ashamed! More evidence of our ongoing shortcomings! I was reminded not too long ago that most people don’t like being made to feel different or be made fun of.  Kind of obvious, but when being different is your way of life, you tend to forget that others are sensitive to it.  In one way, it’s made me pretty stubborn and independent, and in some ways it’s made me callous and insensitive to others.  While I’m pretty sure ‘independent’ is good, I’m not so sure about the others.

We are ultimately a combination of our choices, our genetics and our environment.  We are born with certain dents, and we collect more either through our own decisions and those life dishes out.  I don’t know anyone who has turned out the way they thought they would when they were kids.  We can either cry over the bumps and lumps or we can keep going despite or because of them.  Yes, I have a ginormous butt and I can either cry about it, do something about it, or learn to live with it.  Right now, I am doing something about it, and while I am, I choose not to cry over it.  Not too long ago, I paused to look at my reflection at the gym before I got in the pool and I realized my saggy skin is really looking saggier than usual.  Periodically my mom asks me when am I going to talk to my doctor about it.  Usually my answer is “I don’t know.”  I still wear short sleeves and tank tops and shorts despite the saggy skin.  I worked hard for those wrinkles and I am not about to let someone else’s opinion deter me! (This is where ‘stubborn’ is good!)

I think we all need to meet somewhere in the middle ground: I can certainly work on being more sensitive and less stubborn, and I think those who are too concerned about their self-image can work on being a little more independent and self-reliant.  We can all benefit by being more concerned about others’ feelings and having more confidence in ourselves.  We are more than the physical body we see in the mirror, and the people who love us do so despite our failings, physical and otherwise.  None of us are perfect, physically, mentally or spiritually.  We can all stand some improvement.  It’s how we grow and remembering that our own bodies are as imperfect as everyone else’s might make us a little more caring and empathetic when someone else is feeling the sting of being different.

 

 

What You Look Like is NOT Who You Are

I recently had a discussion with my mom about self-confidence.  I admit that I have little patience for people who are too concerned about what other people think of them.  In some ways, I am probably too unconcerned about others’ opinions of me. Part of this is I think my own denseness and part of it no doubt comes from the constant teasing from my classmates when I was in grade school.  I was ridiculed on a fairly regular basis for being: 1) Mexican; 2) poor; and 3) fat.  I actually didn’t start gaining weight until I was about 7th grade, so most of my grade school years, there was nothing I could do about being a poor Mexican (not as kid anyway) and after years of listening to the put-downs, I just started ignoring them.

At my workouts I see quite a few women (usually) who wear t-shirts and shorts to get in the pool or they insist on wearing a tankini or swim skirt because they don’t want to show their bellies or their upper thighs.  They want to be covered as much as possible.  I admit, the first swim suit I had was a tankini, but that was mainly because the only suits they had at the store were tankinis. The ones I’ve bought online are two pieces: a bralette with a high waisted swim short.  Those are the suits I like best (the tankini was really annoying). I’ve had a couple people make remarks about how I’m trying to flirt with the guys going in and out of the sauna (just friendly teasing) and a few other comments about how it looks like I’ve lost a ‘lot of weight’ after no doubt noticing my saggy skin.

The saggy skin was what really started this conversation with my mom.  I made a comment that my legs are starting to look like the patients on TLC’s Skin Tight and she asked me if I was close enough to my goal weight to have skin surgery. She commented that I will probably need at least two surgeries, one on my legs and one on my chest, torso and arms, which will include a breast lift. Honestly, I am in no rush to have surgery of any kind and I am not nearly close enough to consider surgery.  (I still have about 100 lbs to go!) and I told her, after she mentioned it a few times, that I will not be having my breasts done under any circumstances.

Many of the patients on Skin Tight are practically traumatized by their saggy skin. There are some (mainly guys) who are more concerned about the inconvenience it causes and the risk of infection more than their appearance. Many of the patients are extremely self-conscious about their appearance, describing themselves with words like ‘freak’ and ‘monster’ and I think my mom is a little confused that I am not much concerned about how I look at all.

Vanity and appearance are important to my mom, and she does not understand that it isn’t important to me. Beyond looking neat and clean, I don’t spend a whole lot of time on my appearance.  I’ve been told by more than a couple men that I’m not ‘girly’ enough and that it’s ‘not attractive.’ My vanity is pretty much confined to my hair: I like it long, but even then, I don’t spend a lot of time styling it.  When I was 16, I had one gray hair on the back of my head. It was very noticeable because the rest of my hair was very dark and my mom kept insisting that I pluck it out, which I didn’t.  As I grew older, I started getting a little bit of gray around my temples and face and she started making comments about coloring my hair.  I did color my hair a few times, but that was more of a lark trying different colors and not related to ‘hiding the gray.’  I commented to one of my stylists that I kind of missed my gray hair and he quipped “no worries, your friends are back!”

My point here is that what I look like has never been tied to my sense of self or self-esteem.  Maybe it was all that teasing in school (and life in general) that led to my being thick-skinned (and maybe a little dense), but who I am is not what I look like and it never has been and never will be.  This is the point of a lot of books, movies and plays: who you are is the person inside and the outside covering is just the vehicle for moving that person around.  Some of us are cute little Fiats and Minis and some of us are giant F-150’s and SUVs.  The only difference is that we are fairly limited in our body choices: there are some things we can change and some we can’t.  The problems happen when people start obsessing over things they can’t change about themselves.  Do I wish I were taller? Yeah, being short is kind of a pain.  Do I worry about it? Not really- I can’t change it.  Even things I did lament over as a kid (I wanted blue eyes like my dad), I grew out of them.  Now if I want blue eyes or any other color, all I have to do is buy the colored contacts.  I can have different eye colors each day (or two different colors if I want!) but I don’t.  It’s too much trouble and I know my eyes are brown.

