BS per square inch is more highly concentrated in the field of diet, nutrition, and weight loss than anywhere else, and I’m including multi-level marketing and trance mediums on the list. Nobody knows anything. It’s so bad that people have stopped believing it’s possible to live a healthy lifestyle and started believing that it’s natural to need pharmaceuticals and medical appliances to survive. I know more people who need CPAP machines to breathe at night than I do people who can run 5 miles. Add in all the people I know who have had open-heart surgery or who have an insulin pump, and I know more people in the intervention group than I do who can run one mile. Humanity is planning our first mission to Mars, and we can’t figure out how to keep people using their own lungs? It’s terrifying. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Our culture is funny. People are often more impressed by someone who has lost a lot of weight and kept it off than they are by someone who has a patent or who has published an article in an academic journal. Of course, we also like to choose our political leaders based on whether it would be fun to drink a beer with them, which is bonkers, because surely our president has more to do than to lounge around in a tavern, although I’ll make an exception for Grover Cleveland. In short, we’ve started thinking that losing weight is harder than anything else, for two reasons:
1. Almost everyone in our culture is overweight;
2. Misinformation is so common that accurate information is a statistical anomaly.
I’m a Unicorn-American. I lost my weight even though I had a low-functioning thyroid gland and chronic fatigue. I ran a marathon even though I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I’m too small for a size zero in all but, like, three stores. I’m 40 and I’d rather share selfies of my abs than my face. Nothing I have read in the past several years about body image or healthy lifestyles makes any sense to me whatsoever. First I’m going to review all the trends and truisms I see and completely ignore. Then I’m going to share what I actually do; the things that work for my thyroid disease/chronic pain/chronic fatigue/migraineur/sleep-disordered middle-aged self.
That’s not real. It’s natural to gain weight as you get older. I’ll never be thin. Having children makes you fat. I’m fat because I have an injury that keeps me from going to the gym. The only way to lose weight is the way I did it; I lost 40 pounds; I should do that again because of course I’ve gained it all back and then some. MACRONUTRIENTS! Specific individual foods with maaggggical powers! Juicing! Smoothies! Packets of powders! Bars! Shakes! Foods nobody knew about before the great 20th Century Obesity Epidemic, because that makes perfect sense! Abdominal exercisers! Anything whatsoever sold on INFOMERCIALS! Plastic wrap for your abs! PILLS! SO MANY PILLS! Motivational posters! Calorie-burning shoe soles! Caffeinated skin creams!
[Full disclosure: I actually have tried acupuncture and homeopathy, though not for weight loss, but I did once buy a $35 cellulite cream, because yeah, my thighs totally needed to absorb more substances… ]
Okay. I lost 35 pounds. This is what I did.
1. Googled “healthy weight for my height.” Tried to get other reputable opinions from other websites. Accepted there might be more science behind the number that came up than there was in my current method, which was NO SCIENCE. Committed to test-drive myself at that weight, at least temporarily.
2. Googled how much water someone of my height/weight should drink. Trained myself to drink it.
3. Kept a meticulous food log. Measured and weighed everything. SCIENCE!
4. Strictly limited calories – cut by about 30% for three months.
5. Weighed in every day. Took regular stats with a tape measure. (chest, waist, hips, thighs, biceps) DATA!
6. Reached my goal with a full, nuanced understanding of my previous ineffective eating habits.
7. Kept doing steps 2, 3, and 5.
8. Got rid of my fat clothes.
Note that there is no step for exercise. That is because exercise has nothing to do with weight loss! Stop thinking that! You don’t ever have to go to a gym if you don’t want to. The research is pretty clear: diet for the short term, exercise for the long term. Most of my weight was lost while I sat around on the couch, feeling sorry for myself and crying because I couldn’t have a chimichanga until next month. Then I trained for a marathon and gained back 8 pounds because I kept eating so many vanilla fig bars. Then I lost it again while sitting on the couch and icing my ankle. (Wait! I know! My IKEA couch is actually a MAGICAL WEIGHT LOSS MACHINE! You can make an appointment to sit on it for just three monthly installments of only $1999.99).
I don’t “juice.” I have a smoothie maybe once or twice a year, if my mom makes me one. Under no circumstances have I ever given a care about tracking macronutrients. It’s been debunked. What I do track is MICROnutrients. Fiber, people! I eat wheat, corn, and soy whenever I want. I don’t take any medications other than birth control (which people think causes weight gain, just like thyroid disease, so go figure). I take a B-12 supplement, but you should know that taking a daily multi-vitamin has been linked to greater mortality from all causes. Vitamins (see above under micronutrients) should come from food, not a jar.
I don’t do crunches. I haven’t had a gym membership for five years. I’ve never worked with a personal trainer, although I plan to one day. I have muscles but I’m super lazy. Every now and then I decide I’ll do planks, and I do one for about a minute, and then that’s it for the next several months. The reason I have visible muscle definition is that I’m down to 22% body fat. I don’t lift anything heavier than a laundry basket. I haven’t even done pull-ups for several months because I got tennis elbow from my phone. I walk about .8 miles to the coffee shop where I write, maybe 2-3 days a week. Exercise is something I do as a treat, or when I’m angry or frustrated about something that makes me too restless to stay in the house. Exercise is a means to an end: the ability to carry a backpack and hike into the backcountry; local transportation; ability to “play hard” on vacation; a giant F.U. to the endocrine gland that tried to kill me and made my hair fall out. You hear that, thyroid? Yeah, I said it.
