Giving Stuff Up


cutting of hair renunciationFran, one of my psychotherapy clients, sits in her chair opposite me with a look of despair on her face.

“There are so many diets out there. I’ve tried them all, Atkins, Paleo, South Beach, Mediterranean, none of them work. Everywhere you look there’s someone else with something new. How do I know what the right thing is?”

Meanwhile, as she becomes increasingly consumed with option anxiety, she continues to gain weight, gets closer to a diagnosis of diabetes, and her self-hatred deepens.

The solution to her problem is simple. Everyone knows it. But this answer to all-too-many human problems is something that nobody wants to hear.

Smart business people understand that most of us don’t want to face this obvious truth, and exploit this foible to drive much of our economy. Donald Trump took advantage of it on 60 Minutes when he said, “Everyone can have everything and it won’t cost a dime!” This avoidance certainly keeps the multi-billion dollar diet industry thriving. As Fran pointed out, instead of accepting the solution to our obesity epidemic, we keep creating new diets with new names. And she’s right that none of it works. Despite all the methods, obesity in the U.S. keeps getting worse.

And unhealthy eating is just one problem caused by this denial. Sidestepping this reality keeps us on a path of self-destruction from drug addiction to global warming.

Now you want to know – what is it?

Want to lose weight? You’ve got to give up sugar. Want to avoid the relationship problems and liver disease associated with being an alcoholic? You’ve got to give up alcohol. Don’t want to die of lung cancer? You’ve got to give up cigarettes. Want to maintain a healthy marriage? You’ve got to give up having sex with other people. Want to meet a great guy? You’ve got to give up that unavailable loser. Want to keep the planet from roasting to a cinder? We’ve got to give up fossil fuels.

The answer is, in order to get what you want, you’ve got to give stuff up.

Why do we have such a hard time with this? First of all, we live in a society that prizes consumption. We are told that the more stuff we have the better. We learn that freedom means the freedom to kill ourselves with opiates or McDonalds.

But does all this consumption make us happier? It doesn’t appear so. In fact, all consumption does is lead to more consumption. The compulsivity crisis in our society is out of control. As 23-year-old Jerry said to me, “If I give up drinking, who will I hang out with? Everybody in New York is an alcoholic!”

Recent evidence shows that life expectancy for the white middle-class in America is going down. And why? Because of drug and alcohol use and the health-effects of obesity.

We live in a culture where everyone is indulging and so we feel the social pull to indulge as well. Everyone else is doing it so won’t I be deprived if I don’t?

buddha attachmentBut there’s something deeper than social influence that keeps us from giving stuff up. Buddha was on to this one. He said that life is suffering, and that suffering comes from attachment. There’s lots of ways of interpreting this, but I don’t think he meant attachment to your mom.

I think what he meant was that having stuff, eating sugar, using drugs, hooking up, or even winning at Candy Crush turns on reward centers in your brain, and once that happens you become hooked. You like the feeling, and so you want more of it. Then, the more reward you get the more you have to have it. You think you are free, but over time you really have less and less choice about what you are doing. Then the idea of giving up the thing that releases your happy brain chemicals, like dopamine, sets off panic because now you believe you need that drug-delivery-system to survive.

Giving stuff up scares the crap out of you.

Once you are hooked, you are now in conflict. One part of you craves the drug, but then when you give in, another part of you hates yourself for being out of control. Hence, Buddha’s suffering. We get trapped on a wheel of trying to get ourselves under control, (I can drink moderately, can’t I?) and then losing control which leads to beating yourself up, which includes telling yourself you really need to get in control, which makes you feel so bad that you indulge, and on and on it goes. Suffering, in Buddha’s sense, is about internal conflict.

So what do we do?

You’ve come to believe that giving up stuff is wrong, horrible, and, at least, impossibly difficult. You’ve become terrified that even if you try, you will fail. But actually, it is easier than you think. I’ve given up a lot of stuff in my life. In fact, my life has been a progression of giving stuff up.

“Oh, sure,“ you say, “you can brag that you no longer snort cocaine, but any old dude like you can do that.” True. But recently I was told that I was at risk of having high blood pressure. Rather than take medicine, I decided I’d take a natural approach. Part of that up was giving up caffeine, which meant no more chocolate. I love chocolate. If I have a bar of beautiful, pure, dark chocolate in my fridge, I’ll just nibble it away all day. (Once you give up doing coke, chocolate is the poor man’s substitute.) But I made a decision to give it up.

And guess what? Not only isn’t my life worse, my life is better. Why? We prize having choice, but actually eliminating choice is the path to inner peace. If I had to choose whether to eat chocolate or not, I’d be in conflict. Should I? I want to. I shouldn’t. It’s bad for me. I told myself I wouldn’t. But it would taste really good right now. Then I’d do it, and soon I’d feel bad about doing it. Here we have Buddha’s suffering from attachment. But once I take that choice off the table, I have no conflict. I don’t have to think about it. There is no struggle.

gandhi renunciationThere is a word for this that I like better than “giving stuff up.” It’s called renunciation. Renunciation is a spiritual thing where we rise above our base cravings and sacrifice something for a higher purpose. Renunciation is a spiritual theme in just about every wisdom path.

