50. Follow Your Freedom to the Middle Way
Welcome to episode 50 of the Mindful Weight Loss Podcast. I am your host and your coach, Emily Erekuff and today I am talking about freedom and more about The Middle Way. In the last episode we just kind of started to scratch the surface of the concept of The Middle Way and I think there's a lot more to discuss that can be helpful there. And, ultimately the best way to know that you are following The Middle Way is that you feel a sense of freedom, hence the title of today's podcast: Follow Your Freedom. We're going to talk about that as well.
And so here's the weird and funny thing about everything that I've said on every other episode of the podcast so far. It's not exactly true. But before you get angry, know that it's not false either.
And let me give a clear example to demonstrate. I preach that when it comes to food, you shouldn't follow rules about what to eat. And I stand behind that. Rules are made to be broken and when we tell ourselves that we can only have dessert on days that start with S, our brains get in a fit and essentially say "You're not the boss of me and I'll prove it." and next thing you know you're chowing down on some cake on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for good measure.
And yet, rules can be extremely helpful. They make decisions really easy. Decisions take a lot of brain power and the more you can preserve that, the better. Rules also help shape your identity to a large extent. The rules you live by represent your values.
And so what do you do with that? You might consider that and conclude that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Rules are helpful, but if I set rules, I am setting myself up to break them. WTF?
But you can use rules to your advantage if you change how you think about them and lean towards the Middle Way.
And the first point to consider is that rules aren't rules once we internalize them. This is the identity piece that is really so powerful. If you identify as being a non-smoker, you don't need a concrete rule against smoking cigarette's. It's just not something you do.
And notice the verbiage that we use once we've internalized a rule. It's not "I can't" it's "I don't." When you're a non-smoker you don't say "I can't smoke" as if someone is preventing you from doing so, you choose not to smoke and so you say "I don't smoke."
That might seem like such a subtle difference, but research supports the idea that saying "I don't" is psychologically empowering because the implication is that you are the one who is in charge and making the decision.
The second point to keep in mind is that we need to stop thinking of rules as hard and fast and embrace the idea that they can be flexible. You might even want to stop using the word "rule" and use a softer term like "guideline" or something that helps your brain understand that you can be more relaxed about following said "rules."
And you might wonder how that works with the identity stuff I just talked about. Aren't our identity behaviors things we always or never do? But the answer here is interestingly "Kind of." You may consider yourself a non-smoker, but you may have smoked cigarette's in your past and you may even occasionally take a puff now and again. And yet those acts don't preclude you from seeing yourself as a non-smoker. Even if we go all the way to morality we see this same thing. You probably consider yourself to be nonviolent and you think that you could never kill another human being? I think most of us feel that way. But what if you or your children were attacked. I think most of us would also agree that we would act in self defense if it came to it. But admitting that doesn't mean that you now have to give up the idea that you could never kill someone.
Even with something as important as our identity, or perhaps better said, especially with something as important as our identity, we are willing to make exceptions. We are able to write off behaviors that don't fit with our sense of self as anomalies or exceptions of circumstance.
And so isn't it kind of funny then that we try to be more stringent with things like diet choices? You swear off sugar and become someone who doesn't eat sugar, but the minute you eat a cookie, instead of writing that off as an exception or an anomaly, you judge yourself as a failure of not eating sugar and give up. But you could just eat the cookie and then keep going just as the nonsmoker can smoke a cigarette at a party and never lose the belief or idea that she's ultimately a non-smoker.
Ultimately is that key word because it allows for those exceptions and you get to make the decision about the range of exceptions that works with the behavior you want to cultivate. For example. I made a guideline for myself recently that I'm going to eat hard-boiled eggs when I am hungry for a snack. And when I first decided this I was really gung ho about and did it for just about every snack until I was just like "Nope, this is gross. I'm not eating another one." And I don't actually think they are gross, I literally had too many and got a little sick of them. But I was aware of that, gave myself a little break, and now I'm stoked to eat some hard-boiled eggs again. I think the key for me is eating them when they are nice and warm after just being cooked vs cold from the fridge, but I digress, because the point is that I didn't give up and say, "Well I didn't feel like eating hard-boiled eggs today. That means I have to give up on being someone who eat hard-boiled eggs for snacks."