To be fair, there are things I do that may make a difference besides just eating a consistent volume of food at consistent times of day. I sleep 8 hours a night, more if I can get away with it. I don’t drink sweet drinks – not juice, not soda, not diet soda, nada – and I also don’t drink coffee or alcohol. I don’t eat sugars in general. I don’t eat 95% of what you would find in a typical grocery store bakery, including bread, bagels, muffins, croissants, cookies, pies, cakes, donuts, brownies, or whatever. I also don’t eat crackers, breakfast cereal, frozen desserts, or snack foods in general. I don’t eat junk food or fast food. I might eat chips or fries at most once a month. I don’t generally eat grains, especially not pasta or white rice, unless I’m in training, but I do eat a large baked potato with lunch every day. I eat wheat bread, but only from three specific brands. I eat as much fruit as I want, whenever I want. It’s not “carbs” – how oversimplified and misleading! – but rather, over-processed industrial foods. I’m not a strict personality – if I want candy, I’ll eat it – I’ve just lost my taste for these foods. They make me feel weird when I eat them, which I sometimes do, just often enough to remind myself why I don’t eat them every day. Once I realized that I ate more desserts by volume than I did vegetables, I felt foolish and started ramping up my cruciferous vegetable consumption. To this I attribute my overall state of health, sound digestion, “young skin,” and ability to sleep well. Gut flora. Worth considering. Also take note of magnesium deficiency, its prevalence, and its symptoms. As a final note, I eat a plant-based diet. I think most people would do well to be as skeptical of dairy products as they are of grain products. I haven’t eaten dairy products since 1997, and it seems unfair not to mention it.
Don’t believe anything I’ve said. I have no credentials, and that matters! The only thing I can offer is anecdotal evidence. I lost a bunch of weight and reversed my health problems, and now I’ve maintained my bikini bod for a year and a half. It’s possible I’m making false correlations and attributing my results to the wrong inputs. It’s not possible I’m some kind of genetic anomaly, since I was at least as fat and ill and sedentary as anyone else for my first 35 years, and my family tree has no athletes that I know of. All I can say is that I believe it’s possible for everyone to be lean and fit, as long as we don’t follow the Standard American Diet or live the Standard American Lifestyle. Anyone can make lifestyle experiments, track data, and chart a trend line. What have you got to lose?
One of the reasons we hang on to clutter is that we feel responsible for it. We want to make sure it Goes to the Right Person. What does this actually mean? Who are the role models here? The Good Witch of the North, handing out sparkly red shoes? The Sphinx, devouring anyone who can’t solve her riddle? Simon Cowell? How much of our attention do we want to put toward vetting people who might want our used old things?
The first thing I would like to point out is that if most people don’t seem like they would truly appreciate this particular object… it might be because nobody but you digs it. That’s fine. If you like it so much, use it or display it in a way that you can enjoy it every day. If that’s not happening, you probably have too much stuff right now.
Second, how is this super-awesome thingamajig getting advertised? Have you contacted the person you think will want it so much? See, most of the time, when people are cluttering up their homes with things they are saving for someone else, they have a specific person in mind. That individual just hasn’t been informed yet. This happens when we’re blocked about reaching out to others for some reason. We transfer the feelings we have for the person toward the object instead. There is no technological reason for this. Almost everyone in the world can be found and contacted within about a minute, or certainly within a few days. If you’re not talking to each other on a regular basis, maybe you aren’t as close as you wish you were. If that’s on your end, fix it. If it’s on the other person’s end, you might still need to fix it, but sometimes we just have to accept that we can’t control other people’s feelings. A relationship, whether with family or friends, is not like a physical object. We can’t pick it up and put it down and pick it up again. We have to put in the effort of caring and reaching out and listening and working toward connection and empathy and forgiveness.
Third, is this object that needs to Go to the Right Person something you bought specifically as a gift? Or is it something you acquired and later decided that person might appreciate? This tends to go in one of two directions. It’s extremely common for compulsive accumulators to use others as an excuse for shopping. Gifts will be piled up for various people and then never delivered. Sometimes, they are even wrapped and labeled. Accumulating wrapping paper and accessories can be another offshoot of the overall clutter. These gifts may in no way resemble the taste of the intended recipient; they may not even be remotely age-appropriate. They represent a fantasy the purchaser has about a perfect moment in the relationship, such as when the recipient was a particular age or when he or she might hopefully have a special life event one day.
The other case is when we start thinking about unloading some excess stuff, but we are conflicted about letting go of it. We set it aside in a pretense that we are going to give it away. But we don’t follow through because we still want it, and we’re not really in regular contact with that person. A small portion of this category consists of things that truly belong to that person, such as a forgotten sweater or borrowed book. (In my experience, people only return borrowed books about 10% of the time, if that, even after having a conversation about how nobody returns borrowed books!) The majority of the time, though, it’s just a bunch of random stuff, and the person we have in mind is really not going to want anything to do with it. We put them on the spot and force them to try to be tactful. Sometimes we make it worse by repeatedly inquiring whether they are using and enjoying it, or looking for it when we visit them at home. A gift is only a gift if it’s given with no strings attached.
Another problem that comes up with clutter is when we are holding off even from donating it, because we think The Wrong Person will get it. I have heard many people express frustration that thrift stores sell their donations, when they want the items to go to actual needy people. This is part of a centuries-old delusion about “the deserving poor.” Is there some kind of official character assessment people need to be given before they can buy an old jacket? I mean, I still buy things at thrift stores, and I’m neither poor nor deserving. The point is not who will wind up using an item after I’m done with it; the point is that I’M DONE WITH IT. It goes back to “the stuff place.” If some person with business savvy and entrepreneurial drive buys my used items and resells them, that’s one less poor person in the world. It’s none of my business, but if it were, I would probably be pleased. Good for them. I worked in social services for several years, so I know there are various places that will get material objects directly to the people who need them, free of charge. If this is the deciding factor of whether an object is locked away in someone’s home instead of going to someone who will use it, there are ways of making it happen.
