I couldn’t help smiling when I overheard my son and his friend talking about how to deal with someone at school who was argumentative. This wise fifth grade friend had the perfect solution: let go of the rope. In his mind, engaging with the other student was like picking up a rope for a battle of tug-of-war. But he knew he didn’t have to play that game. He could stop pulling, drop the rope, and opt out of that stressful situation. I don’t know whether he learned that somewhere or came up with it on his own, but I was impressed and I hope that pragmatic, resilient perspective sticks with him into adulthood.
Sometimes life feels like a tug of war, doesn’t it? With us in the middle being yanked from side to side as competing priorities try to gain our undivided attention, it can often seem like we never get to choose where our energy goes. Other times we are on one side of the rope, trying to pull experiences and achievements towards us. And of course, the harder we pull, the more invested we become, and the more determined we are to win the prize of having won.
In fact, we spend so much time pulling on that rope, pulling experiences and achievements over the obstacles, over the rugged surface of resistance, through whatever gets thrown in our way to distract us from our course, that eventually we wonder why it has to be so hard. We think it shouldn’t be this hard. This week, I invite you to consider what you may be pulling on – or what is pulling you – and whether it is worth hanging on to.
How do we choose what to pull? Some things are worth pulling into your life. When you are facing a health crisis, a scary diagnosis, or other urgent need to change your habits, it’s worth your energy to start pulling. Change is hard, and we are set in our ways. In this case, pulling may mean challenging yourself to choose a bag of apples at the grocery store and not get the caramel dip to accompany them. That is not easy to do! Pulling may mean not having a glass of wine when everyone else is. Difficult, but worth the effort when the payoff can change the trajectory of your life. As a wellness coach, I want change to be a natural process that happens when we are ready. In reality, there are times when we have to force change, and pull hard to get to a safer place.
How do we know when to let go? Everyone loves a fighter! Cheering for someone who beats the odds and overcomes a challenge is inspirational, and being the person who inspires in that way is appealing to a lot of us (*ahem* me). But while some health goals are admirable and would be a great achievement, they come at the wrong time in our lives for the amount of energy they require. I learned this lesson personally when I tried to simultaneously run a wellness consulting business, care for a newborn, train for a marathon, and continue juggling all of the balls I already had in the air. The decision to let go was made for me when I began having physical signs of stress and, as a health professional, read the writing on the wall. I had to press pause on some of my business goals until I could devote more energy to them. I changed my running goals to something that gave me the challenge of training without the exhaustion of a marathon. I let go, so I could hang on to what was more urgent.
Here are signs that it is time to let go of the rope: when you are feeling like it shouldn’t be this hard, and that you’re working really, really hard for results that are elusive at best, it’s time to let go. When you become resentful about working so much harder than others and not enjoying the process, it’s time to let go. When you realize you have been working on the same goal for a very long time and have not seen a change that warrants the energy you have invested, it is time to let go. When you begin to dread the time when you need to turn attention to the goal at hand and have to talk yourself into it most days, it is time to let go.
Letting go doesn’t always feel like a responsible option, and sometimes it is just not possible. We can’t just let go of our responsibilities as parents, at work, or to loved ones who depend on us. We can let go of extracurricular activities we that we have chosen to take on, other people’s priorities that we have obligated ourselves to, and really great ideas that are more likely to thrive at a time when there is less competition for your attention.
How do we deal with how it feels to let go? I’m sure you have heard this before: if you love something, set it free; what comes back is meant to be. There will be times when letting go is an indulgent relief, like deciding to not reach your goal weight but be happy five pounds heavier. There will be times when letting go feels like giving up, like when you have to say goodbye to someone who is a toxic influence in your life despite your best efforts to be friends. Mourn that feeling of loss, and remind yourself of what you gain as a result. If it is helpful, keep a journal where you can record the benefits you experience as a result of not pulling on that rope anymore. Look around and enjoy the life that you were missing when you were focused on the rope.
One of my biggest fears as a wellness coach is that my clients will become impatient with the slow rate of lasting change, and it is tempting to let them grab a rope and pull because I want them to feel the triumph and thrill of accomplishing a challenge. I love cheering for the underdog, too! But the real reward comes in knowing when to let go, feeling confident that it will free you up to enjoy the life you were meant to have.
Mindfulness has made headlines this year for being the latest and greatest habit for well-being. If we can just slow down, stop multi-tasking, and focus on one thing at a time, our health as a society will improve as we naturally reduce stress and distraction, eat less, and sleep better. I’m a fan of mindfulness; every time I am intentional about incorporating more mindful living into my day, I am calmer, less distracted, and less stressed.
I also check a lot fewer tasks off of my to-do list. Being mindful all day long can seem like a luxury that our busy lives don’t have time for, regardless of the science proving its value. I’m working on shortening my to-do list so I can slow my roll and be more mindful. I’m okay with that being a work in progress, with one exception: mindful eating.
