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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A little course on emotional self-defence

Here is the paradox: Life is too short to feel miserable. But life is also full of events that could make you miserable if you let them. How to cope? Simply by making the conscious choice to be happy. After all if we’re alive, we might as well make the most of it!

Unhappiness arises from a mixture of causes; the factors are numerous and often intertwined. The good news is that we do have power over at least some of them.

I strongly believe that it is up to us to fight back the tendency to get caught in a downward spiral – before it’s too late.

(Of course if you’re at the point where you don’t enjoy what you used to, and feel there is no point in living, then please skip this blog and seek help – quick.)

Here’s a few strategies that thirty-something years of life and the shared wisdom of others have taught me.

Regulate your mood via the body

First things first. There are some simple steps you can take to help prevent neurochemical unbalances. To name but a few: Exercise daily. Eat well (less sugar, more vitamins, healthy fats and protein). Sleep enough (too much isn’t better). You need a system in good working order to begin with.

Regulate your mood via cognition

1)      A change (in attitude) will do you good

From an intellectual point of view, it is interesting to try and be as lucid as possible. But from an emotional point of view, it is plain dangerous. Once you start to ponder the unfairness or the absurdity of life, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that life is shi**y or not worth living. From a “feel good” point of view, the reality doesn’t matter so much as our interpretation of it. It doesn't matter that you're actually beautiful, talented or rich; as long as you think you are. A little bit of delusion could actually do you good. It doesn’t matter that life is unfair and absurd; as long as you don’t let that thought swallow you whole. It doesn’t matter that you’re going through tough times; as long as you know you’ve had good times in the past, and will have good times in the future.

Unless you’re already profoundly depressed (in which case I will repeat it: seek help), self-regulating your thoughts should bring about positive changes. Shift the focus to concentrate on what is going well. Avoid like the plague thoughts that make you feel down. This does not mean you have to turn into a happy-go-lucky who refuses to acknowledge anything that has the slightest unpleasantness to it. But it is true that a pessimistic approach to life has a tendency to spiral down into dark thoughts. Don’t let that happen.

2)      Be pragmatic, not dramatic

We all know the saying: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." But we often forget to apply it in our lives. If something makes me upset enough and if I think I have the power to do something constructive about it, I do just that. No room for dramatization. I need all my energy for action. If, on the other hand, something makes me upset but I am aware I have neither the power nor the willingness to act to change it, then I forbid myself to give it another minute of "upsetness". 

Sometimes, I realize that I might just not be ready to act. It can be because I have not found the best course of action yet, or because it's still too early to do something, or because I need to prepare myself psychologically first. In those cases, I cease to focus on the problem, but I make sure to revisit it a little bit later. In any case, I try hard to not let any drama grow inside of me.

I used to feel intense stress when I faced a challenge that had no apparent solution. With time I have discovered that things usually turn out much better than the worst case scenario we had imagined. With time I have also discovered that even when there's no solution is in sight, it does not mean no solution exists. We are simply not aware of it yet. Solutions have a funny way of presenting themselves to us when we thought all was lost. Keep hope. Or, as my father, Y, used to say: "Have trust in future's uncertainty".

3)      Lower your expectations

This has nothing to do with accepting everything that happens to us, or settling for less. We all deserve the best, and should definitely strive for it.

Lowering our expectations means being realistic about life. We don't live in a Care Bears world. We know, for example, that if we have children, or a pet, it's just a matter of time before they completely wreck something. Expecting otherwise is just a passport for unhappiness. When it comes to sh** happening, the question is not if it will happen, but when it will happen.

Why are we so surprised when sh** happens? Maybe because, as Candide (Voltaire's character) would say, we like to think that "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds". When something goes wrong, we are taken aback, shocked, angry. We think it's so unfair.

If reality doesn't match your expectations, and if reality cannot be changed to match your expectations… then change your expectations. Life is too short to feel dissatisfied.

4)   Optimize the pressure you put on yourself

In our culture, we are constantly stressed, in levels that cannot be explained by any threat to our basic needs' fulfillment. How can we be so stressed when most of us live a comfortable life, with access to everything that our bodies and minds need? The answer lies in the pressure we put on ourselves. We want to do too much, too fast, too perfectly. No wonder we end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and dissatisfied. Save your sanity: cut down on the pressure. Pick a few time-consuming (and unpleasant) activities that you can realistically spend less time on, and do just that. Spend less time on them. 

Now you don't want to be under stimulated, either. Are there any areas where you might not be putting enough pressure on yourself? Have you been denying yourself the opportunity to develop your talents and pursue higher accomplishments? This is where you should put your energies. Clean your house a little bit less, and write on your blog a little bit more, for example. (Or any other example that personally suits you.)

5)      Be mentally flexible

Life excels at throwing us off balance. At taking us out of our comfort zone. Sooner or later there will be disappointments, disillusion, loss. What a better way to deal with it than be flexible? To embrace change, and even vulnerability? Adaptation is key. Old age is a good example of the need for flexibility. There is no escaping it: unless we die early (which is not more rejoicing), we will get older, and gradually lose our youthful looks, our mobility, our independence. Sooner or later we will have to deal with pains and aches. We will be forced to slow down. Whether we like it or not. How we deal with this, however, belongs entirely to us.

I am lucky enough to have a few examples of resilient and adaptable elders in my family, namely my two grandmothers, their siblings and some of their friends. I learn a lot by looking at how they deal with aging.

My paternal grandmother, G, has told me many times that she doesn’t understand why a lot of her peers complain of being bored. She says she is not bored at all. Her activities are limited, but she still enjoys life. G was a very active woman who had her own career (in the medical field) despite being born in 1917. She also traveled extensively. One would expect that she would feel down about the fact that she can now barely walk (although she still rode her stationary bike on a regular basis well into her eighties!) But down she is not. She has let go of the activities that were not anymore possible, adapted others, and found new ones that are more suitable to her capacities. She seems happy, and one can always have fascinating conversations with her.

As for my maternal grandmother, S (born in 1918), one of her favorite hobbies of all time was to knit. It has become increasingly difficult for her because of her declining eye sight. Not one to easily be defeated, though, she simply started knitting paler shades of wool, in which the details are easier to see. Like G, S remained pretty active until just a few years ago, cultivating an impressive garden and knitting like a machine; she also volunteered with other elders (who needed more help for various health reasons). At the ripe age of 83, she traveled to Europe for the first time, and there I am told she climbed mountains without ever complaining. Now 94 years of age, S still retains a healthy dose of humor and wit and liveliness. She is fun to be around.

Finally, I have to mention L, G’s sister-in-law. L has always painted. She especially excelled at landscapes. Tragic as it can be, aging confronted her with a very significant loss of vision. Did she stop painting? Absolutely not! She simply switched from representative art to abstract painting. What she paints these days is absolutely stunning; her use of color and texture testify to the fact that she is an experienced (and talented) painter. She still sells her art for big bucks. She just turned 94.

(As for R, L's husband and G's older brother - he is 96, he still plays pool, and never wants us to help him with anything, including getting extra chairs from a distant room, for the guests!) 

Aging will not spare any of us, but it is up to us to use it to our advantage.