My perspective is that there are centralized clearinghouses for certain types of stuff. These include thrift stores, flea markets, vintage and antique shops, consignment shops, eBay, and used bookstores, among many others. When all our discarded things find their way to these places, there is a significantly higher chance that they can then go to someone who will appreciate them. That’s because many more people have a chance to stumble across them. It could be in someone else’s hands tomorrow, or it could still be sitting in my garage 18 years from now, getting ruined. When an object is no longer useful in my life, I release it as soon as possible. This creates opportunities for others. It creates physical and mental and emotional space in my life. It means that I surround myself only with objects I need, use, and like. That means I can find everything when I need it, keep it clean, and still have plenty of room for my friends to come and visit (and walk off with all my books).
(And if that’s the case, perhaps the book is imbued with a message that my friend needs to hear more than I do right now).
There are certain things I’ll never do. I’ll never go BASE jumping. I’ll never go to the Moon. I’ll never smoke a cigar. This is because I want to not do these things. It’s good to know; it means I don’t waste time trying to decide how to spend my time among millions of possible options. I focus on what I do want to do, like seeing fireflies one day. The other thing is that I’ll only be able to do the things I want to do when my intentions are clear. I need to act on my intentions, and I need to plan those actions, or the things I want in my life will never happen.
There is a trick to this. I know I want to see fireflies, and I know they are harmless and that it will be fun for me. Maybe romantic even. If I can come up with a (second) solid reason to go to a place where fireflies live, at the right time of year, it’s almost certain to happen. Why wouldn’t it? I can probably just go to a free public park one evening and there they will be. The only way I can mess it up is by trying to take a bunch of pictures and getting frustrated when they don’t turn out.
What do I do, though, when I have an intention that may not be fun, cheap, or effortless? What if I keep claiming I’m going to do something and not putting any effort behind that claim? They call it ‘procrastination’ – which is Latin for ‘wasting your precious life.’
We need to accept the facts and admit the truth to ourselves. I’m never going to go to the doctor about this. I have no intention of saving money for my retirement. I don’t even think I’m going to live that long, and that’s Plan A. I’m never going to lose weight. I’m never going to set foot in a gym. I’m never going back to school. I’m never going to write my book. I’m never going to clear out my storage unit. In fact, I’m never going to clean my bathroom or have all my clothes washed at the same time, either. I’m never going to quit drinking soda. I’m never going to quit smoking or drinking alcohol. I’m never going to stop yelling at my kids. I’m never going to stop being angry at my spouse. I’m never going to forgive That Person. I’m never getting off this medication or this CPAP and I’m certainly never going to make any of the lifestyle adjustments the doctor wants me to make. I’m going to my grave with unfinished business. I’ll die in debt. Other people can tie up my loose ends and clean up after me. This is MY LIFE and it’s mine to mess up as I choose. I don’t WANT to be my best self, and nobody can make me. I choose this. I choose this body and this living environment and these situations. Every day I have left is going to be just like this, except for when it gets worse, and I’m fine with that.
Things changed for me when I realized that everything I was doing was my personal Default Mode. I went to my default job on my default commute. I wore my default clothes and my default hair. I ate my default food. I slept on my default schedule. I read my default books and I wrote in my journal about my default feelings and I had many default conversations. I thought my default thoughts. I wasn’t particularly in favor of any of these default modes. What were they, factory settings? Could I get an upgrade? Was I missing an instruction manual? I spent a few days journaling about the objective reality of my life, which felt miserable to the core, and decided to make an effort to improve everything I could.
I started doing some research and experimenting with my life. It turned out that my default modes were not fixed after all. I was fully configurable. I paid off my debts, fixed my sleep issues, changed my diet, got fit, changed my wardrobe, and burned all my old journals. I adopted some new philosophical positions about living intentionally and being emotionally present for others. Lo and behold, every part of my life that had caused me (and perhaps others) such misery is now completely different.
I don’t particularly hold to this idea that we create our own reality. Say that with a straight face to a tsunami survivor. It makes no sense. The truth is that we are pawns of fate as well as creators of our own destinies. We may very well be living out the consequences of natural disasters or other people’s actions. We do still have the power to choose our own attitudes, which thoughts deserve our continued focus, and how we react to and express our emotions. We have the power to set boundaries and form intentions. Those are absolute powers. We also have virtually unlimited power to choose our actions, our associates, and our personal environments. When we fail to realize these powers, our lives are determined by entropy; by reaction instead of action, by external instead of internal forces, by others instead of ourselves. We float in a formless void, lacking inspiration, drive, or initiative. We become like the unborn. It is our birthright to shape our own destinies using the full extent of our abilities. We must set intentions to truly live.
Serendipity brought me to Brendon Burchard. I was in the middle of reading The Motivation Manifesto when a friend recommended The Charge, his more recent book. I take these coincidences seriously, so I will definitely be reading more. I have also subscribed to his podcast, The Charged Life, which I love.
This is more than a typical self-help book. It operates on the level of a timeless philosophical treatise. I recommend reading it with a highlighter pen and a stack of sticky notes to mark highly significant passages, because you will find them. For those who like to read inspirational material every morning, this book would be a terrific candidate.
The heart of the book is the declaration of personal power. It is divided into nine declarations:
We shall meet life with presence and power.
We shall reclaim our agenda.
We shall defeat our demons.
We shall advance with abandon.
