When I turned 40 earlier this year, I was fifty pounds overweight, stressed out, and, it seemed, devoting every ounce of my energy towards tending to the needs of my three super active kids. Somehow, my own basic needs — eating right, getting a decent amount of sleep — had become exhausting luxuries that I pushed aside in order to get through my demanding days. When my hair started falling out, my doctor told me I needed to get my health in order. First up: she put me on a weight loss diet.
At first, not much happened but eventually my lifestyle changes like Whole Foods runs over drive-thru coffee and bagels, replacing high calorie drinks like wine or creamy coffee with water, and exercising — even if it is was little as using a stand up desk instead of sitting for hours on end– started to add up, and the weight began falling off. And let’s be real, after spending years overweight, finally seeing the scale go down was thrilling.
Problem was, emotionally I was still a mess. The gnawing mom-guilt that I was used to living with was still very much present. For me, that came in the form of a deafening, incessant chorus of inner trash-talk. That voice loved to point out to me that the reason the laundry is never done is because I’m lazy and disorganized. It loved to whisper that maybe my kids would listen to me more if I was worthy of authority, and that I’d probably have more mom friends if I didn’t hide behind words like ‘introvert’ or ‘overwhelmed.’ Yep, my mom-guilt was pretty skilled at serving up a constant, hot stew of put-downs. So, sure, my body was beginning to look better, but my insides still felt like garbage because of the presence of that ultimate mean girl living in my head.
Something had to change.
And that’s when I realized that just as I’d developed physically unhealthy habits (um… like plowing through junk food and a bottle of wine at night) my incessant mom guilt was also a habit that I’d participated in creating and perpetuating. To break that habit, what if I took some of the weight loss strategies I was using and applied them to my mental and emotional fitness? Couldn’t hurt, right? So…
1) I started keeping a self-talk journal.
Just as I’d kept a food diary when I started trying to lose weight, I decided that the first step in working towards my emotional health would also be to keep a journal. I’d write down every self-critical thought I had so I could examine it. After a few days, I was astounded by what I read on the page. I was treating myself so awfully! I would never call my friends nasty names or accuse them of laziness or failure, and yet here I was doing this to my own heart.
My journal also revealed some interesting patterns, too. For one thing, mornings and evenings seemed to be peak times of stress for me. While trying not to lash out my kids for being rowdy and wild (as kids are), I was lashing out at myself. I also noticed that I complained a lot to myself about my shortcomings but wasn’t doing anything about it. This was pretty familiar; I used to complain that my pants didn’t fit and that I was tired of being fat but I also wasn’t doing anything to fix it.
2) I made concrete changes to my daily routine.
When I started my weight loss journey, one of my first steps had been to make immediate, tangible changes to my daily routine, like tossing out our sugary breakfast cereals and replacing them with overnight oats or veggie omelettes. So, it made sense that on the emotional front, I’d need to make some trade-ins as well. I wanted to swap out all that negative self-talk for something more actionable. So instead of ruminating on whatever was upsetting me in any given moment, I started training myself to ask, “how can I make this better right here, right now?” It was astonishing how easy it was to get my thought bubbles to be less negative and more proactive. “My house is always a mess because I’m lazy,” for example, became “I’m only one person! I did the laundry and the dishes, the other stuff can wait until later.”
3) I re-imagined my physical space.
Just as I had added more physical movement into my day by investing in a stand up desk and a set of weights, I had to make some adjustments to my home space to clear away the emotional clutter.
I created an organized home office space where the mail can’t pile up, the kids can do their homework without pushing piles of unfolded laundry out of the way, and where my husband can sit and read the news without swimming through six months of old bills and magazines strewn about. I adopted a trick that my mother and her mother before also used: I left a basket by the stairs and throughout the day, anything out of place like socks on the floor or a stray toy would go right in, to be put away at the end of the day. It sounds small, but that one new routine has meant getting rid of that feeling that I live in a disaster zone.
I don’t know why I’m surprised that my wellness journey would involve getting strategic about cleaning up my mental health habits – along with my eating habits – but it’s making all the difference. While my body has been feeling well again, so, too, now is my mind. I’m not in a negative feedback loop of self-criticism anymore, and when those nagging thoughts do show up — because they do — I now have a toolbox of strategies to use. Most importantly, I remind myself that I am not required to live up to unrealistic ideals of motherhood — just like I wasn’t required to live up to inane body ideals either.