I don’t mean to tell you that what you look like doesn’t matter.  Taking pride in your appearance is a good thing; I believe it speaks to our self-confidence. I think liking how you look is a good thing, but when you are more concerned about what others think of your appearance than your own feelings, I think that isn’t a good thing.  I’m not talking about your spouse or significant other: I mean strangers or coworkers and people who are not so important to you.  As long as you are happy with your appearance, then what other people think is pretty much irrelevant, but the bottom line is that our appearance will change over time, “by chance or Nature’s changing course untrimm’d.” We need to be more concerned with how we feel about ourselves than what others think of us.  Having self-confidence and being secure in ourselves is more attractive than our hair style, color  or anything else about how we look.  We spend too much time and effort trying to impress others with our appearance when what really matters is what’s inside. Everything else fades with time, whether we want it to or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Realities of Being Thinner: When the Honeymoon is Over

For most of my adult life, I have been overweight.  My weight gain really started when I was in middle school and continued at a fairly steady pace until I seemed to plateau around the 375 mark in my early forties.  I wasn’t really happy being so big, but I was able to get around okay and the pain and inconvenience were tolerable.  If I wasn’t happy, at least I wasn’t miserable.

That changed with the Job From Hell: the more stressful the job became, the more difficulty I had handling it and as a result my weight went up by almost 65 lbs, and in that 65 lbs lay the difference between “livable” and “utter misery.”

Since then, I have lost  almost 18o lbs.  My weight is now 260.  I think the last time I weighed this much was in the late 1980’s, which would put me in college.  While the number still looks significant, given I have been told by various “authorities” that my ideal body weight is between 120-150.  By those estimates, I am still 100 lbs over what I should weigh. In fact, I would have no difficulty qualifying for almost any kind of bariatric surgery since I am still morbidly obese. Anyone who has lost a significant amount of weight knows two things: 1) weight loss fluctuates, sometimes dramatically; and 2) your body does not always change in ways that you like.

I have to admit that at first my weight loss was rapid and without almost any fluctuations.  Because I was almost 450 lbs, positive changes to my eating resulted in rapid dramatic weight loss. Just changing what I ate from processed carbohydrates to more nutrient dense high protein whole foods, my body lost weight quickly since I had been eating so many carbs, most of which my body just stored as fat since it rarely had the opportunity to burn any.  I kept eating because I was stuck on the carb roller coaster: once the body processes all the carbs into storable fat, the blood sugar drops, triggering the brain to release ghrelin (the hunger hormone) to raise the blood sugar again, so I’d eat more carbs, and ride the ride again, and again, and again.  Just getting off the ride, my body was no longer taking in the carbs aka storable fat and was burning some of what was there.  I dropped almost 100 lbs in the first year alone and it was almost one year before I hit my first significant plateau.

In the two years since then, I have hit a few slow-downs and plateaus, because as my body weight dropped, it had less stored fat to burn, and it required less calories to maintain.  This is why calorie intake drops as weight drops.  The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the number of calories your body needs just to stay alive. In plain language, when you’re sitting on the couch bingeing The Walking Dead, this is what your body burns.  Your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) is what you burn when you are out running around, working out, just working or doing what you normally do when you’re not bingeing TWD.  To lose weight you need a calorie deficit: if your TDEE is 2400, you need to eat less than 2400 so your body can burn stored fat, but you should not eat less than your BMR since your body can start cannibalizing itself by breaking down muscle.  Between those two numbers is the sweet spot, and the more weight you lose, the more muscle you build, the more those numbers change. You have to hang on to that shifting sweet spot, which is one of the reasons weight loss fluctuates and is never linear nor constant.  What I was doing for the first year of my weight loss worked great, until it stopped working.  That’s because my weight had reached a point where I was no longer hitting the sweet spot: I needed to change how I was eating and what my activities were to raise my TDEE and/ or my BMR.  Building muscle raised my BMR because we all know that it takes more calories to maintain muscle than it does fat. I needed to raise my TDEE because the more energy I burned being active in the day, the fewer calories were being stored.  Also more activity can mean more muscle building, which raises the BMR. I also needed to make sure I was eating at a deficit, but not such a deficit as to cause damage to my body (starving myself).

Generally, the easiest way to make sure you’re still hitting the sweet spot is to keep moving.  The more active you are, the more calories you’re burning and hopefully, the more muscle you are building. You also need to keep your diet moving: try new things, keep eating seasonally and don’t get stuck in a rut with the same foods (this is one of my problems). Eating seasonally is one of the easier ways to keep fueling your body differently.  If you mostly eat squash and root veggies in the fall and winter, eat more leafy greens in the spring and summer.  Eating berries in the summer is a good way to fuel your body differently as well as get different nutrients.  Trying new foods is another way to find out what works for you. Your body is amazingly adaptive and it’s always searching for homeostasis: its own sweet spot where it’s taking in as many calories as it’s burning.  The fact that you keep trying to lose weight (either by lowering calorie intake and/ or output) means you are fighting your body’s natural tendency for homeostasis.  It’s an odd kind of dance where both of you keep trying to get ahead of each other.  So as you lose weight, you will hit slow downs and stalls (plateaus) and you will bounce up a few pounds or more (especially if you’re female or if you are building muscle).  The best way to handle this is to make sure your overall trend is going down. I know it’s easier said than done, since I still tend to get really frustrated and impatient with plateaus.

Your body will also change in ways you don’t like. Usually, as we start to get thinner, we get pretty excited about losing weight and our friends start telling us how good we look.  That’s the fun stuff: seeing your legs, your face, your waist get smaller and more shapely.  You also start noticing you have muscles now! Yay for me! It’s kind of like a honeymoon period in your weight loss journey- everything is going great and you’re liking what you see! Your clothes start getting bigger and you start fitting into smaller sizes, accentuating your weight loss. You start being able to do more in everyday life and when you work out.  One day you realize you are holding a plank for well over a minute without really thinking about it and remember when it was hard just to get into that position! You start feeling really fit and accomplished and proud of yourself.

Then it begins: honeymoon is over and the less than fun realities begin arriving.  For me, it started with my thighs and my belly: my skin started getting looser, and looser, and it started getting saggy.  I noticed when I was doing my pool exercises that it floats and ripples more like cloth than skin. I started noticing odd bulges (varicose veins) that I had never seen before because they were hidden by the fat.  The more weight I lost, the more wrinkly saggy areas showed up, as well as odd divots in my lower legs where the muscles are more visible under the loose skin.  The skin on my belly, hips and butt also started sagging and now I’ve been told that I have a droopy butt.  I also have ‘batwings’ on my upper arms, wrinkles on my face now that it’s smaller and a turkey neck under my chin.  There are times when I feel a lot like a melting candle (especially lying down) as my loose skin puddles around me on the bed or floor. It’s hard to feel accomplished, strong and fit when you look and feel like a deflated balloon, all stretched out of shape and wrinkled.