6)      Cultivate detachment

We become unhappy when we feel we cannot live without something or someone. What used to be (or could become) a source of happiness becomes a source of unhappiness because of its absence. You had that summer fling. Now it’s over. What do you do? You can mope about. Or you can feel grateful. It could have never happened. Appreciate it fully for what it was, instead of expecting more. This applies to all life’s good things. To borrow from my friend S’s wisdom, “extras are bonuses”. What does that mean? It means that everything that adds to your baseline happiness should be considered like a bonus, and you should appreciate it instead of hoping for more.

7)      Be grateful

Speaking of gratefulness. Catherine DeVrye’s book, Hot Lemon & Honey, contains a quote that encompasses the idea of gratefulness very well I think. It goes like this: “Everyday above the ground is a good one”. It pays to stop thinking about what we don’t have (a sure way to become unhappy), and instead focus on what we are grateful about. Why don’t we immerse ourselves in the simple joy of being above the ground, alive and breathing? 

Gratefulness is something you get better at with practice. So practice, practice, and practice more. Every night, before falling asleep, list a few reasons why you’re grateful for this day. Then extend your gratefulness to all moments. This morning, when I looked outside and saw we were snowed in, instead of feeling frustrated (I wouldn’t be able to go for a run) I decided to focus on the fact that it was beautiful, and that I was lucky to live in a well-insulated house that remains warm and dry despite the wind and cold outside.

Regulate your mood via some simple actions

1)      Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket

One thing or one person cannot have monopoly over our happiness. Work should be balanced with hobbies; both should be stimulating and pleasurable. Love (for a significant other) should be balanced with other family ties and friendship; both should provide with a sense of connection. A little bit of each of many things will ensure that if one area collapses, you can still rely on other areas to make you happy.

2)      Have projects

Don’t get stuck in a rut. Life is dynamic. We thrive on novelty, stimulation, and new experiences. What’s more exciting than something (or someone) new in your life? Find ways to nurture a youthful enthusiasm about life. Keep learning. (We all have something we want to know more about.) Try new things. (Even if it’s scary at first.) Meet and connect with new people. (Even if you’re shy.) Visit new places. (Doesn’t have to be far away.) Move around the furniture if need be! Get a puppy! (Only if you’re ready to take care of him/her properly, of course.)

3)      Ditch the material stuff

As my beloved aunt M would say, materialism is a dead end. It’s nice to be comfortable (for eg. to wear good shoes), to be surrounded by beauty and to indulge in luxurious pleasures once in a while. But life cannot revolve around that. Also, your self-worth cannot be based on impressing other people with what you own or what you do (as tempting as it may be!) Who cares what brand those clothes are, if this jewelry is genuine, or how much a certain object is worth. If you like them, you like them. If others don’t, too bad for them.

4)      Relationships are everything

Think about the times in your life when you’ve felt the most despair. Chances are it was in times when you felt isolated, lonely, rejected (family conflict, bullying and heart breaks are good examples). We are a gregarious species that thrives on a sense of belonging (even the most introverts among us!) Cultivating our social network is nothing less than vital.

Then there are the toxic relationships we sometimes find ourselves stuck with. Our first reaction should be to protect ourselves. The best way to do this is simply to refuse to play the role the other person is trying to assign us. A relationship is dynamic, it is a dance where each person plays a role. If you modify the role you play, the other person doesn't have any other choice but to change their own behavior too. If, for example, you refuse to play the role of the dominated and controlled, the dominant/controlling person will soon have to abandon (not without a certain amount of turmoil, but hold on tight – it will get better). In some cases, you may have to take your distances… and that is fine too.

In relationships, giving is as important as receiving, and feels as good (oftentimes it even feels better). You know the difference between a crush and real love: in a crush you focus on how you feel. In the case of true love, the other person’s well-being becomes as important as your own. In general I have found that helping others and focusing on their needs is a good way to distract myself from my own dissatisfactions. I will still address my own needs, but regularly switching the focus from “me, myself and I” onto someone else does work wonders.

5)      Indulge in simple pleasures

They abound. They don’t necessarily cost much. Nature and music, for example, can put you in a trance if you fully immerse yourself in them. Other ideas: Any creative activity that you enjoy (mine is writing, but everyone can find their own). Reading. Playing. Dancing. Exercising. Laughing. Chatting with friends or family.

The pleasures of Winter, by Daniel van Heil

Food and wine can do the trick too, but they can become addictive, and then show unwanted side effects. 

One activity that fits the requirements of being both free, healthy, and intensely pleasurable is…

…well… sex, of course!

So go ahead and indulge! Long winter nights are ahead… take advantage! Time to reconnect with your sensual self! ;-) 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Finally! The post on procrastination I have been delaying for weeks

The new year is coming and, with it, comes one of the great pleasures of life: finding a new notebook/planner. I have not yet graduated to an electronic planner; in fact, I am resisting it with all my might. Getting a new, fresh, made out of paper planner brings up great school memories. Each year, in August, my mom would take me to the store to get school supplies. My favorite part of that was to look for a new planner. I remember them revolving around comic book themes like Garfield, Mafalda or Gaston Lagaffe.

Nowadays I buy my new planners for January instead of September, and I have gone from playful to more serious planners: one of my favorites is a medium sized, red Moleskine one. The paper is so soft the pen glides on it like a dolphin on water.

This year, however, I am departing from my traditional beloved Moleskine: I fell in love with another one. It does not have the same luxurious feel to it, but its front page immediately caught my eye:

The Creative Procrastinator? Surely this planner had been made for me! As I began flipping through it, it became more and more obvious that I had to take it home. This planner contains sections such as "Things I have to do but that can wait a day, or two, or three..."; "Small things I have to do before I can do the big things I have to do"; "Things I absolutely have to do unless I absolutely don't want to do them"; and "Things people have been bugging me to do for a really long time".

There are doodle blocks and lists of questions to answer when you don't feel like working:

"List 10 killer dishes you'd request if you had your own personal chef."

"List five jobs you wish you could do and five jobs you hope you never have to do."

(Don't you feel like answering those right away? I totally do! In fact, as I am writing this my head is filled with pictures of bouillabaisse and rouille croutons, only to be interspersed with images of me in the role of a happy editor-in-chief or life coach or sommelier.)

Each page of my new planner also provides with a "procrastinator tip" or piece of wisdom. When I started reading them I simply could not put the friggin' thing down. I recognized myself so much it was almost scary. For example:

"Remember to stop, smell, prune, and photograph the roses along the way. You can count their petals, too."

(This might explain my fascination for all of nature's phenomena...)

"A conscientious person waters the plants, pets the animals, comforts a neighbor, and calls at least one ailing relative or friend before beginning the day's work."

(It does make for a very healthy social network - and healthy plants and pets!)

"Uncompleted tasks are biodegradable and disintegrate over time."

(I wish!)

And there are lists. Lists of tips, lists of signs (you're a procrastinator), and lists of justifications for procrastinating. Here are some of them:

"Things to do when there's no emergency beyond avoiding the things you don't want to do:

Tip #4. Learn how to shut off your main water valve. While you're there, stop and think about new landscaping projects.
Tip #9. Devise fire escape plans for fires starting in 10 different places."