Mindful eating is the concept of paying attention to your hunger signals to avoid going overboard and reaching that uncomfortable level of fullness. By eating small, moderate, undistracted meals throughout the day and obeying our body’s signs of fullness, we reap the rewards of better digestion, more satisfaction and enjoyment out of our meals, and natural portion control without deprivation. Simple, right?
Of course, simple does not always mean easy. When is the last time you had a meal without distractions? When is the last time that you stopped eating when you were full, even with a plate of delicious food in front of you? How do we bridge the gap between what we know we should do and actually doing it? Food is delicious, and for many of us, the concept of simply putting down the fork and being okay with it is easier said than done. If your appetite overrides your brain at the table, try some of these tips.
Begin with the end in mind, and anticipate how you will feel emotionally when you realize you are full physically. Pay attention the next time you realize you are full mid-way through a meal, and name that emotion: are you content? Disappointed? Ambivalent? Resentful that you prepared a meal for which you are no longer hungry? Being prepared to feel this way can ease the discomfort. Then, create a response for that feeling. Imagine saying, “I thought I might encounter this; time to move on and come back when I am hungry again.” If that sounds ridiculous, think of what would sound better to you.
This calm acknowledgement reassures your brain that it’s not in an emergency, and that the food is not going away. It’s just on pause. In a society where we can drive to a grocery store at 2:00 am and buy just about anything we want, eating is not a limited time offer. Yes, it’s annoying to face a plate of food and not be able to eat it. I’ve been there. It’s also annoying to stand in a closet full of clothes that don’t fit because we went ahead and ate it anyway. I’ve been there, too, and I don’t want to go back.
When we face the reality of our calorie needs, and what will happen if we consistently live beyond them, mindful eating becomes a strategy for partnering with our bodies to protect them from the misery of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and uncomfortable jeans.
So now we get to the big question: what do we do instead of eat? Be prepared ahead of time with something to do when you realize you are full. Sort through the mail, fold laundry, give the kids a bath, write a thank-you note, just get out of the environment and occupy your mind. When that plate is still tormenting you and you can’t stop thinking about it, throw it out. In your neighbor’s garbage can. If you’re really stuck, email firstname.lastname@example.org. We will get through it together!
Eating feels good, but balanced living feels better. Be there for yourself now; the food will be there later.
In a 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” called, “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” a man is given the gift of mind-reading after a penny lands on its side. He is astounded by what he can hear going on inside people’s minds, especially when he overhears his co-worker conjuring up nefarious plans of how to rob their employer and retire off of the riches. But as the episode progresses, he learns that these overheard thoughts are just innocent, indulgent daydreams and not actual plans for the future.
This story came to mind recently when I caught my mind wandering to a scenario that I felt was a waste to think about because it could never happen. But as I snapped back, I remembered that some of the most fantastical daydreams can become the inspiration for the daydream’s more mature and sophisticated older sister: vision.
When we are making plans and goals for improving or changing any area of our life, it’s important to know the difference between simply dreaming about change and actually planning for it. Those who create sustainable and satisfying change move beyond the daydream and create a vision that is supported by progressive goals and action steps. But that doesn't mean daydreaming is a waste of time. The truth is, both are important exercises for balanced health! Today, I want to challenge you to explore your daydreams and determine whether there is anything in them that is calling out to become part of your reality.
Fantastical daydreams are fun to indulge in. Spending time imagining an experience that you never intend to fulfill is a great opportunity for a brain break during the day. I like to think of these daydreams as the equivalent of splurging on a dessert after a long period of disciplined nutrition choices. They let our brains get their wiggles out, play a little, and recharge without disrupting our actual lives.
Sometimes, though, there are elements of these mind escapes that have a little more pull to them. Just as every joke has an element of truth, some daydreams have an element of yearning. If we pay attention to the underlying themes of daydreams, we can uncover opportunities to set goals in reality to bring desired elements into our day to day life. For example, the man who daydreamed of robbing his employer and retiring on a cash windfall may have no intention of actually breaking the law, but does yearn for a comfortable retirement from the grind of his job. It's easy to see how that daydream can turn into a life goal.
When you notice that your daydreams have elements of true desire, take those parts down from your mental cloud and put them on paper in a structured wellness vision. A vision is the big picture of what we want to achieve down the road. That may be a few months, a year, or longer; it should be a time frame that you can easily get to, but more challenging than something you can achieve in a few weeks. A wellness vision keeps us grounded and focused, and it serves as that happy place to go to in your daydreams when the work of achieving it becomes tiresome.
There are five elements of a vision that make it different from a simple goal or a daydream. Put your dreams to the test and see if they are ready to be part of your real life.
