Note: This is a set of ramblings that grew somewhat organically. I edited it a bit and finally decided that the stream of consciousness was the format this post wanted to take and am leaving it as-is.
“But I’ve tried EVERYTHING!!”
If there’s one phrase, usually uttered by women, that yanks the hell out of my heartstrings, it’s this one. Usually when I hear it, it references their own frustrations with weight loss or body composition changes. Generally it seems to come with a thick overtone of inadequacy, and heavy coat of self-loathing, and more than a little hint of resentment. The ones I feel the hardest for cut through my heart with a blade edged sharply in despair.
It’s hard to listen to people who have gotten to this point, perhaps especially if you’ve been there yourself. I remember feeling this way. You want to reach out and hug them hard, tell them there is a way through, that they’re not a hopeless case and they CAN find the path that’ll work for them. Then you want to smack and shake them a little, maybe gently (but often really hard), and bring them back from self-recrimination, like you hoped someone would smack you permanently to sensibility when you were there yourself. It’s a strange dichotomy, much like parenting a teenager, this desire to soothe and strangle simultaneously.
The parts that hurt most are the underlying assumptions. If you listen carefully, you can hear them echoing. “I have failed over and over, therefore I am a failure and that’s all I can be”. “I have not yet achieved fitness and I carry extra body fat, therefore I am unfit and fat”. “I’m not what I am expected to look like, therefore I am unlovable or unattractive or unworthy of acceptance”. Worst of all, “I have not met their my own (unrealistic) expectations for whatever reason and therefore I cannot possibly forgive myself, love who I am right now, and move forward from there. I’m stuck here.” Often they set themselves up to fail with unrealistic goals or by measuring themselves against one rigid standard. The one reliable expectation they have for themselves is of failure and they set themselves up to achieve that. Been there, got the t-shirt.
“Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”
― Shunryu Suzuki
When you hear a woman say, “I’ve tried everything,” you can take one of two basic meanings. You can hear that she is giving up and looking for you to “allow” or agree to validate that (and she really wants to on some level because she is so very tired of not succeeding). Some people actually do quit trying and there’s not a lot that can be done until they decide otherwise other than showing them possibility and waiting patiently. Or you can hear that she desperately wants to be told that she CAN succeed and to be shown how. Sometimes even she’s not sure which it is.
The truth of it is that a woman who says, ”I’ve tried everything,” is often standing on top of a fence, balanced on one foot or toe, teetering wildly in every direction, terrified of the big, pointy rocks on either side and also scared of being stranded on top, alone, forever. She’s hoping madly for someone to reach out a hand and stabilize her, even momentarily, until she’s able to do so for herself, but what she expects is to fall. Hard. With a crash. Again.
She hasn’t tried everything. She knows this.
Her efforts have been inconsistent at times and she lurches from one set of ideas to the next, not knowing how long to “try” a new system before assessing if it works. She uses the word “try” because she is pretty sure this is only another attempt and not actually going to work. Is a week enough? A month? Why doesn’t anything (“anything” meaning the number on the scale, nine times out of ten – but crikey, there are better measurements for a life well-lived than a scale!) change after three weeks?
The all-or-nothing approach fits in with this philosophy beautifully: she’ll eat fantastically healthy food for five days and slide complete on the sixth and seventh because of a “mistake”. One small slip-up by eating a single cookie and she’ll toss out the whole day or week’s eating plan as a lost cause. (News flash: you are allowed to eat cookies. They aren’t a sign of failure. There are no mistakes in food, just decisions with nutritional consequences.)
A lot of times what she wants to achieve requires things she can’t yet do or effort that she’s not sure she can give. Frequently her goals are unrealistic or don’t match her investment. She also lacks reliable filters and is at the mercy of The Internet and its wildly erratic array of conflicting information, advertisements and fitness trends (and man, is the Internet a judgy, inhumane place at times). She knows that keeping going is the only way to success, but she hasn’t really discerned in which direction to travel or learned some of the key tricks yet. She knows logically that success is built on small victories, but she can’t figure out how to break the war down into smaller battles that she can win regularly.
There’s no way she can let herself believe that those miniscule triumphs create the greater success. Those little fights seem tiny and insignificant; surely they don’t amount to anything substantial? And which ones are going to be most worth fighting? She has lost her belief that she can improve, but holds on to that glimmer of hope that she’s wrong. She very desperately wants to be wrong. But she can’t wait to be right so she tries another crash diet.
The top of that fence is a lonely place.
I’m willing to bet you’ve met or maybe been this woman, probably many times over. Hell, if you knew me about seven years ago, I can assure you that you have met her. I can also tell you that being this person sucks. A lot. It’s like riding a roller coaster of hope and despair all the while knowing that the only person who can stop the ride is you, but that damned off switch is just out of reach and you’ll think you’ll have to make a big jump to hit it. Right? A jump so big that you’ll fall splat on the ground when you miss. Again.
Yeah, no. That’s your big misconception. It was mine, too.
