One night after work last year, I was sitting in a large auditorium, full of busy professional women, listening to advice on wellbeing. Much of it was good advice but were a few things that set off little red flags in my head.
And no sooner had the presentation finished when one of the women turned to me and said, “Oh I feel so guilty, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to drink tap water. I thought it was ok. How am I going to afford a filter on my tap?”
Now you might laugh at that statement and think, “how could she think that?” But I was so mad that this woman had come away from the presentation believing her efforts to take care of herself were not valid, that she felt guilty for doing the ‘wrong’ thing, and worst of all – the advice completely misrepresented the value of free drinking water that comes from a safe source.
This is not the first time this has happened. I’ve sat through other presentations where people have tried to sell essential oils or supplements, or some other amazing thing as the magic pill that will solve the world’s problems, and it – and I’ll be frank here – it really grates. It fills me with rage.
And I’ve been there too. I’ve paid for fitness programmes that sold me the dream that never eventuated. I’ve brought the supplements that were supposed to make me shine like a unicorn and I’ve brought the creams that I hoped would make me look 21 years old. Clearly, neither of those things happened.
And while I’m angry here, last year I received an email from a company trying to sell a weight-loss item and in the marketing material they noted that… wait for it….the best thing to do was stick your client onto weight measurement scales so that while the client was there feeling VULNERABLE you could SELL THEM YOUR PRODUCT. (Taking a deep breath here). Not only is that completely unethical and revolting, but it also sets people up to fail and it reinforces that there is somehow something wrong with them.
For me, this is everything wrong with the wellbeing industry. None of it acknowledges your efforts, and what you face daily. None of it recognises the context of your life, your strengths, your preferences for learning, and your life experiences and goals. None of it is consistent and there is a lot of fearmongering and wildly inaccurate advice.
No wonder people are confused about how to take care and no wonder people feel like they have failed when they have tried something, and it has not had the effect they were hoping for.
Rebranding the dream
Most people I have met would like to improve their wellbeing in some way and I think that’s brilliant. Wellbeing is a journey that changes with our age and stage in life. As we grow older, our needs can change as our bodies and our life commitments do. It requires a fresh approach to new (and old!) challenges. In that sense, I think having wellbeing goals is great, and positive, and for many people having goals has inspired them to try new things that have enabled them to work well, live well and get the most out of life.
However, in my view, it’s also very important that we don’t feel guilty or bad about ourselves in the process. We should never feel that we must punish ourselves for our past decisions, or feel that we are somehow faulty, unlovable or incomplete because we tried something and it didn’t work, or it was the ‘wrong’ thing to do.
Here’s what I’d like to say to you right now if you identify with feeling as that woman did:
1. You are enough
I want you to know that you are enough. You are the expert in you and your journey so far is unique to you. I don’t want you to feel guilty for the choices you have made in trying to take care of yourself. It’s easy to focus on what didn’t work, rather than what did – and yet celebrating your successes is an important part of what will keep you going.
I also encourage you to be kind to yourself as if you would a friend and have empathy towards yourself. As I noted in my blog about my body image journey, I would love to go back to my early twenties and give younger me a warm, understanding hug and say, “it will be ok and it will work out”. I also want to say, “I see you for who you are you and you’re remarkable,” just as I would to any of my dear friends (and all of you!). It’s taking a compassionate approach that acknowledges how you are and what you need, recognises your strengths and gives yourself permission to be you in all your glory.
It’s also worth noting that, in the medical world, there is a huge push towards being ‘client-centred’ which means that we better recognise the abilities of people to make decisions and act on them, in the context of their own life. It drives me up the wall when I visit a medical professional and I get a lecture, albeit well-meaning, on health. Lectures don’t work. We’re better to ask people what they’ve tried and then guide them to make healthier choices based on what they are able, confident and motivated to do. All of this applies to you too.
To quote Jean Fain, “You have no choice but to start from where you are.” And let me say that your starting point is one of strength.
2. You are not faulty, the process is
Wellbeing advice can be overwhelming and confusing, and is often so solution focused that they’ve forgotten the ‘how’ – ‘how’ do I make it sustainable? It’s useful to know that, from a behaviour change science point of view, it’s really normal to find behaviour change isn’t an A to Z process. Change is almost never linear. Rather, it’s more like a messy scrawl on paper.
We start with the best of intentions, only to find we’ve been railroaded by work commitments, illness, family expectations, the weather, an unexpected event or our own loss of motivation. That doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It simply means it hasn’t worked this time or maybe it’s not right for you.
To give you a personal example, I’ve been trying to include more mediation in my life this year. Try as I might to do five minutes of meditation at the end of every day, after two weeks of success we went away on holiday and I never managed to get it back again. It would be easy to berate myself for not living up to my own expectations but, instead, it’s healthier to say, “well this isn’t working, what might work?”. After a bit of trial and error, I found that pre-paying for a yoga class was far easier and because there’s a financial commitment, I was extra motivated to go. Now, I get my little bit of meditation a couple of times a week and suddenly – it’s doable.
With that in mind, it can be helpful to think about what’s likely to get in the way when you decide to make a wellbeing change and make a plan for how you might keep going when the going gets tough. The plan doesn’t have to be perfect and it won’t work all of the time, but by thinking through those challenges you’ve made life easier for yourself already.
In that way, it’s not about your supposed ‘failings’, but about the process. Think like an inventor trying to solve a problem. See your journey as an experiment, not a means to an end, and celebrate your efforts.
3. A satisfying life isn’t a magic pill
When we look at the longitudinal studies of what made people feel happy, or satisfied, over their lifetime I can tell you what’s not there. Essential oils. Jokes aside, there are two studies that I think are hugely important for defining what it means to live a satisfying life.
The first is a study from the UK that led to the formation of the Five Ways to Wellbeing. The study explored actions that people could take to improve their wellbeing, based on science. Those five ways were to: connect with others, give, take notice, keep learning and be active. You can find more information on the Five Ways to Wellbeing on the New Zealand Mental Health Foundation website.
The second is a longitudinal study from Harvard University. Over the years, researchers have found that the secret to a long and happy life was choosing to be happy with whatever you do, strengthening your closest relationships and taking care of yourself. Interestingly, the one that had the greatest impact was strengthening your closest relationships.
And from client work, that’s something I can attest. I once worked with a man who needed to lose weight before an operation. It would have been easy to give him an exercise and diet programme and hope for the best but that wasn’t his core issue. His core issue was that he was lonely. So, we worked on that instead. We reconnected him with his local community and he quickly made new friends and met a significant other. With those new people in his life, he started walking more and they cooked together and suddenly the light went on – working on wellbeing was far easier with the support of others than doing it alone.
There is sunshine at the end
At the end of the day, we’re all on our journey towards a healthier life and there isn’t a magical pathway to get there (despite what you might hear otherwise). Our lives are busy enough and there shouldn’t be room for guilt. Rather, if we start working from a place of self-compassion, support, and great relationships, then that’s when the real magic happens.