"How to use your pet as a procrastination partner:

Tip #4. Teach your cat how to fetch. Good luck.*
Tip #10. Sit with your pet in a comfortable place and read Moby Dick out loud."

* I have actually succeeded at that with late Azraël; he could fetch a little ball... and loved it!

"10 reasonable reasons to continue procrastinating:

Reason #2. You'll lose the adrenaline rush of completing a task at the last minute and might search for a less healthy addiction."

"The best ways to clear a cluttered mind:

Tip #1. Lie on your side and imagine all your worries, woes and work deadlines draining out of your ear. Then roll over and do it on the other side. This will empty both left and right brains.
Tip #2. Make a paper airplane out of your to-do list and fly it off a tall bridge.
Tip #10. Watch a cloud until it dissipates or drifts away. Then write a haiku about it."

"What to say when your work is due and you're not done:

Tip #6. I'd tell you why my work isn't done, but then I'd have to kill you.
Tip #10. I sprained my willpower muscle."

"Warning signs that your procrastination is at a crisis point:

Sign #1. You've made a master list of all your lists.
Sign #3. You can't get through a half hour of work without doodling or daydreaming." (Uh oh...)

Other than flipping through my new planner, and copying excerpts here on my blog for the benefit of my readers, I have been spending time reading articles on procrastination online. Surely, delaying my work to read about this topic cannot be considered procrastination?!?

If this is something you are interested in (because, just like me, you'd rather spend hours getting informed about your main flaw than actually doing your work), here is a link that you might like. From a more serious standpoint, this article does a great job at debunking the myths that abound about procrastination. If you're tired of procrastinating and ready to tackle this unwanted behavior, this article is a great starting point. You know what they say: the first step is to admit you have a problem.

Unnecessary Illusions and the Truth about Procrastination
By Timothy Pychyl:

ILLUSION #1: Procrastination can be beneficial. Delay can be beneficial, and we need to delay often as we plan, organize and optimize our use of time. Procrastination, on the other hand, is a needless form of delay that is self-defeating as a form of self-regulatory failure.

ILLUSION #2: It's just a matter of a few "all-nighters," it's not really harmful. Procrastination has been shown to undermine performance, well-being, even our health.

ILLUSION #3: It's just poor time management. No, it's about self-regulation and willpower.

ILLUSION #4: Worry helps me cope. We have many irrational beliefs that contribute to our procrastination.

ILLUSION #5: I'll just check my email, it will only take a minute. Yes, it may only "take a minute" (or a few seconds to "check your mail"), but a minute later you face the same decision. Hours later, you're still checking mail, updating your facebook . . . where did the task go?

ILLUSION #6: I work better under pressure. No you don't. You ONLY work under pressure.

ILLUSION #7: That assignment is due months from now, it's not that important. Oh, how we like to discount future rewards. Future tasks seem abstract and lack a sense of urgency. It really is an illusion of our task perception.

ILLUSION #8: I'll feel more like it tomorrow! No you won't, but you may do the task tomorrow because "your back is up against the wall."

ILLUSION #9: (After a poor performance due to procrastination) It could have been worse! OK, this isn't truly an illusion, but we are deceiving ourselves to make ourselves feel better in the short term. We focus on downward counter factual thinking to make us feel better now.

ILLUSION #10: Oh, procrastinators are perfectionists. Not so, only those perfectionists who have internalized maladaptive standards, often involving a lot of negative self talk.

Monday, December 17, 2012

For the children

In light of what happened last week in the States, the only topic that is on my mind is children.

The worst part of this tragedy is that those innocent victims are not the only ones.

Every day in this world, childhood is stolen. Taken away.

Another story that is making the headlines right now is that of the two little ones who were killed by their father in Quebec in 2009. (The man has just been released.)

And then there are all those children in the world who do not even have the right to survive past their first years from a lack of access to food, water and medical attention. (About that, read Race Against Time, by Stephen Lewis.)

And what about those children who do survive, but to live a life of misery?

I have never been more aware that having a healthy, happy childhood is a right that is denied to thousands of human beings.

This morning, as I was watching the children play, I couldn't help but think about how wonderful it is to witness genuine childhood, full of its big joys and small conflicts. Too often we forget how precious it is.

It is our responsibility, as adults, to protect those children, to provide them with guidance and support, to help them bloom and grow into balanced and happy adults. This is the only way they will not turn into either the victim or the perpetrator of some sordid act of violence. We also have to educate them about global issues that affect children, so that they become involved and feel they have a responsibility in making this world a better place.

Take a child who has been blessed with a "normal" childhood, and you will see that it is in them, naturally, to do good. Look past their tantrums and other acts of naughtiness. See those for what they are, signs of immaturity (that we, as adults, have to help overcome). Look instead at their spontaneous acts of kindness. I was a firsthand witness of children's kindness last week, after we lost our cat Azraël to a terminal illness. Here is what I have received in the past few days:

By E, age 8

By R, age 8

By A, age 6

By A, age 6

By O, age 9

By E, age 8

Each and every one of those pictures touched my heart. Thank you to all those wonderful children who put sunshine in our lives.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

'Tis the season

'Tis the season... but the season to what, exactly? To be jolly, that's all?

To me, the Holidays, the New Year, and the approaching Winter are much more than that. They represent the ideal time to reflect on the past year and to plan for the next. To rethink my priorities. This is the time I sit down to reassess... my life.

Granted, the choice of doing this now is kind of arbitrary. This yearly exercise does not need to happen at this particular moment; and it probably doesn't need to be performed on a precise yearly basis. It could probably be done every 6 months or every 2 years, with the same results.

But to me, the whole atmosphere of celebration/gatherings, along with generalized over consumption, followed by the anticlimax that a cold, Canadian Winter can bring about, constitute the perfect moment to work on my own personal "end of year report".

Let's examine the headers of this "report" more closely.

'Tis the season to rethink STUFF

Ah, the ubiquitous "stuff". We long for it. We accumulate it. We desire more of it. Yet it fails abysmally to create lasting satisfaction.

Another drawback: none of us, even the most well-off, can have it all. Think about it for a moment. If you listed everything that you want to own (for example, I would love to own the most exhaustive, sophisticated, luxurious wine cellar - and, while we're at it, I would love to hire all possible employees/servants), how much money would it amount to? Corollary question: assuming you were to acquire it all... how content would you feel? More importantly: for how long?

Stuff is a constant source of frustration. There is never enough. It always ends up being too expensive (especially if you're looking for quality - and who isn't?) Then it either requires specific maintenance (even if it was just the cleaning of it), or it falls apart faster than you can pronounce "credit card statement". Most of the time, the positive effect on your mood simply is very ephemeral. Truth is, no matter how intense the initial high, we rather quickly take things for granted.

How to get all we want? How to maintain the "high" that comes with getting new things? And on the other side of the medal: what sacrifices are we making in order to acquire this and that?

As I was pondering this on my way back from the running apparel store (another personal weakness of mine), where I had been intensely frustrated by the fact that I couldn't possibly afford everything they sell there (because yes, I would buy the whole contents of the store if I could), I read the following quotation on Facebook: "Someone else is happy with less than you have". How silly am I to let all that stuff upset me, I thought. I don't need all those running clothes, sneakers and accessories. I have a healthy body, two good legs and a good heart; what else do I need?