I never thought I would lose as much weight as I have and it wasn’t until I had lost about 70 lbs or so, and I began to notice the loose skin, that I realized skin removal surgery was something I was going to have to deal with.  Seriously not thrilled about it, and therefore I am putting it off until it becomes absolutely necessary.  I did discuss it with my doctor, who also felt that it wasn’t anything I needed to worry about until I stopped losing weight or the loose skin became an infection risk. Until then, I just had to live with it, and I am okay with that.

To be honest, one of my excuses for not losing weight was that I didn’t want to have skin removal surgery. I realized at some point around 300+ lbs that even if I lost weight, the only way to take care of the loose skin is to have it surgically removed, which is a really unpleasant experience.  It’s a long invasive surgery with a long and painful recovery period and it can leave lasting effects. Almost anyone who has had surgery knows that the incision scars never feel normal again and even the most skilled of plastic surgeons can only minimize the scars as much as your body will allow.  If you are someone whose body doesn’t heal smoothly and cleanly from cuts and wounds (like mine), your body may never look normal. Looking normal is extremely important to most people.

I have only a vague memory of looking ‘normal.’ My mom has a picture of me when I was in 6th grade where I was goofing off as she snapped the picture. In this picture, I am not overweight and I think it’s the last photo I have of myself looking like a normal pre-teen kid.  In the forty years since then, I have grown used to looking and feeling different from everyone else.  ‘Not-normal’ is my normal and I have also come to realize that many people have problems accepting that they are different from the mainstream.  I remember when I was an overweight teen trying on swimsuits with my mom and her mother, and being told by my grandmother that I wasn’t going to find a swimsuit I liked because none of them would cover my fat. (She was a real peach, my maternal grandmother!) In the years since, I’ve grown used to people making rude remarks, laughing at me and treating me differently because of my weight. I learned to ignore most of it since it says more about their narrow-mindedness than my weight problem. At the pool, I’ve noticed some of my classmates walk out to the pool with towels wrapped around to hide their bodies. I know I look wrinkly, saggy and kind of deformed.  I also know that I feel stronger, lighter and I enjoy my life a lot more than I did before. If looking a little freakish is the cost of feeling a whole lot better, then I am happy to pay it! Our appearance is always temporary and changing anyway.  No doubt I will continue to look saggier and wrinklier as I continue to lose weight.  The day may come when it bothers me enough to do something about it, but until that day, I will view the wrinkles as signs of my ongoing success. I worked hard for them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuning Out the Noise: Dealing with Unhelpful People

I had actually started drafting this post a couple of weeks ago, but the episode of My 600 lb Life on Feb. 8, 2017 (Erica’s Story) pushed it to the forefront. Calling her family ‘unhelpful’ is like saying Josef Stalin was ‘kind of a mean guy.’ Most of us have met unhelpful people in one form or another.  They are the ones who know everything, especially about what’s best for us, even if they are unwilling to help us. They are the ones who are always telling us what we are doing wrong.  Some times- most times- they are doing it out of a sincere wish to help us.  (This is my mom.)  Some times, they are people who are just mean and love to see us fail so they can say “I told you so.” (This is Erica’s family.) Occasionally, I see posts from my fitness friends who are upset, angry or just plain frustrated with someone in their lives who should be supportive but isn’t, or who thinks they are being supportive but is actually getting in the way.  It’s a difficult and awkward situation, especially if it’s someone who means well, but sooner or later, whether it’s fitness/ health or something different, we all have to deal with this pseudo-supportive people and unfortunately, the obnoxious ones too!

Generally, they break down into the two groups mentioned above: those who mean well, and those who really want to see you fail, as well as a third group: those who are indifferent or unaware. In most instances, there isn’t a lot of difference in how you deal with these groups; it basically comes down to whether or not you mind offending them or not.  The people who mean well and genuinely want to help you are the ones you want to take care not to offend, obviously, since they are most likely friends and family members.  The others who want to watch you fail and the ones who are indifferent are another matter entirely.  Depending on who they are, you can choose either to be as offensive as you like or as polite as you please.  Sadly, some of the obnoxious people may be family members.  (If they are ‘friends,’ they certainly aren’t people you need as friends!)

Group 1: Honestly Supportive People:  Quick and dirty fact here: even though they mean well and think they are helping you, these people may just be getting in your way.  My mom tried so hard to help me lose weight and eat healthier, but everything she gave me and all of the advice she kept sending were just not helpful to me! If anything, it just made me upset, made me angry and made me more frustrated and unhappy.  Most of what she sent over were things like the latest diet books and the latest ‘magic powders/ pills.’  I am sure they were effective for some people, but for me, they weren’t strategies I knew I would keep up with over the long term and then I would just be back where I was to start with, unless of course I gained back more than the weight I’d lost on the diet, and most people do.  I had done A LOT of diets and even though I hadn’t tried what she gave me, I knew that a diet is a diet is a diet and I DIDN’T want to do it again.

What I learned to do with my mom was take a look at what she gave me (usually the latest ‘how to lose weight forever’ diet book) and tell her thanks, I’m looking at it and then I’d add it to the stack on the bookshelf.  This is what I call ‘tuning out the noise.’ These people really want to help, and it’s frustrating for them too, because they don’t know how to help, so they are doing the best they can.  Keep that thought forefront in your mind when you deal with them, and then I suggest doing a variation of what I did with my mom: thank them for their help, tell them you are going to consider it, or if you already have a plan you are following, tell them your current plan/ program is working for you, but if you need to make changes, you’ll keep their advice in mind.  It doesn’t hurt to ask them to keep being supportive by doing XYZ that you do need help with.  Many times if you tell them how to help you, they are more than willing to get behind you, and this is what’s happened with my mom: now that she knows how to offer support, she is extremely supportive.

Group 2: Obnoxious People:  Who these people are can surprise you. As I mentioned above, Erica’s family had essentially abandoned her.  She lived alone and, at 661 lbs, had difficulty taking care of herself and probably would not have been able to live alone if her niece had not been the one family member who did help her. Her younger brother and sister offered no assistance whatsoever other than telling her she needed to lose weight if she ‘wanted to be part of the family’ and that she obviously needed some kind of help, but beyond that, there was no help at all without emotional and verbal abuse, recrimination and blame.  She was expected to meekly take all the abuse if she wanted any of their help. Their focus was on how little they could do for her while inconveniencing themselves as little as possible.  In at least once instance, her sister’s insistence on not being inconvenienced by a long drive from California led to Erica’s flying to Houston, which quite literally put her life at risk as Dr. Nowzaradan explains in the episode.

