One of my clients, Jenn, was working with me to overcome her lifelong sugar addiction.
For weeks, we practiced removing obvious triggers from her environment, externalizing her needs to her large family who didn’t quite get what she was doing with her new way of eating, and planning and preparing meals throughout the day to counter sugar cravings.
By eating enough protein and fat, the objective was to satiate her physical hunger and make sure she showed up fulfilled to meet the inevitable cravings that lay ahead.
Jenn had a pronounced craving for sweets, particularly baked goods—an emotional attachment that doubly manifested as stress relief and reward-seeking for all her hard work as a full-time mom of five kiddos and part-time employee.
I don’t say that with judgment. Jenn worked her ass off. She’s the most selfless person I know, constantly giving herself over to the needs of her family. As much as she loved the taste of desserts and sweets, however, she was determined to overcome her dependency on them. This time, for good.
For the better part of the year, she’d been feeling out of control, which unsettled her. For starters, with five kids between the ages of 9 and 21, there was no shortage of candies and packaged sweets laying around the house. Even if she tried to rid the fridge and cupboard of them, her daughters were both Girl Scouts and moms from the neighborhood would constantly come over with freshly baked goods.
Talk about triggers. That’s like putting cocaine in front of a cocaine addict and wishing him good luck. It’s a nearly impossible challenge.
But still, Jenn was resolute. She was absolutely determined. “This time is different,” she’d kept repeating. “I have to do this.”
We were making incredible progress in her quest to overcome her sugar dependency, but the fact remained that no matter how hard we tried to rid her environment of trigger items, no matter how many course-corrective action steps we’d strategize, there was always unhealthy food lying around the house or being offered that challenged her resolve.
Resist as she did, the actualities of Jenn’s life were unchangeable, at least in the short term. She couldn’t change the fact that she had five kids, she couldn’t control every food item that came into the house, she couldn’t change the fact—and nor did she want to—that she was heavily involved in the school PTA and the local community and that baking and cookies and candies and all that junk were constantly around her. Those were the facts.
After a month or two, I could see her tension and fatigue. I intervened.
Rather than resist those facts, I challenged her to be soft and receptive. “To force your success would ultimately lead to your unwinding,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“If you deny, deny, deny, then ultimately you’re going to give in. And when you do, it will be an ugly day. Because right now, you cannot control all of the pieces. You can only control yourself. We will work on reforming your environment and externalizing your needs to others and voicing your preferences more boldly, but for right now we must be soft. You’re expelling too much energy on forcing an outcome. Give yourself a day or night off where you can go ‘off plan’ to recharge and motivate up. You’re allowed. It’ll help make the rest of the week a bit more pleasant. You’re exhausted. You’re losing the joy.”
“No. That’d be going backward. I can do this.”
“I know you can. And you will. You already are. Don’t you see? You show up every day to our work together, without fail, and that’s the surest sign of success. Remember, we’re overcoming lifelong dependencies here. We must take it slow. If you burn out too soon, you’ll come to regret it.”
Jenn wasn’t willing to budge. The day of reckoning came when she and her family had a big party at her house for the 4th of July. This was one year ago, nearly to the day. It was an all-day event and her entire family and some local neighbors were invited. There were probably twenty adults and close to as many children there. Food was everywhere. Treats everywhere.
Despite my coaching, Jenn entered into the day with an attitude of perfectionism. She was going to force herself to be perfect. After nearly five or so weeks of working together without a day off, without one “cheat,”, she essentially set herself up for an impossible task.
She had to experience what was to come in order to learn.
When I received a text from her later that night, I wasn’t surprised.
She had made it through the day until a group of parents and their kids got together to roast s’mores—an old pastime that Jenn absolutely loved—when she felt conflicted. She wanted to partake, she wanted to have one, she wanted to sit there holding her daughter guiding the marshmallow over the fire. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. The voice inside her head judging the entire experience and carping on herself was too loud. She had to leave. She fibbed an excuse about needing to clean something up inside and left the group. Inside the home, by herself, Jenn felt depleted.
Standing in the kitchen, there were tons of leftover chips and dips and sandwiches and ice cream on the kitchen counter…until there weren’t any.
Inside, by herself, while her friends and family and kids were outside having a great time, Jenn missed the entire experience because she was so trapped in the experience inside her head, so fixed to this notion of having to be perfect in order to be successful, that not only did she lose the day but ended up sabotaging her greater intentions as well. And for what?
For food that wasn’t even worth it. Food that she didn’t even like or care about, or want. She unraveled.
Now she was ashamed, embarrassed. The rest of the evening she was depressed and forgetful. She kept shoving food in her mouth because she’d primed herself for that sort of automation.
