Wednesday, May 1, 2013

when we think we can, we can

Okay, Imma be straight with y’all. I have always thought that the whole ‘power of positive thinking’ thing was kinda bunk. When I first moved to Toronto, I was looking for work and went to meet with a career counsellor at a local employment centre. After I’d told her some of my job-hunting woes, she clapped her hands together and gushed, “Have you read The Secret? You should really read The Secret!”

I didn’t ever go back to that employment centre. I found a job on my own, no mystic juju required.

I don’t know, the whole idea of putting positive thoughts out into the universe or whatever has always been, like, too much for me. Because for one thing it implies that the universe is a conscious sentient thing, and two, implies that it’s taking requests. The universe is not a golden oldies radio station. I don’t think you can just call it up and ask it to play Jailhouse Rock whenever you feel like it.

But over the last year or so, I’ve sort of reversed my position on this. Because what I’ve come to realize is that ‘thinking positive’ isn’t about the universe at all -- it’s about you.

There is a term in psychology called ‘self-efficacy’. Self-efficacy has to do with your belief in your ability to accomplish something.

So, say we’re talking about losing weight. You might believe that it’s possible for OTHER people to lose weight, but not you. You can blame it on any number of things -- fate, bad genes, poor character, limiting circumstances, illness, economics, whatever -- but basically, for one reason or another, you feel you aren’t capable of losing weight. In some cases (like bad genes, injury), you might not feel you can even try, so you don’t even try. In other cases (like bad character), you might believe you can START a weight loss program but that you’ll inevitably abandon it due to your weak will or whatever.

So the more I think about ‘positive thinking’, the more I think it’s just maybe a flightier idea for what ultimately means self-efficacy. You actually do have to believe you can do something before you can do it. Especially something (like weight loss) that requires sustained change efforts and some level of discomfort. Because if you don’t believe something will ultimately change, WHY would you put yourself through the wringer for it? WHY would you pass up delicious cheesecake if you’re just going to stay fat anyway? Might as well be fat WITH cheesecake than fat WITHOUT cheesecake, right?

Self-efficacy can be tough for a few reasons. The first is that we may not even realize we’re lacking it. Contrary to how the media likes to portray us, a lot of overweight people are both competent and confident in many areas of our lives. (Shocking, I know!) Lots of us have our lives pretty much together, and yet wonder why we continue to struggle with this one thing. Self-efficacy (or a lack thereof) can be limited to certain areas of your life, so if you’re an otherwise confident and self-actualizing person, you may have to dig a little before you realize that you maybe DO have some limiting beliefs about your ability to lose weight or change your lifestyle.

The second problem with self-efficacy is that, while you can work to build it up, you can also weaken it. Every time you go on a diet and fail (hello, dozens of times. hello, since I was 10.) you are ‘learning’ that you can’t lose weight. You are weakening your sense of self-efficacy when it comes to weight loss or lifestyle change. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve been doing that over and over and over, since you were 10 or 12 or 14 years old.

This is where I’m at now. I mentioned last week that one of my major sticking points last time I lost weight was that I didn’t ever really believe I’d be able to KEEP it off. I didn’t think I’d ‘changed’ enough. And sure enough, the weight came back. And to be totally honest with you guys (because what’s better than being totally honest with strangers on the internet?) it’s been a really crushing year for my self-esteem. Or should I say, my sense of self-efficacy. I believe on one hand that I CAN still lose weight (I mean, I did it before!) but I really don’t believe, at this moment, that I can keep it off. There is a large part of me that believes I’m ‘meant’ to be this way, or that I’m too ‘damaged’ to be any other way. So any time I try to change how I’m eating or living, I give up very quickly, because I think, “What’s the point? I’m just going to gain it back all over again and it’ll be even MORE humiliating the second time around.”

Andrea’s brain: the home of the good times.

Except somewhere deep inside me there still seems to be a scrappy little fighter. Because I keep coming back. I keep popping up here, even if it’s sporadically. I keep buying diet books. I keep looking for ways to change.