You don’t have to leap. You just have move an inch closer. This week, all you have to do is make a little change and keep doing it. Then two weeks or a month later, you add another change and step by step, it grows. I originally started by walking for half an hour every day and drinking more water. Step by step I tweaked things, one small habit at a time. I added in more green vegetables one meal at a time (it took me months or years to do this), increased the amount of protein I ate (again, months), learned to prepare fish better, started strength training (which seems to have worked), tried different vitamins (one at a time, to see how they affected me), added in sprinting, took out sprinting for a time, tried eating fewer carbs, increased carbs, modified carb sources, changed meal timing, started doing nightly mobility work, learned how to meditate and visualize, and so on over the course of two and a half years. In fact, each of those things can be broken down into even smaller steps, also spread out over time. Some worked, some didn’t. I kept going.
I’m still taking small steps toward improvement, changing things in manageable ways. This month I’m trying to tweak my nutrition again so that I keep dropping body fat very slowly, but am not so hungry as to completely crack and eat poorly (timing and protein appear to be key for this). I’m also trying to figure out what magical combination of factors will make my legs stop hurting at night so that I sleep better, and increasing my ambient activity level a bit by moving around more when not training. It never really ends.
The only big action you have to take is in your head; you have to commit to doing whatever it takes to change towards the life you want over time and to decide to embrace the process, even when it sucks and feels futile. You have to decide not to quit. You have to get off that damned fence and step carefully onto the rocks and deal with them. You’re allowed to ask for help, but the process is still your responsibility. This part of your life will never end, so the learning and troubleshooting the process is the part you need to focus on, not the results. Every victory makes you stronger and gives you tools for the next task.
It’s an obvious thing to state, but results come from actions. You can’t always control results, but you can control your actions. Focus on refining the actions you take.
Why would you expect to magically change decades of habits and results instantly? Yes, some things transform more easily than others, but the biggest ones take time and patience for long-term success.
When I started out on a path of lifestyle change (food, fitness, and habits), I thought that the biggest thing I needed to change was my body. I figured that when I lost a pile of weight, everything would make more sense, that I’d feel better and somehow magically be a different person. What I didn’t bargain for was the fact that changing my mindset was the single hardest part of the whole endeavour and it’s something I’m still working on day after day. Instead of focussing on cutting out junk, I had to learn to focus on putting great food that tasted fantastic into me. Instead of exercising to burn calories, I learned to train to get stronger. A lot of what I achieved came from deciding to BE more (active, happy, engaged in my own life), EAT more (good food), and DO more (of what I love with the people important to me). Completely the opposite from what I had expected.
It wasn’t until I learned, from a very good coach to whom I owe more than I can possibly express, how to break progress into small, manageable pieces, that I became accustomed to looking for it and finding it regularly in places beyond the scale. It wasn’t until I decided to started expecting to succeed that I did. When he showed me one training session at a time that a little more weight on the bar, an extra rep, or a tweak in attention to nutrition made a difference, I began to see how the pieces could be rearranged. Watching his example gave me a roadmap to a place I hadn’t realized existed. Once I realized that the mindset with which I approached each lift, workout, conversation, task, or even day not only affected but DETERMINED the outcome, I realized how much work I had to do. I had to teach myself a lot of things, like how to reframe my internal language and not think of myself as fat or use negative words of any sort about my body (I sometimes still struggle with this in hard times). I learned how to gently smack myself occasionally and tell myself to grow up and eat good food even if it’s a nuisance to prepare, how to take care of myself better by sleeping more and carrying stress less, how to put my own needs at the forefront of my life so that I am better able to help those who rely on me, how to see the positive in the face of a wave of mistakes, how to believe that I could be something beyond even my best hope and to open my mind to a place beyond limits.
Being strong on the outside didn’t happen in isolation. I had to learn to be strong inside, too. It’s the hardest part and I’m still working on it. The two strengths work hand-in-hand.
But it’s taking time and effort. And making a lot of mistakes.
“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
John C. Maxwell
Small steps. One at a time.
Decide what your perfect life looks like and head in that direction.
Figure out what’s important to you and what you’re willing to work for. Don’t make goals that don’t matter to you. Go after the ones that do. Be honest with yourself.
Take aim. Form a plan. Ask for help from people who specialize in fitness, nutrition, or whatever aspect it is that you want to conquer. Get the right help. The people around you make all the difference in the world.
Break each element down into the smallest steps possible. Figure out what might stop you and develop a strategy for conquering one small thing.
Focus on growing. We women are traditionally taught to be smaller, physically, mentally, and socially, but the only way to success of any sort is to focus on growing the right things, not shrinking.
Commit to your plans, both the large scale and the small battles, because they’re yours. They belong to no one else. No one else can fight them for you. No one else will benefit like you.
Accept that there will be glitches. Look harder for the successes. Think of as many ways as you can to find your triumphs, however small.
Gather good people around you and ask for help when you need it. Get ideas from other peoples’ successes and use them to fuel your own.
Most of all, accept that it will never end until you do. I don’t know about you, but I’m not in any hurry to see the last chapter of my story yet, which means that I’d better enjoy the struggles that come in the middle and rejoice in the fact that I have not, in fact, tried everything.
On that note, it’s a glorious day for a run and the trails are snow-free for now. My small things for today are to get outside, relax, be active, spend time with friends, and make good food so I have some great lunches for the week. What are yours?