So renunciation eliminates inner conflict. But, then Fran says to me, “Wait, this still doesn’t solve my problem! I get so confused. I mean, am I doing this to eat healthy, or to lose weight, or to follow the system, or like, what am I supposed to give up? I mean, drugs or alcohol is easy.  But with food you’ve got to eat something. I get so confused I don’t know what to give up, and then I don’t do anything at all.”

This answer is simple, too.

I tell Fran that the key to a healthy relationship to food, optimal weight, and physical well-being has nothing to do with nutrition, calories, or exercise. And it is the same thing with all compulsive behaviors.

This stops her in her tracks. “Huh?”

I say to her, “Do whatever is going to make you feel good about yourself. If eating that thing, or that way, is going to make you feel better about yourself, do it. If it is going to make you feel bad about yourself, don’t do it.

She says, “But that’s hard!”

Yes, it is true that this means sacrificing what you crave in the moment. It requires renunciation.

There are reasons that giving up stuff isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. In fact, difficult is good. Why? Because the building blocks of loving yourself, or healthy self-esteem, of healthy pride, comes from doing the difficult things.

For a moment, you will crave stuff. Our lives are filled with cravings. That’s the way healthy senses work. I pass Starbucks on my way to work and the smell of the coffee sets off a craving. I want a double latte with three squirts of some sugary flavoring! I’m walking down the Via del Corso in Rome and I see a beautiful church and this sets off a craving.  I want to become a devout Catholic and devote my life to God! I’m driving down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and I see a billboard of a sexy woman and this sets off a craving. I want . . . well, you get my point.

But if you breathe, the craving will pass.

It comes down to that choice. Do you want the pleasure of the moment and endless shame or a lifetime of fulfillment and healthy self-esteem?

So if you eliminate choice, and you make the decision to only do what makes you feel better about yourself, then what’s the problem?

Fran says, “Dr. Berger, I’m so afraid. I’m afraid I’ll fail, I won’t be able to do it.”

I understand her fear.

There is a being alive inside of you that is very strong. This being is the self-hating, shame-based, self-destructive part of you. This part has been in charge for a long time, and likes his power and life. There is another being alive inside of you. This one is small, weak, and quiet. This is the being of self-love, healthy pride, and the realization of potential.

the one I feed 2There is an old Native American fable that speaks to this inner struggle. In it, the grandfather likens these two beings to wolves, and says there is a great battle going on within us between these two animals. The grandson asks which wolf wins the battle, and the grandfather says, whichever one you feed.

But here’s the problem. Things that live have one driving force: to stay alive. The self-hating part of you will do anything to survive. By doing the harder thing, and renouncing, we feed the self-loving wolf with esteemable acts. But this drives the self-hating part of you into a frenzy, because it threatens this demon’s power. It will then do whatever it can to undermine your best efforts in order to remain alive and in control.

The main tactic that the destructive wolf uses is to get you to feel shame. One good way of doing this is to make sure you feel like a failure.

Let’s say, for example, that you renounce sugar. A week later you step on the scale and you haven’t lost a pound. (Of course you haven’t gained one, either, but we don’t think about that.) You immediately feel like a loser, and this induces a deflating feeling of shame. All of your enthusiasm disappears in less time than it takes to let the air out of a balloon. The next thing you know the gremlin is all over you. “See, I told you that you could never do it. You’ll be a fat blob your whole life!” You go out and eat an entire Boston cream pie.

Or, despite the promise you made to yourself, you’ve been living through some rough weeks, and you find yourself at a holiday party and everyone is drinking and you slip and have a drink. You tell yourself, “You know what, screw it. I knew I was doomed to failure, anyway.” And what happens? You give up. Now you feel really embarrassed because you’ve been down this road a hundred times, where you’ve told yourself and your loved ones that this time you are going to do it, and here you are failing again.

You are going to go through hard feelings. This is what makes the whole thing so damn difficult. Actually, making healthy eating choices is easy. What is difficult is getting through the painful feelings of disappointment, deflation, and shame.

So many of us go through big bang, quick fizzle. We start off great, but once we bump into the inevitable obstacle, the mean old wolf is there to eat us. The trick is to not get derailed when you feel bad.

we are what we do 2This takes us to the third part of the solution to so many human problems: consistency.

I like to think about the figure skater at the Olympics. She works her whole life to get to this moment. She’s up for the gold. The eyes of the entire world are on her. In the middle of the routine she blows the triple-lutz and falls on her ass. She’s blown her one and only chance at achieving her life’s aim. What does she have to do? She has to get up, finish the routine, and when she’s done, flash the world’s biggest smile. Now that is hard. But that is what makes her a champion. There are probably lots of people who can twirl around in the air on ice skates, but very few who can get up after such an ignominious defeat.

That’s what we have to do. We have to expect that bad feelings are coming. That we will blow it. That life won’t shower us with instant rewards when we make sacrifices for a higher end. Without our drug of choice, we’ll feel all kinds of crappy feelings.

But those feelings, as bad as they are, won’t kill you. They, too, shall pass. And if you can get over the hump of those tough emotions, you can get off the wheel of control and release. The wolf of self-hatred will be quieted, and the wolf of self-love will grow.

And then, miracles will happen. It may not happen on your time frame, or how you expect it, but over time you will get something far more precious than losing weight. You will get inner peace and healthy pride – you’ll feel great about yourself. And when that happens, the world will reflect that, and you will have a life of abundance. You will have so much more than anything you gave up.