We shall practice joy and gratitude.
We shall not break integrity.
We shall amplify love.
We shall inspire greatness.
We shall slow time.
Each declaration has its own chapter, explaining Burchard’s premise. Any one of the sections could easily be turned into its own full length book. The motivation manifesto is a distillation of concepts from many philosophical and spiritual traditions. As such, it is a great launching point for a deeper exploration of these themes.
Dealbreakers are one of the many mysteries of dating that are only understood by initiates. I didn’t really figure out this concept until I was about 30. I sat down and crunched some numbers and realized that, in my relationship history, I had been dumped about 97% of the time. Clearly, something was wrong on my end. It wasn’t something that prevented guys from going out with me – it had to be something I was doing after we got together. Maybe several somethings. Everything changed when I started putting more thought into what I wanted (rather than trying to be what someone else wanted), and asking more questions before I got involved with someone. A first date is an opportunity to interview someone just as much as it is an audition. It’s a way to figure out, as early as possible, whether there are any dealbreakers that should keep us from getting involved.
A dealbreaker is something that just won’t work for you. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with the person, just that there are factors about dating him or her that are incompatible with your world. One example would be whether someone is a smoker. For me, “non-smoker” means NEVER. Being around smoke gives me a nosebleed. But I don’t have to have a reason, just a preference. Whether anyone else thinks my preference is fair or rational or reasonable doesn’t matter. It’s up to me.
This can seem cold or cruel. Write someone off for something that may be a little trivial? What about compromise? What about getting to know someone? What about romance? What about love at first sight? Can you just vote someone off your island? I had a conversation about dealbreakers with a good friend who was unwilling to say that he would refuse a date with an 80-year-old woman. He was in his 20s. I told him, “It’s okay to say you won’t go out with someone who could be your great-grandmother! It doesn’t make you a bad person!” He did concede that he wouldn’t go out with an IV drug user or someone who slapped his kid. Most people would probably agree that those are dealbreakers that make sense.
Here are some examples of factors that may constitute a dealbreaker:
Verbally/physically threatening or abusive
Availability (married, separated, swinger, bi, polyamorous, celibate…?)
Has/wants/does not want children
Recreational substance use
Schedule (works nights/weekends, workaholic, student, different time zone)
Geography (long distance, commute, frequent travel)
Dog/cat/goat/parrot/reptile/horse/no pets person
Level of cleanliness
An easy shibboleth for me, when I was single, was to lead with my lifestyle. A guy would flirt with me and ask, “So, tell me about yourself.” I would coyly say, “Well, I’m a vegan…” and that was almost always the end of the conversation. My husband is an omnivore. We’ve never had a problem sharing meals together; in our relationship it’s like a 1 on scale of 1 to 10. If a guy couldn’t handle something that is such a routine element of my life, no way would he be able to handle me at full intensity. Another basically instantaneous eliminator of contestants is ladies’ body hair.
Once we pass 30, I think it’s a good idea to establish right away whether you plan to have kids, or more kids, and pass on anyone who doesn’t match. I have always been upfront about the fact that I can’t have children, and this sadly led to the breakup of a two-year relationship when the guy made up his mind. (Can’t fault him, though, because he did eventually start a family). A reasonable guideline is never to get involved with someone with whom you wouldn’t want to share custody.
A basic dealbreaker check on first meeting someone can save a lot of heartache – for all parties concerned. I used to have a bit of patter I called “the questionnaire.” I would offer to answer any question honestly if he would do the same for me. Guys would always laugh, because some of the questions were serious and some were surreal. “Are you now, or have you ever been married? Have you attended clown college? Do you own a gun? Creamy or crunchy peanut butter? Are you a registered sex offender? What is your name? What is your quest? What is your favorite color?” I would sometimes joke about being divorced. Ticking off on my fingers: “I’ll never get married again until I see a blood test, a criminal background check, a psychiatric assessment, and a credit report.” Within five minutes or so, we could size each other up, and quite a bit of my personality would be revealed. Always be yourself, because then you’ll only get people who really like you.
I’m a night owl married to an early bird. A vegan married to a meat-eater. A “bird person” married to a “dog person.” Our political leanings were wildly different. We’re seven years apart in age. On a dating website, we never would have found each other. In spite of these differences, we have a lot in common. We both have parents who are still on their first marriage. We were both in marching band. We both hate coffee, don’t drink alcohol, and don’t eat dairy products. We’re both “extroverted intuitive thinkers” on the Myers-Briggs chart. We have similar attitudes toward finances, travel, and housekeeping. We like the same types of restaurants, and our tastes in music and movies mostly overlap. It’s easy for us to make decisions together. We’re good influences on each other. We spend a lot of time talking, texting each other, and laughing like loons. We’re happy because we enjoy each other’s company, and we don’t have any of each other’s dealbreakers.
What everyone should be looking for in a relationship is someone who is emotionally available. That means someone who is single and ready for a relationship (not on the rebound, afraid of commitment, or hung up on “the one who got away.”) It should be someone who genuinely likes you and wants to spend time with you, and vice versa. It should feel like a natural fit. My husband and I got married basically because the phone reception was lousy after I moved, and it was interfering with our ability to talk to each other three hours a day. We always want to tell each other every little thing, and we have about a million inside jokes. A fun, friendly, comfortable relationship like ours is only possible when neither party has deep-seated issues with the other. It takes compatible value systems and the ability to be good roommates to each other. Loving one person for the long term means ruling out at least 7 billion other people. Dealbreakers are a good place to start.
