Making Changes That Don’t Stick: How We Self-Sabotage Our Own Wellness
We can prevent dementia, heart disease, diabetes and a host of other chronic health conditions…so why don’t we?
Eat better, exercise more, stop smoking. These are three examples of the no-brainer recommendations put out last week by the World Health Organization.
Maybe you will read about how to reduce your risk of dementia but chances are, you won’t do anything about it.
Or maybe you will try to eat better, exercise more and cut down on the alcohol but after a week or a month…you will probably be back to where you started: a ticking timebomb for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia.
Plus, now that you’ve failed in your quest to “get healthy” you can add guilt and failure to your internal catalog of self.
Then, in another month or two or six, you will get another scare: a test result from the doctor, a phantom pain in your chest or an insightful and illuminating health segment on the local news channel. Again, you will get excited, set goals…and then — eventually — you will fail. Rinse and repeat for the next 50 years.
So why do we exist in this cycle of insanity when it comes to our health? Because we are trying to fix stuff on only one level: the physical system.
The physical system of self is both our physical health and all of the physical things around us. These are things that we do or don’t have in our lives: tangible things like money and chaos and clutter and cars.
But the physical system is just where the results show up. When there is balance or imbalance in our mental, emotional and spiritual systems, we see the results in the physical plane.
This is our favorite area to focus on! It’s what we can see and we can touch. We can control it…at least for a little while. But in truth, the physical plane is intricately connected with and dependent upon the other systems of our self.
To realize a lasting change in the physical system, therefore, we need to uncover and address the roots that stem from imbalance in our mind, emotions, and spirit.
As human beings, our greatness lies…in being able to remake ourselves. — Ghandi
Let’s take food as an example. For many people, food is a source of great pleasure or great suffering. Far more than nutrition, food often provides a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment. Sometimes, food provides a feeling of suffering or torment.
We get into relationships with food and we feel “good” or “bad” about ourselves because of what we eat or don’t eat. When we feel sad, we eat. When we’re happy, we eat.
But why do we relate to food this way? For each of us, the answer is different.
When I was a kid, my parents worked and I was usually home by myself before and after school for many hours. If I was going to eat breakfast or have snacks, I made them myself. Most days, the only time the house wasn’t totally silent was when I was making food, or eating it, laying in front of the TV.
I ate so I didn’t feel alone. I ate because I was bored. I ate so I could distract myself from the empty home around me…and for a little while, not notice the silence above the sound of cereal crunching, resounding in my ears.
Maybe your mom or dad called you fat when you were little. Maybe the only time your parents spent time with you was during meals. Maybe the food was the only thing you could control.
The same approach can be used when considering how we relate to physical exercise. Are we embarrassed? Afraid? Lazy? Our patterns, habits, and practices around physical exercise are rooted much deeper than we realize. We don’t just do what we do because we are “good” or “bad” people. We are complex creatures who have lived rich and varied lives. This is to be respected, especially towards our self.
Alcohol is another big one. Like food or exercise or shopping, we use alcohol to provoke or repress mental, emotional and spiritual responses and relationships.
Feeling happy? Have a drink! Feeling sad? Have a drink!
Drink by drink, unhealthy meal by unhealthy meal and missed workout by missed workout…we are killing ourselves on accident.
So how do we make lasting changes that actually have a chance to generate real results?
Identify your habits, patterns, and practices
Most useful when done on a daily basis, journaling is a powerful tool for self-survey. Before we can make any real change, we have to understand what exactly needs changing. By journaling about your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of self, you will begin to notice patterns emerging in your daily life. These patterns are signals for you to pay attention to deeper levels of your self, beyond the physical plane.
Learn to process and release emotions in a healthy way
Art and movement provide many pathways for healthy processing and release of intense emotions. Rather than shoving our emotions down into our bellies, we can release the anger, sadness, fear or whatever else is tormenting our minds and poisoning our bodies. Grab a paintbrush or go for a walk.
One thing I have often struggled with is restless energy. This is the energy that — historically — drove me to drink or smoke pot. For me, it’s a feeling of flighty, buzzing restlessness that co-occurs with thoughts of “I’m bored” or “What am I supposed to do” or “I’m not good enough”. Only when I began journaling on a daily basis did I notice the habit of wandering around the house at 2:00 every afternoon. Then I told my coach about it. Then my therapist. And I started working on connecting with the feeling I was feeling, rather than trying to ignore it or gratify it with frantic cleaning or getting high.
Today, I am better at noticing that feeling. And I don’t try to make it go away. Rather, I approach it with humor and curiosity. I sit with it and honor that part of myself…and laugh at my gentle madness.
Build in space to fail
When putting together goals and action plans, give yourself permission to fail. Let’s face it, you’re going to fail anyway. So why not build that into your plan so that you don’t feel like crap when the inevitable happens?
For many people, I recommend an 80/20 split. This means that for 80% of the time, you’re going to be on target, all about it, nailing your goals. The other 20% of the time, you’re allowed to be human and imperfect. If it’s food, 80% of your meals are perfect and the other 20% you can just eat whatever you want. If it’s exercise, stick with the program like it’s the air you breathe…80% of the time. But build in 20% to skip a workout or two when you don’t feel like going!
80/20 is just a general guideline that lots of people seem to be comfortable with. Depending on where you’re starting and other factors (like personality and drive) your split could be 50/50 or 95/5. The point is, it needs to feel right to you. It needs to feel like a safe space to fail…because you’re not going to be perfect. None of us are.
At the end of the day, wellness looks different for each person in every season of life. Balance and wholeness aren’t static, because life is not static. They are moving targets, ever-evolving and devolving. Everything is changing all the time…including you and me.
Since wellness and wholeness are fluid, maybe it’s best to not think of “wellness” as a goal or a target. I find it useful to minimize reliance on hard deadlines, “hitting targets” or “attaining goals” when it comes to living well. Rather, I simply continue to take intentional steps — day by day and moment by moment — in the right direction.
In this way, we can generate deeply-rooted and lasting change in all aspects of self. And when we experience wholeness or balance in our mental, emotional and spiritual systems, we will realize the benefits of good health and prosperity in the physical realm.
And maybe — just maybe — we can escape the coming epidemic of dementia.