In the past months I have tried to apply the notion of "Less is more" to my life in a more consistent way. One implication of this new frame of mind is that I have started to get rid of stuff. Of a lot of stuff. What I am discovering with marvel is that getting rid of stuff feels as good as acquiring new stuff. Especially when you give it to someone who really needs it and who will appreciate it fully.

As bag after bag of stuff leaves my house, I am amazed (or should I say appalled) at how much stuff we keep for no obvious reason. (Need I mention I am in no way a hoarder.) What's wrong with us that we need to surround ourselves with more and more objects all the time? What deeper need are we trying to fulfill?

In the same vein we seem to need to surround ourselves with constant stimulation. There's not a moment of boredom to be had (too scary, maybe?) How about noticing, for once, the sound or the sight of nature? How about paying attention to the fact that we are alive and breathing, here and now? For that you need nothing else than your senses, and some stillness...

'Tis the season to rethink RELATIONSHIPS

I won't say much about this one because you know more than anyone else what relationships you might have been neglecting, and which ones you have been giving too much importance to. Who do you really connect with? Who do you want to connect with more? Who would you love to reconnect with? Take a step in that direction. It's never too late to make a change for the best. You can at least try.

'Tis the season to rethink HOW YOU TREAT YOURSELF

What have you done for yourself that you genuinely enjoy, and that is truly good for you (as opposed to some kind of compensation or addiction)? Have you denied feeling tired, bored, stressed or depressed? Have you been putting junk in your body, unconvincingly trying to persuade yourself that it was actual food? Have you been eating to the point where it made you feel yucky? (Yes, there can be too much of a good thing - I realized that an hour after gulping down an eight-ounce steak... ugh.) Have you been denying the vehicle that carries you through life, your own body, what it needs most (fresh air, exercise, or the pleasure that comes from singing, dancing, making love)? Have you tried to excessively please others, stepping on your own needs and wants in the process?

'Tis the season to rethink your ROLE IN THE WORLD

What would you like to have changed when you leave this planet? Can we, as adults, afford to be here only to go to work, look after our immediate family and closest friends, and to enjoy ourselves? Don't we each have a role to play in improving this world, even if it was just a little bit? Don't we need to each take some responsibility for the state this world is in? What do you do to educate, inspire, make better? Do you put your foot down when something seems wrong, or do you just shrug? How do you use your own unique passions and talents to make a change for the best, no matter how humble the contribution?

'Tis the season to make PLANS

What have you achieved this year? Think hard. There must be something. Doesn't matter if you haven't reached your goal 100% yet. If you've been working toward it, and making progress, take some time to appreciate your efforts and your accomplishments. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will your "new life" happen overnight. But if you've made some positive changes, acknowledge them. Pick one that you are particularly proud of, and celebrate. Find friends or family members or a loved one to celebrate with you. It's too easy to disregard our improvement as insignificant a posteriori. How hard did you work to lose those 10 pounds? To drink less? To lower your debt? Be happy about it!

Of course that is only the first step. The second is as exciting: now is time to make plans for the new year. Where will 2013 take you? We are not talking about distant, idealized resolutions, but rather about realistic goals. And how are you going to reach those goals? What are your baby steps going to be? On  a daily basis? Write it down, starting with the big picture goal and working your way down to the small daily actions.


And for this one I will pass the torch to philosopher Alan Watts:

(If you enjoy this, search for more by Alan Watts on YouTube. My friendly advice.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bok Choy for breakfast and other follies

I knew I had reached an all-time high (as in "Are you high or something?") when my trainer, who usually remains as calm and composed as can be, flinched at the sight of my food journal. "Bok choy for breakfast, J? Really?" I shrugged: " Well, there were leftovers from last night... I thought I might as well mix them in with my egg whites... does make for a good omelet..."

She could only agree. When it comes to healthy breakfasts, it doesn't get much better than that.

I've come a long way since the time I argued with her that yes, I needed my sweets, and that no, I couldn't possibly cut down on carbs! I now eat much more vegetables instead - and breakfast is no exception. (Have you ever tried a tomato sandwich first thing in the morning? Yum.)

The wonderful thing about lifestyle changes is that if you implement them gradually, you barely notice it. You simply wake up one day and make yourself an egg white and bok choy omelet. Not even realizing it might be slightly unusual. More importantly, not even having a thought for the buttery croissants you used to enjoy.

The same thing happened with exercise. I can still remember - in my distant, blurry past - those days when I felt I had no energy for exercising. I only wanted to rest after a long day of work - is that too much to ask? I at least needed a day of rest between each day of exercise. Right?

Well, not anymore. A lot of changes have made their way... slowly but surely. For one thing I have happily become a "clean food" enthusiast. What I consider healthy - and even what I will actually call "food" has changed drastically. As for exercise, one day of rest per week is plenty.

You would have told me, a few years ago, about the kind of life habits I have now, and I would likely have responded "Are you fu***** out of your mind?" There was just no way. The athlete lifestyle was not for me. I wasn't even sure it really existed. Maybe in some distant, idealized fourth dimension.

As far as I was concerned, those annoyingly thin and ripped (and energetic) people were probably on all kinds of dangerous drugs, or they had "athlete genes" that I lacked. Or maybe they were simply plain crazy to begin with (I mean, some people do take it too far. I once knew someone who basically cancelled all her social life in order to lead an athletic life).

But then I started making small changes. One baby step at a time. Of course I did not start with series of burpees. I mean, at one point, slowly walking uphill was enough to exhaust me. When my father-in-law came to help arrange the yard, I couldn't keep up with him. At all. He's 30 years older than me! Gives you an idea.

Eventually, though, my new "normal" started to resemble what those "fitness freaks" do (to a lesser degree, of course). Even my body started to look athletic. One morning, I caught a glimpse of a six-pack in the mirror. In awe, I told my trainer: "I had no idea we all have an athletic body hiding under those layers of... other stuff".

Of course it hasn't always been an easy ride. Old habits die hard. I will always have a sweet tooth. Greasy, salty stuff, also does have its appeal. So does skipping a workout and instead relaxing with a glass of wine... or two, or three... well, you get the idea. I've experienced many setbacks. The results did not come in as fast as I wished. What I've come to realize, however, is that if you generally have good habits, and only occasionally indulge, in time you will get results. I am not even pushing myself that hard. It doesn't feel that hard anyways.

I also have a new outlook on "cheating". Is it always worth it? Is the brief pleasure worth the consequences (of feeling blah, among other things)? Not necessarily. If the alternative to what I'm doing now is to feel the way I used to feel... tired, stressed, somewhat depressed... then I'm not interested. Counter-intuitive as can be, my life is much more fun now. No kidding!

I have never been in an awfully bad shape, yet just imagining the kind of lifestyle I have right now would have been enough to make me dizzy in the past. But the truth is... - and this is where you need to pay attention: I have never felt better. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Life throws stuff at me and I just deal with it efficiently, Karate Kid kind of way. Always ready. Not scared.

If I had no idea of my birth date and you asked me how old I am, I would probably guess I'm around 18 years old (for the record, that's half my age). 'Cause really, that's how I feel. Youthful. A ball of energy. On top of the world. Along with the - moderate level of - wisdom that comes with experience. I also have a sense of accomplishment and pride that is priceless. I feel strong. Powerful. I can run up flights of stairs repeatedly with heavy grocery bags in each hand, and my breathing remains inaudible. My pulse barely bulges. If that's my version of an early midlife crisis, then so be it!

