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The Allure of Chaos

Or, one reason success might be eluding you.

For those of us who pursue long-term goals with discrete endings, such as preparing work for a solo art exhibition, working towards a PhD, saving for our first SCUBA trip, or finally competing at the national level in weightlifting, actually achieving the goal can be bittersweet. Many of us feel directionless in the wake of an accomplishment. Life loses meaning. We may spiral into a depressive episode. Blame the dopaminergic brain. This illustration from Behave by Robert Sapolsky shows how dopamine rises as we close in on a goal, hiccups a little after achievement, then flatlines. Important to note here is that dopamine is not just a “feel-good” hormone. It’s motivational. It helps you focus. So no wonder we fall apart in its absence.

In fact, I think fear of this let-down drives many of us to sabotage our best efforts and to delay final outcomes. We know on some level that the reality will never match the dream. I’ve seen it in my own life time and time again, and I’ve watched myself hop from project to project. It’s the phenomenon of the unfinished, unfinishable novel. And this can apply to fitness goals as well. We all know that actually squatting double bodyweight, for instance, will, by the time we achieve it, lack much of its savor. So maybe we get inconsistent with training or with sleep, we stop taking our creatine. If we are trying to change our eating habits, we may binge. [1] This allows us to stay in process and away from the inevitable letdown. But what about when the stakes are high? For instance, what if we are trying to use nutrition and exercise to lower our blood pressure because we are hypertensive, or regulate blood sugar because we are pre-diabetic? Why would we continue to sabotage our progress in these areas? At bottom, in such cases, there is some ambivalence beyond a desire to stay “in process.” Often the reasons are social. SociaI cohesion is vital to the survival of the species, and so we are wired to prioritize it. What if changing my life alienates me from my loved ones, who share my old habits? If you think such concerns lie at the heart of your struggle, I have written a two-part article called “How to Fall in Love With Working Out”that will help you address them. What I would like to offer here is something for those of you who are still puzzled, those who have trouble locating the payoff in sabotage. For you, I would like to offer a quote from Gabor Mate, M.D.: “For those habituated to high levels of internal stress since early childhood, it is the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, Hans Selye observed. To such persons stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.” The truth is that many of us are uncomfortable with peace, with steady progress. There is some part of us that savors crisis. If you suspect you may be one of us (I say us because I am one.), look at the patterns in your life, and look at the results you’re getting rather than what you perceive to be your motivations. Our real motivations are not always clear to us. For instance, until I was shown what I was doing, I would unconsciously spend myself into financial scrape after financial scrape. (My savings account was a joke.) I would then feel a real sense of purpose and urgency as I I had to work very hard and restrict my spending in order to get out of the bind I was in. Before I really looked at the pattern, I’d always thought the solution was making more money. But over time, I saw that my income never seemed to make a difference. My behavior would adjust according to income so that the results were replicated, regardless. It was a cyclical pattern, and it was comfortable, even exciting. But eventually I had to acknowledge that the payoff wasn’t worth the price. Many have a similar pattern with fitness, of getting on and off the wagon, so to speak. They love to adopt unrealistic fitness regimens right off the bat, getting a thrill from the idea of totally transforming themselves in six weeks. I see it all the time. Because I’m a trainer, people feel compelled to describe to me their six-day-a-week regimen that they’re about to embark on. Their eyes light up as they talk about the Ninja blender they just bought. But that’s exactly the problem. They’re getting high on a fantasy, and fantasy is comfortable. And in its own way, the subsequent failure feels comfortable to. If this is your pattern, I’d argue that your behavior might not really be about fitness. It might be about dopamine, adrenaline, and cortisol. If this is your pattern, it may be uncomfortable to simply stick with the minimum effective dose. (For a beginner, something like two 45-minute lifting sessions and two 20-minute cardio session a week.) The minimum effective dose is not glamorous. It may in fact be embarrassing, humbling, or dull. It may not give you that dose of dopamine and adrenaline. And if you don’t allow yourself to fail, you won’t get that cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol that comes with beating yourself up. But if you’re willing to let go of this cycle of chaos, you’ll be able to stop quitting your program. And quitting a fitness program is the biggest impediment to getting healthier and stronger. As a wise man [2] once said, “Consistency trumps intensity every time.” If you'd like to work with someone one on one who can help you move past your blocks to achieve things you never thought possible, you can reach me here. [1] This is particularly complicated, however, when one has a deprivation mindset towards foods, which can be painful and lead to a kind of rubber band effect when we rebel against self-imposed restrictions. For those recovering from ED, restricting is also a way to get off track, but this seems to be more about gaining control rather than freedom. [2] Omar Isuf, YouTube lifting guru.

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