And thinking about it, if I do that behavior around 75 to 80% of the time, I'm going to feel good about it and continue to do it until I get to a point where I do mostly eat hard-boiled eggs for snacks. And there again is some helpful terminology. "Mostly" is a great word that gives you flexibility and allows for that 80% rate to equal success. "I mostly eat healthy." "I mostly don't eat a lot of sugar." "I exercise on most days." I tell you, doing something "mostly" creates results. You don't need "perfectly" when you have "mostly."
The last point I want to make about rules is the piece about freedom in that you ultimately need to follow what feels like freedom. Ultimately you'll have the best success if you do what you want. I actually do want to eat hard-boiled eggs. I want to eat protein for a snack to feed my muscles and because I don't find something like a granola bar to be a good option. And anyway, I have lots of other reasons for this, and I'll be honest, one of them is because I believe eating them will promote weight loss. But that's not the only or main reason. AND, big key here, I would continue to eat them once I hit my goal weight. Like if I hit my goal weight tomorrow, I'd keep doing it. That's a surefire way to know that a guideline is a good one AND that it has the potential to become internalized.
If you are doing something just for the sake of losing weight and you plan to kick that behavior to the curb as soon as you hit that number on the scale, that behavior is never going to become part of who you are. So you might as well do what sounds reasonably good to you - something that you will want to do 80% of the time long-term.
But ok, what about that 20%? What about those exceptions. How do you decide on when those occur - do you make a rule about that? My answer here is "no" and I would refer to you again back to the point about freedom. When you are faced with the decision about when to make an exception, this is when you're going to have to suck it up so to speak and be aware and use your brain power to make a decision. And honestly this won't happen that often if you are doing something you want to do. I'm not constantly talking myself into eating the hard-boiled eggs, so when I feel like I don't want one, the decision to grab something else is kind of a no-brainer. Forcing myself to do something I don't want to do makes me feel boxed in, so I don't do it. And if you find that you have to really force something, then it might simply not be for you, or at least not for you right now.
The very last thing I want to leave you with is an exercise that you can do in these situations or in ones that are even more ambiguous - say when donuts appear in the break room and you're really torn between wanting to eat one and wanting to lose weight and there are really no rules about either one.
First, identify the part of you that wants the donut. You might characterize her in a specific way, but really the most important thing is that you feel her. And once you do, ask her to step aside for just a few minutes. In your mind's eye, separate her from you and put a little bit of distance between you. And be nice about it of course and reassure her that she can come right back in a few minutes. We're not banishing anyone here.
And then, do the same with the part of you that doesn't want to eat the donut because you want to lose weight. Identify her and ask her to step aside, preferably to the other side of you so that you are left standing in the middle.
And then feel who you are without those desiring parts. Feel who you are without those wants. You'll probably notice that you feel more relaxed and more attuned to, and accepting of, the present moment. And in this space you'll find that the ability to make a decision is given back to you. In this space, you access The Middle Way.
When we experience these kinds of conflicting desires, we're stuck in a box of thinking "Of these two decisions, one is wrong and one is right." But when we step outside the box, this right and wrong thinking becomes irrelevant. You can think beyond this duality and consider what feels more freeing in this moment. And that choice is not always to eat the donut. In fact, so many times we eat the donut to assert our freedom; to prove that we have it. But that's not freedom. It's the very fact that we don't believe we are free that FORCES us to eat the donut and that's not a real or free choice.
With true freedom there is ZERO force. There's no resistance. And in The Middle Way, freedom can be something that looks from the outside like discipline. You might need to practice this exercise a few times to find that magical, middle space, but I promise you that it is there.
Thank you so much for listening and I will see you next week.