It's so wonderful I want everybody else to feel the same. I know they can. One baby step at a time. It's so worth it. Trust me on that. Go out for a walk today. Just do it.

By some funny coincidence (and some lack of proper planning on my part), I recently found myself with 3 workouts within a 12 hours period or so. One evening, I went to the gym and lifted weights for an hour, then did cardio for an extra 30 minutes. After some stretching I came back home. I only had time for a quick snack, a quick shower, and it was time to hop into bed. It was kinda late, but I nonetheless set my alarm for 5:30 the next morning: my friend K and I had a run planned at the crack of dawn (an optimistic way to call it since the dawn doesn't crack until way after we are done running). This is when I realized that I had also planned a run with my friend B, on the same day... at 9 am.

I didn't have the heart to cancel any of those runs. I love to run with both K and B. Plus, when I thought about it, I realized this would turn out to be something like a 10 or 12 K split in two... with time for breakfast during the "intermission". Not bad at all when you think of it. Bok choy omelet, anyone?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Middle Ages haunting us... now

(Beware: the following post contains high levels of sarcasm. And a few taboo topics. Please read with caution.)

Two years ago (or was it three? My bad memory!) I attended one of the most beautiful weddings ever: E and S's wedding.

It was a simple wedding, but don't be mislead: it oozed beauty more than any over-the-top wedding you could ever imagine. All weddings are wonderful, but I had never attended one in which emotion was so palpable.

Which should not surprise us, since this couple, before and after marriage, have always been known for their cuteness. (Even the story of how they met is beyond cute. One day, if they allow me, I will tell it.) Those two lovebirds cannot look at each other without sparkly hearts in their eyes. I've heard them call each other «My love»... and they mean it. You can actually «hear» the love when they talk to each other.

In comparison, many other married couples I know won't hesitate to demean each other out loud, or will simply ignore each other (not sure which is worst). I've heard so many negative comments said by one spouse about the other (or directly to the other) that I've stopped counting.

I was actually leafing through a book, the other day, that consists of a collection of «dirty little secrets» that readers have sent - anonymously - to the author. The result is disturbing. The proportion of those secrets that involve «not loving my wife/husband anymore, yet staying for superficial reasons» is quite high. As I was telling my neighbor, J, it's as if most marriages, nowadays, would instantly collapse if you sneezed on them.

Thinking back of E and S... to me, it seems like they could teach us a thing or two about true love and respect (and cuteness!)

The thing is, E and S are... women. Both of them.

Oh, did I see your facial expression change? You're saying love is beautiful... as long as it's between a man and a woman? Is that what I heard?

I've seen a lot of «love» between men and women. Believe me: it can be far from beautiful. Sometimes it's plain ugly. I mean, there are wonderful heterosexual couples. But to say that gay marriage would be detrimental to heterosexual marriage is...

... a joke, right?

Is it detrimental to heterosexual marriage in the same way that interracial marriage used to be detrimental to same-race marriage? Is that what you're trying to say?

Is it as threatening to society as letting women work outside the home, allowing couples to live together and have children outside of marriage, and the like? Hum. Ya. I see where you're coming from.

(It's called Narrow-Minded Land.)

Of course, one has to ponder those things. It's likely that on the very day you let gay people marry, the whole country will crumble. No question about that. Just look at Canada. We're on the verge of a civil war, nothing less.

Oh, and while we're at it, gay sex is so unnatural. Hmmm... sure. That's why so many species happily engage in same-sex... sex. (Were you even listening when you took that biology class?)

I dare anyone who's against gay marriage to go on the public place and claim the following: «I believe that certain categories of human beings don't deserve the same rights as others, and that, even if they still have the same duties and obligations.»

But seriously... why do people oppose gay marriage?

1) A strong fear of the unknown. 

2) The need for a scapegoat.

3) Some rampant hypocrisy.

Even if you dig deeper, the arguments you find don't hold very long when scrutinized. Seems like the recipe for an anti-gay marriage theory also involves a hefty dose of plain nonsense.


Let's admit it: a good deal of this opposition to same-sex marriage finds its source in the omnipresent (yet often unconscious) belief that only the relationships that make reproduction possible in a direct, straightforward way, are to be valued. (This involves sexual acts themselves - why do you think masturbation is still so taboo?)

(Speaking of taboo. I was so impressed. My friend D, going through his list of «things you should tell your kids once they're old enough», is planning to touch upon Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, God, ... and his own bisexuality. For some reason I feel like his son will grow up perfectly balanced and a little bit more open-minded than average...)

Yes, the fear of homosexuality (and of gay marriage) is at least partly inherited from the foundations of our patriarchal society: the mutually exclusive approach to gender, and the necessity to trace each new human being to his/her daddy. Incidentally, it seems like sex is only to be valued if a baby could ensue (with a clearly identified daddy involved in the process): hence the precepts of sex being «right» when it happens between a man and a woman, using the «traditional orifices and devices», and within marriage (some even go all the way to say that contraception is wrong... for the same exact reasons: sex has to produce babies. Ya. Like we so need to make more babies on this planet).

Those who feel the most threatened by homosexuality seem to not fear contradiction at all: they will sometimes claim, for example, that whatever women do together (in bed), it couldn't possibly be called sex. (Well of course: it's a well-established fact that lesbian couples do nothing else than braid each other's hair. The fact that they still reach orgasm further goes to prove how pervert they are.) (Sarcasm alert!!!)

Finally, when you examine the anti-gay discourse more closely, you soon discover that it is, almost word per word, the same discourse that was used by pro-slavery/pro-segregation groups back in the days. About this, see this video, and note that a good part of the audience barely flinches. Proof that they either agree with what is said in the beginning, or that they don't get sarcasm at all, or both... in any case, it's scary.

For more on the deep reasons why people are opposed to gay marriage:



And before you go, some food for thought. If you think you don't know anyone who's gay: chances are it's because they haven't told you. Statistically speaking, it is a fact: you do know at least a few gay people. That they haven't told you, or come out of the closet altogether, does not change anything to it. Some of those people could be close to you (closer than you think!) Some others could be teenagers or young adults looking for acceptance. Please be careful about what you say in front of them, whoever they are.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Parenting 101 (or should it be 911?)

I have had different jobs in my life, and it would be tempting to say that parenting is the most difficult one. But I won't, for 3 basic reasons. First, because it is a big cliché that I don't want to repeat. Second, because as much as parenting IS demanding, it is also the one job where motivation and unconditional love are there to fully support our actions and decisions. Third, because there is no other job as rewarding.

What I do know about parenting is that it's complex. So many factors come into the picture! Parenting is full of expectations (toward the child, toward ourselves, toward other people in the child's life... all too often unrealistic). Parenting is full of contradictory, deep feelings (sometimes unconscious); looking after other people's kids seems so straightforward in comparison! Most of all, parenting has huge implications. One faux pas, and your child might very well be scarred for life. (OK, maybe not, but you are still working with the most precious and fragile raw material there will ever be: a young human being.)

