The Rules of Long Term Change

Life has rules.

In the same manner that one cannot ignore the rules of mathematics and expect one’s checkbook to balance; or disregard the “Golden Rule” (treat others the way you want to be treated), and not be surprised when the remainder of society ostracizes you; one cannot change one’s life without paying homage to the rules that govern it.

Responsibilities and results

Too often, we focus on the symptom (excess weight, unhealthy living style, poor health) rather than the cause: the habits that put us there in the first place. If we don’t change why we are here, it really doesn’t matter what we do, as the results will be fleeting or short-term at best. Once we have “cured” the symptom, we will revert to the old thought patterns (which are what caused the symptoms in the first place) and we will recreate the problem.

Although far more effective, most of us do not want to take a look at what goes on inside us. It can be a dark and scary place in there. We are confronted with unpleasant feelings. And once we “own up” to the reality that we set ourselves up for this change, we must then “own up” to the responsibility of changing it – or the reality that we would rather live the status quo.

To “own” this problem generates internal discomfort. We feel ashamed, embarrassed. It’s easier to blame the media, genetics, or our “big bones” for the excess pounds. However, it’s equally vital to realize that if guilt and shame were motivational, we would all be healthy and fit.

To accept responsibility is the beginning of a new life. But after that, where does one go? Especially in a society that is addicted to the quick fix.

Rule 1: It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you feel

If you are awake at 12:01AM on January 2nd of any year, you can’t help but hear the giant CLUNK; that is the sound of the national psyche slamming over from “How much can I eat?” to “How quickly can I lose weight? Equally without fail are the inundation of advertisements, TV programs – and yes, columnists – who provide astute coaching on how to lose “those extra pounds” and get in shape. Warmed-over, threadbare, time-and-again guidance is ladled out in generous proportion, as reliably as winter rains. Chefs explain lower-fat meal preparation. Size zero models adorned in $500 leotards and $2000 running shoes champion their personal workout plans. Equally ubiquitous, snake oil infomercials attempt to pry consumer from wallet with assurances of medication and machines that “melt weight off without effort.”

Been there, heard that. Over and over and over and over again…

I still weighed 250 pounds.

We know how to lose weight (eat less, be more active); it need not be belabored ad nausea. What blocks our progress is we just plain don’t want to do it!

Yes, we all desire good health. Yes, we like it when we look attractive. No, we are not fond of the stuffed-to-the-gills-can’t-budge gastric distress following a binge of belly-busting burgers dripping with cheese and wrapped in pigful of bacon. The hitch in the get-along is that dieting takes forever; requires excessive, unending, Herculean, effort; and feels like it never succeeds. Why embark upon a laborious, frustrating voyage with defeat at its termination?

As said in college, “Flunk now, avoid the June rush.”

We control our lives – no one else does

We are not “food zombies,” in control one moment, consuming uncountable calories the next, without some intervening thought process. In that illogical flash, I consider alternatives, rise from the couch, head to the kitchen, figure out what foods will comfort me – and only THEN do I drain the cabinets. I KNOW it’s not healthy but this is not about smart, this is about feelings.

Step 2: Focus the benefits of the process; NOT the process

“People don’t buy what they need, they buy what they want,” so goes the age-old idiom used by sales trainers.

Some explanation is in order:

“Buy” is not merely an exchange of currency for a product; “buy” can also be “make a decision” as in “buy into an idea.” From such “mental purchases,” actions result.
We are not irrational; although “buying” begins emotionally, we back it with logic before finalizing the deal.
In other words, I might really, really, really want a bright red sporty convertible (can you say “mid life crisis?”) but I then analyze my finances, examine my needs, and decide not to buy. However, if I don’t “want” it first, I will not even weigh the options, so no purchase is possible.

Again: We buy what we want more than what we need; we back it with logic.

So, what does this have to do with getting in shape?

I NEEDED to lose weight for years, yet it wasn’t until my 39th birthday when I found myself eating leftover frosting from the pink cake box I had placed in the garbage, that I decided to actually do something.

Moreover, it was not that I even wanted to lose weight; in that moment all I wanted was to stop despising myself. I wanted control. I wanted to feel better. At that instant, I would do virtually anything to make the pain stop. Born from that strong emotional state, I only then analyzed my options and alternatives – and moved forward.

