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The Trap of Legalism In Changing Your Habits

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The Trap of Legalism In Changing Your Habits

“All or Nothing”

First, the discussion here can apply to anything you’re working on to improve yourself with, not just healthy lifestyle habits.  With that said, one thing I have encountered quite often with both myself and with the clients I work with is this:

Me: “How has changing your diet been going the last couple weeks with doing this detox?”

Client: “Not good, Dan. I was doing well for the first week and a half, but then gave in and ate things I shouldn’t have and have been totally “off-plan” since.”

Does this sound familiar to you? I hear and see this happen all the time. Why is that? Why do we (or most of us) have this “all or nothing” mentality that ultimately causes us to crash and burn? Worse, when this happens we can spiral into guilt and shame, or at the very least frustration. Well, many have asked this question for hundreds if not thousands of years, and it’s a loaded question. There are many angles in which to address and approach what’s going on here. And boy, they can go deep inside a person. I will just chat today about one angle of that – “Who said it had to be all or nothing?”

Mental Legalism and How Can It Affect You

I think, for a lot of us, we fall into a way of thinking (without realizing it). That is, we place health and the habits we are trying to build into a state of “legalism” or a moral basis. Consequently, we start to define what we are doing as “right and wrong” rather than as being “in process.”

What do I mean by legalism? To start with, the Miriam-Webster dictionary defines it as a “Strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” How does this apply mentally? Well, we often times create rules or laws in our minds without consciously being aware of it. Then, we become “guilty” of breaking whatever that law is. For example, you are working on doing a radical shift with your diet. A bunch of foods that are restricted were ones you used to eat often. But here’s what happens, we read the word “restrict” and subconsciously think, “these are ‘bad’ foods to have. When we think “bad” foods we think, “These are ‘wrong’ foods to have.” Then we think, “If I eat this ‘bad’ food then I have done something ‘wrong’.”  See how that translates quickly into a law or moral code?

Excessive Conformity versus Striving to Achieve One’s Goals

I personally, believe we are moral beings. No matter whether you ascribe those morals to a higher being, the universe, or even just to yourself – we all still strive to abide by our moral codes. (Again, that’s what I personally believe and see very evident in every individual I have ever met). The problem is, we break those rules all the time and it affects us.

Now, having rules/morals on things is not a bad thing at all – but do we need to do that with ourselves when we are simply in the process of building new habits and trying to grow? Do we need to do that to ourselves with things like food, exercising more, drinking more water, etc? Is that truly constructive? Notice I said a sentence ago, “in the process of” – a process implies that it takes time, and there will be mistakes. So why create this expectation for yourself that you won’t or are not allowed  to make those mistakes? (See how that language “allowed” tends to imply legalism?) I want to share with you some other perspectives that I hope will be of help, as I know they’ve been helpful at times in my life.

My Own Perspective

Before I get to that, I do want to explain myself on something first (and it may sound contradictory to everything I’ve just laid out so far, but keep reading). Personally, I believe my habits and what I do with my health (let alone every other aspect of my life) is tied to morals based on my spiritual beliefs. HOWEVER, my spiritual beliefs also are deeply rooted in immense grace, which empowers and enables me to continue moving forward despite my failures and mistakes I make along my way in life. Without that grace, though, my spiritual beliefs would be otherwise destructive to my ability to grow and move forward if I placed myself in that state of legalism with everything I strive to grow and become. Again – those are my personal beliefs, I just wanted to clarify.

Practical Application

In my health coaching curriculum I attended a lecture in which the speaker gave an example that caught my attention. He explained that there were two men. The first man was well-built, toned, at a good body-weight, and everything pointed to him looking and acting healthy. The second man, on the other hand, was obese, struggled with a number of symptoms and chronic conditions, etc.

The speaker went on to ask this question, “Which of these two men are healthier?” Of course, all of use think the first one, right? But the speaker said the second man is. Okay….why? What the speaker didn’t yet share in his example, but continues on to explain, is that the first man has many habits and a dietary lifestyle that are not healthy (to make a long story short). While the second man recently underwent working on changes in his diet, hydration, stress, etc.

In other words, the first man, though healthy right now, is on a downwards trajectory with his health. The second man, though he has a long road ahead of him still, is on an upward trajectory. At the end of the day, the second man is going to be thriving sooner than later, while the first man will continue to degrade in his health.

Your Long-term Goals

I love the above example. It reminds me that it’s a better question to assess your trajectory rather than your present successes/mistakes. It helps me to think more along the lines of “Where is my culmination of choices recently taking me. How can I continue tweaking it?” Rather than, “Today I made a mistake and failed.” You have to remember to think to yourself, “Okay, I made a mistake, but how am I doing in the bigger picture?” Broadening your perspective will help immensely with shifting away from that trap of legalism.

Now you might ask, “don’t mistakes hinder progress to the goals I’m trying to achieve?” Well sure. They may change the rate at which you reach your goals, but you’ll still eventually get there! So you should ask yourself what your personal expectations are on how fast you want to change, and then evaluate those expectations and consider, “is that realistic and fair to myself?” It may be, it may not be.

The Best Plan is the One You Can Stick to

The second thing I want to share is this (and it’s short and sweet and totally not my own idea). In his book, “Bigger Leaner Stronger,” Michael Matthews wrote (to paraphrase) that the best plan is one you can stick to. So consider that and realize what you can more or less consistently (though not perfectly!) stick to. When you throw time into the equation, it will get you where you want to be. But be patient with yourself and the process.

I would like to end with one final thought. For those of you reading a self-help book, or going through a care plan at EPIC, or any other endeavor that is guided by written material. Keep in mind that reading something will be black and white (pun intended) because what is written stays how it’s written and can feel like there’s no room to budge and be flexible (“do this and don’t do that!”). Just remember that, in my opinion, 9 times out of 10 the author wants to get the best information and plan out there to his or her readers. Sometimes, it can read and feel like, “if you don’t perfectly follow xyz, you’ll not grow.” However, just keep perspective and realize these books and written material are tools to guide you.

So – where do you feel you’ve wrapped yourself up in legalism? Where do you find guilt and/or shame sprout through? Find someone to talk to and share that with – it helps! See where you can change your perspective, if applicable, based on what you read here today.

Lead health coach Dan Tribley
EPIC Functional Medicine Center

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