Even before I learned I was pregnant with my first child, I had already decided I was going to be the best parent ever. Of course, it implied that my future child would be the best child ever, too! Fortunately, parenthood has its very efficient way to nip perfectionism right in the bud. How could you remain a perfectionist when you're permanently sleep-deprived, when the house reeks of poopy diapers, when the floors are covered with toys and sticky food stains and, if you're lucky, when your nipples are cracked/bleeding from an overly voracious infant? As a new parent, most of your time and energy is spent looking after someone else's - anarchic and messy - bodily functions. Good news: my perfectionism was cured shortly after I became a mother. (When I feel discouraged, I go on this website and instantly feel better.)

Still, I had to find my way in the panoply of books written by as many experts: what kind of parent would I be? Somewhere between Fitzhugh Dodson, Dr Phil and SuperNanny's strategies, Rousseau, Piaget and the attachment parenting movement's theories, my own mother's advice, my personal observations and my deep instinct, I gradually formed my own parenting style. I had already learned (from my Psychology major) that the best approach is an authoritative one (assertive, democratic, balanced) as opposed to the other approaches: authoritarian/totalitarian, indulgent/permissive or neglectful. Basically, the most effective parents would be responsive/loving AND demanding at the same time. Which totally makes sense.

Somewhere on the path to good and informed parenting, however, all kinds of things happen. We become tired. We become stressed. We lose touch with our priorities. It's normal. It's OK. Children are more resilient than we tend to think. As I read somewhere: You can make mistakes. Just don't make the same mistake over and over again. (And of course don't make huge, terrible mistakes. But small - and even medium - mistakes are fine.)

Today I am putting together my top ten of parenting DOs and DONTs. This list is personal; it stems from my own experience and from the numerous books and articles I have read - always with a critical eye of course. No one - even so-called experts - has infused science, especially when it comes to such a sensitive topic. Use your common sense, and listen to your heart.

Parenting DONTs

1) Don't listen to people who tell you that it was so much better in the past

It seems like a lot of parents of grown-up children believe they have infused science, too. In some kind of idealization of the past/attempt to decrease cognitive dissonance, they will claim that parenting was perfectly fine back in the days, thank you, and that no changes need to be made. I am a relatively recent parent (my oldest is 8 years old) and things have already changed. For example, plastic bottles are not recommended anymore. I'm not gonna go around telling new parents "Why, keep using them; we did, and nobody died!" We would be fools to just ignore the advances of science. If putting babies in their crib on their back decreases SIDS considerably (and it does), why on earth would we be opposed to it?

A common argument of "parents of the past" is the ubiquitous "you survived!" Yes, most of us survived to not wearing helmets, seat belts and the like. Does it mean that using them is a bad thing? There are less accidental deaths/injuries in children nowadays; to me, that's a strong enough argument. So I say: safety first. Get informed (about the ways to prevent accidents/injuries in babies and children). Get trained (in first aid and CPR). As for the psychological side of things, if it was so perfect back in the days, how do you explain that so many adults nowadays are completely fu**** up? Seriously! Show me an emotionally balanced adult, and I will show you a good parent. Period.

There IS common wisdom to be gained from the past. But all that glitters is not gold, and all oldies are not goldies.

2) Don't overprotect

This might sound paradoxical considering our number 1 DON'T, but there is a fine balance to be found when it comes to safety. Children need to explore. Children need to experiment. Children need to test limits (their own, that of the tree branch, etc.) One of the things I appreciated the most about my own childhood is that I had a lot of freedom. And so, even if it terrifies me at times, I try to give some freedom to my children as well. Minor incidents, injuries and pain (physical and psychological) are inevitable anyways. They make you grow. They teach you how to deal with life's challenges.

Overprotecting applies to germs, too. Some of us parents are obsessed with germs. Let's quit it already! Immune systems are built by being exposed to germs! There is such a thing as an overly clean house. Proof: I got my first stitches (age 2) not by swinging from a chandelier, but from walking right into a patio door. I bet you it was way too clean.

We clean, we clean, we over clean. We so don't want our kids to get a common cold, we expose them to all sorts of chemicals that could give them cancer instead! Let's relax. Dirt and dust are fine. Natural cleaning products (ecological lines for soap and shampoo; baking soda, lemon juice and vinegar for the house) work wonders, and keep our systems healthy. In my house, we are almost never sick (knock on wood). Yet if you come on the right day, you might be able to trace your name on top of the piano. Go figure.

3) Don't forget yourself (and your couple)

Being a good parent doesn't mean sacrificing your own needs and happiness, and the needs of your couple. As my mother says: you were a couple before the kids came, and you will still be a couple after they leave (well, in 50% of the cases anyways...) Raising children, helping them bloom and entertaining them does not mean that we, as grown-ups, don't need (and don't want to) be entertained and learn/grow. I will be a child and a teenager at heart until the day I die, and I treat myself accordingly: a good social life, my own activities, learning/growth opportunities, and lots of fun! Plus, I think it gives a great example to the children, to see their parents take care of themselves and enjoy themselves.

The moment you start neglecting your own needs, you might find yourself losing patience way more easily. You can't be calm and patient if you are fundamentally frustrated in your needs. You have to look after yourself in order to look after your kids better.

Parenting DOs

4) Be consistent

When you think about it, children are pretty simple creatures (as most of us belonging to the animal kingdom are): they respond very well to clear rules and expectations. They also react in a very predictable way to consistent patterns of positive or negative reinforcement. Whenever we send a message that something is OK (tolerating undesirable behavior, or even reinforcing it - often without even realizing it), well guess what... the behavior will keep happening. If we want the whining to stop, we have to stop giving into it. If we want to have quiet, uninterrupted sleep, we have to stop taking kiddy in our bed. If we want aggressivity to stay within the realm of the socially acceptable, we have to adopt a "zero tolerance" approach.

So simple, yet so difficult to apply... because, again, we are human, and more often than not, simply overwhelmed with all there is to do. So we fail. Myself included. But through my mistakes I have learned. I make a point of reminding myself that "sometimes, I have to suffer now in order to enjoy later". Whenever, as parents, we implement something new, the first few days/weeks can be a rough ride. For example, when I decided to use the 5-10-15 technique to get my babies to sleep through the night (once they were old enough and big enough to not need milk anymore - never before six months of age), the nights got much worst at first: I barely slept, and it was torture to let the babies cry for even just a few minutes. I had to keep my eyes on the timer and resist the strong urge to go pick them up. But sure enough, they eventually learned that nothing interesting happens if you wake up and cry in the middle of the night, they taught themselves to fall back asleep (a good talent to have), and the behavior gradually disappeared.

5) Follow through

This number 2 DO ensues from number 1. If there is going to be a consequence to an undesirable behavior, and especially if it has been announced to the child, follow through. Too often we fear the child's reaction. We don't want to make them upset. We don't want to deal with a tantrum. Often, applying the consequence simply is too inconvenient. So we find excuses not to apply it. It happens to me all the time. I have to reason with myself. What's worse: not being allowed to attend a party, or growing up as a bully because your parents never did anything about your antisocial behavior? What's better: some frustration and discomfort, or growing up without guidance, never experiencing the consequences of one's own actions? Do we want children who are never upset, or are we raising future adults who will be functional, responsible... and happy?

