The holiday season is an easy time to fall off the wagon regarding diet and exercise. There are many reasons this will happen with probably twice as many coaches posting youtube videos and writing articles on how to avoid falling off the wagon. The problem with advice on how to get through the holidays in a healthy way is that we often feel ashamed of ourselves when we binge. We think to ourselves, “I was given all that advice. I tried everything they told me to. They all look fantastic even after the holiday and I can barely button my pants!”
Anyone following the physical health side of my blog has read about the fact that I’ve switched to a ketogenic diet and have engaged in routine exercise at the gym which includes weight lifting and running. The improvement to my health has been noticeable in every way. For the most part I have been very strict about adhering to these lifestyle changes including limiting my refeed days to once every couple of weeks. By the end of October I had joined a friend of mine on his refeeding schedule. Now keep in mind that his activity level far exceeds mine. The problem is that he and I have similar appetites. Thus a business trip to the Mall of America meant that if he went on a $200 binging spree then I spent the same amount of money.
This was the start of a rollercoaster relationship with junk food that included binge eating every weekend, on Thanksgiving, and pretty much the entire week of Christmas leading into New Years. It’s a wonder I didn’t put on 5 or 10 pounds. I did add water weight, but my clothes still fit the same. I could see the shadowy touch of shame creeping into my heart, but I looked at the shame and converted it to guilt. What does a guilty man do? He recognizes what he has done and makes changes.
Here we are sitting at the opening of 2017 and I am renewing my efforts towards good health. This isn’t a “New Year’s resolution.” Instead the new year simply makes for a perfect marker for counting down my progress. This is certainly a lot easier than last year where I started sometime in March on eating right and sometime in June on working out at the YMCA.
Do I feel bad about falling off the wagon? I do. I had set myself a goal that was to be met by Christmas and I didn’t meet that goal. Does this make me an inherently bad person? It doesn’t at all. We all make choices that we must hold ourselves accountable to. This is the proper way of dealing with guilt. Guilt doesn’t make one bad, guilt is simply the acknowledgement that an incorrect action was taken. Guilt is much easier to resolve than shame as we simply have to accept it and correct it.
Shame and the Perception of Failure
Let’s hold up for a second and talk about shame. Brené Brown, a leading researcher in the field of shame and guilt, defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy…”
This is a common feeling people have when they fall off the wagon regarding any habits they are trying to overcome or view in a negative fashion. This shaming of the self leads to giving up any attempt at changing the behavior and instead choosing a full-blown regression into old patterns. The smokers who “fail” to quit smoking ultimately give up and embrace their unhealthy addiction. I’ve seen this a great deal within my own family. The alcoholics who “fail” at staying sober ultimately give up and return to the bottle. Again I’ve seen this within my own family. The sex addict who “fails” at abstinence and ultimately gives up returning to his sexual predilections. Again I’ve experienced these observations within my own family and social circles. The result is always the same and is always linked to the shaming we do to ourselves based on this perception that we have failed and through failure we are unworthy.
The examples I provided above are harsh examples, maybe, in comparison with holiday eating and yet they are important to look at because of just how similar our minds and hearts process these perceived failures. We give up on ourselves. We create excuses. We’ll take whatever step we can to clear our minds of the cognitive dissonance created by the perceived failure. Stop right now, examine those thoughts, and understand that there is no such thing as failure — there are only delays in progress.
Progress, Not Perfection
All too often we hold only two pictures in our mind — where we are at now and where we want to be. The danger in these pictures is that they both neglect the image of progress! This is one of the reasons why before and after photos are so important for body transformations. When we have a clear idea of where we started we can gain a clearer understanding of where we are and what is needed in order to get to where we want to be. This is the very picture of measuring progress.
In terms of addiction and other lifestyle choices we deem negative it is far more difficult to view snapshots of our progress. We are often surrounded by people who have seen us at our worst and expect the best in us when accept that things need to change. Thus our choices are eternally scrutinized and compared against our old habits. As a brief aside it is worth noting that neither party is necessarily wrong in their perceptions. The addict sees his family’s reluctance to accept his ways as an obstacle while the family sees the addict’s claims of new behavior as a continuation of old and negative behavior. Both are very true and neither is a reason for shaming one’s self or being shamed by others. If you are intent on measuring progress an invaluable tool would be to journal your journey to new behaviors. This would allow you to look at snapshots of your earlier life and see just how far you have come.
We need to shift our focus away from achieving perfect results in a finite amount of time. While it would be an absolute dream for us to live out the rest of our days starting on January 1, 2017 as healthy and fit people, it is unrealistic to have that happen and the shame for not being there in a timely fashion will set us back further than just focusing on making whatever steps you can, no matter how small, to move forward.