We want change to happen instantly. We want fast results. We want to dive head-long into something and discover success within days, or even moments. We think that instant success will feed us for the long haul—keep us going until we are truly great at something, or until we’ve accomplished what we’re trying to do.
That used to be my mode of operation about life in general, and weight loss was no exception. As a chunky kid to a plump teenager to an obese adult, I tried relatively extreme and very precise measures of self-control as ways of losing weight. I tried to be strict and controlling with myself—ahh, that catch-phrase ‘self control’—to get the results I wanted. I did think being thinner meant being healthier, but being a healthier person wasn’t really my ultimate goal. Being thinner was my ultimate goal. Low-fat, South Beach, Sugar Busters, Weight Watchers, the Oprah diet, etc.—I would grab control of my life and squeeze it into the diet’s confines. I’d try to embrace the diet whole-heartedly, and usually, for a while it would work. Then I’d slip up—maybe something in my life would startle or upset me—and I’d rebel against the diet by having something it didn’t allow. Then I would think that clearly, my self-control was not up to par, and I’d feel guilty at my inadequacy. One slip-up would lead to others, which would lead to me being more off the diet than on. And that would lead to me quitting.
There had to be a better way. Or maybe there was just no way for me. For a while, I tried not to think about my weight and just let it be, even though I felt unhappy about my looks and unhealthy in general.
This was around the time my husband and and I got married. In our premarital counseling, our pastor told us, “People often think that the day you get married is the day everything changes, because you’re making a commitment to each other. It is a step in your commitment, but your commitment process has been going on as long as you’ve been dating, and it will continue as long as you’re married. If you think of this as some big leap you’re taking, you’re putting your marriage at risk. You’ll expect things you don’t like about each other to change when you’re married, and that won’t happen. Or you’ll expect things you like to maintain themselves, and they won’t. If you think of the marriage as a relationship that you work on day in and day out, and you always keep the health of your marriage in mind, then you’re working towards a successful marriage.” His words weren’t an epiphany to me, but they did clarify the past and develop my vision for the future. Looking back on my relationship with Dan, I could see we’d been building a foundation of trust and love from the moment we met each other. It was, and would be, a gradual and endless process of growth and renewal that would keep us going throughout our lives together.
As soon as we were married, my husband and I spent a year concentrating on gradually getting our finances in order. Those baby steps paid off enormously as we got rid of our consumer debt—$17k of it—and began to build our savings and retirement investments. Taking on that process was one of the most satisfying, relieving things I’ve ever done.
Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. I couldn’t see it clearly at the time.
About nine months after we married, my husband was hit by a car when he was walking in a crosswalk. In the recovery from that terrible accident, while he was in the hospital, I had to face what had become of my body—a body I would avoid in mirrors. I had been avoiding buying new clothes, had instead been washing and rewashing my increasingly threadbare few that fit me. After the accident, I had to go buy comfortable clothes in sizes that fit so that I could spend more time at the hospital and less time at home. I had to accept that I felt miserable—with an upset stomach, a constantly sweaty body, and an inability to do much without getting exhausted. At the same time, I had to recognize what my body could do—which was function well enough to take care of my husband’s broken body while dealing with the emotional trauma of him nearly dying.
In his recovery process, I gained admiration for my husband’s can-do spirit. My self-respect grew, as well, and as I watched his body recover, I grew determined to appreciate my body and take better care of it. At the end of December in 2006, something inside me shifted. I could see how taking a gradual, consistent approach in improving areas of my life had been much more successful than my leaps into various things. I grew to believe that if I focused on gradually taking better care of myself—body, mind, and spirit—instead of controlling myself, I had the opportunity to change everything. As I was developing this path of thinking, I read The Best Life Diet by Bob Greene. Some of the book rehashed what I knew, but part of the book was amazing to me because it echoed how I had been feeling. Bob encouraged a gradual approach, and he reassured me that if I kept a focus on taking good care of myself, I didn’t actually have to count anything to lose weight. Not count anything? Lose weight without counting anything?
Well, that made up my mind. I made a deal with myself: I would take steps to take better care of myself, recognizing myself as a whole person and not individual elements that could be spliced apart from each other. I would work to make myself more self-actualized and complete; I would focus on the pleasure of improving my life rather than one element. And as long as the process led me to better physical health and a more reasonable weight, I wouldn’t require myself to count anything—no calories, no points, no carbs. I would love myself into shape instead of whipping myself into shape. I thought, with excitement, that perhaps as long as I kept myself focused on self-care, I couldn’t hate the process. I could only appreciate the process, because it was leading to a fuller version of me. The idea of exerting force on myself fell away. The idea of taking care of myself took hold.
