There are some crazy little lies we health seekers tell ourselves, often without realizing it. They go something like this: Once I am in better shape, I’ll start going to the gym/yoga studio/trainer. Once I get to my ideal weight, I’ll give up the diets and start eating more whole foods. Once I feel more confident about my appearance, I’ll start getting out of the house and being social more often.
And until that hoped-for some day comes? Well, we’ll just keep glaring at our bodies with frustration, trying to hide all the parts we wish were different. We’ll just keep eating the processed food, drinking the diet soda, and sneaking sweets on the side. We’ll just stay home again tonight and have some drinks and snacks while we watch TV in our sweatpants. You know, just for now — until we are feeling better about ourselves and a little more ready to take on a big change.
It sounds pretty nutty when you put it like that, of course, but that’s what passes for logic in the mind of a person who is struggling to shed an unhealthy self-image and a bunch of self-sabotaging patterns.
It can feel like a battle between two aspects of a split personality. One emerging identity feels a healthier life calling, sees a happier, more inspired self almost within reach. That part wants to make some changes.
But the old self — the part of us that doesn’t like uncertainty, the part that may feel ashamed of how things are, the part that isn’t sure we deserve better or can even survive without our current habits and structures — that part has a whole bunch of stories about why now is just not a good time.
Trouble is, that old “not right now” part of us can hold us back (for months, years, or even decades) from making even the slightest progress toward our biggest goals and desires. Getting that stuck part moving may take some reckoning. But note that I said “reckoning,” not “bludgeoning.” Because bludgeoning does absolutely no good.
I know this because back when I was going through the toughest part of my own healthy-life journey, I swerved endlessly between feeling like the victim of my unhealthy self and the hateful, hostile bully of it.
One day I’d feel helpless and hopeless about the state of my body and my life. I’d soothe myself with crappy food and numb myself with sedentary distractions.
The next day I’d feel disgusted and angry. I’d give myself harsh, punishing lectures about my lack of self-discipline. I’d look for ways to deny my body nourishment and pleasure. I’d go into white-knuckle withholding mode and just want the miserable day to be over.
It went like this for a long time: On my sad days, I’d indulge in unconscious ickiness and feel sorry for myself. On my mad days, I’d hate on myself and try to beat my “bad” behaviors into submission.
It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t like who I was in either mode. And nothing good was happening for my body.
Then, a couple of things happened. First, I got clear that this negative drama was playing out not just in my body, but also in my heart and mind. So I started doing some real soul-searching — digging into my values, my vision, my desires for my life, and the obstacles I was facing (a process you can read more about at “Refine Your Life“).
Next, I started imagining and experimenting beyond my current reality. I didn’t like my real-life body at this point (I mostly saw what was wrong with it and what I deemed not good enough). But I began to wonder: What if I started treating my body like I did like it? Or even loved it?
What would I do differently, I wondered, if I acted like I already had the healthiest, best-self body I so wanted? What if, instead of putting my healthy choices off until I deemed my body adequate and myself worthy, I started doing at least some of that healthy, positive stuff right now?
The results of these experiments were quick and dramatic. It turned out that even imagining doing nice things for myself radically changed the way I felt — and the way I was inclined to behave.
I would visualize myself (healthy and fit and feeling great in my body) getting up off the couch to go make myself a cup of tea or take a walk around the block, and I’d think, “Hey, that looks pretty appealing.”
Suddenly, I’d feel a quiver of motivation to actually do it. And the moment I’d act on that instinct, I’d feel a surge of positive energy that would make me inclined to do more.
I started out visiting the life of a healthy person almost like a tourist: I didn’t live there yet, but I liked to visit. Little by little, though, I began to inhabit my body in a very different way. I shifted my view of myself, and very soon, my body started shifting, too.
Want to make this experimental approach work for you? Here are a few ways to go about it:
1: Play an imagination game. What if you already had your best, healthiest body? How would you be treating it? How would you be eating and drinking and caring for it — right this minute, and on a daily basis? If you were already living the life of a super-healthy person, what things would you be doing differently? Try doing just a few of those things (even in a small, symbolic way). See how you feel and what you feel inclined to do next. Notice a little bright, excited feeling in your body? That’s your body saying, “Yes, please!” Do a little more. Experiment a bit. See what happens.
2: Be nice. Do at least one kind, healthy, self-nurturing thing for yourself each morning, ideally first thing when you get up. Make your bed. Have some warm water with a squeeze of lemon before you have your first cup of coffee. Floss your teeth. Dry-brush and oil your skin. Smile at yourself in the mirror. Light a candle and just sit for a minute. Put on some great music and groove a little before you go to work. It doesn’t really matter what the specific act or practice is; what matters is that you are treating yourself with reverence and respect. Once you’ve got your morning “nice thing” in place, add one in the evening — perhaps right when you get home from work (sorry, alcoholic drinks don’t count) or right before you go to bed. Gradually expand the space you dedicate to self-kindness.
3: Put love over fear. Often, the biggest obstacle blocking us from doing what we know could transform our health is simple fear: fear of other people finding us wrong or stupid or ugly or uncool, fear of change or loss or exploring our own potential. But you can be bigger than your fear and self-imposed limitations, particularly if you act out of love instead.
Ask: How can you express more love today — for your body, for yourself, for your life? When you sink into unhealthy behaviors or mindsets, notice what’s operating: love or fear? Choose love, and you’ll be choosing health, too.
It can feel weird at first, trying on choices and behaviors that aren’t yet “you.” In the spirit of experimentation, just give it a try. Start by faking yourself out a little, and you might just discover a whole new level of authenticity in the process.
“Switch!” — From human-behavior experts Chip and Dan Heath, brilliant ways to change for the better, even when change is hard.
“The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-Create Your World Your Way” — Wisdom from Wayne Dyer’s classic guide to conscious, joyful living.
“Your Body, Reframed” — How to escape the mental traps that prevent you from making positive body changes.
“How to Overcome Immunity to Change” — Two Harvard experts share a step-by-step plan for breaking through old patterns and reprogramming your life.