Erica’s family are far from unique.  Most of these people will insist that your weight problem is your problem and you are the one who made your weight a problem. They are quick to point out what you are doing wrong and usually offer no advice other than “you need to lose weight” and “you need to get with the program.” (Really, how much trouble is to offer some emotional support over the phone?) For example, Erica’s sister was quick to be the Food Police and inspect Erica’s kitchen to make sure she was ‘complying with the diet,’ but was unwilling to offer any other help or support, emotional or otherwise. Being the Food Police is not being helpful: it’s being judgmental, and sadly, the world is full of people who are eager to pass judgment on others.  I wish I could say that you will not encounter rude and obnoxious people, but few of us are that lucky.  When you meet them, you need to decide if offending them matters to you.  My basic philosophy is they don’t care if they offend me, so I’m not going to care if I offend them.

Group 3: Indifferent/ Unaware People: These tend to be people who aren’t intentionally rude or unhelpful; they just don’t know better. These are the people who invite a vegetarian to a barbecue and only serve meat and potato salad. Hope you like potato salad! These are also the people who serve you cheesecake when you are on a diet, either because they don’t know you’re on a diet or they’re a little insensitive or indifferent. Group #1 people would do everything to dissuade from even thinking about desserts and the obnoxious Group #2 people would eat the cheesecake in front of you while reminding you that “if you weren’t so fat, you could have some too!”  Most of the time, these people are not your friends or family; they are part of the periphery: they are the people at the office who bring cookies or chocolate and pass it around, or they are the ones whose kids are selling treats for a fundraiser. Since they aren’t really a part of your circle, you don’t owe them any kind of explanation.  If they are people you deal with on a semi-regular basis, a polite “no thanks” should suffice. If they get really pushy, feel free to say what you feel comfortable saying: they’ve gone beyond the bounds of politeness.

Tuning Them Out:  A lot of how we deal with these people is going to depend on our own personalities and probably some family dynamics as well, if only for the family members involved.  I have been blessed (for better or worse) with a fairly headstrong personality (thank you, Grandma!) and so, beyond being sensitive to those I care about, I pretty much ignore those who try to bait me or those who are insensitive. Not everyone is so fortunate.  Ignoring those who are rude, insensitive or just downright cruel can be hard, even for me at times, but for someone who is sensitive, shy or not as assertive themselves, it can be a very difficult and hurtful experience.  When someone is cruel/ rude/ obnoxious to you, remind yourself that they are doing it for those very reasons: they want to hurt you! And I believe you are perfectly within your rights to be rude and obnoxious in return: it’s called self-defense. For those who are insensitive out of ignorance or indifference, remind yourself that they’re just clueless, either about your food choices or about general social niceties.  You can either educate them about both or either or choose to ignore the remark/ gesture (I usually tend to ignore it).  The bottom line is that you may need to develop a bit of thick skin to get through this, whether it’s about weight loss, fitness or some other aspect of life.  A lot of this has to do with how comfortable you feel in your own skin and with your own choices: if you aren’t comfortable, it’s going to show and sometimes it triggers the obnoxious people to attack. For example, if you keep looking longingly at the desserts/ cookies/ chocolates, they will probably tempt you with them, but if you ignore them, there is less ammo for the rude people to use against you.  If you aren’t comfortable with your choices, it’s also a sign that something obviously isn’t sitting right with you, and finding out what it is is can help not only your confidence but also with reaching your goals.

Ultimately, it’s you and your goals that are important.  As I mentioned above, I see a lot of posts from friends expressing their frustration, anger or just confusion.  This supposedly helpful person has upset them either by trying to help or just being obnoxious. The danger is that most of us (whether we know it or not) tend be emotional eaters and this stressful scenario has not set off a trigger. Instead of reacting with their head and sticking to their healthy habits, they are now reacting with emotion.  This is when we are most likely to eat something we know is not going to help us reach our goals or we are tempted to blow off a workout or maybe just be off track enough to feel like we are failing again.  The trigger can cause a ripple effect: we eat a cookie or a piece of candy and now we are having sugar cravings again, or we ate the cookie, so what’s the harm in another cookie (or two or three)? We’re too upset to work out or we’re so upset we forget we had it planned, and now we’re feeling inadequate and as if we aren’t doing it right.  The stressful scenario can cause us to doubt our process, and if we are still in the early stages of learning new habits, it can be disastrous.  Things are hardest when they are new and this can push people to give up and go back to the old dieting procedures which likely failed before.  This is when we need to be strongest and stand up for ourselves.  You need to have faith in yourself and your strength, because you truly are stronger than you know.  You just have to stay strong and don’t allow these unhelpful people- sincere or otherwise- to push you off the rails.

Whatever comes, never be afraid to stand up for yourself and don’t apologize for doing so!  If it were someone you loved who was being hurt,  pushed around, or criticized, you would stand up for them, and you are just as deserving of the same respect you give to everyone else!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denial: A Little Word with a Huge Impact

The medical definition of denial:  “a psychological defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality” (Merriam Webster emphasis added). Personally, I think denial kills more people than almost anything else.  I have no stats on this and I don’t even know if anyone has ever studied it, but think about it: “I don’t have heart disease.”  “I’m not a diabetic.”  “I’m not addicted to XYZ.” Saying it isn’t true does not make it true, no matter how often you say it or how loudly you say it.  You may not want it to be true, but no matter what you want or what you believe, if it is true, sooner or later, you will have to deal with it. The only issue is going to be if you are dealing with it voluntarily or if you are forced to deal with it by being admitted to the hospital for a medical emergency. 

Most people who are obese have a variety of medical issues, especially when you get to be about my weight.  Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, joint pain & deterioration and fatty liver disease are just a few of them.  Frankly, a lot of them can be remedied or at least mitigated, by losing weight.  Of course, many of these patients only grudgingly admit that they even have a weight problem: “I’m big boned!” (A few extra pounds is “big-boned;” weighing 250 lbs is a “weight problem!”) Denial is insidious and it works against you constantly. You refuse to believe you have a weight problem so you don’t take any steps to make positive changes.  The weight problem compounds other health conditions but even if you deal with those (i.e. taking diabetes medication), by not dealing with the weight, you are hampering any help the medication is giving you.

