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We have to be OK with half-assing 'wellness' sometimes
Some body lessons from tiring times.
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My body is tired.
I’ve spent the past several months focused on competing priorities, most of which have brought me great joy but required sustained emotional and physical energy nonetheless, and my body is feeling it.
I’m thinking of how we sometimes cling with white knuckles to a state of consistency (in how we move, how we eat, our “wellness” routines) only to realize we must sometimes let go and cede a bit of control. It’s easy to feel that this is a failing; if we aren’t sleeping well, or moving with intention each day, or eating mostly high-nutrition meals — on top of everything else we do — we might feel we’ve done wrong, we don’t have our shit together, we can’t do it all in a world that demands it.
These past few months have taught me a lesson, though.
During that time, some “problems” it’s been nice to have: I tried to plan my wedding reception for 100-plus people. The logistics and expenses completely overwhelmed me. So we nixed the Big Party and married ourselves (self-officiation in D.C., baby). Perfect. But before we made that call, I fried my brain with imagined pressure. I wore myself out because I catastrophize and over-analyze. I get unhinged.
Around the same time, I started producing The Body Show, a live storytelling show about body image and body-related experiences. It was a top-10 life experience. It was also a great challenge. More COVID-era logistics, juggling a dozen people’s schedules, worrying over about putting on four dates of a good show. In the end, I did. I’m riding the high of collaborating with talented people to create something I wanted in the world. I also have felt unable to care for myself as I usually do.
I chose these two stressors that were ultimately just what I wanted. This is no sob story.
At the same time, though, I was hanging on by a thread through the busiest season of my full-time job. I was pivoting between personal projects, work demands, and news alerts about the latest crimes against human rights. Much of my stress sprung from the kind of normal life tedium not worth writing about.
One of the storytellers in my show, Keith, talked about his issues with sleep; he worries at night about “stupid shit,” (hi) and told a therapist he felt guilty about his anxiety over what are not “real problems.” The therapist said: “Whether or not you believe your stress is justified, it is real, and it’s affecting your health. Beating yourself up isn’t going to make it go away.” I could tell this same story.
Now, with some big tasks behind me, I’m thinking about how a period of sustained stress — even about nice problems to have, even about tedious things, even in the context of my comfortable life — shows up in the body. We all know it does.
“I am not bad, but I feel bad.”
Like Keith, I haven’t been sleeping well. In past years I’ve become an “in bed at 10:30, screens away, at least 8.5 hours of sleep” gal, since I’m generally a hag from hell otherwise. But lately I’m trudging to bed at midnight, then scrolling endlessly, mind racing against my pillow.
I’ve had stomach problems. Anxiety makes a cozy home in the gut, and I’ve experienced a horror show of stomach aches, unsettling appetite swings, and bloating that’s frankly shocking in its magnitude. Several times I’ve realized I’ve barely had two glasses of water all day. I’ve eaten a lot of the foods I know exacerbate my physical and mental woes.
I haven’t been moving as much as I usually do. I’m glued to my screens and am then so fried I can’t bring myself to go for a leisurely walk, let alone get to the gym for the kinds of workouts that tire out my frantic mind and invigorate me even more.
My body has changed a little. I have new aches. I’ve lost some strength and stamina. I’m inflamed and have gained some body fat. None of this is inherently “bad.” It’s just what’s happened. None of this has to be permanent and if it were, I’m still OK. But when you spend a lot of time being attuned to how your physical activity and behaviors affect your body and mind, these changes can be disarming. I am not bad, but I feel bad.
I’ve had this thought: If I can’t stay on top of sleeping enough, hydrating, walking, doing other exercise, and eating well now, when I’m preoccupied by relatively low-stakes activities, how will I do when I have children? How will I do when I have “real problems”? How will I take care of myself if in a sustained state of crisis, grief, or plain misfortune?
Maybe it’s obvious, but I often have to experience the lesson, not just know it in theory: I have got to be OK with half-assing some things.
I do not believe we should relinquish caring for ourselves when life gets busy or difficult. But I’m the kind of person, unfortunately, who has internalized that if I’m not trying to do 99.9% of things 99.9% well 99% of the time, I’m falling down on the job. This is utterly unsustainable, of course. I don’t do all things well all the time. I haven’t, ever. Who the hell has? My attempts to execute my routines at the same level during overwhelming times as I do in calm times might not always succeed, and that’s not a failure. That’s being a human. You don’t need me to tell you. I need to tell me.
If you’ve had experiences with binge eating, you might have felt the “wheels off the bus” sensation I’ve written about before. I’ve felt that if I start eating “junk food,” I might as well fully break bad and binge until I can’t move. I’ve felt that if I can’t get to an hour-long workout class because I have four meetings, I might as well melt into the couch and be immobile for the rest of the day. I’ve felt that if it’s already past 11:30 p.m., I might as well make it an all-nighter with my frenemies Reddit and Instagram. My issues with disordered eating are very “good hard or go home” because that’s how I am in general. It’s irrational, self-punishing behavior. And of course, it’s potentially damaging when it comes to eating and everything else in life.
