First, watch this. 0:24-0:31 is the most important part.
You’re welcome. Now let me tell you a story.
Many years ago, on a family vacation in Canada, I sat on the oceanside steps of a bed and breakfast and cried until I couldn’t breathe. I was sixteen and living on melons and lettuce. Ninety pounds. Ribs like a birdcage. Hair ripping out in clumps every time I brushed it. My raw vegan honeymoon had exploded, and I was left writhing atop its shrapnel—stuck in that awful space of knowing something was very, very wrong but not knowing how to fix it.
The B&B host sat chain-smoking a few yards away, pretending not to see. I loved him so much for not asking if I was okay. Inside our room, my wonderful, rightfully distraught parents were discussing my “situation,” thinking I couldn’t hear. Their murmurs bled through the wall and mixed with the slurp of tide on shore.
That, friends, was the beginning of my Regret Phase. For years, I had a giant pile of WHOOPS I MESSED UP MY LIFE that I didn’t know what to do with. Most of my teenagehood—the time people usually spend going on stomach-butterfliesy first dates and buying prom dresses and getting drivers licenses and being cool, none of which I experienced—was spent destroying and then recovering my health. I remember little else. I didn’t mind taking the road less traveled, but I did wish it’d been paved with more than just mangos and dental bibs. So much felt like a waste.
It wasn’t until my early 20s, when the idea for Raw Food SOS first popped into my head, that I realized everything I went through might actually serve a greater purpose. That my WHOOPS pile wasn’t all for naught. This blog started as an attempt to turn a period of strife into something that could help people—and it ended up being one of the most rewarding endeavors of my life. (After all, how else would I ever have met YOU?)
Which brings me to the whole point of this post. For those of you who don’t keep obsessive track of my birthday (IT’S MAY 4TH YOU GUYS. MAY. 4TH.), I’ve freshly turned 30. And while birthdays usually don’t phase me, this one has a bunch of new numbers in it. Something about that prompted me to reflect. A lot. And you know what I realized?
OH DEAR ZEUS, I’M IN REGRET PHASE II.
In some ways, Regret Phase II might seem justified. I don’t write much about my personal life online, so as a quick recap, the last few years totally kicked my butt. People died. So many. One right in front of my eyes. Loved ones got cancer and diabetes and broken bones and lupus and other scary things. There were breakups and break downs. I spent two years living next to meth dealers and wondering if a bullet was going to fly through my bedroom window while I slept (there’s already one hole in the glass). Gang shootings happened outside my front door. I had ferocious, claws-out brawls with partners who drew out an anger I never knew I had. I narrowly dodged a van abduction while being followed down the street at night. I got trapped in Mexico with no money during riots that closed the border. I was pregnant, and then not pregnant. In March, a friend died in a motorcycle crash a few hours after leaving my house. He left his broom here. I sweep with it every morning.
I could keep going with a list of woe-is-me, tiny-violin tales of my recent plights, and maybe you’d feel bad for me, and maybe you’d think Regret Phase II is due to forces beyond my control. But that’s not really the case. The struggles weren’t the problem. The problem was what I did with them all.
Amidst these challenges, these ripe opportunities to learn and grow and evolve, I utterly stagnated as a human being. That is my regret. I got jaded and lazy and went on autopilot. I repeatedly chose to take on other people’s problems instead of tackling my own. I complained about my situation but changed absolutely nothing. I let this poor blog nearly die. And I neglected my most important goal in life: continual self-betterment.
As the big 3-0 started approaching, the reality of this stagnation hit me big time. Where did my 20s go? What came of it all? Can I be proud of where I’m at?
NOPE. I can’t. And it actually feels good to admit that.
These struggles might not be obvious from the outside, which is why I want to talk about them today. We don’t have enough transparency when it comes to the hard stuff. One of my least favorite things about the internet is that it breeds a culture of image crafting, where we think other people’s lives are more glamorous than ours and that we’re failing because we have PROBLEMS while everyone else is Instagramming hypersaturated photos of their Amalfi Coast vacation. Then, when we feel alone and need authenticity the most, we shove it aside for fear of judgment.
So here’s me saying “fork that.” Let’s be real. Instead of breezily strolling into a new decade, I spent the last few weeks panicking about the state of my life and the poof-it’s-gone passing of my 20s. More than a few sobby freak-outs occurred. It got messy and weird. And then I remembered the last time this happened. And how what seemed like a barren field of wasted days was really full of little seeds that hadn’t sprouted yet. You can’t fool me twice, life! I see what’s going on here.