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.”   We have all kinds of similar sayings but the meaning is all the same: “I refuse to believe this.”  Legally the term is “willful blindness” and depending on the charges, you can get into some serious trouble over it, because you should have seen or known X was occurring. (In other words, it was obvious to everyone but you!)

It takes a lot strength to come face to face with your problems.  It often means admitting something painful, embarrassing, awkward. It feels like you’ve failed and let people down. It’s one of the hardest things many people ever do in their lives. It means dealing with the weaknesses in yourself and whatever mistakes you made.  It means that other people might learn about your flaws and errors.  In all honesty, there are mistakes and weaknesses that I have admitted to myself, but not to others, because frankly, it’s just way too embarrassing.  Yep, I SCREWED UP BIG TIME!! Thanks for listening- please leave me alone in my shame now! While I may not have shared my flaws, errors and shame with everyone, I did admit to myself that I had/ have a problem and I cannot handle it on my own.  I got help for my problem or I took steps to remedy it (most of them, anyway…)

Denial, i.e. not dealing with it, often just makes it worse. In the case of disease, it takes a greater toll on your health and in some cases, can cause irreparable harm.  In my case, not dealing with my type 2 diabetes has left with me some minor neuropathy in my right calf.  Part of this problem was plain old denial (I don’t have diabetes) and part of it was not knowing how to manage it.  By learning to manage it, my blood sugar and my weight, I no longer have this problem, but the neuropathy remains.

Other issues might mean that you are making things harder for yourself and could be sabotaging yourself.  Two of the issues I see a lot on MFP and also My 600 lb Life are emotional eating and toxic relationships.  Emotional eating comes up so often, it’s a wonder if there is anyone who isn’t an emotional eater!  Most of us know it and admit it: it’s just a fact of life! I get stressed, I eat; I get angry, I eat; I get sad/ depressed/ happy/ worried- whatever, I EAT! Once you realize and admit this fact, you can take steps to resolve this problem, but until you admit there is an actual problem, you cannot and will not be able to resolve it.

A recent example of this was on My 600 lb Life this season: one of the patients refuses to admit she is an emotional eater and when she met with the therapist, she denied she had any issues with emotional eating and walked out of therapy stating it was a waste of her time.  When I watched her episode, she described a childhood and adolescence full of feelings of loneliness, rejection, inadequacy, sadness and even a suicide attempt, after which she flatly stated that her weight gain spiraled out of control, but nope, she is NOT an emotional eater! Her episode ended with her struggling with cravings, afraid of going back to old habits and feeling that she would have to go on alone because no one else knew how to help her.  The truth of the matter (in my opinion anyway) is that her therapist and Dr. Nowzaradan were trying to help her, but until she admits that her emotions affect her eating, she is making this process much harder than it has to be.  I believe she is having cravings and struggling to control her eating because her sense of isolation and the stress of daily life are triggering her old coping mechanism: eating her emotions.  Until she learns to deal with her emotions with something other than food, she will continue to struggle.  It’s something I have had to face myself.  I had long realized that I ate out of boredom, and I took steps to make sure I always had something to do in the evenings when I usually ate in front of the tv (for months I had the most elegantly manicured nails!) When I had a fight with my mom one evening and found myself staring into the fridge, I realized “oh crap! I’m eating because I’m stressed!” It was a tough transition to find a way to deal with my emotions that didn’t involve food (it’s still a bit hairy at times) but I know that when I feel anger, stress, fear, anxiety, I am most likely to eat something just to calm myself down and I can cut that off before it happens.  I can choose to do something else, but this particular patient, by denying even the existence of the problem, cannot take those steps.  She is hamstringing herself with the only option left: toughing it out the hard way.

The other issue I see a lot is toxic relationships.  There is someone in your life whose sole function seems to be to denigrate you, sabotage you or just make life as difficult as possible for you. These can be people you work with or family members and sometimes even your spouse.  One of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients had a husband who preferred his wife be super morbidly obese.  One on hand, he was concerned her weight might lead to her death, leaving their young daughter without a mother, but on the other hand, he wanted a wife who was super obese.  He was inconsiderate, unsupportive and went out of his way to make things harder for her.  On one occasion, he was going out to pick up dinner for the family and she asked for a salad, to which he retorted :”I’m not getting you a salad.  If you want to eat grass, you can go out in the yard and graze!”  Predictably, they ended up getting a divorce, but first she had to come to terms with the fact that her husband was not only unwilling to change his own habits, but was going out of his way to sabotage her own efforts to improve her health.

It would be great if everyone in your life was really helpful and supportive, but that is extremely rare.  Most of us have people in our lives who run the gamut from helpful to not helpful and/ or indifferent.  The  ones we really need to watch for are the ones who are downright toxic.  If this person (and hopefully there is only one) is a coworker or someone not related, it’s easier to deal with.  If they are someone you work with, depending on just how toxic they are, you can complain to your supervisor about their obnoxious and inappropriate behavior.  When that person is someone in your family, it’s a lot harder to deal with.  It hurts to think of someone you love or loved or who is supposed to love you going out of their way to be hurtful. We deny there is a problem: he’s having a bad day; she doesn’t mean that; she’s just scared of change; he’s doesn’t want to be inconvenienced.  Sometimes those excuses are true, but when you find yourself making excuse after excuse for the hurtful, disparaging comments and behavior, it’s time for a reality check.  Denying that this person really is toxic can be hurting you.  You may have to decide if this is a person you want to keep in your life, and that can be a hard decision for some of us to make.  It may be that you have to sever your relationship with that person or at the very least accept that they do not have your best interests at heart.  Depending on who this person might be, whether a sibling, parent, child or spouse, this can cause major upheaval in your life and coming to terms with not only severing the relationship but also having to deal with the resulting fallout can be a factor in continuing to deny that there is a problem! If your brother, for example, is the toxic individual you want to avoid, severing the relationship can lead to fallout with your parents and other siblings.  Yes, it can be complicated and hurtful, but until you admit there is a problem, you are stuck in the hurtful situation.

