Friday, June 22, 2012

A roadmap to changing

People talk a lot about choices in life as if we made them under black and white conditions. Eat this, not that. Move more, sit less. In fact, in the weight loss world, there are many people who enjoy indulging in “Yoda-isms”. They say, “do or not do, there is no try.”

This sort of absolutism makes it very difficult for people who cannot make the “right” choices to feel that they will ever succeed. Every morning they get up with a laundry list of choices they hope to make and every night they go to bed feeling like failures for not having made them. They don't understand why they simply don't make the best choices and point to their character flaws as the reason. It's about a lack of “willpower” or being “weak”. They see others around them who seem capable of making the changes they want to make, and feel demoralized and deflated at the fact that they can't do so as well.

I've often said and truly believe that talk of “choice” in stark terms helps no one. It's not about inspiration, motivation, or intestinal fortitude, but about a complex array of extremely personal factors. Environment, temperament, socioeconomic status, and psychology (among other things) all play into the ability to make particular choices. Change is about knowing what choices you personally can and cannot make and about expanding your range of choices slowly and with the establishment of new routines.

I drew a graphic to explain this more clearly. In the center, we have choices that are easy for us to make. They tend to be the most gratifying and convenient options. For most people, but not all, they include resting, being entertained, and eating very tasty food. The extent to which we rely on the easy choices is often based on how hard our life is. This can be seen as the most comfortable zone to operate in and people who are stressed, tired, or physically or psychologically ill will tend to operate in this space most of the time. They do this not because they are lazy or weak, but rather because they don't have the stamina to go outside of that range of choices.

Beyond the easiest range of choices are the “less easy” ones. We tend to operate sporadically in this space throughout the day, generally based on being pushed by various factors into doing so. For many, these would include moderately taxing activities such as taking a brief walk instead of watching T.V., eating a carrot instead of a potato, or reading an educating non-fiction book instead of a fiction book. It also includes doing your tax forms or dealing with other unpleasant, but necessary societal requirements.

Making less easy choices seems like it shouldn't over-tax anyone's resolve, but it's not so simple as that. The stress incurred and energy spent on each individual "less easy" choice may not seem like much, but making a multitude of them adds up. It becomes harder and harder to make more of such choices throughout the day. There is exhaustion when you spend most of your day operating by making choices in this space. It makes it harder to operate in the next space and to make "difficult choices". It's one of the reasons mothers are so overwhelmed. They aren't doing one thing which is so hard, but many, many things which are not easy.

Regarding, “difficult choices”, it's important to keep in mind that what is “difficult” for one may be “easy” for another. I will speak in generalities to illustrate the point, but it's imperative to know that such things are highly personalized. “Difficult” choices for many may include getting up and going to the gym instead of sleeping in, preparing a healthy meal which includes time-consuming processes  like chopping and cooking vegetables or fruit instead of eating out, or studying for a test instead of playing a video game. Most people cannot make choices in this space too often without being worn out. This is why it is important not to make a great many choices in this space for too long or too often.

When I was in college, I used to come home every day and sleep because studying constantly was my operating in the "difficult choice" space a great deal of the time. I had no choice but to do those things, but it decimated my quality of life outside of school until I became acclimated to the level of study and the process dropped down to the status of a "less easy" choice. Mastery of the process as well as the establishment of a routine helped make it less difficult, though it would never be easy.

Finally, there is the range of “impossible” choices. This is perhaps the hardest category to speak in general about because it is the most personal territory. For a poor person, signing up for and going to a gym for swimming falls into the range of “impossible”, whereas for a financially comfortable person, it is “difficult”. For a wealthy person with a pool in the backyard, it is “less easy” or “easy” if that person enjoys swimming or lives in a hot environment. For me, in 2009, taking a long walk fell into the “impossible” category because of crippling back pain. The me in 2012 finds taking a long walk “less easy” or even “easy” depending on my health condition, responsibilities, and free time. 

The individual nature of how hard or easy a choice is cannot be stressed enough. One of the mistakes people make is in assuming that what is easy for them should be easy for others (and vice versa) and that it is only through personal shortcomings such as laziness, gluttony, immaturity, or a lack of responsibility that others cannot make the same choices that they can. They do this out of ignorance, but also because elevating oneself at the expense of others is very ego-gratifying. Criticizing others is a means for such people to feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, we accept this criticism when we want to change because we don't want to “let ourselves off the hook” for not making the “right” choices.

