A few days ago, I had a conversation with a woman who was seeing a man she’d recently met on an internet dating site. On the surface, they seemed quite compatible, and he was the kind of guy who seemed genuinely interested in her, despite her protests about her many perceived foibles and imperfections. He had even gone so far as to invite her over and make her dinner, romancing her in a way she’d not yet experienced.
Yet the conversation wasn’t a positive one, filled with gushing about young love and a happy future; instead, all of that was offered as the preface before getting into the heart of the issue: for each of his plusses, there seemed to be more minuses–he prioritized his friends and even his job before making time for her; he sometimes came over just because her apartment was closer to where he needed to be the next morning; and for every one nice meal, there were several impatient texts requesting booty calls.
As an objective observer, you and I can see the red flags: if he’s already made it clear that he doesn’t want to be called “boyfriend,” but he’s also committed to the easy hook up, then it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t going to be a good investment for this woman long term.
Anyone would look at this “relationship” and say, “Hey, lady, maybe it’s time you and he broke up.”
But she won’t break up with him. What she sees, in the moment, is a guy who makes her feel good when the relationship is hot and who she’ll hang onto when it’s cold, because it’s not optimal, but it’s good enough.
Why am I telling this story? Well, long story short (not),many of us have relationships we can’t seem to get out of–relationships with food and exercise.
While we may not have to worry about our food canceling plans to hang out with its friends or our exercise sending a lewd text at 2 am, there are other indications that our relationships with food and exercise are broken:
- Do you feel bad, tired, sick, bloated, or any other related symptoms that you can trace back to the foods you eat, and yet you refuse to make a change?
- Do you find yourself masking symptoms (stomachaches, fatigue, acne, heartburn, poor exercise performance, etc.) with medicine or caffeine or else making excuses instead of changing your habits?
- Do you find yourself going back to old diets or exercise routines that you couldn’t sustain long term because they’re at least familiar and they worked the first time?
- Are you more comfortable living a suboptimal life because it’s the “devil you know,” versus making a change and confronting the “devil you don’t?”
Here’s the thing–and I’m right there in the thick of it with you, battling my own compulsive eating and compulsive exercise:
We know it’s not working. We feel it, both intuitively and viscerally. We complain about the fickleness of the relationship (I can’t stop, it feels so good, but at the end of the day I’m left hurting and unfulfilled). So how do we break up with our bad food and exercise habits?
I don’t have all of the answers, but here are some suggestions (and this works with everything from men to 4 pm frappuccinos):
1. Identify the pattern
Most of the time, we flit from bad relationship to bad relationship, dating the same person over an over (whether we go back to the same dysfunctional a-hole who slept with our best friend or we date different people who all share the same codependent traits) or getting stuck in food/exercise ruts (sticking with a bad diet because it’s comfortable or switching from diet to diet without ever seeing results).
What’s your pattern? Pretend to be an objective observer and make a list of all of the “bad relationships” in your past. Once you identify the ingrained dysfunctional behaviors or the types of harmful behaviors that attract you, it will be easier to do something about it.
Personally, I have to avoid food routines (eating the same meals over and over at exactly the “right” times each day), and I have to consciously change up my exercise to avoid going back to the same fitness routine I first latched onto in Muscle & Fitness Hers when I started getting “shredded” (read: anorexic).
2. Confront the issue
Once you’ve identified your pattern, you now have a choice: you can face it or you can ignore it.
Confrontation is not the easy choice, but if you’re actually committed to breaking free, then it’s the only choice you have. You have to let go of the emotions attached to your habit and stay the objective observer you became in step one.
One way to confront the issue is to take your list of “bad relationships,” and write down all of the negative consequences that happened as a result of each. This could be everything from feeling foggy and bloated and depressed after bingeing on sugar to losing your fertility from extreme exercise. Then write down all of the consequences you will face as a result of your current if you don’t change.
3. Get uncomfortable
Now that you have your list of bad relationship patterns and their consequences, you’re going to have to accept the fact that leaving the relationship is going to be uncomfortable.
That may mean gaining weight if you’ve been severely underweight. That may mean eating “fear foods” or eliminating comfort foods. That may mean limiting your exercise to only a few times a week or removing yourself from a competition or competitive sport.
If you’re detoxing from sugar or eating your first sweet potato in years or taking a rest day or doing yoga instead of Crossfit (etc., etc.) you will go through a period of discomfort. It might be visceral (such as the dreaded “carb flu” or a feeling of heaviness you haven’t experienced in years) or mental (such as fighting the internal calorie counter as you add coconut oil to your meal or the period of anxiety accompanying your rebalancing of your hormones or adrenal glands when you finally allow yourself to rest).
Either way, get comfortable with the fact that you will be uncomfortable–and know that it will pass.
4. Choose to leave–and choose not to come back
This is where I get to throw around the clichéd “baby steps” and “one day at a time” and mean them in all seriousness.
Look, I’m not going to sugar-coat it: fighting an addiction (which is what a bad food or exercise relationship is, at its core) sucks. You’re going to answer that late night call from the box of cereal you promised never to visit, no matter how many promises it made you (“Eat me, I’m low-fat!”). You’re going to run the extra mile toward an aesthetic goal by logging extra miles on the treadmill, even though the doctor told you six times that you’ve destroyed the cartilage in your knees. You’re going to hook up with eating “healthy” instead of dieting only to find out that “healthy” is the same diet mindset you’ve always courted, but in different clothing.
Accept it. You will take steps backward, even when you’ve “recovered.”
And that’s okay.
Every single day, you get the privilege of making the choice to say no to old habits, old behaviors, and old relationships.. Every day, you get to make the choice to stay broken up–to be single(minded) in your commitment to your own health and wellbeing.
You’re doing the hard work now so that you can live an easier life later. And you’re not alone. We’re all in this together–and we’ve all been where you are now. Even Neil Sedaka once musically admitted, “Breaking up is hard to do.”
So it’s time to delete the number for that delivery place you can’t resist from your phone, change your route home so you don’t have to pass by that boot camp anymore, and move on with your life.
Your relationship with food and exercise should make you feel good, not good enough. Let’s agree now: “Suboptimal but okay” is not really okay…okay?
If you feel comfortable, you can share your list (or experiences) in the comments below. What steps will you take to confront your issues, get uncomfortable, and chose to leave?
PS. So you’re not doing this alone, here is part of my “list”:
– Pattern: Food routines (eating at a certain time)
– Consequence: Limits social life, causes anxiety when I can’t eat on time, makes mealtime a chore instead of something to savor
– Steps to take: Experiment with eating at different times. Wait longer between meals to remember that I’m not going to starve if I don’t eat at 3 hour intervals. Find something else to do to avoid obsessing in between meals.
– Pattern: Food routines (avoiding “fear foods” and eating the same thing every day)
– Consequence: Nutrient imbalances, limits social life, causes anxiety when eating with others, makes mealtime a chore and limits creativity and fun in the kitchen.
– Steps to take: Buy a new vegetable, fat, or cut of meat and look up recipes to incorporate it. Eat a small amount of the fear food with something I’m used to (and realize that, hey, it’s not going to kill me and even tastes pretty good!). Accept invitations to go out with other people and enjoy the time spent together instead of obsessing over the meal.
–– Pattern: Doing the same 12 week transformation workout at the gym
– Consequence: Hurts my back, knees, ankles, and shoulders. No longer produces gains. Makes fitness boring and predictable. Socially isolating (focus on my bicep curls instead of enjoying fitness with others).