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It’s Not Our Fault, Really

I’m reading (well, listening on audiobook to) a really interesting book right now on willpower. It’s called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. I’m learning lots, but something really stuck out to me yesterday.

I was running yesterday while listening to another chapter in the book. The section was about dopamine and the part of the brain that runs on dopamine with regard to anticipation. This is the part of the brain that makes us do something because we think we’ll feel great after we do. This part of the brain doesn’t create actual happiness, it creates the promise of happiness and that promise spurs us to do whatever. The example is the person who shops too much. This part of the brain is the one that creates the association with shopping with the promise of happiness from shopping. She’s excited as she drives to the mall. When she window-shops, she feels that glow. After she buys something and when she drives home, the happiness is gone, she feels let down, possibly remorseful if she spent more than she could afford. The promise of happiness spurred her to act and made her enjoy the prelude to the shopping even though the actual act of purchasing and the aftermath weren’t enjoyable.

It seems to be that food is very much the same. It’s the promise of how good that little cupcake will taste that excites me, drives me to want it. Often, usually, it’s not nearly as good as I think it will be. And certainly, I feel bad afterward because I broke my own promise to myself to eat better and I’ve put off my goal of weight loss further still into the future. I’m overwhelmed though, by that anticipatory excitement of the cupcake, it’s so strong, it’s so hard to resist. The dopamine fueled, physiological promise of happiness can be stronger than the rational thought that the action probably won’t lead to happiness.

What I realized yesterday is how this book is showing me that my weakness around food, that emotional or psychological component of overeating, is actually physiological. It’s hard-wired into my body. It’s a physical response. I’m not a weak-willed person. I’m not a person who just doesn’t care. I’m not a person that lacks the moral ability to make the right choice in the time of temptation. There is a reason, a physical reason that I make the wrong decisions sometimes.

Discovering low-carb eating was such a relief to me ten years ago because I discovered how so much of my hunger and cravings were physiological, not gluttony or immorality. When I cut out sugar and refined carbohydrates, my body doesn’t go nuts with swings of blood sugar and insulin and cravings and I have so much better control over my food choices.

I’m just as amazed to start to realize that the other half of the puzzle, the emotional or psychological need to eat, has physiological roots too. So, it’s really not that I’m weak or of low moral fibre or just not a strong character when I’m caught in the web of temptation, it’s really just how I’m hardwired inside. I have a neurotransmitter structure that makes me more susceptible to lower self-control.

It doesn’t absolve me of the necessity to work at it. And there is no promise it will be easy. I can’t wallow in “it’s unfair”, but just shedding a little more of the burden of “it’s my own fault” makes the hard work a little easier.

Ask yourself – What’s it like for you inside when you are trying to fix a problem that is your fault, that you created? And then ask yourself – What’s it like for you inside when you are trying to fix a problem that isn’t your fault, that someone just gives you and says, please fix this? For me, the first scenario drains all my energy out. It’s hard to get past feeling guilty and at fault to give the problem my full attention. I keep getting side-tracked with remorse or self-doubt. In the second scenario, there is no internal chatter to distract me. The problem is no reflection on me as a person, it’s just something that needs to be fixed, so I can do it with a clear head and without conflicting emotions.

Please share your thoughts and comments. I’d love to hear what you think about this.

Slash and Burn

How often is this you?

You’ve been eating well, following your new food plan for a couple days, maybe even weeks. You are getting into the groove, you’ve seen a little weight loss, it feels good. Wow, I can do this, you start to think.

Then something unexpected happens. Maybe you are called into a lunch meeting with your boss and the food brought in is not on your food plan. Maybe someone brings your favourite cake into the office to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday. Maybe there are just cookies available on the table beside you as you line up at the bank. For whatever reason, you are blindsided by unexpected temptation. You give in and have a cookie, a piece of cake or a slice of lasagna for lunch.

Then, remorse sets in – why did I give in, I know better, what a silly choice – and something else sets in as well, the feeling that the day is blown. I’ve had one cookie, I might as well have another. I ate the piece of cake, what’s a chocolate bar going to make any difference, you think as you pass the vending machine later that day. Lasagna for lunch? I might as well enjoy pizza and wings for dinner tonight. Today is blown, I’ll start again tomorrow.

We’ve all been there. It’s a familiar pattern. The most dangerous part of the pattern though is waking up the next morning and the feeling that you are starting over, not just continuing on the path you are already walking on. Suddenly each temptation, food choice and meal is a new decision, when it wasn’t yesterday. Eat on plan or give in to temptation? Yesterday, before the slip, making the right choice was almost second nature or a given, today it’s a brand new fight with each decision you have to make.