To change, we must face the demons that cause it

Change is generated by fear, force, or pain – not happiness. If life were idyllic with butterflies, flowers, and sunshine greeting each morning, why would anyone want to change? However, from the fire of ache, desires arise; the paradox being that once that hurt starts to recede (or the reality of the effort sets in) I no longer WANT to do the work as it appears laborious, tedious, and non-productive. I revert to familiar easier habits, figuring “there’s always tomorrow.” Therein lies the seed of every broken resolution.

To break that cycle, one must focus on what is GAINED from the effort, not what is sacrificed. Weight loss is NOT about abandoning favorite foods; it’s about feeling in control. It is NOT about grunting and panting through an exercise program, it’s about enjoying freedom of movement. Each is true, one we WANT – and move toward it; the other we don’t – we steer away.

To make change permanent, it is imperative that we focus on its benefits. It’s still a long road but a more productive, positive, and exciting path.

Although we see those wondrous bright lights on the road to health, we will find ourselves easily brought back to the “dark side,” bogged down in the seeming bumpiness of the path we have chosen.

Why is it that even though I know how good I feel when in control, I find it so easy to forget? The short answer is because I really don’t believe I can keep this up long enough to achieve to my goal. And if that is the case, then I am indeed trapped.

Rule 3: Change your beliefs (yes, it can be done)

The famous early-twentieth century escape artist, Harry Houdini, traveled the countryside, locking himself in jails, only to escape, as a method of furthering his reputation (and increasing his audiences). As the story goes, there was only one chamber from which he could not free himself.

Houdini entered the fateful cell and began his usual routine once the iron bars clanged shut. From his belt, he removed a concealed piece of metal utilized to pick locks, and set about as he had done countless times before. Whereby every previous security device had soon swung open, he could not achieve the desired results on this occasion. Finally, after laboring for hours, bathed in sweat and exhausted, Houdini collapsed in frustration against the cell door, defeated. As he fell against it, it swung wide – it was unlocked the entire time. Because Houdini believed he was trapped, he was. So too are we ensnared by our beliefs.
If I do not believe I can lose “those extra pounds,” all the forces of Heaven and Earth cannot force success upon me. It matters not the number of “experts” and self-help gurus who ply me with easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions, exercise plans, or medical research.

As example, if after losing 12 pounds, I have   a temporary setback of two pounds, I will see that as validation of what I already “knew”: that I cannot lose weight.

“It was only a matter of time,” I’ll say to myself. “I knew it couldn’t last.”

Beliefs lead to feelings and feelings lead to actions

Beliefs influence feelings; therefore defeated and despondent, I think, “Why am I wasting my time?” From thoughts come actions; in this case that would be getting off the scale, tossing my diet materials in the trash, and deciding to give up for now. I revert to old habits. My losses evaporate, my bulks returns.

The final consequence is my beliefs are again validated and the cycle resumes.

The reality about weight loss is that it is not a linear downward progression, even for the ultra dedicated and diligent. Rather, it is a learned skill, trial and error. Successful weight loss is actually losing more weight than one gains; down four pounds, up one, down three, up two. (Picture a stock market chart from a downward Bear market and you get an accurate concept.)

If my belief is that periodic gains are part of the process, I will still feel frustrated and saddened by the setback, but shall continue the course, possibly making some corrections. Two pounds are two pounds; resulting actions differ only because underlying beliefs do.

What we say to ourselves become our beliefs; if they work, they are of value to us. If not, it is vital we change them.

Of course, that’s a heck of a lot easier to say than it is to do. How do we take what we have accepted as truth since before we could talk, and transform it? It’s an immense, overwhelming project.

It is indeed – unless you make it small, not large.

Rule 4: To change your beliefs, focus on your “small” victories; move the large ones into the background

I believe in the basic goodness of people.

Because of that, my feelings towards most are benevolent; I cut people some slack, assist the downtrodden when possible, and experience a general contentedness with life. The result is, on the whole, people treat me well and I feel fortunate. (Although I periodically forget, so you might need to remind me.)




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