When Chasing a Healthy Lifestyle Gets in the Way of Actually Having a Healthy Lifestyle
By sara dueck
Here’s something about me that I haven’t been very open about yet—I’ve got a little stack of mental health issues: anxiety, depression and disordered eating. These illnesses have followed me around since I was a teenager, but I only started to recognize them as mental illnesses within the past two years.
Before then, I convinced myself that I wasn’t trying hard enough. If I really wanted to lose weight, then I would need to stick to eating an extremely low number of calories each day - a shift from the cycles of fasting and binging I’d been caught in for years. If I really wanted to silence the voices of anxiety and dread, I would need to work harder to reach higher achievements. If I really wanted to overcome the waves of self-hatred and inadequacy that seemed to constantly wash over me, I would need to suck it up, get over myself, and go for a run.
Every time I broke down and went over my caloric limit, I became disgusted by my own body. Every time I received a grade lower than an A, I felt so ashamed of myself that I couldn’t even read my professors’ feedback. And every time I spent a day being unproductive because I couldn’t work up the emotional energy to go outside or do my homework or even shower, I said the phrase “I hate myself” over and over like a mantra.
But here’s the thing. No one knew. From the outside, I seemed outgoing, hardworking, and successful. I was in an Honors program, and I was the president of a large students’ association. I ran upwards of 40 kilometers (25 miles) every week. I got into every school I applied to for my master’s degree, including Oxford and Cambridge, and I was the valedictorian at my undergraduate graduation ceremony. My friends told me I had my shit together, even though I clenched my jaw constantly and dug my fingernails (and sometimes knives) into my arms and spent most of my free time calculating the caloric intake of various snack combinations.
Eventually, I had to ask for help.
I’d be lying if I said that I’ve completely overcome my mental illnesses. I suspect they’ll be with me for the rest of my life. But, in the year and a half that I’ve spent seeking treatment, going to therapy, focusing on recovery, and, most importantly, learning to be kind to myself, these are some things that I’ve learned about living a healthy life:
Seriously, fuck that noise. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend in the gym, how far you run in a week, or how active you are if your motivation is coming from a place of self-hatred. For years, I treated running, one of my favorite activities, as a means of atonement. If I went over my caloric limit, the next day I forced myself to go for a long run without eating. If I didn’t run at least four times in a week, I’d beat myself up for being lazy. I ran until I felt dizzy and shaky and spots swam in my vision. A sport that I loved morphed into a form of punishment. There was nothing healthy about those patterns.
Ever since I started prioritizing my mental health, my running has become far less regular. I still go for jogs here and there, but there might be weeks of inactivity in between. I miss trail running, but I need to reset first. I want running to be something that I take joy in again, instead of something that I use to punish myself.
Allow yourself take a break. Ignore everything that has to do with "fitspiration." Move on your own terms.
Don’t Count Your Calories
No good comes from being able to list the number of calories in all your favorite snacks. I still have a weird list of foods—like milk, juice, peanut M&Ms, and cookies—that I can’t touch because I spent so long applying moral values to food based on calories.
Don’t deprive yourself unnecessarily of peanut M&Ms. Just live your life. Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re not. Treat yourself when you want to. You’ll be alright.
When you’re committed to a diet of healthy eating, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of either allowing yourself to eat something that passes the “healthy” test or to not eat anything at all. But sometimes, you just need to eat. It’s better to eat something than nothing, even if that "something" doesn’t fit into a specific diet plan.
Let Yourself Feel Bad Feelings
When I first started seeing my therapist, she asked me what I wanted to get out of my treatment. “I just want all of this to go away,” I answered, gesturing vaguely at my chest. “I want to stop feeling bad.”
She smiled. “That’s not quite how this works.”
It turns out; negative feelings aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they’re necessary. You need to ride them out until your body is done completing the cycle it started. When you’re surrounded by cultural messaging that constantly tell you to be happy, negative feelings are terrifying. I had been in the habit of shoving down my negative feelings for so long that I didn’t know how to experience them without shame.
You don’t need to silence your negative emotions. You just need to learn how to sit with them, make peace with them, and then move on.
The images of healthy lifestyles that we’re so often surrounded by can be misleading. Health looks different on every person. Make the lifestyle choices that work for you, and ignore what anyone else tells you about fitness or health. You’re the only one who knows what’s going on inside your head.
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SARA DUECK - STAFF WRITER & EDUCATOR
Sara Dueck (she/her) is a queer, feminist, usually nervous, over-educated millennial with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Medieval Studies. Sara grew up in a small town in Southern Alberta, Canada - deep in the heart of right-wing territory.