Love vs. "Should"
This past week I was having coffee with my friend Shelly. Shelly is a brilliant Philosophy professor and a gifted blogger who writes on the topic of self-love. Whenever we meet we end up talking for hours, our shared passion for helping others to use self-care to improve their lives pushing both of us to make connections and have tons of insights.
We often use examples from our own lives in conversation and Shelly shared with me a struggle she was having with her own nutrition and exercise habits.
“Jack, I feel like I know exactly what I should be doing, how I should be working out or how I should be eating, but I just struggle to consistently do the right thing…”
I could tell that Shelly was really trying her best. She had all the right information, she probably had a really good plan laid out. And yet, it wasn’t falling into place for her in the most important way: consistency. Without consistent sustained efforts change won’t happen. I could hear the frustration and confusion in her voice. I also heard a short list of all of her “shoulds” in terms of movement and nutrition.
I knew how she was feeling, because I felt the same way for years! And after working with so many clients on creating good exercise and nutrition habits I knew that everyone felt this confusion and frustration.
“I want to give you a gift,” I started once Shelly had outlined her plan that she was struggling to follow through on and stick with. “I’m going to give you this: permission to only do what you love when it comes to food and movement.”
Shelly’s eyes lit up! I could tell she was both surprised and interested.
“I also give you permission to drop everything you think you should do,” I continued. “Because, here’s the thing: those things you think you should do are not helping you to be consistent, so you can’t make any progress. You mentioned you should be drinking more green smoothies, and you also mentioned that you weren’t even sure you liked them. There’s no way to succeed with that path because you don’t even like it!
“Let’s look at the green smoothies, for example. If you’re attempting to choke those down so you can get more vegetables into your diet, well, that’s a great thing: eating more vegetables. But it’s not working for you in the approach you’re taking.
“What if, instead, you started to ask yourself what you love to eat? How do you love to take care of yourself with food? How do you love to nourish and support your body and your life?”
“I really like that Jack!” Shelly replied. “Whenever I do anything, coming from a place of love, I know I can’t be wrong!”
“Yes!” I exclaimed, I knew she was hearing the power in this possibility. I knew she was seeing how self-love and self-care could be used to help her reach her goals. “If, for example, you love to eat roasted vegetables and you know this will help you get in more vegetables, then go for that. You can ditch those smoothies if you don’t like them! Maybe you have an idea that you’re supposed to eat more ‘variety,’ or eat something you’ve heard is ‘healthy,’ but how is that helping you with the big goal of eating more vegetables? To eat more vegetables you actually have to eat them! So, pick the easiest way to eat them!”
“Yes! If I go with what I like, what I’m drawn to, what I love, then I can consistently make this positive change!”
“Right! And you can do the same thing with movement and exercise. You don’t have to punish yourself or force yourself to do things you hate. Exercise can still feel challenging, it can still involve effort, but if that comes from a place of love, because you love how you are moving or the strength you are building, you won’t have to struggle to do it. Instead you will be driven to do it!”
“This is going to make such a huge difference!” Shelly smiled. “I feel like I already know what to do and this makes doing it so easy!”
“That’s the truth,” I replied. “We all know what to do and how to do it to make our bodies both healthy and strong. What I find is that when people get confused, when their vision is clouded by these ideas of what they ‘should’ do, is when the problems occur. But by doing what we actually love as opposed to what we are told we should do we are able to listen to the inner wisdom we all have and that is how we actually do the things that create the most impact, that is how we actually make progress!”
“This makes total sense to me. As soon as you started talking about things in this way it just clicked for me,” Shelly said. “But do people struggle with this? Do they think, ‘but I love to eat chocolate cake and I can’t just eat cake all the time!’”
“That’s definitely something people are afraid of,” I answered. “But that’s still the idea of ‘what they should do’ talking. They are afraid that they can’t trust themselves, that they won’t be able to control themselves. But this approach is all about building trust and instead of controlling ourselves, we are making choices, in the moment, that are the right ones for us and our bodies.
“The cake thing is certainly an objection I hear when I first introduce this idea to clients,” I continued. “They can’t imagine that they would willingly choose to eat health-promoting foods over the ‘fun’ choice. But I ask them to think of what would happen if all they ate was cake, every day, for every meal. Pretty soon they wouldn’t feel good physically, it wouldn’t be ‘fun’ anymore, they wouldn’t love the way they felt. Remember, this all comes back to love.”
“Exactly! That makes so much sense!” Shelly was practically vibrating with understanding. “It’s not about choosing something that you like over something you are supposed to do, which you probably don’t like much at all and are only doing because you think you have to.”
“Nope! Not at all!” I smiled. “If we choose what we love, what we really love is to feel good and to enjoy our lives. Eating cake day in and day out doesn’t create the result of what we love. So we don’t have to choose between ‘only cake’ or ‘no cake.’ Instead, by asking ourselves in each choice, ‘is this how I love myself right now?’ we pick the right thing at the right time.
“Sometimes that’s eating cake, but more often than not it’s eating a balanced meal of foods that we enjoy that also help us reach our individual goals. And this is what makes both eating and moving for health or fat loss or muscle gain or performance actually sustainable. This is what allows us to do it long term, for the rest of our lives, so that we can actually get results and then we can maintain them!”
“This really makes me feel so much better! It’s like having a weight lifted off my shoulders!” Shelly sighed.
“I know! It doesn’t have to be as terrible as people think!” I laughed. “Eating and moving well are within everyone’s reach and they don’t have to feel like torture! I know for myself that while I still feel challenged by my workouts and I know I am pushing myself it never goes to that place of punishment anymore. I love to get strong, I love to feel like I can do anything, and I put the work in at the gym so my life can expand that much more, because that is how I love my life!
“It’s easy to make choices that involve work or taking on a challenge or figuring out something new when I know that I am choosing those things in order to support a life I love. As long as I focus on what I love and ignore what the media or anything else tells me I ‘should’ do, I always make the right choice!”
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The strategy of choosing love over “should” works so effectively it’s like magic! Once you put this into place and begin acting on it, the changes it makes are dramatic -- both in terms of results and, most importantly, how you feel about how you eat, how you move and about yourself!
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