Okay, I wrote a few weeks ago about the changes I've made over the last 8 years or so in what I eat, how I cook things, etc. In that post I referred to the fact that I had to check some eating premises, so this time I'm going to write about the changes I've made in the last oh, 15 years or so, in my thinking about eating, my whole approach to food. This post represents the mental work of many, many years, and it has a happy ending. :o)
It's interesting how bad premises get inside one's head, and I don't exactly know if I can adequately describe the process. I know, though, that many of the wrong ideas I had came from things I picked up as a kid. I'm not suggesting that my unhealthy eating and being overweight as an adult is all the fault of my parents, because of course, grown up people need to do their own thinking and are responsible for their own decisions and actions. But I discovered during this process, most of the bad ideas I had to identify and fix have been in my head most of my life.
Once I started down the paleo road, it was clear to me that I had TONS of mental work to do, introspection. Why did this become clear? Because I couldn't eat only the foods I believed best for my body; I just couldn't stick with it. :( I felt out of control (and I was) and sad about this. I think perhaps people who have never struggled with themselves over food don't understand how a person can be out of control with food. If it's bad for you, don't eat it, right? Just get some willpower!
It's not that simple when you have a lot of bad ideas that have been really ingrained into the gray matter shouting different instructions at you. "Willpower" alone won't fix bad ideas, and when you have bad ideas warring against good ideas in your head, your will is battling itself. In my experience, sometimes the good ideas won; sometimes the bad. I'm not sure I can really explain it, but I know many, many other people who can probably identify with this food battle, and the feelings of shame, guilt, resignation, and even despair that often occur as a result.
But this story has a happy ending, promise! You know why? Because of thinking. Lots of long, rigorous thinking and testing and matching ideas up with reality, and thinking some more. Then some doing, and figuring out the results of the doing, and figuring out whether the doing matched up with the thinking. And yeah, it took a while. Like my whole adult life (so far!).
So which bad ideas did I identify and change? I had thought to write this in rough chronological order (and indeed, that's how I did the outline for this post), but instead I think I'll just list the bad ideas out, how I think I accepted each one in the first place, how I identified it, and how I changed (and in some cases, still working to change) to a better idea.
The Standard American Diet (SAD)
This is the easiest bad idea I had to overcome, and in many respects, the least important. Before Brendan got diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in March 2001, we'd tried some low-carbing, to a certain degree of success, and I learned through my research at the time how carbohydrates affect insulin and how insulin affects the body (makes fat), and all of the other things (good and bad) that insulin does. Then when Brendan got the diabetes, well those ideas were made more clear and . . . I don't know . . . present in our lives than ever before. If you don't know what a Type 1 has to go through to maintain something close to normal blood sugar, it's amazing, really. (Too much to get into here though.) Still, we both realized that the low-fat diet was based on some wrong ideas. I think this idea was one of the easiest for me to overcome because it was merely an error of knowledge--I had had wrong information. Once I got better information, it was easy to get rid of the old information.
As I wrote before, I was introduced to the Weston A. Price Foundation back in about 2003 I think. That did it. I understood where we'd gone wrong with Atkins, and why much of the weight we'd lost had come back. I'd been too focused on finding a low-carb alternative to all the crap I wanted to eat--instead of focused on choosing foods I should be eating. I was looking sideways for treats that would be "on diet" instead of straight ahead down the path to good food and health.
Still overwhelmed by the changes I'd need to make in my diet, I embarked on my snail-paced incremental changes--which was the best approach for me. The bad idea SAD was replaced with the good idea: paleo. Which brings me to another bad idea:
I joke around now that I'm a "recovering perfectionist" but really, it's not funny. There is nothing wrong with having high standards, nothing at all. But having high standards that are either impossible or don't match reality in some other way is not rational. Getting caught up in the feeling that things have to be 100% perfect or why even bother? Also not good. Having that idea stuck down inside one's brain so deeply that it affects your ability to cope with non-ideal circumstances in a rational, grownup, mature fashion--really not good. (By the way, allow me to take a moment to say that I have the best husband in the whole world.)
Perfectionism of that magnitude is not about having high standards. It's about having impossible standards, yet holding yourself--and others--to them. It resulted in this odd sort of paralysis. Either I'd do something perfectly--or I wouldn't even try. Because why bother? If the result isn't perfect, the world will surely end, yes? Much of my perfectionism comes from ideas I picked up as a child.
