On Lifestyle Change: The Hazards of Playing Lifeguard

No Lifeguard on Duty

Hello? Is thing on? Where the heck have I been?

The past three or four months have been a very difficult time for me. I was lost for a while. I wasn’t just lost to the blog, I was also lost to myself.

When people commit to making a lifestyle change for fitness and better health, often this change results in outgrowing the habits and relationships from our past. It’s the definition of change- if we’re really changing, not everything is going to stay the same. Everything from your past cannot come with you… otherwise it wouldn’t be a real change. Sometimes this change means that you no longer eat at a favorite restaurant where you’ve been a regular for years. Sometimes this means that you start socializing with different people, and you begin to grow apart from old friends. And sometimes, this change means that you outgrow a relationship that no longer serves you. 

Sometimes your friends and family are able to adapt to the New You- they can roll with the changes, and even begin to make some changes themselves. Other times your friends can feel threatened by your change. At some level, a friend might assume that since YOU have made a change, it somehow makes her look bad because she isn’t changing and doesn’t want to. Let’s say you’re out to dinner with an old friend, and in the past you would have used this opportunity to splurge and indulge in a feast of comfort foods. But now you’ve changed your eating habits, and this time when it comes time to place your order, you choose a healthy option. Your friend can feel betrayed and isolated by your choice. Your friend may even attempt to sabotage your commitment to your new lifestyle. She might tempt you by offering you some of the unhealthy foods off of her plate, and she might jeopardize your commitment to your morning workout by keeping you out late.

When you make real changes, it profoundly affects the people with whom you have close relationships. This is what is happening to me. My husband and I have been trapped in a vicious cycle- the more healthy I have gotten, the harder he has worked to sabotage my efforts. I won’t go into a lot of details about this… but here’s a friendly tip: When your wife has lost over 50lbs. and is struggling with tempting foods during the holiday season, perhaps giving her a custom-selected gift box of gourmet chocolates is not the best way to support her. After what seems like an endless struggle, I decided that I needed to leave my marriage in order to save myself.

I’ll be honest. I feel guilty that I can’t hold up my end of the relationship anymore. I’m a person who keeps my promises, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not healthy for me to keep the promises I made to him in the past. I have to remember, that the promises that I made were made by a different person. I’ve grown, and I’m a different person now. I repeatedly invited him to come along on this change journey with me, but for whatever reasons, he hasn’t been able to roll with it. He needed me to be the old me, and was insistent that we stay in our old pattern- the one where I drop everything and attend to his issues (and if I don’t, he creates a crisis situation where I end up dropping what I am doing anyway. I still get lost.)

After watching this cycle repeat itself more than a few times, a friend of mine started talking to me about lifeguards. During lifeguard training, you’re taught that sometimes a person who is drowning will grab you, pull you under, stand on top of you, try to scratch your eyes out, and do anything to try to stay on top of you… pulling the lifeguard under in an effort to save themselves.

While I was lost to myself, I spent too much time playing Lifeguard. He was drowning, and I would try to help, but he would shove me under. Just as soon as I could get my head above the water and take in a big gulp of air, he would shove me back underwater again. There comes a time when the Lifeguard must choose to abandon the drowning victim. It’s terrible that one person is drowning, but it’s a tragedy when two people drown. I had to walk away to save myself. 

While I was lost to myself, I stopped doing the things I had been doing to take care of myself. I didn’t only abandon the blog. I stopped tracking my food, and I stopped weighing myself. I spent too much time distracting myself- like watching TV- as a way to avoid the pain of the decision I needed to make. Somehow, I was able to stay on track with a few things. I was able to show up to work and do my job. I went to a 25-year college reunion, where I’m grateful that old friends reminded me of the person who I am at my core. I enrolled in, and survived, a month-long Crossfit On-Ramp class. I continued participating in Scottish Highland Games competitions. I completed the NASM Corrective Exercise specialization. I visited a therapist. These were all buoys that I used to get my head above water while playing Lifeguard. But I was still playing the role, still in the water, and things would happen, and I would find myself back underwater. I was spending so much time and energy to get myself back to above water, in an emotionally stable place, that I didn’t have energy left for anything creative. This was treading water, which is not a recipe for thriving.

I was lost. I was choosing to remain lost to myself as long as I stayed. I had to leave to save myself. A person who truly loves you won’t demand that you stay lost to yourself. I got out.

In the fitness industry, everyone says, “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change.” Heh. There’s lifestyle change with lowercase letters, and then there’s Lifestyle Change with Capital Letters. When you really change, the kind of change that uses capital letters, not everything from your past can come with you. I’m fascinated by this process- how paying attention to your fitness and physical health spills over into other parts of your life. Self-care can be a very radical, revolutionary act.

Wherever you are- whether you are changing with small letters or big ones- never give up on yourself. “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” ~Dylan Thomas

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5 comments on “On Lifestyle Change: The Hazards of Playing Lifeguard
  1. Really needed to hear the lifeguard analogy. Have spent a lot of my own time and energy trying to save those nearby from drowning, only to have been pulled down by the current. The problem is, once I’m sucked in, how do I begin to swim away? Anyway, I really do send good wishes your way that you are able to swim to shore and aren’t too tired from the journey.

    • Becky- You asked, “once I’m sucked in, how do I begin to swim away?” I took me an embarrassingly long time, and some hard work with a therapist, to figure this out.
      The truth is- it’s almost impossible swim away while you are underwater. For one thing, you can’t breathe underwater. If you have been shoved under, you might also be upside down. You can’t swim away until you can breathe, and you can’t swim while you are upside down.
      The first step is to learn how to recognize the distress-rescuing pattern when it is happening. When the distress call comes, we have to stop and be mindful- just for a moment- to give ourselves time recognize it for the “bait” that it is. In the beginning, we may not be able to stop ourselves from jumping in for the rescue. But soon, after you can recognize the bait, the next job is to learn how to “not bite the hook” (sorry to mix metaphors on you). As much as we want the other person to change, the only person we can change is ourselves. We can choose to react to the distress call differently. I even came to recognize that when I kept jumping in after the distress call, I was enabling him- I was doing things for him that he should have been doing for himself. My rescuing was actually causing the distress calls to come more frequently. I had to learn how to not take the bait.
      The third step is to begin act differently. So in my case a distress call would come in, and instead of jumping in myself, maybe I’d throw a life ring instead of jumping in with both feet. This stage is very difficult. When the person finally realizes that you’re not taking the bait and jumping in, they actually try harder to make you jump in. The number of distress calls doesn’t decrease- they actually come more often. This is how you know they’ve paid attention and it’s working.
      After you can get your head above water- and the water cleared out of your lungs so you can breathe properly- that’s when you’re in the place where you can begin to swim in a direction of your choosing. Your head is above the water, your eyes have cleared, you can breathe, and you can see the shore. That’s when you can swim.

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