Self-Sabotage or YOLO:Intrepreting That Voice in Your Head

Spending too No automatic alt text available.much time in Italy can really ruin you. After a wonderful 3 week trip over a year or so ago, to celebrate our friend’s 25th anniversary it was not easy to transition home to New England. There were no platters of beautiful homemade pastries and espresso to wake up to every morning. No liter jugs of amazing red wine sitting on the table at lunch time. No longer did we have 2 hours to linger over dinner. Back to rush rush rush. With the exception of one little habit I seemed to have fallen into. Wine.

As most people know we Italians love our wine, especially red wine. As a dietitian I have rationalized how good it is for me (and probably the reason my HDL level, the “good” cholesterol, is out of sight). The problem was, during that vacation we drank wine pretty much daily. We did not drink excessively, just often. When a liter pitcher of wine is 4 dollars, why not have it with your pizza while sitting outside under an umbrella in the sunshine on a cliffside in Cinque Terre, or while watching the children chase the pigeons at an outdoor cafe on the island of Murano? After all, You Only Live Once.

When I got home, a meal no longer felt complete without a glass of good wine. Oh, and of course I needed to find one of those glass pitchers that were all over Italy (and no where to be found in stores in CT). I finally found one on-line and was all set. Unfortunately, the reality that I was no longer in Italy and had to go to work took a while to sink in. I found myself sleeping poorly. People think alcohol makes you relaxed and sleep better, but it actually interferes with sleep. And for me, someone who needs to remember to drink water, I found myself getting somewhat dehydrated on a daily basis. Not good.

Since then, I have obviously had to readjust to real life. As I was working on easing back into a healthier lifestyle, I noticed some very interesting things going on in my head. You know, that voice we all have in our minds, often referred to as “self-talk”. I have written about self-talk before, and how important it is to be aware of what you are saying to yourself, as thoughts affect mood and moods then affect behavior. When there is a constant negative dialogue going on, eventually negative, or non-supportive, and often unhealthy behavior results. So, as I have been reflecting on this wine “habit” I have come to the conclusion that it is very difficult to distinguish between when this voice is giving appropriate advice, or when it is basically trying to undo all efforts and progress to a healthier lifestyle. I am passionate about savoring life and all it has to offer. I absolutely LOVE the expression You Only Live Once (YOLO). I don’t believe in rigid anything. Rigid diets, rigid exercise plans, rigid house cleaning, rigid schedules. When life gives you the opportunity to experience something awesome, I say go with it. For example, I was planning on getting some work done last Saturday, but then found out there was a Women’s March in my state that I had the opportunity to join. The work could wait. Sometimes, if I come home from work after a long day and tell myself I need to rest, and my husband had a hard day at work and wants to go our for dinner, I quickly change my mind about that rest. I love rolling with it all. You know, YOLO.

But sometimes, I may come home from an especially chaotic day at work, feel emotionally drained, and cracking open a bottle of wine makes lots of sense. The dialogue in my brain may go something like this: “You deserve it. You only live once!” When this same dialogue happens more than once in awhile, well, an unhealthy habit is formed. That YOLO language sounds more like sabotage.  One definition of sabotage: “any undermining of a cause”. I came to the conclusion it is not always obvious or easy to keep a healthy balance in life when it comes to living that happy-but-healthy-ish lifestyle we all want. How do we find that balance, and know for sure that we need to go for it (YOLO), or that we need to make a different choice because in reality we are sabotaging our efforts, or “undermining our cause”of wanting to be somewhat healthy?

After much reflection, here is my advice to those who can relate to this, and also struggle with the balance between enjoying all life has to offer, yet maintaining healthy balance in life. Remember, this is my experience only. Yours may be different.