For every choice, there’s its opposite end. Jenn chose perfect for far too long and now she was experiencing its opposite.
Later that night, she reached out and let me know what had happened.
“It’s entirely about your perspective,” I said. “What’s your main priority on a day like today? To be caught up in your head and reject the world in front of you, or to be totally present with your family and friends? Ultimately, what’s more important? When you look back in a year’s time, are you going to remember how perfect you were with your food choices on one specific day of the year or how much fun you had with your kids?
“I’m not suggesting mindlessness,” I said, “I’m not suggesting sabotaging your goals, I’m offering perspective. I’m suggesting prioritization. I’m playing the long-term, are you?” I challenged her. “Self-regulation means knowing when to pick and choose your moments. Control means knowing when to push and knowing when you need to be soft and receptive. The ying and the yang.
“You’re not far along the growth curve yet to take such bold positions. If you had entered into the day saying to yourself, ‘It’s okay to go off plan today. It’s not worth the mental anguish. I’m allowed a cheat meal per week,’ then I bet you would have responded differently. It’s a simple perspective shift. Nothing’s changed, only your perspective. One perspective is, ‘I have to be perfect in order to be successful.’ And you’ll force outcomes to fit your idea of what you want to be, rather than living in the present. The other is, ‘It’s okay to not be perfect. My performance doesn’t define my sense of self-worth, and I can use today as a test to see how well I can do just having a little sugar, knowing that I’m ‘allowed.’”
“But how am I going to overcome this dependency if I don’t push through?” Jenn asked. “How am I going to get it?”
“Look what happened by trying to push through. I’m not suggesting you don’t treat this seriously. I’m suggesting that you pull back and see the bigger picture. If you look at an entire month and only four days out of the month you’ve purposely gone off plan, wouldn’t that be a hugely successful month? Especially considering you were eating sugar all throughout the week, every week, merely two months ago?”
“So then, why would you deny yourself the opportunity to also have some fun with your kids and to relax into your growth, rather than force it?”
“I see what you’re saying.”
“Growth is not perfect, mastery is not linear, and you shouldn’t feel the pressure of performance, nor even think of the outcome, while beginning to attempt to learn a new skill. Mastering your diet is a skill. It’s not a goal. It’s a skill that you develop and practice, day after day. When you’re learning, the goal isn’t to be amazing, the goal is to keep showing up. The process will define the outcome and not the other way around.”
“So how do I enter into a day like today and feel okay with myself?”
“You say, ‘I’m allowed. This is on plan.’ Going off plan is on plan when it’s on your terms. That’s a proactive decision. Nothing changes, only your perspective. One perspective leads to a really shitty experience, the other leads to having a good time and actually learning something about how far you’ve come. In the second perspective, we can test to see how well you’re employing other tactics and strategies that we’ve been working on. Did you wake up and eat a healthy breakfast? Did you load up on all of the good foods first while at the party? All the salad and grilled chicken and the medley of vegetables and fruits for dessert?”
“Not really. I didn’t eat that much because I was terrified to go near the food.”
“Well, there you go. If you had loaded up on all the good stuff, I bet you would have been perfectly fine enjoying a s’more or two with your daughters and friends. You wouldn’t have had the capacity to eat much more, even if you wanted to. Plus, you would have totally diffused the intensity of the situation by knowing that being imperfect was allowed on a day like today. It’s very likely that you wouldn’t have had the hyper-reactionary response that played out later at night when you ate all the food you didn’t and don’t care about.”
“So it’s healthy to not be healthy?”
“It’s one meal out of a week containing 21 meals and 7 snacks. Consider the cheat meal an investment in not going to the “other side” on a more regular basis—which you ended up doing anyway. Having the little cheat would have locked the rest of the day and your week’s intentions in place. Instead, by resisting, you went so far over to the red that now you feel horrible about yourself. Is that healthy?”
“Pull back from your current perspective, and you can see your progress and success from a bird’s eye view. Pretend we’re in Google Calendar and we keep pulling out. We can either turn the setting to fill the entire screen with today’s agenda—and miss the big picture—, or we could pull out to see the whole week, or the whole month, or the whole year. If we keep zooming out, we can see how one little meal off the plan ultimately means nothing in the grand scheme of things. If it means that everything else falls nicely into place then it means a whole lot. Most importantly, if it means you can look at that date in your calendar and think fondly of the memory you had with your family, instead of living in your resistance and missing it altogether, then it means everything. You denied yourself those beautiful memories because you denied yourself.”
As I hope is clear from Jenn’s story, growth is not linear. Mastery is not perfect. Don’t play to perfect. Choose good enough and you’ll surprise yourself, reach beyond your goals, and enjoy the process along the way.