Sometimes we are simply too close to the problem.  Our emotions get in our way and blind us to what’s really happening.  When I was in college I had some friends who used to tell me I should have been a therapist (oh hell no!) because they would complain about whatever or whoever was causing problems in their life and usually what I would do is ‘clarify the situation’ by restating what they had just told me, and sometimes offering my advice on how to resolve the issue.  Generally, what they found most helpful was that I restated their problem and since they could analyze my statement objectively, it helped them get clarity on their situation.  Once you can look at a situation objectively- stepping back from the emotions- it’s easier to see how to help yourself.  I wasn’t offering any kind of therapy to my friends: I was just their sounding board, and we can do something similar in keeping a journal.  I don’t mean a food journal; I mean the old fashioned “dear diary” kind of journal.  If you write down what you are thinking and feeling, it’s a lot easier to see what is really going on inside you. You have to think to write out your emotions; you have to put your feelings into words, and once you do that, in my experience anyway, you can get a better handle on what you are feeling and then you can begin to take steps to help yourself.  Sometimes, you need to vent your feelings, take a couple of days to get over the feelings and then go back and get a good look at your situation.  This isn’t just about emotional eating either; this is how we see destructive patterns in ourselves.  X happens and we react by doing Y which leads to more of Z.  The boss is a jerk to me, I eat an entire bag of chips or a pie or just way too much and then I feel physically ill, feel more shame and become more depressed, which leads to more emotional eating.  Substitute ‘alcohol’ or ‘pills’ or any other destructive behavior for ‘food,’ and yes, there is a real problem there!  This is how most of these destructive patterns start, and then they continue to escalate unless steps are taken to change the behavior.

Most of us are aware if we have a problem: “I keep running out of money at the end of the month but I don’t know where my money goes!” Obviously you are overspending somewhere or need a better budget.  “I keep gaining weight no matter what I do!” Are you eating too much or eating the wrong things? Journals and budgets can help, but sometimes we need another pair of eyes.  Sometimes, we are so deeply buried in our own problems that we can’t see something is going on with us.  If anything, we are only aware that we are hurting or that things never seem to go our way.  This is where you can either seek help from a professional or a trusted friend.  Ask them to speak frankly with you and when you promise that you won’t get offended or angry, you do have to mean that! There is a saying: real friends say the hard things to your face and good things behind your back. That’s what a real friend does: you are eating way too much and I’m worried about your health! When they do speak plainly and frankly to you, you have to listen with an open mind.  You have to be ready to change and that may involve asking your friends and family to help you do that.

Living in denial is not a good place to be.  It often keeps you in pain and keeps you from improving your life.  Obviously, there is a whole lot more to denial than just emotional eating and toxic relationships.  Denial is flat out dangerous in my opinion. It’s hard, it’s ugly, and it hurts.  It’s a lot like lancing an infected wound.  Although the infection  may be slowly killing us, we are afraid of causing more hurt to an already sensitive and painful area, but it’s the only way to let the infection out and once cleaned, the wound can heal quickly.  Once you come face to face with whatever your problems or issues are, just taking action to help yourself ease the hurt and pain.  It takes strength and courage to face your demons, but once you do, they lose their power over you.

The Carrot or The Stick: Positive v Negative Reinforcement

The simple approach to reinforcement is either the carrot or the stick. You can lure the donkey forward with a carrot or you can try forcing it to move by hitting it with a stick. Maybe these approaches work on donkeys (doubt it!) but the fact is: you are not a donkey!

I am very familiar with positive reinforcement.  When I was freshman in college, my Intro to Pysch teacher covered it and what I thought interesting is the idea that even though negative reinforcement gets all the attention, studies show positive reinforcement is much more effective.  As a result, I went home and started using it on my dog (education in action!)  Over the years, pretty much all my dogs have been trained with positive reinforcement.  My basic approach: every time my dog (or cat) does something I want them to repeat, I give them praise and affection.  He asks to go out to pee, he’s a good boy.  He sits calmly on my lap, he’s a good boy.  The cat uses her scratch post instead of the sofa, good kitty!  When I was out of town last year, my mom babysat my dog and when she told me he was playing chase with her dog, I told her to tell him he’s a good boy.  She called back and said after she told him “good boy,” he was more enthusiastic about playing with her dog.  I told her that’s the point: once he knows he’s doing something that pleases me (and is also fun), he has more incentive to keep doing it!  That’s what positive reinforcement is supposed to do: the action becomes pleasurable because you are rewarded for it so you have much more incentive to keep doing it. 

Negative reinforcement is the opposite, of course: the pup wets on the rug and you scold and spank him. As far as pups go, it’s not really effective because the pup usually doesn’t make the connection between wetting on the rug at 10:30 a.m., you coming home at 6 and seeing it and scolding him.  As far as he’s concerned, he was happy to see you come home and you’re mad at him for being happy to see you.  This is why the positive reinforcement works better for potty-training: he goes out, pees on the lawn, and he’s a good boy.  He has incentive to wet all over the lawn because as long as he does, he’s a good boy.

But, again, you aren’t a puppy.  How does positive reinforcement work on people, and why isn’t negative reinforcement effective?  You would think associating donuts with bad feelings would make you avoid donuts much more than associating happy feelings with broccoli or exercise.  The difference is that while negative reinforcement is better at getting you to change behavior, it’s the positive reinforcement that keeps you exercising and eating the broccoli.

One of the best ways to get started changing and keeping a new habit is to use a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement.  With my dog, when he does something I want him to repeat, he’s the greatest puppy in the world (which he loves to hear) and when he does something I don’t want him to repeat, I tell him no firmly but without a lot of fuss and leave it alone.  He’s trained by now to look for the praise and he’s focused on doing things that earn him praise and, since the wrong behavior didn’t earn it, he’s moved on to something else.  For example, let’s look at workouts.  If you schedule an appointment with a trainer and if you get charged for missing that workout, that’s incentive to keep the workout (negative reinforcement), but if you are constantly praised and encouraged for your progress while at your workout, that’s also incentive to keep the appointment (positive reinforcement).  So that combination works pretty well: you don’t want to pay for a service you aren’t getting, but at the same time, each time you go, you see that you’re lifting more weight, doing more lunges and your trainer is praising your progress by telling you know how far you’ve come.  You have more incentive to keep going because you can see the benefit; if you didn’t see any benefit or the trainer wasn’t enthusiastic about your progress, eventually you would stop booking appointments to avoid the cancellation fees.  This is what happens when people make nasty comments to you about eating fast food: you don’t stop eating fast food, you just stop eating it with those people.  You avoid the negativity by changing your behavior but not necessarily changing the bad behavior.  Your goal becomes avoiding the negative result, not avoiding the negative behavior.