  1. Ask yourself: do I have a “cause”? By this I mean a health goal. Is there something your doctor may have identified (high blood pressure, a need to decrease salt), or maybe a health goal you have for yourself (increase physical activity, decrease alcohol, etc). If something jumps to mind right away, then you know what it is. You must also ask yourself it this cause or goal is healthy and realistic. For example, if it is an extreme weight loss goal or anything to do with perfectionism, then it may not be a healthy cause. A true cause typically is more about clear-cut and damaging behaviors you may have fallen into and really do want to change (plopping on the couch, grabbing a drink, etc).
  2. If you have identified a specific behavior you want to change, and it is a realistic goal (litmus test: do most people agree this is a healthy goal?) take the time to identify your triggers. For example, for me, having an open bottle of my favorite wine in the fridge is not too wise, and may be referred to as a “sabotaging environment”. For the person who really needs to increase physical activity for health reasons, putting on your jammies the minute you walk in the door is also self-sabotage.
  3. Once you identify your triggers, modify your environment towards being more supportive. Make it doable. For the person who wants to increase activity, put on sneakers instead of slippers. Start small.
  4. Pay attention to your dialogue without judgement. Notice how hard it is to ignore. Even if you give in (I am putting on my PJs, I deserve it! YOLO!) don’t judge yourself. Instead, reflect on the reality (how many days are you actually putting on those PJ”s, and are you expecting too much to stop this behavior every single day? Can you modify your goal to make it doable?) If you change your dialogue to one of acceptance and learning (“wow, that was harder than I thought. Let me readjust this. On Tuesday and Thursdays I am putting on sneakers). In my world, Friday happy hour is totally good with me. And if a friend I have not seen in awhile invites me to happy hour during the week, I am going. This is not about being perfect. It is about gradually changing bad habits.
  5. Substitute a new behavior for the old one you want to change. Omitting something from your life leaves a huge void. You need to fill it up with something equally enjoyable but more supportive of your goals for health. For me, having a constant cup of hot herbal tea is symbolic of relaxation and serves a similar purpose as that wine. I feel like I deserve it and it represents nurturing.
  6. Instead of jumping right into your old behavior when it feels like a YOLO moment, take 20 minutes to stop and think. Postpone it, take a long hot shower and relax and think about your goals for yourself. Then make a decision without judgement. Is this just an automatic impulse, or is it truly an opportunity that arose, or a true need (you really may be exhausted and need to go straight to that couch). Some days are like that and it’s all good.
  7. Remember, it is repetition that creates habits, both good and bad. Once you get a few weeks under your belt of a new healthy behavior, you do feel better, both physically and emotionally. After a month or so, some new habits will take hold. After this, when you feel a YOLO moment coming on, go for it! Once it is a mindful choice and not just an automatic conditioned habitual response, then it truly is ok to totally enjoy every moment of every day. But, you want it to be your choice, not mindless.
  8.  Give yourself time. Don’t give up! Remember, it is all a learning experience.

I will always want to enjoy as much of every day as I can. I light candles for ambiance, even if nobody is home. I have “happy clothes” which I put on the moment I walk in the door. I may take hours to cook a single meal on Sunday because I enjoy every minute. But, these things don’t interfere with my health. Lack of sleep and dehydration definitely do. If you have something that makes you feel less than optimal, don’t beat yourself up or expect change tomorrow. But do start paying attention to that dialogue in your head. THAT is where to start, the rest will eventually fall in place. And if not, seek help. Life is too short and remember….YOLO!


Just One More Mile: When Exercise is Anything But Healthy

1620926_998862783473172_7494305765083366545_nHave you ever been at a crossroad in life when you just did not know what was going to happen next? I clearly remember the summer of 1979, a time of change for me. As I look back at how I coped back then, I have realized I may have been on the brink of something very dangerous.

I had just returned home from finishing my dietetic internship in Nashville, Tennessee. I had been away at college for 4 years, and then a year away for my internship, and for once in my life, it did not feel right to be home with my parents and younger siblings. I couldn’t quite explain it, but pretty much everyone got on my nerves. I had applied for a few jobs, but in the mean time, I needed to find a way to cope with everything. As you may know from a post a few weeks ago, in college I had taken up jogging when I quit smoking, and it literally changed my life. I continued my running down in Nashville (it was hot!) but only did a 2-3 mile loop around the hospital grounds and Vanderbilt campus. This has always been just enough for me to relax and meditate, and easily fit into my life.