So instead of wallowing in Regret Phase II, I’m deviating from the food-centric focus of this blog—just for today, I promise—to share what I’ve learned. Because I know lots of you amazing folks are struggling, too. And I want you to know you’re not alone in the trenches. After all, well-being is about way more than just diet.
I know I can’t make you do anything, but just remember, I’m 30 now and you’re supposed to listen to me. So read on and HEED MY WISDOM.
1. You’re probably in an abusive relationship with yourself.
No, not like Fight Club.
Psychology literature talks a lot about how to recognize when you’re getting abused by somebody else. But what if your assailant is you? What if you’re the one undermining your confidence and beating you up and holding you back and making you miserable? My God, what if it was you stealing your lunch money the WHOLE TIME?
To be clear, I’m not just talking about obvious self-abuse like drinking too much or depriving yourself of sleep or shoving questionable foods down your pie hole. The worst offender is what other people can’t even see: the awful things you tell yourself every day. The super mean brain-chatter. Stuff like this:
“I’m going to mess that up.”
“I keep doing it wrong.”
“I’m letting everyone down.”
“They didn’t like me.”
“I’m so stupid.”
“I look like crap today.”
“I can’t seem to get anything right.”
If that doesn’t seem terrible yet, imagine saying those exact same words to someone else. Like a child. This little cutie pie, for instance.
She’s struggling. The world is scary and weird and dogs keep pooping in the sandbox. The other kids are mean. OH THE HUMANITY, THE GRAPE-SCENTED MARKER RAN OUT OF INK. The injustices are endless. She wants support. So you look her right in eye and say:
“You’re going to mess that up.”
“You keep doing it wrong.”
“You’re letting everyone down.”
“They didn’t like you.”
“You’re so stupid.”
“You look like crap today.”
“You can’t seem to get anything right.”
How much of a jerk are you now? YOU JUST BROKE SHIRLEY TEMPLE.
The point should be obvious. If it’s cruel to say these things to someone else, then why is it okay to say them to yourself?
It’s not. It’s abuse. And you’re the perp. If your self-talk would be inappropriate if inflicted on another human being, then it’s inappropriate for you, too.
I can’t emphasize enough how disempowering it is to be tearing yourself down at every moment and ruler-slapping yourself for failing to meet impossible standards. The words in our heads are powerful. They can make or break our success. And almost all of us have some pretty bad ones in there. Simply becoming conscious of this reality is a huge step towards changing it.
Which brings us to…
2. Your mental scripts are stolen.
NOW IT’S GETTING REAL, YO. All that gnarly self-abusive chatter? The you talking to you? The words that play over and over and haunt you and slap you down every time you start thinking you’re an okay person? Those thoughts aren’t yours.
Once more, with feeling! THOSE THOUGHTS AREN’T YOURS.
They might be in your head, sure. But that’s not where they came from.
In reality, our negative mental scripts are composed almost entirely of two things, neither of which are self-generated:
- Things we’ve been told by other people
- Things we’re afraid of being told by other people
That’s it. You didn’t come up with your insults. You collected them. You scrapped together little pieces of stuff you heard over the course of your entire language-comprehending life and made a collage out of them. A tape reel of other people’s judgments. That time your older brother called you an idiot is on there. And when your classmate said you were ugly. And when your ex-best friend told you Johnny McDreamy was only talking to you because he felt sorry for you and really, he thinks you’re lame, JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE DOES. It all got incorporated into the scripts. Even the stuff you’re 100% sure is your own creation, never before uttered to your virgin ears, is rooted in the fear of what somebody else might say to you, think about you, or tell the world about you.
After all, why would it matter if you’re stupid or ugly or lame if nobody’s around to point it out? In a vacuum, you wouldn’t care. The presence of a witness is what makes those things embarrassing.
Ultimately, our minds play these stolen scripts over and over in attempt to protect us from pain. We replay the things that hurt the most in order to desensitize ourselves to their sting. Sort of like exposure therapy. Our subconscious goes all SCRIPT ME BABY ONE MORE TIME whenever it anticipates hurt or judgment—a high pressure job interview, a date with someone we like, a particularly bad hair day.
The problem is, instead of preparing us in the way that—say—practicing a speech would prepare us for the day we have to deliver it, mentally rehearsing the worst things we could possibly be told doesn’t actually ready us for anything. It doesn’t reduce our suffering. It increases it. We’re literally choosing to practice pain when instead, we could be focusing on much more valuable pursuits, such as contemplating Tommy Seebach’s mustache.
But there’s some good news! If we accept that 1) we’re mired in abusive self-talk and 2) that self-talk isn’t truly our own, we can start freeing ourselves from its clutches. It’s really not too hard.
