Here’s the thing: we’re trained to keep pushing, keep working. We’re taught our whole lives that we can master our bodies, that if we just ignore the pain or the fatigue or discomfort or whatever, it will go away.
In my experience, that is almost never true. Like, the only thing I can think of that actually works with is hiccups.
Almost everything in our culture teaches us that strong people keep going, and weak people stop. We don’t want to be weak. We all know what happens to the slow gazelle. So we keep running, even when our bodies are screaming at us to stop.
But learning to stop is an important part of listening to our bodies. Gentleness is called for.
Gentleness is not the same as over-indulgence. Giving your body what it needs almost never involves eating a box of Tagalongs in a day. (Or Thin Mints, I guess. Personally I do not comprehend why someone would want their chocolate to taste like toothpaste, but hey, you do you.) But gentleness does mean not making ourselves miserable in our pursuit of health. There are probably few rules you need to adhere to with absolute consistency, so maybe don’t worry too much about the other things.
Stopping when you need to is a big part of developing gentleness with yourself, and it can be a big part of health. The most obvious example for me is exercise.
I’ve tried developing exercise habits on and off over the years. It’s never stuck. My efforts usually went something like this:
“I’m going to do some exercise!”
12 seconds in: “Cool, I’m doing it, I’m exercising! I’ll exercise for 15 minutes. That’s a reasonable amount. That’s supposed to do a lot of good. Anyone can do 15 minutes!”
3 minutes in: “How long have I been doing this for? Oh, darn.”
6 minutes in: “It’s ok, I can totally keep going!”
8 minutes in: “Huh. I do not feel good. I kind of hate exercising.”
9 minutes in: “Ok, I’m giving up. This was a terrible idea.”
[Drags self to safety, aka the couch.]
Later: “Ugh. I don’t want to exercise ever again. 9 minutes doesn’t even count. Definitely was not worth it.”
Even later, at the doctor’s office: “LOOK I TRIED EXERCISING OK IT DID NOT GO WELL STOP JUDGING ME.”
Let me reiterate: my efforts to develop an exercise habit were unsuccessful.
Since I’ve been learning to listen to my body though, I approach exercise differently. The shoulds aren’t in charge anymore. Before I start, I check in with my body to see whether exercising is a good idea at that moment. Because my body needs a LOT of rest, and sometimes anything like formal exercise makes me feel worse. But if my body’s ok with it, I’ll get on our stationary bike, and pull up my Netflix queue, and start pedaling really slowly. I speed up a tiny bit. After a little bit of that, I see how I’m feeling. Do I want to speed up, or am I happy with this speed? How about the resistance—do I want to raise that, or am I good at Level 1? (There are 10 levels. I mean, I think that’s right. There are at least 10, but who knows, I might be hanging out at Level 1 of 40. But that’s ok with me now.) Then—and this is key—when I feel like stopping, I double check, but if the answer is “Yes, I feel like stopping,” I slow down and I stop.
Radical, right? Maybe it wouldn’t be for you, but it definitely is for me.
I still haven’t gotten into the habit of exercising regularly, much to literally all of my doctors’ dismay. But you know what? I don’t hate exercising anymore. We are making our way toward a truce.
The last time I used the bike I stopped after like 2 and a half minutes, because my knees were hurting, and that didn’t end after a little movement. Had there been a lion, I would have been trying really hard to outrun the next slowest gazelle, but since there wasn’t, I listened to my body and stopped, and I heard the grateful exhale as my knees sighed in relief.