When my daughter started reminding me of a certain character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I knew I had to do something. She was systematically dissatisfied, easily upset, and did not seem to appreciate what she had whatsoever. Even if we had just offered her a pair of “princess shoes” (that she had been dreaming of for the longest time), she still complained to us that she owned nothing she really liked, that we never did anything for her, and so on. I reminded her about the shoes. But she kept whining, day after day. I told her that if she did not truly appreciate the shoes, some other child who does not have money to buy shoes certainly would, and that if nothing changed, I would donate THE shoes. She did not flinch. She was still talking and acting like a little brat, and I was running out of gas (and beginning to worry about the kind of individual she was turning into).

One day, I did the unthinkable (I really had to kick myself in the rear end): while she was at school, I took the princess shoes and went and donated them to a local charity. I said nothing until my daughter noticed on the following day. Then I explained what I had done, expecting her to throw a full-blown tantrum. She did not. She stayed very calm. In fact, she has been pretty calm (and polite, and respectful, and grateful) since then. Another small victory!

If you have a misbehaving teenager and nothing seems to be working, I've heard that removing their bedroom door can do wonders. My friend K, who's a high school teacher, had a student who once exclaimed “Yeah! It's Friday, I get my door back!”

(For other examples of following through, read this post.)

6) Teach independence

Getting back to future adults, I am a strong believer that children are capable of - and strongly benefit from - becoming independent. Yes, I know, it is sometimes way more convenient to do everything for them. Plus, it tells us we are indispensable, which is a nice feeling to have. But an even more important feeling is for children to feel competent. Children can do so many things! It should obviously be taken from an individual perspective, but the bottom line is: if we don't give them a chance to try, they will not learn! Two year olds can get dressed on their own with minimal help. Four year olds can swim a short distance without floaters. If only we give them the opportunity. School -aged kids can help significantly with house chores (not limited to their own bedroom), and it makes them proud (don't get mislead by the occasional complaining).

7) Share your passions... all the while respecting the individual

As adults we have all developed passions and talents. I believe the best gift we can give our kids is to share those passions with them. At the same time, we need a certain level of detachment: I certainly want my kids to be physically active (athletic, even), since it's a passion and a value that I cherish, but I am not to impose any specific sport on them. They will pick the one they like best... eventually (for now they are still trying things out). Although cultivating my detachment, I do feel all fuzzy inside when I see my daughters swim, or when we run together. I feel blessed that they enjoy those activities just like I do.

Sharing passions is also a great way to build memories. We all have memories of what we did with the important adults in our lives, of what they taught us, of special moments we shared. Again, it is a gift to give children, those magic moments together.

8) Keep the communication lines open

Life is busy. We don't always have time (or, let's be honest, feel like) to listen to our children, or to ask how they are doing. Yet it is so important. Things will never be perfect. At times, things will feel out of control and completely chaotic. But if your child knows s/he can talk to you and get your full attention and respect, I strongly feel that all will be good in the end. I try really hard to turn to my children, face them, look at them in the eye, and pay attention, when they talk to me. I am not saying it's easy. As any other busy parent, I regularly have to tell them to wait (if I am already talking with someone else, or if something is about to burn in the oven, for example). And there are days when I would rather keep reading or watching TV (or even daydreaming). But I really try to make time for one on one conversations and confidences. You learn so much about your child that way. And they learn so much from the attention you give them in those important moments. The house should be a haven children can retreat to after a tough day at school, a place where they know they will be fully accepted.

I recently had a conversation with my daughter, following an aggressive outburst by her, that she justified by saying “But I can't control myself”. I obviously disagreed with this oversimplified (and self-indulgent) explanation, but I did not quite know how to approach the topic. That is when I happened to look at a baby picture of her we have on the wall.

I took her to the picture, showed it to her, and said: “See this picture? This is you when you were a baby. BACK THEN, you could not control yourself. Whenever you were unhappy about something, you would cry and scream. You could not control it. When I fed you, you would spit your purees or throw pieces of food on the floor, because you thought it was funny, even if I frowned and said no. You could not control it either. For goodness sake, you could not even control your bum! You peed and pooped in your diaper (or on yourself if without a diaper for a minute) all the time!” (There my daughter laughs.) “Yet all that time I still loved you, because I knew you couldn't help it, and, let's admit it, because you were really cute - see how cute you are on the picture?” (Here my daughter smiles and hugs me.) “And I knew that with time, you would grow up and learn how to control yourself. Soon you didn't cry all the time anymore, you didn't make a mess with your food, and you started using the toilet. I was proud of you. When you were 2 years old, you did bite and hit people on the head with your sippy cup, but again, you learned, and grew out of it. This is why I know that you will keep improving: every day you grow up and learn more and more to control yourself. It's not always easy. You're still a child. But you get better all the time, and I know that you are able to control your aggressivity if you try a little bit harder.”

Needless to say, this was a very important moment for my daughter and I, the kind of moment we often don't make time for, just because we are so busy and preoccupied. It lasted what, 5 minutes? But the trace of this moment will forever be in our minds and hearts.

9) Love, love, love

Since we're at it. The best part of parenting is unconditional love. Of course, it has its downsides: children will always act out more with their parents than with anybody else - that's a sign of trust and a of safe attachment. The love between a parent and a child is the strongest tie, that is, as long as we don't ruin it. No matter how chaotic a day has been, love is to be shown and said. There is no such thing as too many hugs or "I love you"s. (When my children were babies, I did baby massage and baby yoga with them. I danced with them. Physical contact is a great way to strenghten the bond. I also sang lullabies to them, and I still do. It's one of my ways to show my love.) I have told my kids that no matter what, I will always love them. Even if sometimes I feel like unscrewing their head and throwing it out the window! Not wanting to leave anything unsaid, I have also told them that I will be there for them always, even after I die: they can still talk to me within their heart, and listen for my answers. After all, don't I do it with my own dad?

10) Enjoy the ride!

Parenting certainly is an adventure, with all its good and all its bad. Let's enjoy it, because from what I heard... it goes by very fast!

To help you enjoy, here are a few sweet tunes about childhood and parenthood:

By Yves Duteil : Prendre un enfant par la main

By Jacques Brel : Un enfant

By Steven Faulkner : Le météore

By Michel Fuguain : Vis ta vie

Thursday, November 1, 2012

How to eat healthy in 10 easy steps

On a sugar hangover from last night (not even a joke - sugar gives me headaches), I thought the timing was perfect for a little review of the strategies we can use to eat healthy.

This post will not be a scientific presentation, nor does it replace consulting with a professional (your doctor, a nutritionist, etc.) but rather stems from my personal experience and readings.

Whether we want to look good, feel good or both, eating healthy foods (and avoiding the bad) is the first step to take. Yet most of us (including myself) find this extremely difficult. Why is that?

And how do we become healthy eaters?