This need to self-criticize likely stems from the way in which we were raised. Children will operate in the "easy" space as much as possible and their parents constantly admonish them for their poor choices and inability or lack of desire to do what is constructive, but difficult. Often, you find people who want to make positive changes in their lives talking about how they need someone to "kick their asses". These people are, essentially, looking for someone to assume the parental role with them. They feel that they will not or cannot make hard choices without pressure from an authority figure. However, as adults, surrendering ourselves to authority in this way and seeking the approval of outsiders as a motivational tool in accomplishing our goals is not a good choice. When we do this, we are placing control outside of ourselves as well as placing the credit for success on those who push us rather than on ourselves for successfully changing.

Successful change comes from inside, and I absolutely do not embrace the idea of seeking any sort of external critical voice when trying to truly change. Beyond the aforementioned reason of placing control and credit outside of yourself, there is also the strong possibility that judgment will be attached to your choices. You will be "good" or "bad" based on how you behave in the eyes of your mentor, disciplinarian,  master,  mother, father, etc. Words like "right" and "wrong" and "good" and "bad" have no positive role in psychological change.

It's important to understand that morality does not play into choice-making unless the choices are being made about true matters of right and wrong such as choosing to harm others. The first step in moving closer to who you want to be by making the choices you want is to stop that critical inner voice that says you are making “bad” or “good” choices and that doing so reflects your value or character strength. The productive and constructive thing to do is to analyze your particular situation and know what you personally can and cannot do.

To this end, I recommend people look carefully at their lives and consider what are easy, less easy, difficult, and impossible choices for them. In fact, I would recommend writing it all out so that you know where you are starting from before making a change. I didn't do this specifically, but I did do it mentally. I knew that I would not be able to give up 100% food that people saw as "bad". While this was not an "impossible" choice for me, it did fall into the space of "very, very difficult" and would have taxed my ability to make a multitude of more meaningful "less easy" choices that would propel me closer to my goals more rapidly than such a hard choice.

It's imperative not to look at it through anyone's eyes but your own. You should not say, “this shouldn't be impossible for me,” but rather honestly determine without judgment whether or not it is. I was taken to task and personally attacked by another blogger for not giving up chocolate. I'm sure he saw this as a fatal weakness of my character, but I did not accept that judgment and followed my own path because I know what I can and cannot do based on living my life in my skin. I also know that he regained weight that he lost despite making more difficult choices than me, and I have not.

I chose not to burn out my ability to change by making choices too close to what was  psychologically "impossible" for me. And make no mistake, what is emotionally possible is just as if not more important than what is physically possible. At this moment, you may be physically capable of jogging for a half hour everyday, but that doesn't mean that you have the time, inclination, or mental ability to do it. It's okay if things other people can do are “impossible” for you for whatever reason. You need to plot the choices graph accurately, honestly, and without judgment for you. This is the beginning of the process.

Once you know where choices fall for you in this range, you can start to work on making less easy choices which move in the direction you'd like to go and try to do them more often as you feel more capable of doing so. For me, this began with eating a little less at every meal. I couldn't dramatically reduce what and how much I ate immediately, but I could put back two spoonfuls. This was a “less easy” but very doable choice. I couldn't endure hunger for an hour in order to stretch my biological and psychological stamina for not eating, but I could endure 5 minutes and later stretch that to 10 then 15, then a half hour. I couldn't walk for an hour, but I could walk for 3 minutes and then sit down. I couldn't make all of my food from scratch for maximum health and minimum calorie density at first, but I could spend some time once a week making a large pot of tomato soup. 

By practicing expanding your choices such that you make more of them from the “less easy” range, you gradually make the “easy” range wider. Routine behaviors become easier both because the mental barriers become lower and you develop stamina for them. Expanding the range of “easy” is the first step. Once you start this expansion, formerly “difficult” or “impossible” choices may start to fall into the “less easy” and “difficult” range. It depends upon personal limitations, and it's very important not to become angry at yourself for an inability to expand beyond a certain point.

