Health is a complicated matter in that it is both a general concept but health is also about each and every moment and choice. The trick of health, I believe, is to make healthy choices the majority of the time. I look at it like a bank account. If you put money consistently in, your bank account can cover a week when you overspend. Conversely if you withdraw consistently and rarely put in, there eventually won’t be any money when you need it. I think our bodies are like that. If we put good food in most of the time, exercise regularly most of the time, drink alcohol in moderation most of the time, than in the moments when we make unhealthy choices, our bodies will recover more quickly. Every healthy person gets tired at some point of choosing the healthier option, every healthy person needs a break every once in a while. I think the real marker of health in those moments is acceptance of our choices.
I believe that a large part of health is accepting our choices, whatever they may be. Acceptance is very important for lots of different reasons but most importantly for the process of learning. We must acknowledge that we, ourselves, have made choices so that with that responsibility we can own our option to make a different choice in the future. Health is a process of learning. We are not born making healthy choices. As children, we are self-focused, impulsive, self-gratifying, grandiose. We must learn through life’s lessons to be thoughtful, patient, empathetic, and courageous – the qualities I believe it takes to be healthy. Maturity brings the opportunity for health because growing up entails accepting one’s self and one’s choices.
It is very difficult to take full responsibility for our choices. It feels easier, less painful and more comfortable to blame someone else for our choices. Taking full ownership of our unhealthy choices is challenging because it involves hard feelings like disappointment, shame, frustration, and feelings of failure. But we must learn to do just exactly that, to take responsibility for our choices so that we can learn what prompted us, what triggered us, basically why we made that unhealthy choice. When we blame others for our unhealthy choices, we lose the opportunity to examine our decision making process and therefore we lose our power to do something different the next time.
I will share a couple examples, one from my experience and one from a client’s experience. When I first moved to California, I was unaware of a popcorn company called Popcornapolis. I have always had a very close relationship with popcorn as a snack and I have a ridiculous sweet tooth which I have worked tirelessly on corralling. One night after work, a group of us went to celebrate one of my colleagues getting a promotion. Another colleague had divided some Zebra popcorn from Popcornapolis (carmel popcorn covered in both dark and white chocolate) into individual wrapped sandwich bags with cute sayings on them. It had been a hard week at work, I hadn’t had a chance to eat enough for lunch and so I immediately opened my bag. It tasted really really really good and I ate the whole bag. But I wasn’t done. I ate my friend’s bag too before I knew what I was doing. By the end of the two bags I had a tummy ache. Later that night and for several days afterwards I had an ongoing blame game between my colleague who had brought the popcorn, the popcorn company and the stress at work for my choice. I was mad at the popcorn company for creating such a treat. I was frustrated with my colleagues for bringing it as a snack. I was frustrated at the popcorn itself for being so yummy and sugary and high in calories. In those days following while I blamed everyone else but myself, I learned nothing about myself or my health. I continued to have cravings for the popcorn and to talk about it. I continued to think if I ran into it again, it would be out of my control, I would just have to eat it. Then finally after a few weeks I realized, it was me I was mad at. It was me that made the choice to eat too much. It was me that consumed so many calories that I got a tummy ache. In this ownership, I also realized that it was me that could make the decision when faced with that same popcorn in the future to make a different choice. As soon as I understood my power, I was no longer mad at the popcorn or the company. I have been faced with that popcorn several times since then and I feel indifferent towards it. It is simply a food in my presence and because I experienced learning about myself and my desires, I have the privilege of now really deciding whether I want to eat it or not. It was no one’s fault but my own, and it will be no one’s achievement but my own when I do not make another unhealthy choice.
I was working with a woman a while back who was abusing pain pills. She knew that it was unhealthy in that she was having difficulty getting to work and functioning well. I asked her what was stopping her from changing her behavior. She told me that she couldn’t help taking the pills because her husband continued to fill his prescription for pain medications and keep them in the house. She told me she had told her husband that she was struggling with the pills but he kept bringing them home. I asked her whether he was in pain. She said that he was, he had back surgery not too long before and the pain pills were helping moderate the pain. She said even still she had no control over the pills and if they were in the house she was going to take them. We spent a long time talking about why she took the pills but she continued to say she had no control over the behavior. However, one session out of the blue, she said, “Wait a minute. I’m the one taking the pills which means it is my responsibility. I am making the choice, my husband isn’t forcing me to take them. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t want me to take them. I want to take them, that’s why I take them. I feel like a failure, I guess I am addicted to them.” I immediately told her this acceptance of her behavior was exactly the beginning of her recovery. I told her taking responsibility is absolutely the first step towards changing behavior. She was very disappointed in herself and very shameful but I thought she was brave for taking ownership. We then were able to figure out why she was making this choice and eventually together we reduced her usage. I was very proud of her maturity and courage.
Acceptance of ourselves and our behavior is not easy. But it is necessary in order to achieve and maintain health. We must take responsibility for our choices in order to learn the power that we have in making healthier choices. That is one of my favorite moments when working with someone, when they realize they have control over their health choices.