Now, a different scenario. How often is this you?

You are driving along in your car, on your way to wherever, almost on autopilot because you’ve driven this way so often, when suddenly you hear something odd and the car lurches slightly. Damn, a flat tire. You pull over to the side of the road and the ordeal ahead of you flashes before your eyes. Whether you are calling a family member to come get you, AAA to come fix the tire or spending the next half hour fixing it yourself, you’ve missed the appointment you are heading to. You’ll have to change your plans for tonight to get to the service station to repair the tire. Your plans for the day are shot.

As the realization hits that your plans for the day are blown, you reach into the glove box of the car, pull out a pen-knife you keep there and plunge in into each of the other good tires, one by one, deflating them all.

What? Well, isn’t that what you do? Your day is blown, you might as well just wreck all your tires, right? You have to call someone to fix one tire, you might as well call a tow truck and have the car hauled away with four flats.

What is it that has us reacting to a small slip in our eating plans with that destructive slash & burn feeling when we can easily recognize it as an inappropriate reaction to a flat tire?  What is it about changing our food habits, following a new food plan or a new exercise plan that has us treat it like it’s like a light switch, on or off instead of dimmer switch where the lights can go low in a moment and then go back to shining brightly the next?

It’s easy to sit in your car with a flat and know that the slash & burn reaction is just going to make tomorrow harder to deal with.  A flat tire might only take an hour to deal with, but four flat tires?  You are going to have to give up a whole morning tomorrow (and half your vacation savings) to buy new tires, get them installed and balanced.

Tomorrow will be just as tough if we allow ourselves to react with that slash & burn mentality after a cookie today, but we just don’t realize it the same way. I wonder if it’s that first flash of remorse and self-recrimination that is the difference. We don’t blame ourselves for the flat tire, it just happened, so there is no reason to be angry with ourselves. It keeps our head clear for smart decisions. If we give in to the cookie, our first response is anger, frustration or disappointment with ourselves. It clouds rational thought. If someone could force us to eat the cookie, against our will, would we still feel like the day was blown and give in to other temptations or would it be easier, without the self-recrimination, to get right back on track with our healthy eating choices?

What’s your experience with this? Any a-ha clicks as you read this? Please share in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.

Awareness

One of the things I’m learning and really getting steeped in lately is awareness, mostly awareness of how own my mind, emotions and body work.

There are all these things about myself that I know, intellectually. Awareness is when the knowing moves from my head to my whole being. Awareness is when I stop getting surprised when these knowings resurface after specific incidents and instead, I see them as they are happening.

Today’s deepening awareness is around how I behave when I’m overtired. My tiredness has been building. Like a small child who resists bedtime, I’ve been letting myself get behind on sleep lately. Then yesterday I had a flare-up of my acid reflux and lost even more sleep.

Today, my emotional responses are exaggerated and less controllable. I heard about a friend’s grandson being taken to the hospital for a fever and my eyes welled up with tears. My sister called to tell me she has to put the family dog down later today and I sobbed. On any other day these things would make me sad, but they wouldn’t reach into my heart and wrench it like they have today.

The awareness is in knowing that later today, at sometime when I least expect it, when I’m feeling less emotional, I’ll want to eat. I won’t immediately realize why, but I’ll feel a strong pull and urge to eat. I won’t want the salad I brought for lunch, nor the tin of tuna salad I keep in my desk drawer for a safe snack, instead I’ll want a donut, or a bagel or a granola bar.

I’ll want something sweet and soft and comforting to soothe my heart and calm my emotions.

The idea of eating something like that will sound reasonable and acceptable. There will be some rationalization that I won’t realize is a rationalization. I’ve done this a million times before and not figured out what happened until afterward.

Awareness is seeing it coming and consciously keeping the awareness with me so that when the wanting to eat comes later, I’ll know what it is and instead of reacting, I’ll be able to make a decision.

I’m making a small shift in thinking today. I’m essentially trading out one set of labels for my current eating plan and focus for a different set of labels. It’s funny how labels and words colour our thinking. In November and December of 2010, I was doing a calorie cycling plan to help take off the extra weight I put on in early 2010 after taking some steroid medication for a respitory illness. I did quite well. I lost about 11-12 pounds.

Then in January, I started posting on a forum thread for a particular kind of calorie cycling that was close, but not exactly to what I was doing. In its initial, early phase, this particular plan is far more restrictive than what I was doing and of course, most people on the thread were doing the initial phase. I found myself subconsciously moving more towards their way, being more restrictive during my lower calorie cycles. And then I found myself going off plan more often. Deeper into the restriction, I’d go. And off again, I’d fall.