A Vision is Grounded. The first criteria for a vision is that it be able to actually happen! Stealing money and retiring cannot happen in real life, but planning for a comfortable retirement absolutely can. Your vision should be something that can happen independent of the choices or actions of anyone else. If you find yourself thinking, “if only so-and-so would…then I could…” that is a sign that your vision is not realistic. Enjoy the daydream of so-and-so doing what you wish they would, and move on.
A Vision is Bold. Even though your vision needs to be grounded in reality, challenge yourself and think big! Your vision should make you wonder a little bit about whether you can achieve it. It should give you goosebumps. Go ahead and admit what you want. It’s not selfish or wrong to want things. If you had no obstacles and were free from guilt, what would you do with your life?
A Vision is Desired. Once you have admitted what you really want and put it through the “could this happen” reality check, it’s time to decide what you’re willing to do to get it. It is completely okay to acknowledge that you value and appreciate something but have higher priorities to work for. Yes, you can want something, know that it is possible, feel that it is important and know that you will be glad that you achieved it, and still not take action on it. When you recognize this, it’s a sign that this rightfully belongs in the category of daydream for now. When you want it bad enough to take action, it belongs in your vision.
A Vision is Palpable. Have you ever planned a beach vacation in the middle of winter and feel like you can smell the sunscreen and hear the seagulls? That’s a palpable vision. Think about what would be an ideal day in your vision. When you close your eyes and imagine yourself living that way, you should be a little surprised when you open them to find that you are not there. You should feel even more excited to get to work on it, because it is so possible to you.
A Vision is Participatory. What makes a vision real is when we live in it. I encourage my clients to create a vision that you can begin to participate in immediately. If you have a vision of living an active life where you participate in community races and have eliminated the need for medication, start attending weekend events and participate at the level you are ready for. You can be in your vision now mini goals that get you to the vision you have created.
Pay attention to your daydreams. Some are whimsical flings of the mind that are little brain splurges throughout the day. But others are calling to you. Listen. Pull them down from your mind cloud and see if they are ready to be part of your real life.
As the holiday weekend approaches, the excuses for why healthy plans are unrealistic are thicker than the humidity at the end of June in Florida. It’s important and helpful to be realistic about our chances for making healthy choices in the face of bar-b-que, beer, and an endless buffet of cakes made to look like American flags. But past choices is only one indication of future behavior. Let this be the year when you declare your independence from negative self-talk holding you back from taking your health to the next level.
Not everyone is affected by negative self-talk, but many of us have been at one time or another. Negative self-talk is that little voice in your head that casts doubt on – or outright rejects – your thoughts or ideas about what you can do. It’s the voice that says, “you can’t do that,” or “that will never work,” or “don’t even try.” Sometimes it’s easy to hush it up and carry on. Other times, especially when we have had experiences when the voice was right and we did fail, we believe it.
Declaring freedom from this tyranny is easier when you take careful A.I.M.
A = Awareness. Awareness is always the first step! We cannot change what we are not aware of, so notice when you hear a negative thought. Pay attention to your thoughts, and take notice when you hear yourself saying something that takes a jab at your confidence. This kind of awareness takes practice at first, but it won't be long before you are able to identify when you are likely to start speaking negatively towards yourself and stop it before it begins. That comes in step two.
I = Identify the source. Once you realize that you are speaking negatively to yourself, resist the temptation to simply push it away or ignore it. Stop and listen. Then, take a moment to consider why you thought that. Did you see or hear something that triggered the negative thought? Noticing what triggers you to think negatively will help you be proactive about avoiding those experiences or being ready with a positive response when you can’t avoid them. Once you have come aware of the negativity and identified what caused it, it’s time to change course.
M = Mold. Whenever you hear yourself saying something negative, mold it into something positive. Now, it’s important here to be honest and sincere with yourself and not simply create a hollow sense of confidence that will not withstand a challenge. That means being in touch with your personal strengths and calling them into active duty when you need to be supported.
Sometimes it is hard to identify our strengths when we're feeling down, but there is always something we can do to be positive. "I can't," can be molded into, "I have not yet." Do you hear the potential? “That will never work,” can mold into, “perhaps if I try it this way.” Acknowledge the source of the criticism, and then debunk it. If you can't find the silver lining, remind yourself that kindness always wins, and give yourself another chance to try again.
The benefit from all of this kindness is that it becomes easier to let go of excuses and embrace the potential for healthy choices even in the face of challenge. Greater health is not an all-or-nothing situation. Holiday weekends, vacations, and unexpected obstacles can make it seem as if it is next to impossible to sustain healthy habits, but remember: “impossible” becomes “I’m possible” with just a little space. Give yourself some space to identify when you begin to limit your potential.
Your brain believes what you tell it! Declare your independence from the tyranny of negative thoughts and take aim at a whole new level of possible.
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!