How did this affect my eating? Well, if I wasn't going to be a supermodel, then why even bother trying to look good or eat right? And if I ate something bad for me at breakfast, well then the whole day was shot! Might as well eat tons of carbs--I'd already blown it for the day. And if I ate poorly yesterday, well then why not today? The whole week is shot, right? If I was 100% perfect in my eating, I was floating on cloud nine; if I ate one corn chip at a restaurant, I was a complete and utter FAILURE. Failure = why bother at all?
It took me a while to notice that I did this. Basically I had to start paying attention to the things I was telling myself inside my head. If I ate something I shouldn't have, I'd immediately feel defeated and upset. Sometimes I'd even feel defiant, if I was in a rebellious mood! Once I noticed how I felt about what I was doing, I started to ask myself why I felt that way. WHY did eating a piece of bread make me so upset? Because I knew it wasn't something I ought to be eating. WHY did I feel despair though? Because if I ate a piece of bread then I wasn't going to be good about eating paleo that day. WHY? I kept asking myself this question. And the chain of thought went like this: Well if I'm not going to be eating paleo today, then I might as well give up. I'll never be a normal weight again and it's my own fault because I can't figure out how to avoid one stinking piece of bread. And if I'm never going to be a normal weight again, then I might as well enjoy myself and eat more bread. And so on and so on...
Once I first noticed this inner dialogue I was having, I decided to try to notice it every time it happened. Just being aware that it was happening in the moment was a HUGE thing, and it helped me analyze the wrong ideas. No. One stinking piece of bread does not equate to a lifetime of crappy eating. It doesn't help, but it's not equivalent. And the perfectionism thing was all over other areas of my life, too, and I learned to identify other inner dialogues, too--well if we can't make headway on our credit cards this month due to some unexpected expense, might as well buy XYZ, too. If I can't have a full complete garden, why plant a flower in a pot? Etc.
So I'd identified these things--first the feeling, then analyzing the feeling, then trying to notice the feeling and how it was linked to what I was thinking in the moment, then trying to notice more such moments, then analyzing my thinking, then finding the bad ideas in my thinking (false dichotomy: Unachievable Perfection vs Failure), then trying to find better ideas to put into my thinking instead, then trying out the new ideas, dealing with the successes and failures that resulted, then consciously practicing the better ideas. Whew!
I had to re-learn how to match my expectations of myself--and others--with reality, and accept that life moves on, even when it's not 100% perfect. I lowered my standards--not to Low Standards (with housework the notable exception here, of course)--but to Real and Achievable Standards. I also learned to prioritize my values. Not every. single. thing. in my life requires pull-out-all-the-stops 100% effort (hence, housework). So I save my energy and effort for the things I value most--my husband, children, friends and family, writing, podcasting, thinking about Objectivism as it is applied to parenting, being more involved in Objectivism in general, feeding us in a healthy way, being strong and healthy myself. Housework--meh.
With eating issues, letting go of perfectionism has been amazingly helpful--and healthy both physically and mentally. I learned that eating mostly healthy foods yields good results. I learned that it's okay to look like a regular person (who has had three babies!) than having to look like a supermodel. I also had to learn (and am still learning) to manage my feelings of disappointment, frustration, and anger in a more mature fashion (nothing helps a person do that better than having a job where you must teach children to do the same, IMO).
I developed the 90% rule--not just for eating, but for other areas of my life, too: It's okay to be 90%. I can be a good person with 90%. I will make good progress with 90%. I am able to enjoy 90%. 90% is Real and Achievable. Okay, "90%" is arbitrary, and not really measurable in many respects (how do you measure 90% of housework, when it's a moving target?). It's a mental substitution for the bad idea that my life either had to be Unachievable Perfection or Failure. It's an attempt to concretize a better idea instead. Does that make sense?
Again, if you're not a perfectionist, this whole little section might be a source of bewilderment to you. But if you ARE a perfectionist--I'm right, aren't I? 100% right! 100% right! I mean, 90%! :D
Okay, I'm going to stop here for now because it's becoming clear that this is going to be looooongggg. I'll put up the next installment soon. I'd love to hear comments about this so far!