I think there are things you can do to work on developing self-efficacy, but this post is long enough so I want to leave it at that for now.

Monday, April 22, 2013

who owns the choice to change?

Thank you for all your lovely comments on my last post! It's nice to know there's someone reading besides Romanian sex traffickers.

Anyway, I mentioned that I've been pretty riveted lately by the idea of how change really works. And one of the concepts I’ve come across is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic change. That is to say, change that you bring upon yourself versus change that is brought upon you by someone or something external to you.

A simpler way to think about it is this: one is a type of change you have control over and the other isn’t. An example of a change you don’t have control over might be losing your job, or finding out your landlord is selling the house you rent. An example of change you DO have control over is quitting your job, or deciding to move in with your significant other.

But one thing that’s been puzzling me lately is where weight loss / health goals fit into that. How many times have you looked in the mirror and said, “Oh my God, I HAVE to lose some weight”? If you’re anything like me, the answer is “a shit ton.” Or maybe you got bad test results the last time you saw your doctor -- your cholesterol is high or you’re pre-diabetic, or whatever. And again you might say to yourself (or even hear from your doctor), “I HAVE to do something about this!”

I feel like I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself over the last two years, because not only do I feel like I HAVE to lose weight, I feel like I HAVE to get back to my old weight. That’s been the voice in my head, over and over -- you have to do this, everyone’s judging you, you don’t fit into any of your old clothes, this is humiliating and you HAVE TO FIX IT.

But now I wonder if I’m not giving away some (or even a lot) of my power when I say that to myself. The reality is, we are never FORCED to try to get healthier. Yes, some of the consequences can be dire -- our health might deteriorate, we could lose mobility, we could even eventually die and leave behind sad little orphan children. I’m absolutely not saying those aren’t terrible things that we probably want to avoid -- but that’s the thing, we WANT to avoid them. We don’t HAVE to.

Think about it this way. If you get fired from your job, you have to leave. Even if you decide to be like the guy from Office Space and just hide in the basement of your office for awhile, pretending you still work there, eventually they will find you and literally force you to leave. They will escort you from the building, or call the police if they have to. They will most definitely stop paying you. You really DON’T have a choice.

But when it comes to health, you do. Sure, you could face the ultimate consequence if you don’t change, but it’s still your choice.

I think this concept is more important than we give it credit for. We tend to act out when we feel like we’re not in control of something. How many times have I done something stupid and immature when I felt forced into making a change I didn’t want to make? I’m pretty sure divorce attorneys get rich off this very idea -- one person’s not happy about the divorce and channels that unhappiness into fighting over every hideous knick-knack and kitchen utensil.

On the other hand, if you resign from your job in order to pursue your dream of being a professional tap dancer, I highly doubt your old boss is going to find you sneaking into the building, sitting at your old desk, and secretly doing your old job on the sly. That was a choice (a change) you made for yourself, and you’re much more likely to embrace all aspects of it, even the moments that are inevitably going to be tough. (Hey, the professional tap dancing scene is very cut-throat. Or so I hear.)

So when we start a new health regime, and we ‘cheat’ or give up or do something that otherwise doesn’t align with our goals, maybe it’s because, on some level, we feel like this change is being forced upon us. Maybe when we throw up our hands and reach for the cake (guilty!), what we’re doing is the same as the soon-to-be-divorced guy, absolutely insisting he should get that porcelain rabbit with the Easter bonnet. I mean, he DESERVES it.

Just like we deserve that cake, right?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

the thing at the heart of all the other things

One of the main reasons I’ve been away from the blog for so long has been work. I’ve been busy! But recently I had a bit of an epiphany regarding weight loss and I figured, what  better place to talk about that than here?

My epiphany actually stemmed from some of the work stuff I’ve been doing, so let me give you a bit of context. My main job is as a speechwriter. I work in the government and I write mostly for a particular gentleman who speaks quite frequently -- a few times a week, at least. So that takes up the bulk of my work time. However, over the past few months, I’ve been given responsibility for another major project -- namely, leading the internal communications on a major culture change initiative within our ministry.