1) Don't oversee the psychological factors

Information on nutrition is widespread. Everybody knows what's healthy and what's not. Or at least the general guidelines: more fruit and vegetables, more lean protein, more fiber. Less fat, less sugar, less salt. Small portions. We  know all that. We still don't eat healthy. It's not from a lack of information. Eating unhealthy is not the sign of a lack of willpower, either. Everybody wants to be healthy, to feel great, to look great. But there is a variety of psychological factors that lead us to bad foods (or too much food). Some examples: feeling bored, feeling stressed, feeling frustrated, feeling sad, needing love (hence the widespread syndrome of breakup-followed by-Haagen Dazs ice cream-binge). The first step we have to take is to equip ourselves with non-food, non-drink strategies when those psychological needs ask to be fulfilled. Out of respect for ourselves, let's find healthy ways to feel better: walking, reading, writing, talking to a friend, working out, singing, listening to music, petting a cat, taking a bubble bath. Find yours. Make a list on the fridge.

2) Have a plan

It may seem unnatural to plan ahead the food we're gonna eat, but you know the saying: if you fail to plan... you plan to fail. It's just too easy to go for the wrong foods in the whim of the moment. This is why, even if I work from home, every week day I "make a lunch". I decide ahead of time what I will eat on a given day. I prep it, too. There's no excuse to eat junk when there's clean and cut veggies waiting for you in the fridge, ready to be eaten. To be efficient, I always prep more food than I need at any given moment, then store it (or freeze it). That applies to everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to muffins and hot meals. I also pre-measure my portions, to make sure I will not eat too much carbs or too little protein (my natural tendency). I try to see my food as fuel, i.e., I pay attention to the nutrient contents of most of what I put in my mouth, instead of going for "emotional choices". This does NOT take the pleasure out of eating. What it does is bring back awareness into eating. Is this time consuming? To be honest... not that much. The time you spend prepping, you save it at meal times and snack times. It's ready: you grab it and eat it. Easy.

3) Avoid gateway foods

As fellow blogger Mark from Mark's Daily Apple puts it so well, we have to avoid "the slippery slope of just eating a bite". We all have foods that we can't resist. For some it is salty stuff (hence the chips adds that challenge you to "eat just one"). For some it's the sweets. We all know our weaknesses. I have noticed that when I eat something sweet, I just can't stop at one (cookie, candy, pudding, piece of cake or pie, doughnut, bowl of ice cream). When we indulge in our weakness food(s), it opens a huge gateway, and we find ourselves eating more, more and more of the bad stuff... until the bag is empty... or until we feel nauseated. In light of that, I have decided to treat my sugar addiction like an AA: if I'm unable to control the amount, then I shall not have any. (Of course there are exceptions to this: I do cheat occasionally, and one could argue that sugar overloads are not as damaging as alcohol overloads; but as a general rule, if I do not want to binge, I don't take the first bite. Not even a small one.)

4) Don't be a tease...

... to yourself. Don't put yourself in tempting situations. Don't be cruel to yourself. Especially if you're like me and don't trust your own self-control. I know people who can be very disciplined about food even when it's right in front of them. I am not one of those people. It might be sad, but I just don't have the ability to resist. Better to acknowledge it than deny it. All-you-can-eat buffets are a disaster for me. So. If I don't want to eat something... I just don't buy it. Period. How could you eat it if it's not in the house? I also do not walk through the "sweet aisles" at the grocery store, and I don't stop in front of any sweet counters or vending machines. I walk by... eyes closed if necessary!

5) Curb the cravings

To prevent cravings in the first place, here are some tricks: eat every 2-3 hours. Include some source of protein and some healthy fats. Avoid large quantities of carbs, especially simple carbs. Now if you do have a craving... a strong one... willpower and knowledge will not be enough. You need a strategy. One of mine is to chew gum. I always keep a pack of gum handy. After one cookie, if I hear my body scream for half a dozen more, I quickly throw some sugar-free gum in my mouth. It calms it down.

6) Pay attention

Your body is telling you something. Why are you craving this unhealthy food right now? Are you really hungry? Could you simply be tired or thirsty? Also, how do you REALLY feel after junk food, sweets, alcohol, and big meals in general? (If you feel great, this probably means you have to relearn all of your body's signals - it takes a little bit of time and hard work, but it can be done.) I have noticed that I really don't enjoy feeling very full. If I eat any more than a cup and a half of food in any one sitting, the pressure in my belly is uncomfortable. Also, as much as I love the feeling of sweets in my mouth, I know it usually ends up ruining my energy levels (and sometimes my mood) for the next few hours. Sugar lows do NOT feel good. I try to remind myself of that when I feel a craving.

7) Sneak on yourself

All of us have a deficiency of some kind. Protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and even plain water... there is something you don't get enough of. Figure out what it is (MyFitnessPal website could help you with that), then find ways to add some to your diet. Many things can be "hidden" in foods you like, to help you get what you need without even noticing it. Vegetable purees, legume purees, fruit purees, frozen berries, seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, hemp, flax), bran, wheat germ, whey protein powder, plus spices like turmeric and cinnamon... I put them in my pasta sauce, soups, casseroles, stews, muffins, yogurt, smoothies, cereal, etc. Another strategy I have adopted: to improve my general hydration, I drink a tall glass of water first thing in the morning (before I shower), and another one about an hour before bed (closer to bedtime would impact my sleep for sure!) The rest of the day I drink normally. This still increases my total daily intake by 2 cups!

8) Avoid liquid calories

As much as we "work" on eating the right things, we sometimes self-sabotage with caloric drinks, that most often we oversee. What do you put in your coffee? Did you ever google your favorite drink to see what the nutrient contents are? You could be shocked. Same thing for pop, and even fruit juice! Fruit juice is NOT necessary in a healthy diet (fresh fruit is). I have gotten used to drinking my coffee with skim milk only, to dilute with water the very occasional glass of juice I have, and to drink plain water (or herbal teas) most of the time. Pop? I don't even like it, so it was an easy decision to leave it out. Now there is wine. I truly appreciate good wine with a good meal. But I have learned to make this very occasional, too. When I do pour myself a glass, I savor it fully. (And I make sure I cut down on other carb sources that day.)

9) Find your healthy pleasure

We eat for pleasure as much as we eat for fuel. This is just a fact. Good news: some things are pleasurable AND healthy. Find out which are yours. Then indulge daily. My healthy pleasures include Greek yogurt, plain almonds, salmon, mixed greens with olive oil, mixed bean salads (chick peas etc.), homemade vegetable soups, homemade guacamole, tomato sandwiches, ratatouille, sauteed bok choy, steamed spinach,  asparagus or artichoke or endives with vinaigrette, and all kinds of fruit. I also love vegetables belonging to the Amaryllidaceae family: garlic, onions and leeks. They make everything taste better (and are super good for you).

10) Leave some wiggle room

No food should be a taboo food. Everything can be consumed in moderation. Nobody lasts very long on an unrealistic food plan. You can eat birthday cake on your birthday. But you don't need to eat some every single time a family member or a friend (or your kids' friends) have their birthday party. And you don't need to eat 2 pieces, then some on the following day. Also, if you fail, do not self-loathe. Do not let yourself feel discouraged. Learning to eat right is a process. It takes time. There will be successes and relapses. When this happens, don't look back. If it's in your belly, it's already too late to waste precious energy regretting. Just get back on track and make things right. Have a tall glass of water (or a cup of herbal tea), chew some gum, then plan your next meal better. And remember that an occasional slip does not ruin it all. In the long run, if you are reasonably consistent, you will get results. Just be patient.