Does this situation sound familiar?
You notice your clothes aren’t fitting the way they used to, you feel sluggish most of the time and quickly run out of energy after the morning’s gallon of coffee wears off. Your skin is becoming blotchy, your hair seems dry and brittle and your digestion isn’t what it used to be. You intuitively know that changing your diet would help clear up these unwanted symptoms A LOT. In fact, you know from experience how much better you feel and look when you’re eating better.
And you really want to get on a healthy eating plan, one that you can follow to the letter and leaves no room for guess work. You begin to daydream about this perfect plan, and you start thinking of which diet you might try and when the perfect time will be to implement it. In the meantime, there’s no use changing anything because once you get on the plan, everything will be great! So you keep eating the foods that make you feel miserable while you fantasize about how awesome and together the future you will be!
Have you been there? I sure have! It’s the trap of all-or-nothing thinking that can be so easy and tempting to fall into.
Here’s the thing. I’ve come to learn that when we get caught up in this way of thinking – either we do everything or nothing at all – it’s not our health or appearance or even how we feel that matters the most to us. I promise you it’s not, or you would do something right away to help improve your symptoms. Nope, what matters most to us when we think this way is – the STRUCTURE.
It’s having a strict plan to follow in itself that matters most to us when we’re thinking in all-or-nothing terms. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, just having a structure to follow is the part that gets us fantasizing about how life will be different – better – when that plan’s in place.
Why would we do this? What would make us put this golden halo around a structured diet that makes it seem like the savior of everything wrong in our lives? I believe it’s because it gives a sense of control and instructions that we can concretely say we got right (or not).
While life is full of uncertainty and mystery and even the experts don’t have all the answers (far from it) it can be overwhelmingly tempting to have a black and white system to follow without question. It’s comforting and eases anxiety.While life is full of uncertainty and mystery and even the experts don’t have all the answers (far from it) it can be overwhelmingly tempting to have a black and white system to follow without question. ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet
The other side to this coin is that while having a structured plan equals safety in all-or-nothing thinking, not having one means chaos. We feel frozen and stuck, and since we don’t know the exact right thing to do, we do nothing.
It’s almost as though each eating plan were a different train on a track and all are rushing quickly by in different directions. While you’re off one, it feels like you’re floating around in no-man’s-land as you try and figure out which one to hop onto.
Here’s what you need to do:
1. Admit your true priorities
It’s important if you’re caught up in this way of thinking to realize that health and your body really are NOT your first priority. Easing your anxiety with structure IS your first priority. Is there anything wrong with that? I don’t think so. But we often get confused and frustrated when we believe we’re doing something for different reasons than we actually are.
So reassess why you want this plan so much. Is it really to feel better, look better, be healthier? (hint: if these were more important to you than structure, you would not be stuck in “nothing zone” until you have a plan).
Be aware that you may be resistant to admitting that the structure itself is your true priority rather than changing your health or symptoms or appearance. But again, if these were your true priorities, you would be able to take action even without a perfect plan.
2. Question your Assumptions
Our minds can build up this structured plan so high that we really believe everything in our life will be better when it’s in place. Now, if you’ve been in this situation before of following a structure and falling off again, it should be easy to question your current assumptions of what this new plan will do for you.
What happened the last time you had a structured plan?
Why did you stop using it?
What makes you think this time will be different?
We’re so good at convincing ourselves of the many reasons this time will be different, aren’t we? The truth is, the outcome will only be different if you yourself are fundamentally different. What I mean is, the way you approach and view this plan and structure needs to change before the outcome can change.We’re so good at convincing ourselves of the many reasons this time will be different, aren’t we? The truth is, the outcome will only be different if you yourself are fundamentally different. ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet
3. Understand Structure’s Role
Is it wrong to want a structured plan? No. I don’t think right and wrong come into it. It’s more just seeing this is what’s going on. A structured plan can ease your anxiety, otherwise you wouldn’t want it so much.
But it’s important to note that following a structure is just a temporary fix. It only works until you eventually realize it doesn’t solve all of life’s problems. It doesn’t live up to the fantasy in your mind. Once we get to this point, we become disillusioned and may break the plan. And because we’re still in all-or-nothing thinking, we go back to doing “nothing” until the next promising structure comes along.
But through all of this, the root cause of the problem is never really addressed – the anxiety. To stop this cycle, a new way of coping with anxiety, and honestly, a new way of looking at life is hugely important!
4. Fix the Problem where It Is
When we get caught up in cycles that never seem to end, it’s because we aren’t addressing the real problem. In this case, we’re trying to solve our anxiety with an eating plan. And it can work temporarily.
But to break the cycle, you really need to address the anxiety itself. That’s where the problem truly lies.
This can be done in many ways, whether through therapy, coaching, even finding a spiritual practice or belief system that enhances your view of the world and yourself. It will take some exploration and time. Start with what resonates for you.
It’s important to note that the goal is not to end anxiety. We all feel anxious from time to time. The goal is to change how you relate to anxiety and to uncertainty.
One example of this is changing your thinking and focus. Let’s say the fact that no one can know precisely what works all the time for your body causes you anxiety. You can focus on this anxiety and let it take over into a sense of panic or frustration that leads to all-or-nothing thinking (no one knows, so I’ll just eat whatever I want OR this structured plan worked for so-and-so, I must follow this exactly).
OR you can wonder at the mystery of life and the fact that even with all our advanced technology and knowledge, the body still has its own secrets and wisdom that we can approach with curiosity and experimentation and appreciation for the complexity of nature.It’s important to note that the goal is not to end anxiety. We all feel anxious from time to time. The goal is to change how you relate to anxiety and to uncertainty. ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet
5. Start Something NOW
If you’re currently planning to follow a structured eating plan in the future, I urge you to challenge yourself to start making small changes now, before you start the plan. It doesn’t matter what it is. You undoubtedly know something you’re doing now that isn’t serving you. Pick 1-2 things to start working on today.
This can seem daunting and overwhelming to those with underlying anxiety. As simple as it sounds, implementing small baby steps can feel like the hardest thing in the world. That’s because it goes against the promise we’ve made to ourselves that having a structure will solve all. Breaking that promise can be terrifying!
But the promise is not true. The promise is an illusion. And holding to it will only lead to more frustration and sense of failure. I’m not saying throw your plan away. You can still follow a plan. Just prove to yourself first that you have the ability to make positive changes on your own as well.If you’re currently planning to follow a structured eating plan in the future, I urge you to challenge yourself to start making small changes now, before you start the plan. It doesn't matter what it is. ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet
6. Ask Yourself This Question
Is my body just as worthy right now as it will be in the future when I have this structured plan to follow? Am I just as valuable right now as this future version of myself?
When we’re caught up in the nothing phase of all-or-nothing and waiting to make changes until we have this magic plan in place, we put such value on the future version of us, that we totally ignore the only one who actually exists – the present you – the one reading this article right now.
No matter how much emphasis we place on the future self, the only self that actually exists is the one that’s right here, right now.
So ask yourself again, is this you that exists today worthy of being treated well, even if the structure isn’t in place yet?
I leave you with that question, and please, if you know someone caught up in all-or-nothing thinking, please use the share buttons and pass it on!