I want to be OK — and boy, is this a topic I plan to pound into the ground with the ol’ therapist — with mediocre efforts now and then. This doesn’t mean that when I’m busy I should give in to barely sleeping, eating zero vegetables chased down with zero water, and not leaving the confines of my office even once in 24 hours. It does mean I can accept that a dialed-down intensity or wiggle room in the routine is necessary. I might not be able to show up for other life things, and go as hard as my central nervous system will allow in the gym, and only eat nutritious meals I’ve lovingly crafted for myself, lest I feel I’ve lost total control of my life.
All we have to do in times of overwhelm, I think, is take care of ourselves enough. I just have to ensure I don’t pass out from dehydration or sleep exhaustion, walk around or stretch so that I remember I’m a person with limbs, and at least put the phone away and try to hit the pillows before the witching hour. I have to remember to sit and eat at my regular mealtimes, preferably with at least one green or fiber-filled food item in the mix. That’s pretty much it.
If during this time my exercise rigor is minimal, I’m ordering more takeout than usual because turning on the stove is just one more thing, if I’m not being the very picture of wellness by going to sleep “on time” every night, I am not destined to neglect my well-being for eternity. I can neutrally observe that I feel shittier than usual, and I can do things that make me feel better when I’m able — and maybe I don’t need to do them “perfectly,” which is a flawed notion anyway. Aiming for full-throttle effort at all times will in fact make me feel worse.
"Am I really half-assing it, or just measuring myself against my best days?”
I’m not going to be able to go hard or go home forever. There will be many times when I’ll half to half- or quarter-ass my way through. The thing is, I’m usually only measuring my “success” against a sometimes-unattainable ideal state; is half-assing it in the gym really half-assing it, or am I just measuring myself against my best days? Isn’t showing up at all just fine? As a fitness instructor, I tell people it is. I need to work on truly believing it.
I’ve written a whole piece about the “80/20” concept of eating high-nutrient meals. Similarly, it will probably serve me well to hew to the habits and behaviors that make me feel best 80% of the time. Twenty percent of the time, though, I might be more sedentary. I might eat differently. I might sleep less. My body might change. I do not want to feel that hovering around a solid B- in the so-called “wellness” area of my life might as well be an F. Taking care of ourselves in the ways we see fit is important, yes, but I don’t think any of us should judge our personhood against how “good” we are at being “healthy” all the time. I do it too often.
I need to look around at what else is happening. During this season of my life, as I’ve felt tired, sluggish, and a bit uncomfortable in my body, I’ve also felt deep happiness. I married the love of my life. I accomplished a creative goal. I’ve been moved by the support and generosity of friends. I’ve experienced joys that have very little to do with what my body can do or what it looks like.
In my life I have felt, ashamedly, that I can only know joy when I feel like I look my best, which for me has meant “when I look like I go to the gym a lot.” I probably will be better able to appreciate and fully experience good things in my life if I’m well-rested and well-nourished, and feel less stiff and less-stressed from exercise I enjoy. But I don’t have to look a certain way to feel those benefits. I think it’ll be an ongoing long journey to divest from the notion that attaining “beauty” equals a truly more satisfying or peaceful life. (Jessica DeFino does a lot of tremendous writing on how the “beauty industry” rams that notion down our throats in her newsletter, “The Unpublishable.” The “fitness” industry does too, of course.) When it comes to the fact that what my body looks like matters less than how it feels, sometimes I have to just write it to remember it. I have to bash it into my brain with repetition. I have to be deprogrammed.
Now, I’ll be happy to return to taking my midday Calm My Mind walks. I want to cook meals and sit to eat them at my table, not just scarf days-old containers of rice over my sink at 10 p.m. I want a near-comatose night of sleep. I want to hammer-throw my phone into the Potomac River, delete my social media accounts, and never send an email again. I want to move some weights around. I want to go back to the things that enhance my personal well-being.
But I also want to remember that when I sometimes can’t do these things whole-assed or at all, I am not somehow less myself. I do not want the joyful experiences in my life to be degraded by my feeling that my arms don’t look as muscular as they sometimes do, or that my pants are tighter. I strive as always for that happy medium — I want to feel good in my body without being obsessed with it, without feeling like other things aren’t as good if my body isn’t in some peak condition I imagine for myself because I struggle with control issues, body image issues, and eating issues.
Often we feel better by doing less. My writing this comes at a good time — a coach at my gym just last night (who is incredibly strong and whole-asses every workout I see her do) said she took this week off from working out. She recently scaled her workout plan back from five times a week to three. Since she backed off the frequency, she’s actually gotten stronger, faster, more efficient. I know inherently that this works; you need rest to progress, your muscles grow as they recover from workouts, yadda yadda. But hearing it from her, hearing someone else essentially say: “I need to dial down the intensity to feel better about life,” is helping solidify this lesson in my mind.
If you’re burning yourself out trying to whole-ass everything in your life, maybe my words here will solidify this lesson for you. I hope so.
Has there been some inciting incident in your life that helped you (or made you) dial down the intensity a little? Have you found ways to focus more on feeling and less on aesthetics? Does anything here resonate with you? Let me know in a comment!
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