I stumbled across a “readiness scale” in a health newsletter that used to be passed out to everyone in the company by Human Resources. I may have been the only person who read that newsletter front to back. This little tidbit captivated me to the point that I clipped it out and stuck it on my fridge. Then I adapted it for my own use. It’s one of the foundations of my practice. I’ve seen different readiness scales for different fields; Google returns results for the arenas of education and employment. The one I had on my fridge was aimed at “wellness.” I look at it more broadly in the context of CHANGE. Are we ready to change?
One. Ones are not thinking in the context of change. If it comes up at all, it’s because someone else brought it up. “I don’t need to change! Shut up and leave me alone!” Ones Do Not Want to Be Told. They are not ready to hear input, whether it’s from a doctor, lawyer, banker, mechanic, landlord, boss, relative, spouse, space alien, talking donkey, or Supreme Deity. Ones are resistant, defensive, and in denial. They may even be belligerent or antagonistic. Of course, Ones don’t really exist, because I know I certainly never have been reluctant to accept advice or critique from anyone. I mean, we’re all wide open to constructive criticism all the time!
Two. Twos are starting to be aware that something is up. Houston, we have a problem. Twos are typically skeptical that the problem is really the problem, or that the recommended approach will work for them in the same way it’s worked for literally millions of other people throughout history. Twos are pretty sure they are the exception. They are more likely to explain in minute, fastidious detail exactly why That Will Never Work and why it doesn’t apply to their situation. There are other Twos who are aware there is a problem, but unprepared to deal with it at the present time. Sometimes these are very sound reasons, such as the fact that new babies and remodeling don’t mix, or that going back to grad school is not the optimal combination with cancer treatment. Usually, though, a Two just isn’t ready. Twos Don’t Feel Like It and they’re waiting for Willpower or Motivation or a Minotaur or a rainbow bridge or some such.
Three. Threes are on the path. They’re trying. They tend to interpret suboptimal results with “messing up” or “being bad.” They put vast amounts of effort into various attempts at change before finally realizing that those methods are ineffective. They have yet to settle on a simple plan that gets the job done, generally because they don’t like the sound of the most effective plan and would do anything rather than submit to it. Threes sometimes regress for lengthy periods of time. They can be easily discouraged. They are sometimes exhausted before reaching escape velocity. They can bounce along, just under the threshold of success, not realizing that the key insight is just within reach. They have trouble applying their effort consistently, undervaluing the fact that the consistency is almost always the main ingredient for results.
Four. Fours know what to do. They’re not done yet, but they’ve become convinced by trial and error and research. They’ve seen positive results from effective methods, and negative results from ineffective methods. They understand which inputs are making a difference; which are symptoms and which are causes. They aren’t too concerned about being off track temporarily, because they know they can resume the plan. They will accomplish the goal. It will only take a bit more time and effort and dedication. They’ve accepted the ‘grinding’ aspect of doing the same boring steps over and over again, because they know why it matters.
Five. Fives are “there.” They’re in maintenance phase. They’re “done.” They now have insights that seem completely obvious in retrospect, but were earned the hard way. Given another chance, they understand that they could have saved so much time and effort if only they had known what they now know. They’re less attached to the desire to maintain total control, and more willing to listen and accept external input, because they realize it makes life easier. They can learn from others’ experiences. They’re all about the pro tips. They often make great trainers and coaches, because they’ve basically made every possible mistake and they remember having the mindset of a confused, stubborn beginner.
I don’t work with Ones. They wouldn’t want me to. I’m often pinged by people who want me to work with a One in their acquaintance, and usually that person has no idea we are discussing his or her personal sphere in this way. I try to talk these helpful folk through the concept that we have to do our own homework and focus on our own issues. Ones will sometimes have a major epiphany or life event and change completely on their own. Other times, they’ll die unrepentant, leaving a mess for their family and friends and community to resolve. There are few things sadder than a life lived to its end without the benefit of introspection, accountability, and positive change. It happens, though.
In my experience, I can get someone from a Four to a Five with a single conversation. I can get a Three to a Four in a few months, or sometimes over the course of a long weekend if we’re working in their home, but it usually takes a year. I can get a Two to a Three in about three years. Whether I have ever reached a One is beyond my ken. I just make myself available and keep putting my writing out where anyone can interact with it, over any timeframe, in total privacy and without keen overseers.
The most interesting thing about the Readiness Scale is that everyone is at a different level of readiness in different areas of life. We are not very good at transferring skills from one part of life to another. The same individual may be extremely organized at work and a disaster at home; immaculately groomed, with an overgrown yard; a perfectionist at grammar but utterly disinterested in cooking; happy in love but unhappy with the family of origin. We come up with rationalizations to be minimal in exercise and maximal in food consumption, to save books but not money, to spend more time gossiping about people we don’t like than communing with people we do like. We have all sorts of inconsistencies and personal double standards and illogical systems. It can be fascinating to start analyzing our hidden motives and exploring what might happen if we tinkered with our attitudes.
Once I told my grandmother, “Nana, I still have every single card you ever sent me.” She was great that way. She never missed a birthday, and she also sent cards for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I might be missing a holiday or two. I was 21, and I thought she’d be impressed by how much her thoughtful notes (and cash) had meant to me throughout my childhood.
She said, “WHY?! Throw that stuff away!”
I took her advice, and I let it all go. Most of my sentimental items made of paper had gotten musty and mildewed due to being in storage for years. I burned a pile of old cards and letters. One night I burned my yearbooks and my first wedding album. A different night, I burned my journals from ages 9 to 32. It takes hours. Several of my friends were aghast at my decision. They tried their best to convince me to wait, or not do it at all, because there’s no turning back from such a drastic decision. Once something is burned, there’s no way of getting it back, in the way that I’ve seen so many (read: all) of my clients retrieve things from the recycle, trash, or donation bags. The decision to get rid of a sentimental item is permanent.
