I was raised to eat oatmeal. It’s what I know. I still hate it though. So when I make an effort to eat healthy, I go right to oatmeal for breakfast and end up hating Every. Single. Minute. Of. It.
I have a very wise friend who has a Ph.D. in health and nutrition so I learn all I can from her. I soak up her knowledge (while silently envying her rock-star abs and arms). She’s been to school for nutrition; she’s dedicated to health; she exercises her muscles and practices what she preaches. Recently, she said, “You’re so mentally healthy; surely you have bad days right?” Of course I do! Just like some days she eats a big greasy hamburger and potato chips. Much like physical health, mental and emotional health is a muscle that needs to be exercised. Her “bad health” days are further apart than mine and she knows the right tools to get back on track. Conversely, my “bad emotional days” are further apart and they don’t send me into a tailspin of regret and depression any more. The difference: time, motivation, resources, practice and discipline.
As I head into a 14-day healthy eating program for health reasons, there is a lot of mental prep work. I have to study the material and create a scenario where I will be more likely to succeed on this diet. Wisely, my friend told me not to start this eating program around a holiday, vacation or during a busy schedule where I will not have access to healthy choices. “Why would you eat oatmeal when you hate it?” she asked. “There are plenty of other healthy choices available. Set your diet up for success by not choosing something you hate!”
Well, duh! Of course there are! But oatmeal is what I KNOW. Such is the same as emotional clarity and breaking a bad cycle. So when I ask this same friend, “Why did you handle that situation like that?” and she responds, “Because I don’t know any other way” I see a powerful parallel. Why would you set yourself up to fail at practicing emotional health in a stressful situation? Don’t put unrealistic expectations and pressure yourself that way.
My dear friend encourages me in getting physically healthy and gives me tools and training to succeed. She spent years studying the body, its functions and capabilities then applied them to her life in order to help others. Often we don’t look at our emotional health the same way. Make no mistake, your mind is a muscle that needs exercise!
Before you’re hard on yourself the next time you handle a situation badly or find yourself in an emotional funk that’s seemingly never going to end, pick yourself up, dust off and start practicing again. Like my healthy food choices, I need to do specific steps in order. Below, are steps to move yourself forward in emotional health. Master the first step before starting the next so you aren’t overwhelmed and setting yourself up for failure before you even begin!
Steps to exercising your emotional muscle (adapted from “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend):
1. Recognize resentment. Put any fancy label you want to (irritation, depression, upset), but resentment is an early warning system that something’s not right in your world. Chances are, a boundary in your life has been violated. Boundaries can be physical, emotional, financial, etc. (See earlier post about boundaries).
2. Change your taste buds. Gravitate toward healthier people who can give you solid, trustworthy encouragement along the way. Why would I eat oatmeal and suffer when there are other choices? Because I had not surrounded myself with the knowledge of different options before beginning my journey. You can’t succeed in a vacuum; we need others to help motivate and teach us.
3. Treasure your treasures. Once you feel safe and continually making headway in your emotional health, your value system will start to change. You will begin to see destructive patterns easier in yourself and others. You will be naturally inclined to seek “healthy” people and choices. Make a list of your treasures: time, money, feelings and beliefs and how do you want others to treat those treasures. How do you want others to NOT treat those treasures? What are your needs and wants? If you have a solid knowledge of those, you will better be able to tell others how you want to be treated and stand up for those standards.
4. Practice “no.” This is the art of saying “no” or “That’s not right” or “I don’t like that” and not losing yourself. A good way to practice this in safety is asking a therapy group or trusted friend if they will allow you to experiment with boundaries with them. A truth-telling, trustful friend will gladly cheer you on and even learn from the process of confronting and disagreeing. True intimacy is built around the freedom to disagree respectfully. Whether the friend agrees to help or refuses, you’ll learn something very key about yourself and the relationship. Once you are confident of your abilities to confront someone who has violated a small boundary (dishes in the sink, homework on the table, laundry on the floor), you can address the bigger no’s with confidence. Baby steps!
5. Embrace Guilt! Strangely, if you feel guilty in an area of your life, it means you have enough knowledge there to trigger an emotion in yourself. Just like feeling a sore muscle after working out, you can pinpoint an area of your body that needs more work and strength, otherwise it wouldn’t hurt. So instead of punishing yourself with the guilt, look at it as a focal point of an area you need to work on.
6. Wave good-bye to guilt. Now you’re ready to not feel guilt at all! Once we’re able to see where my boundaries end and yours begin, you can hold firm to your own standards and values without guilt. Eventually, once I’ve learned to eat better foods, the old foods won’t look as appealing to me because I know the damage they can do. So when you take a hard stand or make a healthy choice, congratulate yourself. Recognize how far you’ve come and how much your conscience has grown up.
7. Respect others’ “no.” Once you’ve been practicing your own emotional health, it’s time to practice recognizing others efforts. If you lack the ability to take no for an answer or have self-discipline, you will be confronted by your own selfishness. And that’s a hard pill to swallow! It also teaches us empathy. You’ve “been there,” so now respect that someone else isn’t “there” yet. My friend, the physician would never throw it in my face that I’m not trying hard enough or don’t have the willpower that she does. Instead, she asks me why I make certain choices and then suggests other ways of looking at food.
8. Notice Resistance. Life is hard and stuff happens. There are good days and bad days. True emotional health is dealing with today’s emotions today in a healthy way. When I slip off of my physical regiment, I can’t beat myself up and wallow in the pity of failure. I simply need to speak truth to myself and say, “Ok, you made a mistake. Next time I’ll try something different.” I don’t have to start at step one. I just need to keep trying.