Environment: The key to your success

Lets talk environment

In fact, lets not even dicuss nutrition for a bit.  I love using anonymous anecdotes from my social work days because it always comes down to the human element.  You can trace people's success, failures and struggles to their emotions and environment.  Of course, there are other variables but in my experience, these are the two areas that hold the key to people making real change.

So first, an anecdote.

My primary job while working with adults with mental illness and drug abuse was to find them work and/or help them get an education.  A client I'll call Aaron worked with me for about 4 years. Aaron didn't have much education but he was a hard worker.  The kind of guy who you could tell had a good heart and would work hard but was constantly held back by his poor choice of friends, girlfriends and coping mechanisms.  One thing was for sure, he didn't have his emotions in check, he was constantly throwing positive momentum out the window when he would get fired up about an issue and quit a job, violate probation or blow off an important meeting.

But I liked Aaron immediately.  Sometimes he'd called just to tell me about an episode of Dexter or The Big Bang Theory.  He didn't mind working his ass off roofing, washing dishes or working the line in a kitchen.  Even though there was almost always some stigma attached to clients working with a mental health agency, he could easily land a job because of his willingness to work hard and follow directions.

Aaron had a girlfriend. And.......not a great girlfriend. Part of your job when working with clients (just like with any coaching) is also trying to help them manage personal issues.  It might not be in the job description but it ALWAYS factors in.  Always.  So you have to try to steer people away from toxic relationships, poor money management, coping with stress and much more.

I knew Aaron was making a poor choice staying with this girl.  He already had kids from another relationship, this girlfriend was far too young, unstable and jealous.  Not unusual.  I've had clients with jealous boyfriends who would wait outside their work all day in a car in case someone hit on them.  Not great for long-term employment.

But we got Aaron a job, he was working as a prep cook and dishwasher not far from his apartment.  He had a housing coordinator that helped him with a lot of personal issues, money management and adhering to his schedule.  And he decided to end his relationship with this girlfriend.  

I get a call from him saying he's been arrested.  And, you already know.  You know the breakup had to go bad.  It did.  Aaron called his girlfriend and told her it was over.  He went over to her apartment to collect some of his things and found, written in blood on the wall "WHY WON"T YOU LOVE ME". She had superficially cut herself to scrawl this message on the wall.  When he tried to leave, she said she was calling the police to tell them he hurt her, screaming, hitting him.  Because he was afraid of how it would look, he wrestled the phone out of her hands and smashed it.

As his employment counselor, I would have wanted him to just run.  Run to the office, run to his parole officer, anywhere but there.  But he stayed.  He stayed and when the police showed up he was found guilty of violating his parole by physically taking the phone from his girlfriend and smashing it. He went to local lockup for 3 months.

Is this really about food?

Honestly, most people's struggles with nutrition aren't that different from this.  I hope there's no blood, police or jail time but the emotional drive causing poor decision making is the same.  Keeping food you KNOW you will struggle not to overeat in the house, going places that trigger you to overeat, hanging out with people who wear down your willpower until you cave into pizza, beer and nachos.  Essentially hoping for a change but not changing anything about your relationships and environment.  And honestly, how would you expect to succeed like this?

It was the same for Aaron.  Going back to places that trigger his anger, hanging around with people who are negative and unstable.  But emotionally he didnt break free and didnt change his environment.

Alcoholics have to overhaul their lives when they stop drinking.  You don't go back to bars because being there and surrounded by people who WANT you to drink is simply asking to relapse.  It's not if, it's when.

If you have been struggling with your weight for multiple decades and you think it's just that you haven't found the right program or don't have enough willpower, WAKE UP.

This is how so many people deal with their nutrition......

-The past 6 months have been stressful and you've been trying to cope with food. It works and doesn't all at the same time

-Your 20lbs heavier and disgusted with yourself.  You see an ad on Facebook  or late night TV for a quick-change diet program

-For maybe a week max you follow it, but feel so deprived and hungry you know in the back of your head it's only a matter of time before you quit

-Feeling worn down, tired hungry and struggling with self-image your co-workers want to go out for someone's birthday

-You wish wish wish you would stay on the plan but with a little nudge from friends and probably wanting to reward yourself for a week being "good" you dive headfirst into alcohol and calories

-Next morning, it's not over.  You feel awful for eating so much but you don't care.  Now, you just want to stuff your fuc***g face because nothing matters and you'll never be thin

-This goes on until you hate yourself so much, you repeat the process.

Don't reason with your emotions

I'm  a pretty logical and reasonable guy.  But even I know sometimes that I'll act irrationally when I get frustrated, even when consciously I know it's not helping. Being aware doesn't even change it. When your emotionally charged, trying to REASON with yourself is futile.