For starters, there’s a simple way to jolt your mental scripts out of autoplay. All you do is ask yourself where the judgments in your self-talk are coming from. The mere act of questioning is surprisingly powerful—it interrupts established thought patterns and shifts activity from the subconscious to the conscious—and at least for me, brings an immediate sense of lightness and release. For example:
- If you’re mad at yourself, ask, “Whose anger is this?”
- If you’re disappointed in yourself, ask, “Whose disappointment is this?”
- If you’re hurting, ask yourself, “Whose pain is this?”
You’ll be surprised at how rarely the answer is “Mine.”
3. If you want to see your future, look at yourself today.
This has been my #1 most important lesson lately, so listen, young grasshopper, and listen well.
Your future is composed of a giant series of todays. Each today has to change at least a little bit in order for the future to look appreciably different. If all the todays stay exactly the same, it’s like a stop-motion animation where every frame is identical. You end up with a plot where NOTHING HAPPENS and it’s actually kind of creepy and the network cancels your show because it’s frightening the children.
A lot of us—myself included—make the mistake of thinking we’ll make a change tomorrow. But tomorrow doesn’t count because it never actually gets here. Macbeth notwithstanding, you just have today, and today, and today. If you aren’t taking at least one small daily step to bring your current life into alignment with what you want it to look like ten years down the line, then the you of today is also the you of the future. And no offense, but that’s probably not a good thing.
5. Adulthood is a lie and everybody’s faking it.
One thing I know for sure, now that I’m an old person and can speak with authority on the subject, is that no one ever really grows up. Much like the tales in Der Struwwelpeter, adulthood is a scary story told to children to make them behave.
It’s all a ruse, you guys. There’s no threshold after which you are no longer a child. You just get better at pretending. Some things can trick you into thinking you’ve adulted—having a kid of your own, starting business, getting excited about successfully installing a garage door opener ALL BY YOURSELF—but those are fleeting distractions from the painful reality. You’re a five-year-old in a very large body. That will never change. So don’t worry. You’re doing just fine.
6. Your life as you know it is a story, and you’re allowed to reframe it for your benefit.
Earlier in this post, I wrote about how my last few years have been a quivering heap of chaos and woe, with lots to regret and little to show. Wouldn’t you know it, I’m also a poet (SORRY, that one crossed a line). Based on what I disclosed, you might think I’m just a sad sack slogging through tragedy after tragedy. And for the span of a few paragraphs, that’s how I saw it myself.
Every item on my list of sorrows was real. But that was only one way—a narrow and biased one, at that—of presenting my life. I could have written this instead:
“You guys, the past few years have been incredible. I met amazing people who changed my life. I got to visit Iceland and see geysers and talk at an awesome conference with brainiacs whose intelligence totally dwarfs mine. I went adventuring in my favorite places in the Southwest. I whooped my dad at Scrabble and he took it like a champ. I got to take care of my beautiful mother after she broke her wrist and realized what an incredible human being she is, more than I ever knew. I started working as a research assistant for one of the few people in the health community whose commitment to science I totally respect. I got surprised with early-birthday Radiohead tickets and they played the first song I ever illegally downloaded and at the end, everyone held up their phones like lighters and it was magical and I’M SO HAPPY I LOVE LIFE WOOHOO!”
Both of these stories are true. My sob story is true and my happy story is true. The difference is in how they’re framed.
The reality we experience, process, and remember is almost entirely subjective. It’s impossible to memorize everything we encounter, so we cherry-pick details to fit the narrative we think is correct. For someone who sees their life as a giant mud puddle under an Eeyore cloud, those details might be the crappy ones: the traffic jams, the psycho ex, the 48 minutes of life lost to the insufferable sound of Comcast hold music. For someone who sees their life as wondrous and charmed, those details might be effusive: the sparkle of a new romance, the five-dollar bill on the ground, the existence of late-night gluten-free Thai Food for seven bucks a pop (Thai Champa, I’m looking at you).
Which perspective is real? Neither and both.
Which perspective is more empowering? That should be obvious.
The point is, humans are masterful storytellers. We have to be—our grasp of the world is way more slushy and malleable than we like to think. We’re presented with an infinite supply of details to focus on or discard. We all have the chance to shape a narrative we’re excited to inhabit. And that’s pretty awesome! After all, there’s no bigger story we have than our own lives.
Okay you guys, that’s it. I’m officially 30 and one day old, and I already feel so much better than when I was 29 and 364 days old. If there’s hope for me, there’s hope for you. So hang in there. You’re doing it. You’re good. YOU GOT THIS.
Thank you for being here with me on this journey. I look forward to many more years of turning 30.
(And for everyone who’s been patiently waiting: YES, the Low Fat Part 2 post is still coming. I promise. I PROMISE.)