There is a lot of “common knowledge” floating around in the collective unconscious that I think is wrong. We take in this received wisdom and swallow it whole, without subjecting it to serious scrutiny. Part of the discipline of inquiry involves asking, “Is this true? How can I prove or disprove it?” The concept of the “set point” is one of those ideas that I have examined and found oversimplified and subjective. The idea is that each of us is somehow genetically programmed to be at a certain shape and size, and no matter what we do, our bodies will revert to it, like when the top of my pantyhose keeps rolling down. A “set point” is a classic example of a fixed mindset, and it applies to other areas of life besides body image.
I used to believe I just had the body I had. I “knew” I “only ate health food.” I also “knew” I “couldn’t exercise” because I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I felt that I had suffered misfortunes, such as growing a thyroid nodule, and that certain things happened to me that made me a special snowflake. What worked for other people wasn’t going to work for me. I “knew” things wouldn’t work without actually trying them out. That was my ‘set point’ – a mental one. I was mentally stuck in Park and I didn’t even know I had gears I could shift.
Over time, I stumbled along, accidentally shifting variables and getting different results. It took longer than it could have, but I eventually learned that I could change my diet, that I could change my body composition, that I did have at least a certain amount of control over my level of chronic pain or fatigue.
The ‘set point’ of my body now is completely different than it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or 17 years ago. My mental and emotional ‘set points’ are also distinctly different.
Seventeen years ago, I didn’t know how much I weighed. I didn’t know what clothing size I wore. I wore baggy, loose dresses with no waistband. I didn’t own a scale. When I planned my wedding with my first husband, I received my grandmother’s wedding dress, and it wouldn’t button. I decided I would lose weight so the dress would fit. (Current Me could probably put that dress on without the alterations). I had no plan. I think I thought that making the decision would make the weight vanish somehow. I didn’t change what I ate, at all, and I didn’t even imagine a workout program. Needless to say, I didn’t lose weight, and I wound up having to pay a seamstress to add 5 inches of panels in the waist. My ‘set point’ was vague and undefined, totally lacking information or any way to track metrics. I also lacked a real career plan. I was just going along to get along.
Ten years ago, I started learning about how to lose weight. I was flat broke and hating it, and there was a weight loss contest at my work that involved a potential cash payout. I WAS GOING TO GET THAT MONEY NO MATTER WHAT. Almost everyone in the contest was male, and men have an extremely different approach to weight loss than women do. They tend to look at it more mechanically, as in, “I’m going to lose some weight, so I’d better cut back on the beer and hot wings for a while.” They would mock each other and try to sabotage each other’s progress by buying donuts and leaving them on their competitors’ desks. I saw all that as Reindeer Games and kept my eyes on the prize. In two years and three rounds of the contest, I won over $200. My new ‘set point’ was that of an experimenter, treating my body as a test subject and seeing that it could change with different inputs. I realized I knew almost nothing about physical fitness, and that learning more could be valuable in my life. This was shortly after I got my degree and my driver’s license and started taking my career planning very seriously.
Five years ago, I started distance running. The first time I went out, I couldn’t make it around the block without stopping to walk, and I had to lie on the floor afterward. Not even a third of a mile! I saw that my inner persistence, determination, grit, and sheer stubbornness could take me places that my lack of athletic history could not. Four years later, I ran a marathon. My new set point became that of a champion – a slow one, but a champion nevertheless. When I set a goal, I know I will eventually reach that goal, even if it takes me years, because I NEVER QUIT. I might fail a bunch of times along the way, but I’ll never give up! At this time, I also began looking at my vocation and career in a radically new way.
When I look back at myself at different ages, I shake my head at how resistant I was to new information. I didn’t want to hear it. I could have had the same conversations, read the same materials, watched the same documentaries, and not gotten anything out of it, because I was stuck at a certain level. In my life, it’s only been when I decided maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did that I was able to make any progress at all.
Physically, a “set point” is the result of a certain package of eating habits and activity level. Yes, my body will tend to level out at a certain shape and size once I have adjusted to whatever change I have made. When I joined Curves, I lost 17 inches in the first month – but months later, I had lost only one pound, because I refused to consider any dietary changes and the 30-minute circuit training workout could only have so much effect on me. I’ve learned from keeping a food log every day for two years that the difference between Snack A and Snack B can be a 4-lb difference on the scale after just a couple of weeks. A body trained with 30 minutes of walking three days a week is going to look visibly different a year later than a body trained with 90 minutes of running three days a week. Walk into a gym and watch the crowds coming out of the different classes. It’s easy to see that the water aerobics group is at a totally different set point than the Pilates or spin class groups. These aren’t genetic things, they are behavior package things.
It’s the same with other areas of life, such as relationships, finances, and home environments. One person will tolerate raised voices, and another person won’t, and as a result, one person will be stuck at a relationship set point that the other person would find unacceptable. One person will settle for an income level that another person will not, and as a result, one person will have financial problems that the other person won’t. One person will manage to ignore mold, stacks of greasy dishes, and piles of smelly laundry that another person could barely imagine, and as a result, one will live in squalor and the other will not. Our ‘set points’ are what we are willing to live with, to put up with from day to day. Usually, we have no idea that another level is possible.
I sometimes visualize this as different floors or storeys in a building. Imagine an apartment building. In the basement lives an unemployed person who is clinically depressed, in debt, behind on rent and bills, and surrounded by trash, dishes, and laundry. On the first floor is a broke college student, struggling with many of the same issues as the tenant in the basement apartment, but working hard for something better. On the second floor is a single person with a full-time job, gradually paying off debt and following a fitness plan. On the third floor is a couple with careers and a retirement plan. In the penthouse apartment is a wealthy entrepreneur with a fantastic view, signing up for an ultramarathon. They all have the same address, but they’re at different stages of life, and they have distinct mindsets and sets of behaviors. There is no particular reason why the tenant in the basement apartment couldn’t bump into the penthouse dweller and have a life-altering conversation one day.
If I woke up tomorrow in the body I had when I was 29, I would burst into tears. If I woke up in my first apartment, I’d probably cry then too. The difference is that now I expect different things out of life, and I know how to go about getting them. “If I only knew then what I know now…” There is no amount of weight I could gain that I would keep, because I already know how awful it felt to live in that body, and I also know what changes to make to get the body I live in now. There is no amount of mess or disorganization that would phase me, because I now know how to organize it all. If I had to wash every article of clothing and linens in the house, I’d be done in two days, and if I had to wash every dish, I’d be done in two hours. There is no way I will ever be in a relationship as bad as my first marriage, because I know to ask more questions now, and I’ll never accept certain types of mistreatment. I’ll never be poor again, because I know how to get a job that pays enough to live comfortably. I’m at a particular set point in life, but I know there is nothing permanent about it. Disaster may come my way, but it wouldn’t be the first time, and I know that whenever I hit the ground, I don’t just land on my feet, I bounce.
The big question is how many higher levels there are. I know the first step in rising up a level of set point is to recognize that the current set point is nothing more than a comfort zone. I am where I am because I behave in certain ways, accept certain things but not others, and have a certain finite amount of information. As I learn more and adjust my behaviors, I can rise, in the same way that a hot air balloon will rise when some sandbags are tossed over the side. Letting go of self-limiting beliefs and behaviors will automatically create a lift. Learning other approaches to common problems and adjusting our behaviors in positive ways can lead to upper levels we didn’t realize ever existed.
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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.