Nadia, Dr Libby Weaver and psychologist Neil Micklewood discuss being less than perfect
Nadia, Dr Libby Weaver and psychologist Neil Micklewood share their thoughts on embracing imperfection and letting go of extreme health and happiness expectations
No one can really ‘do it all’, feel happy every day or have 100 percent perfect health. Unfortunately an abundance of self-help books, health articles and green gurus on Instagram can lead us to believe that perpetual wellness and happiness is achievable.
The reality is far more complicated. A balanced life includes happy and sad times, periods of wellness interspersed with illness, and days when you just can’t be bothered. Unrealistic expectations around health and happiness can lead to feelings of inferiority, depression and, in extreme cases, orthorexia, a disordered form of eating centred around an obsession with healthy foods.
In their book The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederström and André Spicer, professors from Stockholm University and London’s City University, say wellness has become a moral demand in today’s world and is making people feel guilty and anxious.
“When wellness goes from being a general idea of feeling good to something that we ought to do in order to live truthfully and righteously, it takes on a new meaning. It becomes an impossible demand that reconfigures the way we live our lives. Obsessively tracking our wellness, while continuously finding new avenues of self-enhancement, leaves little room to live.”
To help in your pursuit of imperfection, we asked Nadia and a couple of NADIA friends how to take a balanced approach to life.
Editor at large, dietitian and co-founder of my food bag
How do you practise being ‘good enough’ when juggling work with parenting, exercise and socialising?
I think a lot of ‘pressures’ – to be the perfect parent and friend, and live a healthy lifestyle all the time – are fake pressures. I mean, who can actually maintain doing all those things all the time? If you were perfect at all those things, you’d be boring, and not a real person! So, first things first, realise this and be cool with it.
I actually like to embrace a certain amount of chaos in our lives – it makes the dance more interesting. I believe it’s important to be flexible and kind to yourself and not beat yourself up about things that don’t really matter in the big picture. If only I could tell you how many times I’ve resorted to toast or takeaways for dinner for us and our son, Bodhi, because I’ve been too disorganised, or how many exercise sessions I’ve missed because I had to give myself a rest or attend to something else, or how many times I’ve felt that I was letting a friend down by having to cancel a catch-up.
Look after yourself, don’t expect you’ll be ‘good enough’ all the time. Give yourself a pat on the back when you feel you’ve done a great job, and a hug when you’re exhausted and can’t give it an A-plus – and be at peace (and happy that you can be chilled out about it!).
How did you lower your expectations when you were a new mother?
I used being a new mum and having a young baby as the ultimate excuse not to have to commit to anything! Some days I felt like I was doing super well just to have brushed my teeth, let alone get dressed. There were plenty of days when the plan to get out of the house turned to custard. I enjoyed not having the pressure to do things perfectly or have things go according to plan.
How can women lessen the pressure on themselves to be perfect?
My advice would be that being imperfect is being perfect! There is great beauty in imperfection and having the ability to be relaxed about it. Being flexible, calm and relaxed about things not going perfectly is one of the skills I cherish most.
Why is it important to take a balanced approach to eating well?
It’s about what you do most of the time, not occasionally, that counts. If you aim to eat well most of the time, it doesn’t matter that you indulge and have whatever you want the other 10 percent of the time. Don’t even think about it, just enjoy it. Things come in phases and waves, as does wellness and eating healthily. It might surprise you that I’ve had periods of eating takeaways several nights in a row, but I didn’t stress about it because I knew I’d get back on the horse and eat well later. At the time, I just had to get through the day and make sure I ate. There was no point in moping about it and feeling like I was a failure.
Dr Libby weaver
Nutritional biochemist, author and speaker
You’ve written about the importance of accepting and loving yourself. What issues do we face if we don’t do this?
There isn’t an ounce of sustainable change that I have witnessed that hasn’t begun from a place of kindness, self-love and self-acceptance. If we come from a place of criticism and blame, always judging ourselves harshly, we might make some progress but the minute we step outside ‘the plan’, the minute we ‘fall off the wagon’, we’ll begin speaking to ourselves unkindly again.
Negative self-talk only leads to us feeling lousy about ourselves. And what do we do when we feel lousy about ourselves? Many of us have habits around food and alcohol that are designed to numb us from challenging emotional states, or try to make us feel better. So we’re more likely to bounce between health-supporting and lousy habits. If we believe deep down that we’re not worth taking very good care of, that is going to show up in how we treat ourselves and consequently in the way we eat, drink, move, breathe and perceive.
How can we learn to accept ourselves?
It’s something that requires time and patience. For some it will take quite a lot and others will transition quickly. One way we can begin to do this is to bring curiosity rather than judgment to our situation.
Let’s say we have a tendency to polish off a whole block of chocolate at the end of the day, even if we tell ourselves we are just going to have a couple of squares. Nobody does that thinking they are going to feel fantastic afterwards! So why do we do what we do when we know what we know? If we gently enquire as to what might have been the stimulus for us to eat in an unresourceful way, we may be able to uncover what we were really looking for in that moment. We might have had a stressful day at work and the sugar in chocolate gives us a blissful rush that helps to turn down the intensity, or we may have had a fight with our partner and we’re looking for comfort. If we can identify what we were feeling before we reached for the chocolate, we can look for other ways to satisfy that need.
Being curious and exploring what might be happening in our inner world, rather than judging it or shutting off from it, is an act of self-love. We’re taking the time to take better care of ourselves rather than distracting ourselves from what we’re really feeling.