That’s really all I want to say about that, because I don’t like to talk about work too much on here. But the reason I mention this is because it means I’ve been spending a LOT of time recently reading (and attending seminars and workshops, etc.) about change management and organizational change, and about the theories and broader psychology of change. Mostly for work  I’m focused more on the communications aspect, but I have to say -- the entire process is FASCINATING. How and why we change, what makes change easier, what makes change harder, how to deal with resistance (or resistors, in the case of organizational change), and what successful change really looks like.  

I’ve always been fascinated by psychology, and I have a total addiction to basically any kind of self-help book. But what strikes me about this particular field is that it’s really what’s at the heart of ALL OTHER KINDS OF self-help.

And therein lies my epiphany. Change, whether it’s organizational or personal, is a skill and a phenomenon unto itself. And yet we rarely apply it when we’re actually seeking to change something in our life.

I don’t know about you, but I have read dozens and dozens (probably edging up on a hundred) diet books in my life. They’ve run the gamut from calorie-counting (Weight Watchers) to sheer force of will (Jillian Michaels) to personal healing (Geneen Roth). They’ve ranged from vegan lifestyle (Crazy Sexy Diet) to paleo living (It Starts With Food) to intuitive eating (the aptly titled Intuitive Eating.). They’ve prescribed meal plans, workout regimes, self-help exercises, journaling prompts, and given token advice like “Don’t show up to parties hungry!” and “Don’t keep trigger foods in your house!”  

The one thing they never seem to address is how to really change. How do you take all that health advice and make it an actual part of your life, rather than just a passing fancy or temporary half-hearted effort? How do you, to paraphrase Gandhi, become the change you want to make?

I would say the only book I’ve come across that even begins to touch on this is The Beck Diet Solution. That book took a particular psychological approach (cognitive therapy) and applied it step-by-step to weight loss. But there’s a lot more out there, about how we form habits, how we motivate ourselves, and how and why we behave the way we do.  

I think this has been creeping into my consciousness for a while, even before I started reading about change psychology and change management. As many of you know, I’m in a strange (although not uncommon) position. Between 2008-2010, I was able to lose close to 100lbs by changing many of my habits. Yet I was constantly haunted by the idea that while I had changed my habits, *I* had not fundamentally changed. I always felt that I was in danger of slipping back into my old ways -- like the ‘real me’ was still there, and was merely being suppressed, buried beneath bowls of oatmeal and scuffed white running shoes. 

And eventually I lost my good habits (or at least most of them), and ended up pretty much back where I started. What I had feared all that time had indeed happened.

I feel like I’ve been searching for an answer to this question for years now -- is it enough to simply change your habits? Or does a more fundamental change need to happen? Did I slip back into ‘who I was’ because I hadn’t really changed, or did my lack of confidence in my habits cause me to subconsciously abandon them? If a more fundamental ‘self’ change is required, how do you do that? If it’s enough to change your habits, how do you do it in a way that doesn’t require hyper-vigilance at all times?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but the reading I’ve been doing lately has given me a lot to chew on. I want to blog about some of it, but I don’t want to make any commitments about how frequently I can do that, because the reality is, I’m still really busy with work. But I hope to be here at least a little more frequently. (That is, if anyone even still reads this. This blog still gets a fair bit of traffic but it seems to be coming from sites with names like 'pornikinu' and 'hottnu'. Which. Um.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

monday check in.

Just a check in today. I have a whole week of tracking under my belt now, and it feels great! And my goal to eat 1800 calories is AWESOME. Not once this week have I had to feel like I've blown it or that the day was shot. I've eaten out about four times too, and enjoyed beer, fried calamari, pulled pork, and other pub-ish delicacies -- and I've still stayed in my calories.

Well, that's not entirely true -- a couple of days I've gone a little bit over. But one thing I noticed that's new on MyFitnessPal is a feature that shows you your weekly calorie target. (This feature only seems to be available on the iPhone app, not on the website.) Basically it shows you your net calories consumed for each day, and tells you whether you're over or under your weekly calorie goal.