Regret is one of the strongest, least pleasant emotions. Other strong emotions that are aroused during the clutter clearing process are sorrow, grief, remorse, guilt, shame, anger, hatred, nostalgia, envy, bitterness, avarice, wistfulness, loneliness, and disgust. This process can also lead to a lot of confusion, overwhelm, and acute anxiety. It really helps to acknowledge these feelings while doing the work. In my opinion, the emotional work IS the work. It’s the entire point of the process. Clutter holds us back partly because it feeds on itself and causes its own recursive complications. Mostly, though, it’s merely a physical reflection of the inner world. We displace our emotions and delayed decisions into our stuff. Some examples of this are unplayed musical instruments, unopened books, and unused fitness equipment. Other examples are the relics and artifacts of an emotional journey. Photographs, letters, journals, memorabilia, and souvenirs – things with no resale value or inherent interest to anyone else – are by far the hardest to let go. They are too personal to have much significance to anyone else, but so personal that we are confounded by them.
I’ve seen it all. Photo albums, every possible baby or pet accoutrement, trinkets from dead romances, dried flowers, veils, ribbons, trophies, buttons, bumper stickers, tickets, event programs, posters, game tokens, certificates, report cards, mix tapes, engraved keepsakes, jewelry, teeth, kidney stones, bags of pet hair, cremains… You name it. If it can be personalized or monogrammed, so much the better. It’s like so many barnacles or strangling tendrils of ivy or tentacles.
I was always a saver as a child. I saved my bubble gum wrappers, and ordinary gray rocks, and movie ticket stubs, and pamphlets and brochures, and receipts, and buttons and washers and screws I found in the street, and essentially any physical object I could conceivably claim as mine. Things had mystical powers and properties. I had a collection of marbles that had individual personalities. I saw the backstory of everything. It was easier to interact quietly with these fascinating objects than it was to interact with people.
Gradually, through many years of reading and journaling and working through my own collection of material possessions, I started thinking and feeling differently about my stuff. I started to realize that almost all of the emotions raised by my things were dark. Most of my stuff gave me bad feelings. Some of those simply included my possessiveness, materialism, desire for acquisition, reluctance to let other people touch or use my things, severe anxiety whenever anything got broken or ruined, and compulsion to maintain and store my things even when I truly couldn’t afford to do so. Other emotions were just sad and painful, such as the feelings raised by rereading old love letters that had led to bad breakups. Part of what helped me start to let go was to change my stories: to rework my interpretation of what had happened with that person or in that scenario. Changing the story helps let go of the stuff, but conversely, letting go of the stuff helps change the story.
For example, I’ll never forget the feeling of holding hands with my Nana. She had the softest skin. I always felt so loved by her. I still remember the sound of her voice, speaking and singing. I can picture her so clearly. I remember her favorite outfits and jewelry and her trademark hairstyle. I can picture myself in every room of her house, sitting with her, playing Scrabble or watching musicals. Those potent sense memories have never faded, in spite of the fact that I got rid of all those cards she sent. I don’t have any of her jewelry or framed photos or dishes or furniture, although I probably could have. What I do have is her folding sewing scissors from her work bag. I use them almost every day, and I always think of her. If I ever lose the scissors, I’ll still think of her. She was more than the sum of my memories, and my memories are more than any particular object or thing she once touched.
I’ve reached a point where the very existence of an object with strong emotional associations automatically goes on my hit list. I have to preemptively work on my attachment to it. If ever there is a house fire, earthquake, landslide, flash flood, burglary, or disaster of any kind, I have to assume that the thing I care about the most is going to be the first thing to get ruined. I’ve had several heirlooms that were smashed, cracked, gouged, or stained by professional movers, while my $1 generic drinking glasses have survived half a dozen moves unscathed. Some of my irreplaceable paper notes have been crumpled, smudged, or misplaced for significant periods of time. I’ve had to accept that it is my fate to be a nomad, and that this means living lightly. I’m extremely fortunate that my family, friends, pets, and of course my husband are intact and doing well. In that context, who cares about the occasional notebook or teapot?
It’s just stuff. It’s Past Self’s stuff. I’ve been presented with family legacy items several times, and passed on almost all of them. I have to assume that future generations will be equally unmoved by my own estate. That would inevitably be true even if I had children of my own, but I don’t, and there is no reason to think my nephews or niece will one day be interested in my lock of baby hair. When I’m 80, they’ll be closing in on retirement age themselves. I have a history degree, and you can trust me on this: almost none of us have any artifacts or archival items that would be of use to a museum or library. Once we’ve given some thought to our relative significance to posterity (or lack thereof), we need only consider what role these sentimental items play for us, for our personal needs. Most likely, it’s holding us back in some way. It’s waiting for unguarded moments when it can poleaxe us in our vulnerability. It’s lurking, ready to drag us into depression and keep us stuck in the past. It’s at its best when that past is unpleasant and unprocessed. It hypnotizes us into facing backward, when we could be looking forward, creating a more desirable future. It’s ballast, dragging us down, preventing liftoff, sometimes pulling us under until we founder. It trains us to fuss and worry and sort and stack and schlep. We believe we won’t survive its loss, that our very souls are stored in it somewhere, somehow. We can’t imagine the horrors of leaving it behind and moving on without it. A box of papers becomes an abandoned baby or betrayed puppy. We give it spiritual charisma and heft and resonance.