But when I came home that summer, something happened. For some reason, I felt like “challenging” myself. My younger sister Fran also was into jogging, and we had lots of fun running and talking. Our loop was only a few miles and was perfect. Being my little sister, who was very sweet and agreeable (she still is), well, it was easy to convince her to add on a mile. When we first ran 5 miles, I remember, we both felt pretty awesome. Wow, look how strong we were! I wonder how much longer we could run? Before you knew it, we were up to 7 miles. Then 8. Finally, only once in my life, I did 10. It was a drizzly day, I vaguely remember, and it took me a very long time. But at least now I could say “I ran 10 miles!”

Yes, it felt very cool, and we both felt proud of ourselves until something weird started to happen. It wasn’t enough. If for some reason we only had time to do 5 miles, I remember feeling a sense of guilt and inadequacy. I couldn’t understand what was happening, but somehow this running that started out as fun and good was turning into something that was, well, getting a nasty grip on me. And I did not feel like I could control it, yet I did not recognize what was going on. Thank goodness, that phone call finally came. I got a job! It was out of state, so I would have to move into my own place in Massachusetts. I was so relieved!

Then, the funniest thing happened. I found a place, found the local High School track, and after work went to jog. For some reason, I no longer had to compete with myself. Now, 3 miles was enough again. What happened? I felt content, proud of myself for getting a job, and excited about this new life I was entering.

Looking back, I now know what happened. I was using running as a distraction from my feelings of fear. It may have been fear of change, fear of failure, fear of rejection. Maybe I was not smart enough to get a job? Maybe nobody would want me! It was terrifying. But I did not feel that at all at the time. That is because I found a way to numb myself. I took something that was once a blessing in my life, something that made me feel good and helped me cope by relaxing me, something that was not harmful to me at all, and turned it into something that had the potential to destroy me.

To be clear, there are many people who are very stable, happy, and healthy, and who are marathon runners, but the difference is, it adds to their lives. This is not what I am talking about. Real athletes don’t feel guilty about taking a day off, and they aren’t trying to escape from their real feelings. It is only when something like running serves to distract someone from dealing with life that it can become unhealthy. When we don’t deal with our feelings and pretend all is good in our lives when it really isn’t, well, something eventually is gonna give. Day to day life is not very fun when all you think about is something that is getting you nowhere.

If you can relate to this story, or if you find yourself compelled to exercise for the wrong reasons, remember, the first step is realizing you have a problem. I was fortunate in that the dynamics in my life just happened to let me slip back into normal life. Once I left, my sister also went back to a normal lifestyle. This is not always the case. If you have been struggling with this issue, or find it hard to stop, seek help. Don’t let the years slip by. You are not alone, as our culture admires unhealthy behaviors such as exercise addiction, so getting out of something that is culturally acceptable takes some doing. I always recommend even just one visit to a therapist or psychologist to at least get a professional opinion if you think you might be using exercise to distract yourself from life. That way, at least you are taking a step. That one little step can be life changing……and get you farther in life than any marathon ever.



Remembering My Addiction

have-1-on-me-1316923 It was the summer of 1969. I was hiding in the bathroom in my parent’s home, (the house I grew up in) when I lit my first cigarette (it was a Marlborough). I probably did not inhale.  I also remember exactly what I was thinking that day: “I don’t like it, I don’t get it, but there has to be something good to it or my mom would not be doing it”.

All the kids my age smoked back then because it was “cool”, but I was embarrassed to smoke in front of anyone, it felt awkward to me. But I continued to do it and not sure why, only that my role models did it. Of course back then, the dangers of smoking were not broadcast, and people could smoke wherever they wanted (on airplanes, buses, even in church!). That’s how addicted we all were.

As time went on, and I went off to college, I went from smoking 3 or 4 cigarettes a day to more than a pack. I slowly but surely developed an addiction. After an hour of studying I would have a cigarette to take a “break”. I had one with my coffee in the morning. I had one after dinner. I had one with a beer on a Friday night. I had one when I was anxious about an exam or mad at my boyfriend. I turned to smoking to make me feel better. What started out as a simple behavior I did because I wanted to be like my mom ended up being something I craved and needed to cope with life.