Do you see many people with symptoms of orthorexia, and do you think the ‘clean eating’ movement is partly to blame?
Disordered eating is on the rise and orthorexia appears to be no exception. Orthorexia typically begins innocuously with a commitment to improve health. Where it goes wrong is when this becomes an obsession where strict food rules and plans begin to take over and any deviation from ‘clean’ eating is met with guilt and self-loathing.
It’s difficult to say where the blame lies. However, I do believe, for all of our sakes, that we need to be mindful about the language we use around food and eating. Food isn’t ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ – it’s nutritious or it isn’t and it is far more accurate and helpful to talk about the food that we consume in this way.
How can people approach healthy eating in a more balanced way?
A gentler approach can embrace a degree of flexibility, or what some like to call ‘zig and zag’. A ‘zig’ meal is made up of nutrient-dense foods, real (not processed) foods and no alcohol, whereas for a ‘zag’ meal the focus is more about the company you are in, being playful and relaxing. Zags are part of a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.
If this approach is going to serve someone’s health, I might guide them to zag once a week, or for three out of their 35 eating occasions (if you eat three meals and two snacks each day, this is 35 eating occasions a week). Some will eat more frequently than that, some less frequently – but let’s take 35 as an average. For others, five zag occasions better suits them. That’s still 30 meals that are of a nutritionally high quality. You enjoy those zag times, but, when you live mostly as a zig, the zag takes very little toll on your overall level of wellbeing.
Have you seen an increase in orthorexia in recent years?
Orthorexia, as a label for a problematic preoccupation with health and wellbeing (even though it hasn’t been formally recognised as a clinical diagnosis yet), has always existed in some form (eg health anxiety, anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphia). However, it does seem to be on the rise.
Greater access to resources which help us to live longer and in a more ‘healthy’ way, plus a constantly growing knowledge of health risk factors, has led us to become more and more concerned about living well. Unfortunately, our better understanding of ‘unhealthy’ living is increasing people’s anxiety about living well.
In our materialistic world, health and wellbeing have become marketable resources, and we are often sold ideals rather than reality. When we can’t achieve those ideals, we become more anxious and preoccupied with trying to meet them, in a repeatedly unsuccessful cycle.
How can we learn to accept our imperfections?
It is definitely possible for people to recognise an unhealthy tendency towards perfection and, with practice and support, bring more balance to their thinking.
A great contribution from the melding of Buddhist philosophy with psychological science is the concept of mindfulness, with its flexible approach to growth and development, and its acceptance of healthy boundaries and limits. Growth at a psychological level does not always need to be about ‘more’; it can be about being fully engaged in our lives in the now, and finding a way to grow meaning and satisfaction without needing to change things.
Why do many of us often feel we’re not good enough?
Most of us engage in ongoing self-evaluation, whether we are aware of it or not, but very rarely do we clearly define the benchmarks of achievement we are measuring ourselves against. We often automatically draw upon the way people around us measure achievement, in a mishmash of rules that sometimes aren’t relevant or applicable to us.
A typical example might be that we benchmark ourselves off our parents, but we are not carbon copies of them, and the rules that they used to define achievement may not be the most relevant and helpful rules for us. When we use rules to evaluate ourselves which don’t fit well with the realities of our lives, we can often find ourselves not living up to these standards, which in turn leads to pushing ourselves harder and further. This can ultimately lead to a sense of hopelessness and despair.
Do you think people have unrealistic expectations around happiness?
From a psychological perspective, happiness is an unreliable benchmark for achievement in life. Emotions are fleeting and constantly shifting and are not always accurate indications of how meaningful and purposeful our lives are.
We can feel sad about a relationship ending, but that doesn’t mean we failed in doing the best we could within that relationship. Likewise, we can feel happy about getting everything done on our to-do list, but tomorrow there will be another to-do list and we will have to start again. However, if we live our lives with a sense of purpose and meaning – whether we clean the bathroom, climb a mountain or hug a child – it all becomes valuable and satisfying.
Our brains are not wired to be in a perpetual state of happiness. Trying to do so would result in the brain running out of the chemicals it needs to help us navigate our lives. It is sad that we use the idea of sustained happiness as a benchmark for successful living, because it is unachievable, and this leaves many of us feeling inadequate. It may also undermine the natural satisfaction we can draw from the lives we live, because our achievements don’t necessarily produce the euphoric state we think we should be feeling. In the long term, this leads to depression, anxiety and more complex mental health concerns.
How can people learn to accept difficult or unpleasant emotions?
Acceptance is about fully allowing yourself to experience whatever emotion you are feeling, but being able to acknowledge the challenges and positives of fully connecting with this feeling. You can be really sad because you have lost a loved one, but alongside that you could still be a caring parent, a dynamic employee and dedicated friend. Acceptance is about trying to keep all these aspects in mind, but being okay with the fact that this may be hard because you’re human.
Acceptance is not a fixed endpoint; it is the dance we do every day of our lives and, over time, we get better at the dance moves, even though we will still have off days and make mistakes. Psychology, meditation, exercise and relaxation can all help with this process. It also helps to start noticing when we naturally use our acceptance skills, and to think about whether we can transfer those skills to other settings which are perhaps more tricky for us.
NADIA celebrates living a ‘well-thy’ life. The magazine’s back-to-basics approach champions food, family, community, wellness, travel, entrepreneurship and what it means to be a New Zealander today.