Following recent posts on exercise and working to change it up, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve ever actually been successful in losing weight (after gaining 40 plus pounds in college). And it wasn’t because I got a handle on caloric intake or just did it or tried harder or any other bullshit that maybe sounded good but found me stuck in the same old loop. No, it had to be different.
I counted calories for years and years; some of the time I tracked the calories in my head, other times I tracked using an app. At best, it helped me become more aware of what and when I was eating, highlighting how one cookie could turn into ten and then how those cookies would go to ice cream and/or candy (the “fuck it; I’ll start tomorrow” mentality at its finest!). At worst, I became obsessed with the numbers, counting and recounting what calories I’d eaten over and over and over and over
I worked out the numbers recently and discovered I’d spent over an hour a day just counting calories in my really disordered eating years. That’s kind of insane when I think about it. And probably worst/saddest of all — counting those calories never came with any relief. I never felt like I had a better handle or more stable outlook on how to take care of my body so it could feel, work, and look good — I always felt five (or one) second away from losing all control (which clearly meant imminent failure and certain doom). I’d figure I wasn’t trying hard enough, so I’d dive back into the counting (and recounting), stuck in an endless cycle.
I worked with a trainer for a few years. It was helpful in some respects: it got me out of the house and moving my body (knowing someone was waiting for me was motivation!). It also took the decision-making out of my workouts, which at the time was good because I could simply show up and be told what to do. Having to try to make my own workouts well balanced plus get them done entailed more willpower than I had most days (willpower was my fuel and there was only a limited amount!). I’m appreciative of my trainer from that time, though that wasn’t a sustainable model for me either.
Quitting a job I hated and that sucked my energy helped me lose some weight. Looking back, getting out of that space lessened the pull of gorging in the snack rooms to push down the dread and despair I felt with coming to work each day (plus cut access to the snack rooms). Yeah, that step was helpful, though I wasn’t sure what to do next and didn’t have a strong foundation in place to really create any momentum (and didn’t see as much at the time how the stuck energy space of my old job had helped hold onto some pounds, so I couldn’t translate it into any other action).
So what helped me most to actually lose weight and keep it off without much effort?
Probably about 3-4 years ago, I saw a video (can’t remember the name of it now, though if I remember I’ll update the post) from a woman who found that even after getting to her “perfect” weight, she discovered she felt exactly the same — shitty, crappy, and worthless. She was winning fitness competitions and still hated herself. Shortly thereafter, I was looking in the mirror and frowning over the cellulite on my butt and thighs, deciding that I needed to try harder, dammit! and get serious about losing weight. And it hit me: I was at a weight I would have loved to have been at in college and the years after — and I didn’t really feel any differently. Ouch.
Sure, I no longer bulimic, nor did I so wildly binge. My eating habits looked much healthier (and my waist was certainly trimmer too). However, I still lived in an emotionally stressed place where the focus was always on weight, weight, weight; where I still wasn’t quite good enough (and I could see the edge of the cliff and it didn’t look that far away), and the answer was always that I needed to get fitter and lose a little more weight. This place sucked.
For the first time, I think, I realized that the “I need to lose weight” focus was really a distraction from something else that needed attention. Say I needed to talk to my husband about something that felt uncomfortable but needed to be discussed or I didn’t really like my new job that much (the 1.5 hour commute each day was wearing on me)? No, don’t talk about that. Don’t feel that. Don’t look that in the eye. Let’s focus instead on weight. That’ll surely fix it all. (Um, yeah no.)
My weight and the need to lose weight (and then thinking about how I needed to lose weight and the inevitable self-beating that would occur whenever I fell off the impossible to stay on wagon) was an avoidance tactic, a method of self-sabotage. Rather than deal with the unknown, I’d created a “safe” problem to dive into whenever things started to feel uncomfortable, whenever “bad” feelings came up in my life. So no wonder nothing was really changing and I wasn’t feeling any different. I still wasn’t facing what needed to be faced.
Funny thing — as I started to notice and call myself on when I was focusing on weight rather than the real issue, and then move my attention and energy to the real issue, excess weight slowly dropped off by itself. I guess that when I addressed what was really going on, the need to shove everything down underneath chocolate (or wine) wasn’t so great. So I didn’t eat as much of that stuff — because I didn’t need to or feel the pull as much, not because I was telling myself don’t eat this!!!! (which was never sustainable for me to keep up with anyway).
More recently, I built on this learning when I started to think about how I want to feel. After two eating disorders and a childhood of elite gymnastics, I’ve been hesitant to set any physically-related goals. I’m afraid of it not being fun, it feeling like a should, and/or falling back into a bit of eating issues. If I listen through the fear, I know I’d like to challenge myself. It’d be fun to take a dance class or be in a workout video (Jillian Michaels, here I come!) or try parkour. I’d like to up my fitness and get a bit more toned.
If I focus on asking “how should I get more fit?” I’m asking the wrong question — I find myself back in the avoidance and distraction space of “how do I lose weight?”. So I’m trying on this question: “How do I want to feel?” Energized, springy, light inside, excited, happy.
Focusing on “How do I want to feel?” changes the playing field. I’m into different territory — and now making a change feels doable. Maybe that sounds intangible; it’s the best way I know to describe it right now.
When I ask myself how I want to feel and focus on things that bring in those feelings, I’m kind of psyched to try a different workout DVD in the morning. Or when I’m starting to feel tired and lonely in the afternoon and normally I’d soothe with chocolate chips (even though I’m not hungry), I’m considering phoning a friend. If I’m feeling lonely, talking to someone leaves me with a spark that the chocolate ultimately does not. And you know what? I’m starting to feel fitter (and I can see more definition).
When I find myself focusing on how I’ve learned you lose weight: don’t eat this or you should do this type of exercise — I see this line of thinking leaves me feeling stressed, crappy, angry, on edge (and if I start to restrict what I’m eating and end up hungry — you’d better get out of my way, I’ll be on a freakin’ rampage). Not how I want to feel, so reminding myself that deprivation, shoulds, and willpower can be let go.
While the “How do I want to feel?” route isn’t totally clear and sometimes feels crazily scary, it feels different, really different. And different is good. And somehow, I know this road is going to take me somewhere else, somewhere exciting. I can sense it. I can feel it.
So, I’m going to focus on how I want to feel — and actively do stuff that makes me feel the way I want to. How about you?
(This is kind of dorky work DVD selfie but that’s okay!!)