It revolutionized my life. It was the start of what I now see is a life-long path. And this year, every two weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the gradual changes I’ve incorporated to take better care of my whole self and become more the person I want to be. I hope you’ll come along, and if you’ve been thinking it’s time to take better care of yourself or you’ve been on a similar path for a while, I hope you’ll adopt these steps into your own life.
Clearly, the first step is embracing gradual change. Some people seem to have been blessed with the natural ability to understand that in order to develop well, they’ll have to take the long, slow approach. The person who first told the story of the tortoise and the hare had the idea. Many of us struggle with the idea of gradual change, though, and when I started (especially when I would see a friend on a fad diet losing 10 pounds in two weeks), I would struggle sometimes, too. But then I would think to myself, A year from now, would I rather be miserable about starting something intensely and then quitting it, or would I rather have taken a slow approach that improved me holistically? Would I rather lose 10 pounds in two weeks knowing I would regain it, or lose 30 pounds in a year and keep it off? The answer was clear.
There are a few ground rules of gradual improvements in self-care that I’ve learned. They’ll be the underpinnings of the steps that I’ll be writing about this year, so if you’re engaging in the process with me, you should think through how they resonate in your life so that you can take them to heart and make some decisions for yourself.
1. Accept where you are. It is what it is. You’ve been trying out various ways of living, and some of the elements of your life aren’t working for you. That’s okay. When you get frustrated, gently tell yourself, “Even if I don’t like things about me or my life, where I am is just for now, and I’m heading somewhere better. I’m going to focus on the beauty of that, because beating myself up for where I am will only upset me and won’t benefit me.” It’s true, after all.
2. Be gentle with yourself in general. We’ll get into this more later, but you know that harsh inner critic that screams at you sometimes when you do things imperfectly? Yeah, he/she doesn’t do much for you except make you feel bad and then hide from life or rebel. The thoughtful voice of self-care guidance can gradually take over for the nasty yeller. Focus on giving yourself the gift of gentleness.
3. Trust yourself to take care of yourself. You can do this; I have absolute confidence in you. We all have the capability to grow gradually in our self-care. You know how you take imperfect but good care of one of your family members, a pet, a significant other, or a friend? You can apply that same understanding and love to yourself. In fact, applying it to yourself can help you apply it more to others, in a beautiful cycle. If you struggle with believing in yourself, proving to yourself that you can take good care of yourself can be one of the most enlightening things you can do. (I know from experience.) Will you mess up sometimes and make impulsive decisions? Will you occasionally lose your way? Will you have moments of panic? Of course—you’re not perfect. You don’t have to be. You just have to be on a path that’s heading you generally in the right direction, even when it winds a bit.
4. Decide on some form of measurement, and stick with it (though you can change it later if you’re driving yourself crazy). Perhaps this isn’t primarily about weight loss for you—in which case you might want to journal your developments or use a tracking system of how you’re improving emotionally or healthwise over time. Possibly, you’re at what’s considered a ‘normal’ weight, but you know your habits aren’t healthy. You could go by medical measurements like cholesterol and blood pressure, or you could measure your results by how you feel. Maybe you are in this in the hopes of feeling more whole while you grow smaller. If that’s the case, you could use anything from inch measurements to weight to clothes sizes to measure your progress. Whatever the case is, keep in mind that you’re going to have stops and starts in the process. It’s just natural. The body is partly a mystery—-weight, emotions, hormones, etc. are at times just unfathomable. We can’t always understand exactly why a moment in ourselves is occurring, and that’s okay. What you’re going for is a trend. And if your trend is toward better self-care, a few stops and starts or struggles are going to be part of the process.
My initial method of measurement (which I still do, but which isn’t as important anymore) is to weigh myself daily, first thing in the morning, naked, on a reliable scale. (The scales I bought aren’t cheap, but inaccurate scales can drive you insane, I’ve learned. My insanity is worth a little investment, especially given that I use the scale daily!) I track my weight online weekly, using one of my two weekend weigh-ins, on the free tracker at www.extrapounds.com. I used to think people were nuts weighing themselves daily, but now I know that weighing daily gives me a sense of how my weight goes up and down regularly. If I weigh once a week, I may weigh in on a bad day in my fluctuation. If I weigh daily, I can see if my gradual trend is downward, upward, or the same. For that reason, weighing daily (and accepting that weight as a tiny piece of info that will fluctuate) actually helps keep me sane. That’s not true for plenty of people, but it works for me.