I’m here to tell you: It’s just stuff. Stuff is not memories. Stuff is not relationships. Stuff is not a personality. Stuff is not a past. Stuff is not history. Stuff is not a legacy. It’s just stuff. All those other things live in the abstract. They are meta-stuff. It’s perfectly safe to detach from them and get some emotional distance. Some might even call it freedom.
Hugh MacLeod’s book Ignore Everybody is essential reading. It’s absolutely key for creative people, and I think it’s also highly relevant for people who people who don’t think they are or think they need to be. It’s about carving your own niche in life. Over and over again, people who work conventional jobs eventually find out that they are still at the mercy of fate until they take charge and create their own career paths. That’s going to start happening faster and faster as more industries are permanently disrupted. But I assume that if you’re reading this, you have creativity inside of you that wants to come out, so we’ll focus on that.
Art is one of those things that can be “learned but not taught.” First you feel the spark. Then, if you keep it inside too long, it starts burning a big old hole inside you. Best to get all those embers outside of yourself as quickly as they appear. (Just realized that it sounds like I’m summarizing MacLeod here, but I’m not – that image just came to me). So, reading Ignore Everybody at too early a stage probably won’t be enough to create artistic inspiration where none existed before. That’s the main problem with self-help and motivational books: They can only provide a couple of missing pieces for many people who were close to figuring out the message already, while leaving others mystified and cynical. Suffice to say that I loved this book, nodded my way through it, laughed out loud a few times, but wouldn’t have understood it 20 years ago. It’s good validation when you’re starting out on a hike, and someone who has hiked it before was thoughtful enough to leave trail markers indicating that you’re going the right way.
The most salient message from the book for me had to do with working at something that is uniquely yours, even when you’re not really sure how or whether it could ever succeed, because “If you are successful, it’ll never come from the direction you predicted.” Eventually, it turns into a well-honed, special something that the world never knew it needed, which nobody but you can provide.
Mr. Awesome Pants bought me an Apple Watch for my 40th birthday. Major milestone and all that. The impressive thing about this is that it’s the second time in our relationship that he’s managed to trick me. The first was the day he proposed, although that might count as two because he also had to trick me in order to go out and buy the ring. Anyway, he made it look like we were going into the Apple Store to waste time while waiting for a movie to start. Even when he had me try one on, I thought it was just for fun. Pretty funny when it finally sunk in. I tend to hyperventilate a little when I so much as hear about cool new tech. I may have cried a bit. So now I have this totally bitchin’ space watch that brings me information via satellite. We call it The Overlord.
I’ve had fitness trackers before. In fact, I pinned a pedometer to my garter on our wedding day. That should tell you quite a bit about my level of interest in performance metrics. (Wait… that sounds a bit different than I intended. Let’s just say I danced a lot). My first pedometer clipped onto my waistband. It was constantly popping off, hitting the floor, and resetting. I remember how excited I was when I reached 1000 steps for the first time. It had taken weeks. Then I was sadly informed that the goal was TEN thousand steps, not ONE thousand. “That’s like not even a quarter mile.” Oh. So that was the first two pedometers. Then I got a Fitbit. It was cool, except that it wanted to track steps, and most of my bipedal activities were bicycling, running, or using the elliptical machine. It never added up right. I used it to make an annual mileage goal and then sold it within 20 minutes of posting it to eBay. Then I got an iPhone and tried various fitness apps, one of which kept telling me I ran 55 MPH. Um, no. I’d be thrilled if I could run 5 MPH!
What’s different about The Overlord? It really is useful as a productivity tool. Most of the stuff I tend to check compulsively on my phone is now on my wrist: my blog stats, the temperature, my daily habit checklist and top three goals, and notifications. The basic info is there, but that’s it, so I don’t tend to get sucked in. I use it to check off my grocery list. Sometimes I use Apple Pay, GPS, or Shazam, which completely trips me out. “My watch just told me what song is playing!” My 1987-era brain does not think this makes any sense. I knew I would be an ideal target user. In spite of everything I had read about the Apple Watch, I am so out of the game this year that I forgot its initial attraction for me was as a fitness tracker.
It taps my wrist to tell me to stand up once an hour, 12 times a day. Okay. I probably get up about that often anyway. Oh. Actually I don’t. So I start planning to get up once an hour. That’s not quite good enough for The Overlord. It wants at least a minute. Okay, that seems reasonable. What is that (dorkily checking 21st-century calculator watch), 1.6% of my time? Oh, but standing up for a minute isn’t enough either. I’ve tried to impress it by doing tree pose or arm circles, only to wind up walking circles around the house until the counter rolls over. The neighbors probably think I’m insane. That is actually a total non sequitur.
Then there’s the exercise quota. (Just interrupted by notification that my bigger half is leaving work). Half an hour a day. Seriously, when I was training for my marathon it would take me that long, at jogging pace, to finish adjusting the straps to my Camelbak and get my audio book started. I’ve spent half an hour running and trying to eat a Nutter Butter without getting it down my bra. Half an hour is nothing. Oh. Or actually it isn’t. It turns out that what I have been considering exercise this year does not impress The Overlord. It won’t register a single minute of my 45-minute yoga routine. On my typical walk to the library or the coffee shop, it gives me about 16 minutes out of 42. We did 45 minutes walking the dog at the duck pond, and The Overlord recorded it as 11. Turns out it measures my heart rate, not the clock. There is no cheating this thing! I just noticed today that a green light shines from one of its sensors when I’m walking fast enough to swing my arms, presumably when my heart rate is up. Unless it’s sweat-activated. It won’t count my walking on the treadmill unless I set it to at least 3.5 MPH. So, while I don’t have any real trouble reaching the daily calorie burn goal, the exercise quota has finally gotten me off my coffin, I mean couch, and starting to do some real cardio again.