Most of us are frustrated because we are trying very hard to make positive changes in our behavior to improve our health but the problem is that most of us do it with negative reinforcement.  We can be our own worst enemies.  We eat a candy bar and we berate ourselves like we threw a kitten under a bus! We skip our workout and we’re the laziest, most unworthy person in the world.  We use the stick to beat ourselves over the head about how we aren’t eating healthy, we aren’t working out, we keep eating all the cookies, cupcakes and potato chips and we believe that if we keep beating ourselves, we’ll eventually change.  If our bodies showed the emotional abuse we heap on ourselves, we’d look like we were hit by a semi.  We look at ourselves in the mirror and abuse ourselves: “I’m so ugly it’s a wonder my spouse hasn’t left me.  I look like a monster.  I can’t believe how fat I am!  I’m too far gone to save.”  Any of this sound familiar?  It breaks my heart when friends post things like this online: “I got on the scale, saw I went up two pounds and couldn’t stop crying.”

This is not productive.  This is not healthy, or helpful, and your weight has nothing to do with your worth as a person. Stop beating yourself with the stick! You aren’t a donkey and it doesn’t work! If you want to change your behavior, you need to use a combination of positive and negative reinforcement with a BIG emphasis on the positive!

It’s always best to make this process as simple as possible: 1) Write out your objective simply and specifically; 2) Associate a ‘negative’ with avoiding the behavior; and 3) Associate a ‘positive’ with completing the task.

Let’s say the most important change you want to make this year is to eat more healthy foods.  Write out a simple specific objective, such as “I want to eat at least two servings of vegetables each day.”  That’s specific and it’s a change in the right direction.  So let’s say that each time you finish a day without two servings of vegetables, you put $5 in the Veggie Jar and at the end of the month or week, you give the money to your kids, you donate the money to a charity, or you use it to buy veggies- whatever- as long as the money is not going to you!  You are charging yourself for not changing the behavior!  As a positive reinforcement, let’s say that for each day you finish with two or more servings of vegetables, you get to take $5 out of the Veggie Jar, or you, your kids/ spouse put $5 in your Healthy Habit Jar and that money goes to you for a non-food treat, like a movie, a manicure, or something else you were wanting.  Don’t overlook the power of praise and encouragement either!  Remember when you were in grade school and every time you got an A on a math quiz, the teacher put a gold star on the wall chart next to your name?  You really wanted to get the A, not so you would be good at math but so that you would have as many stars as possible (and maybe beat out some of the kids you didn’t like) You can still do the same thing.  On a calendar, give yourself a gold star for each day that you hit your goals ( 2 + servings of veggies; a workout; 8 glasses of water, whatever your goal is for that month!) Looking at a calendar filling up with stars is really very encouraging.  It’s a sign of your continuing improvement there on the wall for everyone to see. Just looking at it makes you feel good about yourself and your progress. (Looking in the mirror and seeing your body getting fitter or smaller is also very encouraging.)  The calendar also has a little bit of the negative impetus as well: a calendar with only a few stars on it shows that you are not focusing on your objectives and frankly, it stings a little.  It also has the “instant gratification” effect:  the more you hit your objectives, the sooner the calendar starts filling up with stars.  “I hit my goal- another star for me! That’s three this week already! Yay, me!”

Does it seem a little  silly?  You roll your eyes, and tell yourself that you aren’t twelve years old and a chart full of stars is childish.  It worked when you were twelve because frankly it made you feel good. It reinforced your positive attitude towards hitting your objectives, whether it’s making healthy lifestyle changes or getting an A in math.  You can choose whatever positive visual reinforcement works for you but making things too complicated tends to defeat the purpose.  Seeing the days of accomplishment stack up, whether it’s stars on a calendar or money in a jar, the goal is to encourage yourself to make positive changes. Just the acknowledgement of your achievements can be emotionally uplifting and associating the positive feelings with completing the task should not be underestimated. Back to my dog, there are times when I’m very busy and he’s sitting off to the side watching me. I’m not angry, just busy, but as soon as I look up at him and say his name, he ‘smiles’ and wags his tail.  Just acknowledging him makes him happy.  Yes, you are not a dog, but you are not too far from that proud twelve year old who just got another star on the Arithmetic Aces Chart either. Don’t be ashamed to flaunt your successes- you earned those stars!

 

Going to the Gym: High School Revisited

One of the most intimidating experiences for most of us is walking into the gym for the first time. Is there any other experience that can send you right back to high school faster? You walk in and right away, it feels like everyone is looking at you. Since you’re new at the gym, you’re probably not going to be feeling secure with the equipment or with your work out. In short, you’re that awkward geeky freshman again surrounded by cool confident seniors who know what’s what.

As your parents and counselors reminded you back then, even seniors were freshmen once! But telling yourself that is one thing and being confident in new surroundings is something else. It’s seems like a silly thing: “it feels awkward! I feel dorky! I don’t know what I’m doing!” But this is one of the biggest obstacles people have when it comes to going to the gym. Because we feel awkward and uncomfortable, we make excuses to avoid it, so we pay for the membership and don’t go. We mean to go, but we keep coming up with reasons to avoid the awkwardness. Not only are we wasting our money, we’re wasting opportunities to improve our health. Why? Because we don’t want to be embarrassed! The awkwardness is robbing us of our money and our chance to be healthier.

We’ve coined a new word for this awkward feeling: gymtimidation. It’s actually part of the slogan for Planet Fitness (No Gymtimidation).  I used to belong to PF and it was a very comfortable atmosphere. Most of the people I saw in my local PF were a little out of shape and wearing old sweats (much more my speed). If it weren’t for the fact that it had no pool, I would probably still be a member and I wasn’t as circumspect when I chose my new gym. The atmosphere was less important than my biggest concern: it had a pool. I was willing to put up with the gymtimidation but I started noticing a few things about the people I see at my current gym (In-Shape City), and honestly, they’re kind of amusing. Just like in high school, a lot of the people are more interested in how they look and who’s looking at them than they are in actually working out. Is fixing your hair really what you’re worried about before you exercise? Other than making sure my hair is pulled back and out of my way, I don’t care what it looks like. Ditto makeup. I definitely don’t reapply anything before getting in the pool or using the equipment.  I’m going to be wet and/ or sweaty: do I really want my eye shadow, eyeliner, makeup, etc running down my face?

