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February 10, 2012

The All-or-Nothing vs. The Balanced Mindset

Does this sound familiar to you?

  • Eat perfectly Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday (“Ok, maybe I have 1 glass of wine on Wednesday night, it’s just to get me through until the weekend.”)
  • Thursday start to indulge in some light cheating (“I deserve this, I have been eating perfectly all week!”)
  • Friday night go out to dinner, cheat, wine, etc, starting to feel bad/remorseful
  • Screw it, I already blew it for this week, I am going to start on Monday with a competition diet (“In fact, I will just use the exact one I used for my last competition that got me into incredible shape!”)
  • Saturday cheating all day, feel terrible, but I know I am starting again on Monday so I might as well do it up right
  • Sunday go food shopping, prep food, a few random cheats…can’t wait for Monday to be here, I feel awful!!
  • Repeat above scenario week after week

I know it does to me. And if you have had this experience too (over and over and over and over…and over again..) than you are not alone. This is what I call “The Competition Curse” and it presents in many who have done a show or two, got themselves into incredible shape, the best of their lives, completely transformed their physique, took on a new role as a “fitness expert” or pro within their gym or circle, and then experience the jarring realization that is impossible to stay in show shape.

I hate this for you. And I hated it for myself when I was going through it. It is a vicious cycle of “all or nothing”–you are either on a strict competition-no-room-for-errors plan OR you are off the wagon, indulging in every little thing you have been trying so hard to deprive yourself of over the last few months or even years.

The “all-or-nothing” mindset is the opposite of a “balanced mindset.” It is strict, unyielding, black-and-white, yo-yoing. It is not healthy physically, but more importantly, it is not healthy mentally. Us fitness gals have a thing with guilt. We love to riddle ourselves with it, as if without it, we would really go on a bender. We keep doing it to ourselves though. By adopting the expectation that we MUST be perfect in our eating, and if we don’t, we are somehow “less than,” immediately sets us up for failure and disappointment. We ask ourselves “Why we can’t just be like so-and-so who eats clean all the time?” We say WHY can’t I just DO it? I am weak! I am not disciplined! I have no self-control! And my response to you is that…no, you are human :)

This is normal stuff, and I think in order to really learn and adopt a balanced relationship with food, it is necessary to go through growing pains. In fact, without the struggle, there can be no insight. I never had serious food “issues” until after I did my first show (though I certainly ate whatever I wanted and just worked out a ton). Then, I became obsessed with needing to be on a strict diet, to be “in control” and uphold my place as someone who had it mastered. “Gee, I did a show didn’t I?? Not many people can do that! So WHY oh why can’t I do it again??” Because…being on a contest diet or maintaining a strict nutrition plan all the time is unrealistic and unsustainable. Even for people with willpower of steel–sometimes we get caught without food, sometimes we have to compromise our food choices, life continues on around us and sometimes, we just want what we want. And that’s ok.

I would argue that it is MORE dangerous to be obsessed with food. That the idea of not being able to stick to your plan frightens you. That if you indulge once in a while, you are somehow unworthy. The more appropriate approach is one of balance, acceptance, self-love, and yet still determined. Just because you start being kinder to yourself when you have moments off your plan doesn’t mean that you simply give up altogether. In fact it is a person with an all-or-nothing mindset that gives up and says that she will start fresh on Monday. And the person who adopts a balanced approach, who allows themselves a small indulgence, will do precisely THAT because it allows them to get back to their plan as soon as possible. Balanced eaters do not wait until Monday–THEY MOVE ON IMMEDIATELY. No looking back, and no throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Here are my 5 ways to begin to adopt the Balanced Mindset:

1) Begin wrapping your head around the fact that you will, inevitably, mess up. You cannot and will not be perfect in your eating. Instead of expecting perfection and being upset when it doesn’t happen, expect to mess up and then when you do, you will be better able to handle it and move on quicker. Even the pros cheat. Expect Imperfection.

2) Decide what it is you really want. I interviewed fitness supermodel Lori Harder last week for my mentorship clients, and she explained how doing this very thing eventually got her to the point she is now. She decided that it was just as important to her to have fun, cook great food, spend time with her family and not stress herself silly as it was to eat clean and stay lean. She wanted it all, and she worked hard to find a way to do it all. If “eat clean or die” is your mantra, then so be it, but realize that in the end, that may or may not be your ultimate goal. Spend time in your own head asking yourself the question of what is really, truly important to you. And then work your ass off to find a way to make it a reality.

3) It’s ok to have a cookie and still like yourself afterward. I say this because many times without even knowing it, we will adopt this self-disgust that we justify because we think  we need it to prevent future cheats (even though it really doesn’t, and just perpetuates negative self-talk). So why don’t you just skip that step since it really doesn’t work anyway, and instead fully experience your inherent self-worth. You are beautiful, worthy, smart, fit and fabulous right now, regardless of how often you cheat.

4) Look forward to your failures. Fun, right?? :) It is never really fun, but mess-ups, obstacles and challenges are always opportunities for growth (I know it sounds cliche). But honestly, without the experience of a failure, how can we learn a lesson in the getting back up? I have finally gotten to the point where if I find myself going down a road that I know is not ideal for my fat loss efforts (i.e. having sugar-free fro-yo for dinner too much :-P), I will evaluate why, in fact, I am doing that. I don’t get pissed at myself or spiral into self-pity. Instead, I objectively ask myself what am I doing (or not doing) that has me making those choices more and more often. Whenever I work with a client who is dealing with a food issue, almost every time, there is a either some emotional thing going on that is contributing to a certain behavior OR there is something that they are not doing preemptively to discourage the action. For me, I know that not having my food prepped or not eating enough protein and veggies earlier in the day leaves me jonesing for fro-yo. So instead of getting emotional, I get rational and I get actionable. I am open to the learning process. And the learning process takes first failure, then insight, then practice :)

5) Realize there is no “right” way or “right answer.” Meaning, there is no single path you should or need to take with this stuff. The path to the Balanced Mindset will be different for everyone. I like writing about it because I think there are some common themes among competitors and fitness gals, but ultimately, you will need to spend time with yourself. No one can tell you what you need to do. Not me, not this coach, not that trainer, not your mom, nor your significant other, not this fitness pro and not that expert. This process is truly one of introspection. We always want someone to tell us the answer or rescue us somehow. The humbling truth is that ultimately, there is no one that can do that for us. No magical plan or diet or coach or system. The “right” system for you will be the one you develop over time, on your own, based on your own unique insights, experiences and growth opportunities. The good news is that you get to create it–and it truly becomes what you make of it :)

I suggest at the very least starting with a notebook where you are able to begin writing down insights. Start with simple things like hunger, cravings and mood issues. When do they occur? What’s going on in your life at those time? Is there a catalyst or is it random? What is your thought process in those moments? Etc.

Just getting started with this stuff and then practicing for a time will eventually lead to additional and deeper insights about yourself and the way you interact with the world. And hopefully you will gain a greater understanding of the WHY so that you can begin tackling the HOW of the Balanced Mindset. Good luck!! Would love to hear your thoughts! ox Jill

Related: Learning to embrace imperfection

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