The great thing about The Overlord is that it’s a completely impersonal nag. Well, not completely impersonal – it figured out all on its own to address me as “Your Excellency.” I can’t resent it because it’s just a technological embodiment of my own goals and plans. I can’t lie to it and I can’t make it promises because it doesn’t care. All it does is faithfully present me to myself.
Now I have to go. The Overlord says it’s time to stand up. And by stand up, I mean briskly walk a few laps up and down the hallway…
On my recent wedding anniversary, I posted photos of us dressed up for a night on the town. I have a terrible crush on this man I call my husband, and when I saw him in a fedora for the first time, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Devastating. If he’d worn a hat like that the day we met, I would have been too nervous to talk to him. I felt the same way the day he came home with reading glasses for the first time. He kept catching me staring at him and got really embarrassed. Hey, it’s my prerogative to find my mate attractive. I’m proud he’s mine and I like showing the world what I see in him.
One of my friends commented on my photo about my being the anniversary gift for my husband. That was a very thoughtful compliment. It got me thinking, though, about how many layers there are underpinning that idea. I agree completely; I do see my fit physique as a gift to my mate, among many other things, and it’s something we’ve discussed for years. I also fully realize that this concept is anathema to most women, and it deserves some explanation.
Let me begin by spelling out that there are some very unsavory connotations behind the idea of the body as gift. Slavery, women as chattel, and the ancient tribal-level virginity fetish – oogy, icky stuff. It’s not a gift if it’s not yours to give. It’s not a gift if it’s compelled or if it’s felt as an obligation. I get this.
Nobody owns me. I’m a free elf. My body belongs to me, or rather, I don’t see my body as a separate entity from my personality or spirit or mind or what-have-you. I’ve lived so many different physical manifestations, and felt their effects on my mood and mental state, that to me the two are inextricably intertwined. I hear a great deal of commentary expressing that “my body wants” this or that (usually involving frosting), and it seems surreal and weird to me that people think of their bodies as some kind of hostile, enemy force preventing them from doing what they want.
When I’m happy and thriving, my external appearance is muscular and vigorous, with pink cheeks, bright eyes, and good posture. When I’m not doing well, my external appearance includes dark circles under the eyes, slouching, and trudging. Which causes which? It doesn’t really matter. The key factor is to recognize when I’m off track and starting to spiral into negativity, both physical and spiritual. One gift I can offer is to practice basic self-care and emotional hygiene. Being healthy and feeling great is good for me, and it also makes it easier to be around me. My attitude is always fully within my control, and it has everything to do with getting along and being a good partner.
There is a prevailing attitude among a certain segment of the female population that anyone who finds slender women more attractive is a terrible human being. Everything about falling in love, dating, and forming a lasting partnership is boiled down to appearance and body fat level. This is patronizing. It’s also wrong. At least three of the men I’ve dated made it clear that they preferred my appearance when I was seven clothing sizes bigger. I would estimate that about 80% of straight men love the women in their lives regardless of size. They just like being around us and smelling our hair and having someone to keep them warm at night. They truly don’t care what shoes or clothes we wear, or whether we wear makeup or shave our legs; whatever makes us happy is fine with them. Ask around. Guys are pretty open about this stuff, and they’ll generally give an honest answer to a sincere question. A man wants a woman who likes him, who wants to be with him, who smiles and laughs a lot and shows her happiness. That’s the perfect woman.
The other problem with the “I’d rather be alone than be with a man who thinks I need to lose weight” attitude is that it diverts focus from other factors that might repel even those who prefer a curvy, queen-sized physique. What if the body looks great to him, but he is put off by the defensiveness, resentment, bitterness, and fixation on sniffing out body-shaming under every rock and stone? Fully two-thirds of American women are overweight or obese now, and it’s 72% for men. Overweight is normal now. It’s fairly common for men to actively shy away from what they perceive to be “high maintenance” women, the signifiers of whom are thinness, fashionable clothing, and high-gloss hair, makeup, and manicures. The older a man becomes over age 30, the more likely he is to seek frugality in a mate, and test for whether a potential partner is in debt or is a recreational shopper. Another factor that is a common dealbreaker is the desire to have children immediately, or refusal to allow a new mate to assert parental authority over her pre-existing children. None of these things have anything to do with weight or body type. They have to do with personal autonomy and independence, which are perfectly fine for a single person, but are qualities that might be better traded for flexibility and generosity in loving relationships.
My husband and I were both fat when we met. We became close friends, which we still are, but we didn’t start feeling physically attracted to each other until we had both lost about 30 pounds. Losing weight was something I did for myself. I like it better. I like being fit, and I LOVE not having migraines or night terrors or fibromyalgia symptoms. I also see my commitment to self-care as a gift to him. I know he thought I was pretty when I was heavier, and I know he finds me more attractive as a marathon runner. Sometimes this makes me a little sad for Past Self, that we didn’t get our act together sooner. Mostly, I like that my transition to athleticism has brought us closer together. We have more in common now. He’s excited by my accomplishments and quite interested in my running routes and training schedules. Some of my gifts to him include working on my character flaws, developing my talents and interests, and becoming my better self. These are gifts because I choose them freely and offer them with my whole heart.
This is the man I love. I’d donate my kidney or my bone marrow or my blood plasma to him, if the need ever came, and I’d be glad to do it. Why then wouldn’t I give of my physical essence? Why would I not offer up my sweat and effort and self-discipline? I share my body with him in the same way I share my heart, my thoughts, and all the days of my life.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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