The next thing that happened changed my life. I was going to be moving into an apartment with my best friend and another girl who both were on the track team. The summer before the move into the apartment I would go stand there and watch them jogging around the track, while I would be puffing away and thinking “who would jog 2 miles? That’s what cars are for!” I could not understand how or why they would do that. Anyway, a few weeks later it dawned on me that I was the only smoker, and I would be the reason our apartment would stink. I did not want to be that person. I had tried to quit before (mostly because the price of a pack had gone up to 65 cents….I know, that was a LONG time ago!) Every attempt I had made previously failed, probably because my self-talk kind of went like this: “how long can I last? Oh well”.

This time, something was different. I remember that day clearly. Instead of saying “how long will I last?” I made a decision. “I am a non-smoker”. I cried and I never knew why I felt so overwhelmingly sad until years later when I was working in health promotion. I was trained by the American Cancer Society on teaching their class “Fresh Start” to help people quit smoking. I learned about the 3 parts of addiction:

  1. chemical addiction (nicotine)
  2. habit
  3. emotional addiction

The nicotine (chemical) addiction does not last that long, it is out of your system rather quickly (ten days? I am not sure, but just that this is not really the hard part!). The habit addiction is just like any other habit, it is repeated so often and associated with many triggers that we just automatically reach for a cigarette in certain situations. Pouring the coffee, seeing the beer, sitting down with friends (even after I quit, when I would go out with my friends and as they all reached into their purses to get a cigarette, my hand would be going into my purse automatically! and then I would laugh and realize what was going on. It doesn’t happen any more!) It takes a longer time to break a habit. Some say 21 days but after checking into the evidence for this, the reality is everyone is different. It can take a shorter time for some to get over it and longer for others. But eventually, it goes away. Starting a new, healthier habit to replace the old bad habit has been shown to help. For me, don’t laugh, but I took up jogging! I remember the first time I went out and slowly jogged a mile. It probably took me a half hour, but it did not matter, I felt so good. It ended up turning into another “habit” but this time, it was a good one and changed my life. To this day, I need to get outside and move to feel good (maybe not running, maybe sometimes jogging, mowing, gardening, biking or walking, but still, it is a good habit that helped me get over the unhealthy one). Unfortunately, we know that our brain connections for the bad habit remain there and that is why some people go right back to smoking (or another habit) if they slip up. Over time though, these connections get very weak and this is less likely to happen. Creating really strong healthy connections in our brains through repeating the new healthy habit over and over really does help (such as my need to move now is so ingrained, the connections in my brain are strong after all these years of repetition!)

Finally, the emotional addiction was the part I never knew until I learned to teach that class. It all made sense to me why I cried that day I decided to be a “non-smoker”. What I had been doing was using cigarettes and smoking as a “friend” who was always there, that I could turn to. It filled up the spaces in between the other stuff in my day. I was never alone! So when I made that decision, it felt like a death. I know it sounds ridiculous but for those of you who have gone through it, or maybe have given up something else in your life that was an addiction, you know what I mean. After that day, I had to learn to be alone in between those times. Over the years, I learned to LOVE being alone with my own thoughts to figure things out, create, dream, relax. Anything! anything but smoking. But it was not easy in the beginning.

So that is the story of my addiction. I have been thankful for this experience because it has helped me be more empathetic to the patients I have worked with who may have some very unhealthy habits and addictions with eating, dieting, over exercising, etc. It is not about willpower, it is not easy to change and it is much more complicated than anyone can imagine. But it is doable. Maybe you DO have to try 10 times before you succeed. Maybe you DO have to lose something that feels like a friend to you. Making that “choice” is the hard part. Substituting a positive and healthy behavior does help and may be the only way.

Now, off to my gardening!

PS Both of my parents have thankfully quit decades ago! In their 80’s and going strong, thankfully.