WHY IT’S HARD TO KEEP HEALTHY HABITS
Despite the weekly news article announcing a shocking new secret to health (Never eat potatoes! Only eat potatoes! Clean yourself with potatoes!), the basics are actually pretty simple. Eat minimally processed foods. Move your body. Drink water. Sleep. Don’t smoke.
So why is it so hard for so many of us to do these things on a daily – or even weekly – basis?
It’s not because you don’t have time. It’s not because you’re too busy. It’s not because it’s too complicated.
The true reason we all struggle to keep healthy habits is the reason we struggle to do anything: Our Brains.
Most of my clients are high-achieving, Type-A, perfectionist women. They may think they are constantly failing and inadequate, but in any objective sense, they are professionally succeeding. They have advanced education. They have complicated, demanding jobs. They are used to going after the brass rings – or even the gold ones. If you’re reading this, you are probably the same.
And those same qualities are what make it difficult to sustain healthy habits. Because when you apply that same perfectionism, black-and-white thinking, and anxiety-fueled action to your body, what you get is paralysis.
Here’s why: When it comes to taking care of your body, there is no finish line.
Taking care of your body is different from achieving a professional goal. Your body is a living, breathing animal that you live inside of. You cannot control your body the way you can control a brief or preparing for an interview. You cannot shape your body into being whatever you want. No amount of striving will make you five inches taller or change your natural bone structure. And while some of us can manipulate our weight to a certain extent, that too has its biological limits.
There’s no deadline, there’s no project description, there are no specs. There are a million different things you could do with your body or to your body.
And since you’re a perfectionist, you want to get it RIGHT. You want to know what you’re “supposed” to do. What are you supposed to eat, what kind of exercise are you supposed to do, how often are you supposed to do it. You want someone else to tell you what to do, but there’s a confounding amount of information out there and no way to know what’s true.
Some of you have managed to put together your “ideal routine.” You’ve picked some particular piece of advice, or combined a few, and you have your “system.” What you’re supposed to eat, how much you’re supposed to move, and when. If you just do all that perfectly, you can feel ok about yourself.
But here’s what we know about perfectionism: It’s exhausting. Putting the weight of your self-acceptance on perfectly performing any routine – whether it’s eating, movement, or anything else – makes the stakes way too high and makes it exhausting to contemplate. When you make your eating or exercise routine carry the burden of your self-esteem, it’s going to buckle.
And then what happens? We miss a workout. We eat something on the “avoid” list. And because we are perfectionists, our brains says: “Well now you’ve ruined it.” We feel intense guilt and shame.
And how do we cope with those? We say “fuck it.” I’ve had one cupcake, I might as well have six. I skipped the gym this morning, I just won’t go for three weeks.
None of this is our fault. We live in a society where women are encouraged to view their bodies as objects, rather than subjects. We are taught that the primary virtue of having a female body is that people (men) will look at it. Not just look at it, but evaluate constantly, every minute of every day, whether it is attractive or not. So it’s not just perfectionism, but validation and social acceptance that are all tied up in our relationship to our bodies. Is it any wonder we start to think of our bodies as an object to be shaped, a project to be accomplished, a mission to be perfected?
But your body isn’t any of these things. Your body is not a project.
So this week, here’s what I want you to do. Every day, I want you to ask yourself this question: “What small thing can I do that would feel good for my body today?” Maybe it’s going to bed half an hour early. Maybe it’s taking a walk. Maybe it’s getting a massage. Maybe it’s eating a vegetable. Start small. Don’t listen to what your brain tells you that you “should” do. Focus on how your body feels, and what would give it vitality and pleasure today.
Because your body is not an object. It’s a home.