There are a lot of men and women who spend a lot of time sitting around at the gym, focused on their phones and there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time making sure their workout clothes are stylish, neat and showing off their best atributes. They look more like they spent time getting ready for a date rather than getting ready to exercise and they seem to wander around the gym a lot not-exercising. (I can see a lot from the pool!)

I’m not being judgemental: they pay for their membership so they can use the gym however they want. But you can see the ones who come to work out: they may also have “cool” workout clothes, but they are the ones actually using the equipment and they are the ones who leave (or head for the locker room) looking rumpled and sweaty, usually wiping their face with a towel.  They are the ones moving from station to station in the circuit training or waiting for my water aerobics class to finish so they can swim their laps.  They are the ones who aren’t looking around to see who’s looking at them: they’re looking for the next piece of equipment they are going to use!  They are focused on their fitness, not everyone else. One of the best t-shirts I saw at the gym was on a young woman helping out a friend use a piece of equipment; it said “Gym hair don’t care.”  That phrase seemed to sum up her and her friend’s attitude: they didn’t care who was looking at them.

This is the attitude we need to work on if we do feel awkward at the gym.  We’ve paid our dues (literally) and we are just as entitled to use the facility as anyone else. Confidence, like everything else, gets better with practice.  If you aren’t confident with the equipment, ask one of the trainers to show it to you. You pay for their services and it’s to their advantage that you use the equipment safely.  Especially since the more you use it, the more you come, the longer you stay a member and the more you refer others to their gym.  (Being an unhelpful unfriendly place is not going to boost their ratings on Yelp!)  So, if you have a question, ask someone.  Most gyms have a website (or an app) so spend a little time both at the gym and online.  Classes have their pros and cons.  There’s not a lot of individual attention from the instructor, but then you also have the opportunity to blend in with the crowd.  Sometimes watching others can boost your confidence: you can get some pointers on how the exercises are done and there’s usually a little reassurance that you aren’t the only ‘newbie’ in the class.  If you are doing circuit training or another individual workout, it may be helpful to make note of the times when the gym is less crowded so there’s less competition for the equipment and fewer of those non-exercisers who might want to giggle at your rumpled sweats.

Clothing is also something to consider.  While it’s nice to have workout clothes that match (I’ve got a couple of outfits that do), the most important thing is that you’re comfortable.  You need to be able to move freely and hopefully, the clothes breathe so you can cool down and not get overheated.  My outfits match because I bought the tops and pants at the same time so, why not get a matching set?  They breathe and fit well- not too tight but not too loose so I trip.  When I leave my water aerobics class, I merely put on some dry clothes over my bathing suit since I live nearby and would rather shower at home. The clothes I put on are an old t shirt with a frayed collar and an old pair of sweats that have a safety pin permanently attached because they are too big for me now.  Now that it’s colder, I also put on a worn out hoodie with a hole in one sleeve.  As you can see, I don’t care that I don’t look cool (or maybe look a little homeless) because I’m there to get in my workout and go home.  I don’t hang around the gym to see who’s looking at me or who I might be ‘looking at.’ Unless I’m chatting with a friend from my class, I get in the pool, do my workout and then go home.  I would never work out in my old pool cover-ups because they don’t fit well enough for that but that is the only reason. I don’t want my worn out t shirt or sweats getting caught in the equipment which is why I invested in some work out clothes.

You remember when you were in high school and your parents told you that you need to learn to stand up for yourself? Ditto what mom and dad said! You own that gym. You are a paying member and the staff are your staff, so don’t be afraid to ask for help or ask questions. One of the issues that comes up occasionally in my water aerobics class is non participants trying to use the pool when class is in session.  Sometimes this is a problem because our class can be a bit large and sometimes we use the entire pool.  Our trainer is not shy about telling people who are getting in our way of working out that they need to exit the pool area until class is over at 6:30 p.m. But on at least one occasion, we had a less confident (code for b*tchy) trainer subbing in and the group of young people in the corner, while staying out of our way, were getting so loud we couldn’t hear the trainer’s instructions.  After she had to repeat herself louder and hearing others grumbling about the loud kids, the teacher in me took over and in my loudest ‘teacher voice,’ I told the kids to “keep it down over there!” and they did.  I wasn’t embarrassed about it (I was more embarrassed for our sub who was not much older than the kids).  It’s my time they were messing with.  I pay to use the gym and take this class so, knock it off, guys!

The same holds for the trainer.  It is not unusual to have a substitute trainer for our class and one of the most recent trainers was an enthusiastic young woman who was very fit and very strong.  (By the end of the session, most of us were dying to ask her when she left the Corps or if she was still a reservist!) Generally, most of us like having the occasional sub since it gives us an opportunity to try something a little different, but some of the exercises she wanted us to do were frankly out of our league.  One of them was a ‘pool-side plank’ in which we swim to the side and hoist ourselves out of the pool and hold ourselves there for 20-30 seconds.  It doesn’t sound like a long time or a difficult move, but as one of my classmates mumbled “if I could do that, I wouldn’t be in this class!” It was only one of the exercises our class had trouble with, and we were not shy about letting her know what we couldn’t do and what we were willing to try.  Most of us in this class are retired and have been doing these classes for a few years (I’m still considered a bit of a newbie).  Being shy about voicing our opinions is a rarity for us.

Thinking back to when we were those awkward scared to death freshmen, did we ever stop to consider just how those seniors grew to be so cool and confident? (I know I didn’t!)  It came through practice and familiarity.  By the end of their freshman year, they knew which teachers were hard-nosed, which could be snowed, where the best tables were in the cafeteria and where to sit in the auditorium if you didn’t want to be seen.  In short, they learned the ins and outs of the school because they were there everyday.  Unlike going to the gym, school is not exactly optional (if you want an education, at least) and it’s in showing up regularly that we learn how to use the equipment, when the gym is super-crowded and which trainers are the most helpful.  We have to put in the hours to become the ‘cool seniors’ and like being a freshman, there might be a little bit of growing pains.  The trick really is in the attitude. If your focus is on how you don’t fit in and you worry more about the cool kids liking you rather than just being yourself and working on getting good grades, you are going to have a tough time in high school.  It’s a little awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy. Just like high school, you can make friends and develop healthy habits that will last you a lifetime (and no one will give you a wedgie in the locker room!)