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On Going Without

Updated: 19 hours ago

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with giving things up. This is nothing new for me, since I’m a natural down-sizer. I love to purge. I do it regularly, and with gusto, especially because we have three kids that come home daily with something new for the ever-present pile on the kitchen counter. Why does that pile never go away?

I do a lot of thinking about how much stuff we have, and better ways to use our money, which I talk about on the podcast episode Minimalism and the Art of Experience, that you can listen to here. But lately, I've been compelled to give up more than just stuff, and consider what vises I might also give up.

The Childhood Version

This is a tender subject because as a child I had food sensitivities, food allergies and chronic lung infections that had my parents and doctors worried that it might be more than just a normal kid who’s always sick.

In light of this, there was a lot of diet changes, weird foods, piles of vitamins, and a lot of food elimination. And when I say food elimination, I mean to the point that it was some pretty fundamental things that are the building blocks of what kids actually like to eat – wheat, dairy, corn, citrus…and this list went on and on. Just imagine a list that had everything that made food taste good to a kid.

My Mom did her best, but in my teens, suffering from puberty, acne and weight gain meant the stakes went up. Things like fasting, low carb diets, and even enemas were enlisted to get my body to a better place. Super fun stuff when you’re already feeling awkward.

I just remember spending most of my formative years always hungry. Always longing and craving. And then, when that longing and craving was satisfied with something on my forbidden list, I felt guilty. So, eating was less about nourishment and enjoyment, and was instead a charged and tense battle from a very young age.

Fast forward to adulthood, and through my twenties of yo-yo dieting, I arrived to my early thirties with a moment of wisdom. I asked, what would happen if I just simply decided not to diet? And by diet, I mean restrict what I ate. Period. I started with three meals a day. Imagine that. Eating. And when I ate, it was whatever sounded good. Sandwich and a bag of chips? Great. Salad with a side of soup. Wonderful. Pizza and a glass of wine. Outstanding!

I ate whatever sounded good, what made me feel good, what gave me energy.The game-changer was that I only ate until I was full. Eat slow, enjoy it and then walk away. And it worked. My weight stabilized, I felt great and since then, I haven’t really done any traditional dieting apart from the postpartum-baby-weight kind of dieting, but even then, nothing like I had done before.

Now that I'm much older this kind of no-restriction on what I eat, looks more like what can my body tolerate without major backlash from my body itself. Finding nutrition and real balance has been a process of learning to love myself, learning to listen to my body and what it wants, and in the process finding a naturally balanced weight and feeling of well-being.

The Adult Version

So recently when I started to feel compelled to give up a few things, I strangely went back to that dread I used to feel as a child and in my twenties. Going without, depriving myself, telling myself no. That triggers a rebellion in me. I can’t explain it any other way. It makes me feel defiant and like, OH YEA? Watch me. In light of that I don’t typically go looking to give up this version of stuff, especially not all at once.

So, when I was invited to play with detoxing from things that were no longer benefiting me, it got me all worked up. I had already done a little of this just by de-stressing over the last year, I was naturally doing less drinking, eating and craving simply because I was less stressed and busy. But this new invitation was about letting go of the holdouts that were bringing me down – namely coffee, sugar and alcohol.

Oh boy, don’t we like to believe that those things are necessary and good for us? We need them, we deserve them, we’ve earned them. There’s even scientific proof that they can be beneficial when used in moderation, and it’s hard to compete with scientific proof.

But I knew for me at this midlife stage, they were not beneficial to my health, and I started to get curious about what would happen if I cut them out for a bit. I started with coffee and sugar which were surprisingly easy for about the first week, and then my brain kicked in and threw a fit. I was remembering, and maybe mourning, all of those younger years that I felt tortured by withholding.

So, I told myself, you only have to do this for 12 days. Just try doing without for 12 days.

In reality, it wasn’t that hard and I realized what we all know about addictions to things, even minor addictions to things, is that they are rooted more in our brain and emotions than in our actual bodies. Our bodies don’t need that stuff. They feel awful when we do it and we’re constantly trying to convince them we’re not being abusive, that this is just part of the deal of being human. You know, a little poison every morning and every night. It’s just part of the drill. And in that drill or habit or addiction our bodies struggle, and in turn so do our minds and our emotions.

For me, the physical aspect of giving up those vices was not ultimately the problem. It was my brain and my emotions that were absolutely sabotaging me. And why? It went back to those childhood experiences - that sense that I was left out of the fun things at birthday parties and sleepovers. It made me feel like an outsider. It made me feel damaged. So, doing without triggered in me the feeling of loneliness and separation. And here’s the bottom-line of the lesson contained in those 12 days: consuming stuff that makes my body feel bad, soothes me emotionally and mentally.

No wonder addictions are hard to kick! After a few days the body goes yeehaw, having a much better time when the physical withdrawal is over, and it’s not being inundated with all of that energy-zapping stuff. But the mind that’s left clear and raw? The emotions left out there with no distraction, no next lily pad on which to leap? No promise of the next hit, the next numbing, the next binge? Coping with that takes some serious self-presence. Coping with that rawness and emotional exposure, takes some grit and patience.

These last two weeks, I’ve been sitting with grit and patience. I’ve asked myself a lot of questions. Namely, why? Why do I need that? Why do I want that? What just happened that makes me reach for that? The answers have been: habit, training, expectations, and emotions. Wooo-weee, emotions. If I’m not careful, I really let them run the show. I really let them tell me what’s up too much of the time. Anyone relate?

So, this practice of going without coffee, sugar and alcohol, has really been less about willpower and more about presence - with myself, my feelings and the pattern in my brain. And the interesting thing is, all it takes is a few seconds of pause for the emotions to lose their grip. Did you know emotions run in a two-minute cycle? If we can get past that two-minute blip, then we can regain control of our feelings, which gives us the presence to make a more logic and sound decision for ourselves.

Author, Mel Robbins, has the best-selling book The 5 Second Rule. She puts forth that five seconds is all it takes to spring into action or stop yourself from doing something harmful. Five seconds. After these last 12 days, I can say that’s true. If I can stop for a few moments, breathe, ask myself what will be fixed if I reach for that thing, and then consider an alternative - stepping outside, a cup of tea, a small bite of good chocolate - then I’m good.

The key, is to do that next step from a place of calm control, not ravenous impulse, because when we react with impulse then we are only replacing one addiction with another.

It comes down to the disruption in the habit, and then a plan to move into something else that disrupts the pattern. I’ve just completed the 12 days and guess what? I added two more days. Now it’s the weekend... what to do, what to do. Perhaps I wake up tomorrow and eat a pint of ice cream and wash it down with a gallon of strong coffee. But if I know the newer version of me, then most likely I will treat coffee and sugar and even alcohol just like everything else in life - with moderation and intention.


And when I do get back to all of that delicious stuff, I really hope to savor it, because life isn’t about deprivation, punishment, guilt and self-sabotage. It’s meant to be enjoyed! In that way, perhaps it will become a source of joy and decadence, rather than a mindless pattern of justified and socially acceptable addiction.

That’s the hope. That’s the work. Mindfulness and intention. Open eyes and healthy habits. Just a little something to ponder and explore today.

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