Feeling Healthy, Without All the Self-Punishment
Last week I talked about my guideposts for the year, and one of them (maybe even my favorite, or at least the most intriguing) was UNFLASHY.
Part of what helped me land on this word was a decision to spend less time envying others who are doing creative work online that inspires me, and more energy taking the unglamorous-but-consistent steps to get there myself. But aside from creativity and business, the other part of my life this word really makes me think about is my personal health and wellness.
I get squirrely writing about health, mainly because it’s a topic that stirs up so many feelings. Part of me feels unqualified to touch a subject that so many people struggle with and have complicated feelings around, especially knowing that I’m no health guru or wellness expert – but then, that’s exactly why it’s been eating at me for at least a year, whispering, “no one was talking about this stuff in the way I needed, when I felt ready to focus on my health in a real, lasting way.”
This season, lots of people are talking and thinking about “getting healthy” – having been there myself (many times) I know how easy it is to buy into everything we hear about health, and set the bar dangerously and unreasonably high for ourselves.
Health and wellness are huge parts of my life these days, and how I reconnect with myself on a daily basis. That’s only been the case for about 18 months now. When I think back on that time and what sparked a change for me, I’m realizing in hindsight that my own health journey only started finding real traction when my motives and methods were at their unflashiest.
For so many years, I’d fall into the same trap and patterns that so many of us do. When it came to thinking about my health and setting goals, it was all about what it would look and feel like to “get there.” Like so many of us do, I mentally skipped straight to “the other side” and how perfect things would be when I lost the weight/got the six pack/squeezed into those jeans.
While of course it’s important to connect with a compelling ‘why’ that keeps us in it on the days when taking care of ourselves doesn’t rise to the top of our to-do list, so often that ‘why’ is dictated by someone else. The fitness industry. The patriarchy. The implicit understanding in our society that thin is good and fat is bad.
And so too often, these goals we set for ourselves become the measuring stick we use to beat ourselves up when we don’t transform overnight in the way we imagined. The “finish-line” oriented goals that were out of our control from the beginning and all the ways we fail to meet them become ammunition for self-punishment and shame. And slowly we start believing we’re “just never going to be the kind of person who succeeds at this.”
There’s a reason we fall into these patterns repeatedly. The aspirations always feel hopeful and exciting at the outset – and so begins the cycle: we set out optimistically with dreams of physical transformation; we experience the high highs and low lows of aiming for the impossible; and as soon as we fall short, we feel like a failure for not meeting some standard we had little-to-no control over in the first place.
For me, the game changed when I gave up on negotiating with my body and trying to set the terms for what about me needed to change before I could allow myself to feel beautiful or proud in my body.
...that actually makes my “light bulb” moment sound much more enlightened than it was. In reality, it didn’t feel like an “aha!” moment or a bolt of inspiration. It felt like total resignation.
There’s this day that stands out in my mind – this very specific day, in the summer of 2016 – when I left work and got in my car just like any other day. Except something had sort of snapped. I’d hit this wall: after years of the typical cycle of trying and failing to stick with a range of workouts and gyms, I was tired of feeling like I was losing a war with myself.
I’d been trying so many ways for so many years to change my body as a form of punishment, feeling surprised when they didn’t work, and then indulging in my own form of personal protest by eating mindlessly and spending more time on the couch than actually felt good. “That’ll show ‘em.”
So, back to that day in the car. I don’t think it’s fair to say I suddenly realized the silver bullets I’d been desperate for – the magic fix that was going to really work this time and make me feel thin and fit and glamorous and “successful” – weren’t actually real or working. I hadn’t gotten there yet. But what I did notice that day was a loud, clear thought in my mind that said with certainty, “I’m tired of feeling crappy, and I feel crappy when I don’t move my body. So I need to start. TODAY.”
That combination of resignation and urgency didn’t give me time to start researching the next “perfect” gym or workout trend or brand of yoga pants that would make me love fitness. It forced me to shove the excuses aside, and find a way to give my body what it was asking for.
So for 20 minutes after work that day, in my living room, wearing my only clean pair of yoga pants with a hole in the butt, I streamed a free workout video from my laptop on the coffee table and appreciated my body by giving it what it wanted. Simple, unfancy, and unflashy. Because I was no longer on the hunt for ‘magic’ or ‘perfect’ – and that was the day I started rebuilding a meaningful, lasting relationship with my body, my health, and my wellness.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to invest in improving our health – but if we want that journey to be lasting and sustainable, we have to stop wielding our goals and unfair expectations as weapons against ourselves. We have to stop hunting for silver bullets, and entering into hostile negotiations with our bodies. We have to stop demanding change from our bodies as a condition for deserving love and appreciation from ourselves.
We have to stop finding new ways to punish ourselves in the name of fitness or beauty or health, and instead start asking:
What makes my body feel good?
What is my body asking for, and how can I make more space for that?
How can I appreciate and nourish my body today?
When we can listen in close to those answers – the real ones, not the ones the fitness industry insists we “need” – we suddenly have helpful information to work with. Maybe you feel radiant and energetic when you can find 15 extra minutes to squeeze in a walk or some stretches in the morning. Maybe your body has been craving more rest. Maybe what you really want is a fresh, hearty lunch that will fuel your mind for the rest of the afternoon, instead of the sad frozen meal you habitually throw in your bag each day… with a brownie afterwards.
Regardless, listen in close. And then see if you can turn those answers into something small you can do for your body today that will have a meaningful impact on how you feel. Give up on shooting for perfection; aim for something that feels manageable, rewarding, and dare I saw easy – something that won’t feel like a chore or a burden to repeat, though we’re not necessarily worrying about that yet. Whatever it is, do your best to come at it from a place of love and appreciation for yourself and your body, rather than trying to beat it up or shame it into submission.
How to carry this into your life:
The simplest place to start is by examining your health goals you may have set out for yourself this year with fresh eyes. Ask yourself: are you teeing yourself up to feel like a failure? Or to feel ‘less-than’ if you don’t change in a particular way – one that may be more than a little out of your control?
Then grab a notebook or a sheet of paper, and jot down your thoughts as you chew on this question: how can you rewrite your goals, to focus more on small-but-meaningful action that makes you feel good? Think about the types of action that really speak to what makes you feel your best, and nourish your body instead of manipulating it to be something you’re trying to force it to be.