When Positive Becomes Negative

Yesterday my husband and I had to run some errands in the town thirty miles away. It was getting to be dinner time while we were there, so we elected to go to our favourite Italian place. We both had the night’s special, a wonderful portabella mushroom ravioli topped with fresh spinach and Alfredo sauce. I ate a little over half of mine, and then I was through with it. But I still didn’t feel quite satisfied. This happens to me often, both at home and when we eat out. My body tells me I’ve had enough of a particular thing, but it would like a little more of something different.

I got my leftovers boxed up to go, and then the waitress asked the typical question: “Did you leave room for dessert?”

I like dessert. I’m not going to lie about that. I’m also particular about desserts. I rarely order one just to have one; something has to appeal to me on a deep level. Well, one of the desserts at the restaurant yesterday was chocolate mousse with strawberries. I love chocolate mousse and I don’t get it often. So we ordered one to share. When it came, it looked like this:

I mean, really. Who would turn this down?
I mean, really. Who would turn this down?

And it was just as good as it looked. My husband and I consumed it with extreme delight. As I rolled the smooth chocolate and slices of strawberry over my tongue, I thought about how much pleasure I was getting out of sitting in a restaurant, sharing a luscious dessert with my husband–far more pleasure than I’ve ever taken in exercise or the feeling of my body when it hasn’t carried an excess 75-odd pounds. I remembered a meme I see a lot from Facebook friends who are into the whole fitness and health-centered way of life:  “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” and in that moment, I understood it for what it is: Bullshit.

There was no way in hell I was going to feel bad about that chocolate mousse. I wanted it, I ate it, and I enjoyed it. My body stopped feeling like it wanted just a little something more. No harm, no foul.

This morning, I opened up my email to the latest motivational message from the positive lifestyle change group I’m following. The subject, “It’s Okay to Screw Up,” didn’t give me too much pause. It’s an important topic, after all. I lived the first twenty-five years of my life afraid of making mistakes, afraid a single misstep would doom me forever. I remember the first time someone–it was a dance teacher–told me it was fine to make mistakes. It changed my life.

But as I read on, I began to notice something discomfiting about the terminology. Though the message was a fine one, the words used to express it relied way too much on the body-shaming diet industry mode of thinking this group exists to counter. Things like “setting tangible goals…leaves the shadow of failure lurking on the horizon,” and “It’s easy to drop the ball if you screw up,” and, most of all, ” A life of moderation and joy means identifying your failures, your faults, your slip-ups, and letting them go. More than that, in fact. It’s about enjoying them.

By the time I got to the end of the post, “I would hate to think anyone missed out on the joy of eating a big slice of cake by being too preoccupied with guilt to properly enjoy it,” I wanted to scream because the group leader, despite her good intentions, had, without being aware of it, undermined her entire message. How? By framing certain food and activity choices as FAILURES. If you have pasta when you’ve resolved to cut out carbohydrates, it’s a failure. If you skip the gym one day because you don’t have the energy, you’ve screwed up. And although she encourages people not to dwell on these events and move on, in the end she has reinforced the success/failure dichotomy.

This might be a tricky issue for people who are not as obsessed with language as I am. The thing is, words like “failure,” “denial,” “mistake,” “cheat day,” “screw up,” and even terms like “falling off the wagon,” and “lack of progress toward your goal” carry negative meanings even when we try to use them in positive situations. And in our goal-oriented, success-driven society, they will trigger feelings of inadequacy and deprivation simply by existing. The subtext is, “You should be THIS way, but instead you’re THAT way.” One is good. The other is bad. And the outcome of saying “pay attention to your failures” emphasizes the importance of failure as a possibility. That is going to make people MORE apt to attach to their “failures” rather than less.

Now, I’m not a big believer in failure as a total concept. My focus is more on what works in the moment. If my goal is to walk two miles every day and on Sunday I don’t because it’s freezing outside, or because I’m sick, or for whatever reason, I don’t think of it as a failure. I don’t even consider it a set-back. I think, “Hmm, that didn’t happen today. That didn’t work.” The important thing is to keep the goal in mind. So, I would have framed today’s email in a much different way. I would have said something like, “When you set a tangible, long-term goal, there are going to be times when the work necessary to achieving it isn’t going to be possible. That’s fine. The trick is to remember that your goal is long term. One day of having a doughnut for breakfast is not going to make or break the goal as long as you keep striving.”

See? I expressed the same idea without using the word “failure” at all.

After reading the email this morning, I got curious. I went back over all the emails pertinent to this group, and looked through the group posts themselves, to see how often this kind of thing occurs. The answer is “WAY TOO MUCH.” Here are some examples.

“…give yourself a treat to take the edge off how much you’re denying yourself…”

“Little failures are not the end of the world.”

“…mistakes like take-out food and skipped workouts slip back in…”

All these things were surrounded by positive talk about being mindful and taking care of yourself. And that’s great! But what about the day taking care of yourself means not going for a run because your feet hurt or you have a blinding headache? What about the day you’re operating at such a high stress level that taking care of yourself looks like ordering in Chinese food, or even grabbing a burger? Taking care of yourself doesn’t always mean allowing yourself the time and space to create an all-organic, vegetarian, wheat-free dinner. It doesn’t always mean being active. Sometimes it means allowing yourself to say NO. Even to your goals.

Believe me, eating that chocolate mousse last night was no failure. It was no mistake. It wasn’t cheating or giving in.

Why is this supposed to be a good thing?
Why is this supposed to be a good thing?

The health/fitness/diet industry is an insidious part of Western society, and the way it frames relationships to food and exercise influences even our attempts to be positive. When we talk about “cutting carbs” or “cheat days” or “denying ourselves,” we’re participating in it even if our intention is exactly the opposite. We’re framing some ways of relating to our bodies and the food we eat as good and others as bad. And the more we do this, the harder it becomes to allow ourselves the freedom to make the choices that are best for us as individuals. This is particularly relevant to women, who are trained from an early age not to see our own boundaries and to place other people’s opinions of what we “should” be and how we “should” act above our own body wisdom. I have a particular problem with this as a migraine sufferer. I honestly do not know if my pain is a valid reason to give myself a break, back off from activity, and eat and drink things I have learned over the years will help–like a Coke and a steak–or if I “should” ignore my body’s signals and “muscle on through.” I have to rely on my husband to tell me it’s okay to relax. Fortunately for me, I have a husband who does this.

Language is the way we understand our reality. You can’t create a positive life if you continue to use the language of negativity and failure. If you want to make a real, long-term change, practice reframing your language in a positive way. Instead of “acknowledging your failures,” celebrate your choices. Believe me, it makes all the difference.


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