January has been a bust for weight loss. I’m in the same place today as I was at the end of December.

It’s not the thread’s fault. Or that the thread’s plan is wrong. It’s just not right for me and my mind is just too malleable sometimes. I was hearing these things that weren’t right for me, but subconsciously letting them change my behaviour even while knowing intellectually that it was wrong for me.

So, I said good-bye to the thread. I’m using my old labels for my calorie cycling, not the ones I picked up with the new plan. As soon as I did that, I felt a shift. A lessening of the tension of trying to be on a plan that is too restrictive for me. A tiny drop in anxiety that I didn’t even know I was feeling.

Spin Class!

Whee! I took my second spin class today. The first one was probably three or four years ago and I enjoyed it, but never went back. Now with my knee issues and my doctor’s instruction to cross train more, I decided to try a spin class again. I really liked it! A great workout.

I’m so lucky to be one of those people that can get a nice endorphin rush from exercise and I got one from the spin class today so I feel fired up, happy and perky! A great way to start my Saturday. I’m going to go back next week for certain.

In addition to giving me a great mental and emotional pick me up, it’s great training for me as I start getting ready to try my first ever triathlon in June. Now I just have to figure out when I’m going to fit in swimming weekly.

I’m having one of those days where I feel exceptionally, wonderfully, happily grateful for just being where I am. I often think of how awful I felt when I was 300+ pounds, not only physically but emotionally. It was just incredibly, soul-destroyingly painful to be there and not feel as if I had the ability to change it. The difference between that and how I feel this morning is amazing!

I’m always telling people that while weight loss and weight maintenance is hard, it is so worth it. It sounds like a platitude, but it’s not. I feel it in my bones, in my heart, in my soul every day. It is just so worth it.

Dancing Along the High-Wire

I’m trying to find a happy balance this year, a way of dancing across that high-wire of the holidays.

I don’t want to be so obsessed with staying on track with my food that it’s all I think (and talk) about over Christmas. I don’t want to be hyper vigilant about food and constantly worrying about overeating, eating off plan, or getting back on plan afterwards. I also don’t want to be so nonchalant about the holidays that I don’t pay attention to my food choices and sabotage myself by eating too much sugar or flour that sets me off and triggers my overeating tendencies.

I want to dance along the high wire, but I’m going to do so while keeping my balance and making sure there is a net underneath.

The “awfukits” are familiar to most of us. I’ve been a star pupil of the philosophy for years. It travels closely with that other motivation killer – “all or nothing-ism”.

You know the story. It’s mid-November and the holidays are looming. For us Canadians, this can start even earlier with our Thanskgiving being in October and then closely followed by Halloween. Depending on whether we are trying to find the mojo to start a new weight loss endeavour or we are already on one or maintaining a loss, we start to look at the upcoming holidays and plan how we are going to handle them. When they are far enough away, the prospect isn’t too daunting and we think we might just be able to stay true to our best intentions all season.

Most of us will hit a point where we find we don’t think we can stay *perfectly* on plan for the entire holidays though. Whether we just can’t bear to not eat something special, don’t want to offend Great Aunt Mildred who loves for everyone to rave over ther fudge, or just make a mistake and have that first bite of something we didn’t plan to eat, something happens and we aren’t going to be able to be *perfect*.

That’s often where the “awfukits” start. Well, I’ve blown it, might as well enjoy the pie as well as the fudge then. If I couldn’t get through my husband’s work Christmas party, I’ll never get through Christmas Day, I might as well eat the goodies my co-worker brought in to share with the office now. I’ll just enjoy Christmas and Boxing Day then. Oh, and won’t New Years be more fun if I’m not worried about avoiding goodies! I’ll get back to healthier eating in the New Year. And then suddenly all bets are off and any food and any amount of it is fair game from December 15th until the New Year.

What about the middle ground? Where is the self-preservation instinct to take care of yourself and do the least amount of damage? Come January 2nd or 3rd (we know the “awfukits” don’t recognize January 1st as the New Year, and often it only really starts on the first Monday), will you really have enjoyed your choices over the holidays? Or will you wish you’d held your indulgences to a couple of very specific items you love at your family Christmas celebration, maybe a glass of champagne at New Years and that *one* piece of Aunt Mildred fudge that really is worth the calories once a year and stayed on plan the other 95% of the time.

Which option will start your New Year off right?

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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