Whatever your measurement is, when you’re done reading this (or tomorrow at the latest—or over the next week if you’re doing tracking that takes more time), get a base measurement, and record it somewhere you can keep up with it easily (website, blog, email, or maybe a notepad that’s so big you can’t lose it).
By the way, speaking of measurements, just because giving up counting food measurements was a step in self-care for me doesn’t mean that it’s your path to it. At the time I gave up counting, I felt like I’d read 100 books and 200 websites about dieting. I knew all sorts of dietary information like the back of my hand. (My R.D. told me I should go get a Master’s in it to make it official.) But if you find that your self-care path takes you to counting something as a measurement, that’s okay. What you’re going for is what will set you on a path to embracing good decisions long-term. But if you want to go without counting, and you’re in this for long-term self-care, I do believe you can do it without counting.
5. Accept opportunity cost. I’ve written an in-depth post on this topic before and discussed it in this interview, so I won’t talk about it too much here. But briefly, I’ll tell you that despite what we sometimes push ourselves to think, we cannot do it all. If we do one thing, another doesn’t happen. If this is your year of self-care, you’re going to have to prioritize the self-care over some other things that interest you. You’re going to have to say ‘no’ sometimes to other people (and to yourself) to say ‘yes’ to becoming a more fulfilled, healthier version of yourself.
6. If you’re living with a family, make the obvious changes a family affair. You don’t have to tell anyone you’re following along here, though if you have a generally supportive significant other, I’d tell him/her that you would appreciate that person being willing to incorporate some changes with you. Some of these changes are entirely internal and quite personal; I’m not suggesting that you sit your kids down and tell them you’re all going to work on your emotional health this year. I’ve discussed some of the changes I’ve made with my husband; others, I’ve kept to myself. (It’s only been in the last six months he’s had permission to read my blog!) And I didn’t tell anyone else when I started out that I was starting something new, because I was tired of stopping and starting with new eating plans/diets/lifestyle changes, and I didn’t want to get embarrassed.
What I am saying is that what you make clear you value by your actions is what those around you will realize that you value. And if you have a spouse or children, and you’re sitting here today thinking that you need to make changes and that your life isn’t as healthy as it could be, you’re currently telling your spouse or children, through your actions, that being emotionally and physically healthy isn’t what’s important to you—and shouldn’t be important to them. If you eat ice cream for dessert daily, if you feel ashamed of your body, if you don’t make time for exercise—why would anyone around you develop actions or values different from those if those are the ones you teach? So when you need to establish that you’re making a change to be healthier—when you need the support of others to make it happen—tell the people around you and enlist their support. Show them you mean to be committed to living a healthier life. And when you get to the points in this year of change where you are altering what you put into your body, don’t reserve those changes for yourself. I’m assuming you’re the cook in the family, and if you are, when the times for food changes come, change what everyone is eating at the meals you prepare—with no guilt about it, accepting no whining. (Even if your kids aren’t obese from that food now, they’ll be much better off long-term getting their palates adjusted to healthier habits.) If you’re not the cook, enlist the involvement of the cook, and offer (if you’re able) to help with the changes. Get into the changes with a sense of pleasure at what you’re creating, and you’ll encourage those around you to see these actions as positive instead of limiting.
Those are the ground rules, which require some thought and decision-making on your part. Going back to what our pastor advised in counseling: If you think of your self-care as a relationship that you work on day in and day out, and you always keep the health of your whole self in mind, then you’re working towards creating a more fulfilled version of yourself.
I’ll be posting encouragement for Step One in a week, and on January 14th, I’ll post Step Two in The Year of Self-Care. I hope you’ll join in and comment regularly with questions and thoughts you have.
Resources For Step One: Embrace Gradual Change
The Best Life Diet Revised and Updated”>The Best Life Diet by Bob Greene
The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness”>The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey (the process we used to get out of debt)
Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward by James O. Prochaska
Why Saving Is Like Dieting
Getting Comfortable With Gradual Change (a guest post I wrote on Angry Fat Girlz)