That was always one thing I liked about Weight Watchers -- you could have one lower day and then higher day (using Flex Points). Your overall balance worked on a weekly basis rather than a daily one. Now by using this feature on MFP, I can see where I am for the week. For instance, this past week, I finished exactly 172 calories under my weekly goal. So although I went over my calories on a couple of days, I also came under a couple of days. And in the end, it evened out.

I was going to post my weigh-in results today, but I'm thinking that I might do that on a monthly basis, since I'm not expecting to drop huge and dramatic amounts of weight. I did have a nice loss for this week (though there's always that Week One advantage of losing some water weight), but I'd like to see where I'm at by the end of February. So stay tuned for that post.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

do it different.

Ever since I started to gain weight back (about two years ago), I’ve gone through several frantic attempts to fix it. I felt one of those fits coming on again this past week, in fact, as evidenced by my last couple of posts.

And every time I get into one of those fits, I either a) do some radical challenge like the Whole30 or Joshi's detox to lose a bit of weight quickly, or b) start trying to recreate the conditions of my past success.

I've always sort of known that option A doesn't really work. It's a nice jump-start in theory, but usually just ends up with me binging when the challenge is over.

Option B always seemed like the right answer. I mean, it makes sense, right? Let’s do everything the way I did the first time: join Weight Watchers, eat the same foods, same quantities, look up boot camp schedules. Restrict and burn, restrict and burn.

Good in theory, except after a couple of weeks (or a couple of days) I’d get burned out on it.

But the other day I had an epiphany. There is no point trying to recreate the conditions of my past success – because the past wasn’t really a success at all. Sure it worked in the short term, but I wasn’t able to sustain it for more than a couple of years. So why am I spending this energy trying to get back to where I was last time, only to (likely) end up back here yet again?

Eating the same foods I ate back then DOESN’T WORK FOR ME ANYMORE. I got burned out on those foods after eating them constantly for two years. I don’t mind eating them occasionally now – I don’t mind butternut squash for lunch sometimes, but not every freaking day.

Drastically cutting calories the way I did back then DOESN’T WORK FOR ME ANYMORE. I cut too much last time and it was an effort I couldn’t sustain. I still want to cut my calories back, but going to 1200 or 1300 is completely unrealistic long term. (For me. YMMV.)

But I still want to lose weight. I want to look better and feel better. But I also want to feel BALANCED. I don’t want to try to become a totally different person. I want to be the person I am now – just with slightly less food on her plate, and slightly less junk in the trunk.

So this time I’m doing it differently. I’m counting calories but I’m not making huge and drastic changes. In fact, my daily target is 1800 calories. That should (theoretically) still allow me to lose somewhere around 0.75 lbs a week. Which seems like a small amount, but works out to almost 40lbs in a year.

Considering the fact that I’ve basically GAINED 40lbs in the last year, losing 40lbs seems to be a pretty awesome alternative. Even losing 25-30lbs would be good. Hell, NOT GAINING would be good. If my weight stayed right here for a year, I could live with that.

Eating 1800 calories a day is not a huge shift for me. It’s not big enough to make me feel deprived, or like I can’t go out and enjoy myself. But it’s also enough of a shift to make a noticeable difference, if I stick with it.

Eating 1800 calories a day means I can still have a glass of wine in the evening. It means that if I eat a scone for breakfast, I don’t have to write the whole day off as ‘ruined’ (which always just leads to a whole day -- or more -- of awful eating anyway.) It means that if I don’t have time to make my lunch in the morning, I have more than three choices of what I can buy for lunch that will fit in my calories. It means I don’t have to eat butternut squash soup unless I actually want to.

I can’t even tell you the amount of peace it’s brought me to think this way, even just over the past couple of days. Tracking my calories has become fun again, instead of an exercise in frustration. I won't have epic weigh-ins to report, and my success may not be as dramatic as it was last time. But my true hope is that I'll find a way to do this that will be sustainable over my lifetime.