I know the above list of spiraling nutrition hedonism might not be everyone's experience to the "T". But it's probably close enough.  And I know, I've been there.  I've been the fat kid who hated himself but still overate and sneaked food because for a brief moment it tasted good but it also felt like a punishment. I've also been the person who had to drink himself to sleep every night because of anxiety - and yeah that started in high school. Asking homeless guys or co-workers to buy me some vodka, cozy up in my room and drink until I couldn't keep my eyes open.  And the next morning knowing it was awful, feeling awful, wanting to break out of the cycle but when you're an insomniac with anxiety and it's closing in on 2AM and you simply can't fall asleep, the vodka seems like a pretty good choice. 

I totally get addiction (within these examples) and I know that even the worst idea, given the right oppotunity, seems like the only possible choice.

The only way to change

I see these sorts of cycles all the time, clients constantly flipping on and off nutrition programs, gaining and losing tons of weight.  People who have fluctated their weight so many times that losing 20lbs to them is basically meaningless.  And gaining 20lbs is just as meaningless. I don't think these people are stupid or weak.  And I don't think they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps...which by the way is actually an ironic statement meant to say that you CAN'T pull yourself up by your bootstraps (meaning you can't do things alone).

But what these people DO need to change is their environment.  Until you've built habits that are so ingrained that you follow them regardless of your environment, you need to change your environment.  

Jumping back to Aaron, you want to know what happened to him in jail?  He found peace.  The dude came out like a monk.  He lost a lot of his anger, hostility and the the absolute change in his environment actually allowed him to deal with emotional issues and build some new habits and coping mechanisms.  He never could have accomplished this in a poisonous relationship. When he got out, he was able to find a new apartment and even though he saw some of the same people, he also ended some bad relationships.  A new start. Of course, he was still far from perfect but he didn't lapse into a lot of his old behaviors because the change in environment was long enough for him to create new habits.

You need to do the same (minus going to jail)

But now I have to put some onus on you. You're not a victim. You're not powerless.  You're not going to let circumstance control you.

You have the power and ability to change your environment and thus, you need to be responsible for how it changes. Given enough time, you'll have such good, healthy habits built that you can go out for pizza and get a salad or simply know enough to make a healthy compromise.  Or maybe if someone brings in a cake to work you can literally have ONE bite just to taste it then get right back to your lunch.

Remember, your environment is not just where you live.  Your lunch box or bag is it's own mini-enviroment.  Your car.  Your ride home.  Your cabinets in the fridge.  Are you buying the groceries in the house?  Then you're the boss.

I've had clients take alternate routes home from work so they don't drive past fast food.

Pack your own lunch or, shameless plug: buy meals from The Strong Kitchen.  It' honestly WHY we exist, to help you.

Clean your friggin' car.

Don't come home with crap from the grocery store.  I've had clients trying to lean out and struggling not to binge while still purchasing cookies, soda, cakes and more.  Seriously?  How do you think that will end?

If you have kids and buy some treats for them, don't go hog wild.  Make a compromise.  And maybe put them in a cabinet you simply don't open. Or if your kids want a treat maybe you go out as a family for it, instead of having it alone, on the couch.

Don't eat while working.

Do something crazy like move your desk at work if it faces the fridge.

Cook with your family - even if it's one day a week.

Surround yourself with people who will support you and build you up.

TELL people what you are doing and ask them to support you.

Make new friends.

Start reading things that build you up and help you learn something - maybe put down the Tigerbeat magazine (does that still exist?)

Listen to books on tape or educational podcasts rather than trash radio

What we're trying to do here is change so much of your environment that adhering to good nutrition tactics isn't even a struggle.  I always jpke with clients that they should just come live with me for a month.  You wouldn't even have to think, you'd just go with the flow and after 30 days you'd have totally changed your habits. They say the fastest way to learn a language is living in that place - so better environments and people who have the same goals as you will seep into your core being and change you.

You know how when you break up with someone these days you have to unfriend them on Facebook, unfollow them on Instagram, get off their mailing list and stop going to places you always went together?  Yeah, that's because it works.  You do that so you don't run the old relationship through your head and romanticize it until you do something stupid.  You make a clean break long enough so when you do finally run into them, you don't feel anything.  Late night Facebook stalking will make you do stupid things, just like driving past Mickie D's every day probably ends in you chugging a Shamrock shake in the ball pit.

Look around you, what environmental triggers are messing you up?  Get to work on changing them.  You'll be more successful than ever.