When I am starting a coaching relationship with a new client, there are some obvious assessments. I run them through my little mobility screen. I take them through the Five Human Movements (plus One). I ask them about what they have been eating. There are however, many other things I am assessing for beyond movement quality and a food journal. I want to know how my client thinks. When I am talking with them about their goals, I’m also listening for how my new client is thinking about the journey they’re on. Here are some illuminating sentences that I hear a lot. “I ate pretty well today.” “I’ve been bad this week.” “I eat clean.” “I know cake is bad.”
These are sentences I hear every day from clients and thoughts that I’m sure we’ve all had at some point. Listen carefully though. What are you actually telling yourself?
1) There is ‘good food’ and ‘bad food’ or, ‘clean food’ and ‘dirty food.’ 2) The foods I eat make me a either a ‘good person’ or a ‘bad person.’ 3) Adherence to a diet is a measure of my worth as a person. 4) Lapses in willpower are lapses in my moral character.
Suddenly, something as simple as eating less and moving more looks like an eternal metaphysical crusade! And while I am the first person to tell you that the journey to your health and fitness goals is not going to be easy or straightforward, I can promise you there is no battle between good and evil going on at the gym or the grocery store.
So why do we think like this? Why do we turn these personal journeys into great, historic odysseys? People love stories and they love casting themselves in stories. By casting ourselves in a grand struggle, we have references on how to act and a narrative that we can follow. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces does a better job of explaining this that I ever can in a blog post. However, reality is not a storybook journey. So thinking about things this way leaves two narratives, the one where everything goes according to plan and you succeed or the one where it doesn't and you fail. In a weird way, I think people often turn their journeys into odysseys larger than themselves in order to preemptively give themselves permission to fail, but fail righteously. Because if Christlike perfection is the only option, if every food choice is a moral judgement about whether you are a good person or a bad person, and if slips in willpower reveal existential weakness, then of course you are going to fail! You’re obsessing over the path instead of the destination. And as Nietzsche opined, “many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.”
I don’t ask my clients to think about “right” and “wrong.” I ask my clients to think about habits. We are working together to identify and accumulate the habits that they need to get to where they want to be. This is a learning process, a process you have to have the patience to trust. Along the way, there are actions that bring you closer to your goal, and there are actions that might not bring you closer to your goal in the moment, but every action is an opportunity to learn and make progress. Hell, that’s the point! To quote an old Zen saying, “the obstacles are the path.”
Did you get detoured? Here are some steps to help you reorient yourself.
Forgive yourself. It wasn’t going to be easy and it wasn’t going to be perfect. You’re still on the path, you’re still moving forward, the road just isn’t as straight as it looked from where you were.
Learn something about yourself. Why is the path different than you thought? Are your priorities in order? Are you pushing yourself too hard? Not enough? Are you bored? Are you missing something? These are all fixable problems if you take the time to reflect on how you got to where you are.
Change your perspective. This isn’t a sprint, it’s an ultra-marathon. You need to go back to putting one foot in front of the other. Getting fixated on where you are isn’t going to get you where you want to be.
Don’t worry about the next mile, worry about the next step. Put all your time and energy into what you need to do today to get back on track. What can you do in the next day, the next hour, or the next 60 seconds that will refocus you on your goal?