For many years, I was one of “those people.” You know the type. The ones who never taste a bite of birthday cake, because it isn’t Paleo. Your colleagues who always pass on team lunches, because they are doing Whole 30. The ones who think their discipline might inspire others, but in fact it makes them uncomfortable. They sit on the sidelines, sometimes smug, always separate.
In fact, much of my professional life has been spent on these sidelines. By the time I passed my final accountancy exams, I was already marching towards disordered eating. I was a sad, lonely girl. Desperately seeking connection. Wanting so badly to belong to a tribe. To be a part of something. Along came “clean eating.” Without giving much, if any thought to the ramifications, I decided that this was what I was going to be doing now.
Out the window went refined grains, sugar, most dairy and even sweetcorn. Not only did this radically impact my diet, it also changed the way I identified myself. I was no longer someone who ate things like cake and cookies. I was no longer willing to be spontaneous with food. I couldn’t afford to wing it. Everything needed to be tightly controlled.
Before long, I had fallen into the common trap of all or nothing mentality. I was either eating clean and doing Paleo, or I wasn’t. There was no room for maneuver. Absolutely zero flexibility. It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that this did nothing for my social life. Instead of finding connection and camaraderie with my growing team, my lifestyle choices only served to isolate me.
I stopped taking coffee breaks, and avoided eating lunch with my peers. Partly because I was under insane pressure in work, but also because it was tough pretending to be satisfied with yet another salad. Even when, on the rare occasion I did join the lads for a Friday trip to Subway, I dared not deviate from the plan. For anyone who might be wondering, eating a salad in Subway, while the guys are tucking in to foot long subs, tastes like misery and despair.
I am not for a second saying that there isn’t merit in following eating plans. But I have learned the painful lesson that it is important to have at least a degree of flexibility. If for no other reason than to preserve your sanity. If 80-90% of your eating is supporting your goals, you can afford to have fun with the remaining portion.
Last year I went through so much upheaval that I was forced to reevaluate everything. It seemed like nothing was going right. As hard as I worked to keep everything tightly controlled, it still eventually went to pot. As difficult as 2018 was, and loathe as I would be to repeat it, it taught me a lot. Perhaps most importantly, it taught me that even I cannot control everything.
There will be times when work is a nightmare and you are at your desk 16 hours a day. You will have times when there is conflict in your family and just keeping yourself upright is all you can do. There will be illnesses and injuries and all sorts of other stuff that will prevent you from getting to the gym. No amount of neurosis can control for this. We can however, control how we deal with it.
We have the choice to allow these occasions to derail us. Or instead we can think of them as part of the process and move on. Progress is never linear. If you read the autobiography of anyone you consider to be successful, I can almost guarantee that it wasn’t all plain sailing. Dealing with adversity and learning to make allowances is what strengthens us. I am desperately trying to resist using a cliche here. But it is true, flexible people can bend and sway and are resilient. Rigid people crack under pressure.
When I came back to work last year after a thankfully brief lay off, I made a decision. I was going to eat cake. You see, I now manage a team of ten people. As important as it is to provide them with supervision and training I feel it is far more crucial that my team feel supported and empowered by me. I never want my guys to doubt that I am in their corner. How can I hope to do that, if I won’t even celebrate their milestones with them?
When the birthdays come along, I am the one singing the loudest (and most tunelessly.) I am first in line to dish out hugs and accept cake. It seems crazy to me now that I ever didn’t do this. Since I started here in December, there have been maybe 5 or 6 birthdays. That’s 6 pieces of cake, or as my brain likes to work it out, less than 2,000 calories. Over the course of a year or a career, I promise this will make exactly no impact on my overall health goals.
It will, however, allow me precious moments of connectedness with my team. It will give me an opportunity to show the people reporting to me that I am a human person. I still don’t eat cake every time I see it. I don’t ingratiate myself into other teams birthday rituals either. However, I am beginning to understand that loosening up a tiny bit, will harm me very little, if at all. Furthermore, it has the power to enrich my life. Plus, as it turns, I actually really like cake.
For 37 years I was an all or nothing girl. Like any muscle that hasn’t been stretched in a while, flexibility is hard won. I am still learning to be less rigid and have a long way to go. I do know one thing for certain, I don’t want to spend another moment on the sidelines of life. Happy birthday and be well xxx