The mistake people often make when attempting to make any change in their lives, including losing weight, is that they want to jump right to making “difficult” or, for them, “impossible” choices right away. They fail to recognize their personal limits by comparing their choices to those of others or operating from the “should” mindset rather than the “are capable of” frame of thinking. Sometimes what is easy for others is hard for you. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. For people with particular mental or physical health issues, there may be little or no overlap between "easy" choices. For instance, a person with a severe eating disorder such as anorexia may find it impossible to eat a cupcake, whereas the vast majority of people would find it "easy". I personally find it "impossible" to drink alcohol of any kind, but many people find that easy.

Many times, women who are working their particular weight loss program will say that you have to “make the time” to exercise, prepare healthy meals, etc. They tell exhausted people who say they simply can't do everything and look after their bodies in the way they like that they aren't making it enough of a priority and need to “just do it.” This sort of thinking stems from an inability to understand a critical concept and that is that all choices are not the same for everyone. The circle of options for some people overlap greatly, but for others, very few options overlap. We tend to believe that everyone operates similarly to us, but this is extreme egotism.

The reality is that we are all very different for a variety of reasons and we need to be kind and patient with ourselves in accepting what choices we can and cannot make at a given time. For lasting and effective change, largely operating within our limits until we can slowly and consistently expand them is essential.

It's also important to know that, when times are hard, it's okay to live within the comfortable range of “easy choices” for periods of time while we try to regain our stamina either emotionally or physically. We need to be patient and keep confidence that we will work to expand into other ranges of difficult choice-making when we have that capacity. It is not a failure to do this. Failure will come only if you overtax yourself such that you are too exhausted or demoralized to work slowly toward making other choices.


Lanie Painie said...

Wow. You blew my mind. What a great way to think about this. Thanks for sharing. It really helps me not be so tough on myself and changes my perspective. Excellent post.

Jen in MN said...

Holy fantastic post! Tons of food for thought. I think you might have just changed my life (-: I'll be re-reading this several times to help it sink in, including reading it aloud to my husband tonight. I know he'll like it too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!

Jan said...

I am so grateful I read your post today. In about an hours time I have a psychologist visiting me because my dr wants her to motivate me to lose weight. You have been able to put together an easy to understand article that makes my thoughts clear and concise. Thank you so very much.
I wish you could come visit with me, I reckon your help would be the best I could hope to have.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thanks to all of you for the comments. It really makes me feel that my sharing my thoughts and feelings is especially worthwhile when I get this sort of feedback. I really do want to offer a perspective that can help people, as it is the one that has helped me.

My best to all of you. :-)

the goddess said...

This really is a quite wonderful post. I strongly agree with your points about motivation ultimately having to come from within and about the importance of not attaching "good" and "bad" judgments to choices (I like the assessment of "skillful," which seems more neutral to me) absent the possibility of actual harm to another. I typically say to myself "baby steps," but a Venn diagram is so much more satisfying.

Human In Progress said...

Simply excellent. This one's getting printed out and put into my binder of resources. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I just read this post, and it was amazing. It helped articulate my feelings on what I'm doing for weight loss, something I've had a hard time communicating.
I am doing a commercial program and participate in their online forums, and I see so much of this kind of thinking and talking amongst the group - "just eat carrots if you are hungry for a snack", that sort of thing.
I actually have to walk away from the forum every once in a while becuase hearing this kind of stuff, and the self-recrimination when people "sin" and "cheat", etc. angers me.
I realize I'm kind of babbling but this was an excellent post.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thank you for saying that, Anonymous. It really does keep me going when I read that what I say resonates with people.

I have had (and continue to have) similar problems with online forums and the way in which people talk sometimes, but I've tried (and continue to try) and understand that they are struggling and their conceptualizing of certain food-related behaviors is a method of coping for them. I personally find it a destructive and ineffectual way, but each person has to deal in their own manner. That being said, I do believe the high rate of regain is related to this sort of thinking and one of the reasons I labor so hard not to embrace it and to take a different approach.

Mainly, I think we all have limits in the range and volume of choices we can make and that the sort of thinking which you mention fails to recognize that fact. We are not infinitely capable of making what are commonly viewed as the "right" choices, though we can, slowly, and with great effort, expand that capacity. Of course, first we have to recognize that the limit exists, but people don't even like to talk about that!

Anonymous said...

Wow, I've been lurking here for a long time and always enjoy your posts but this is by far the most innovative thing I've ever read about weight loss. Your thoughts on the subject are so inteligent and on point. This really is a revelation and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing. And while I'm here I have to add that your writting is fantastic, I've always liked the level of thought that goes into your posts.