Step Off, Step On

Yesterday, my family made pizza on the grill for Labor Day. I wasn’t thrilled.

When I was younger, I had a long period when I actually didn’t like pizza. I know: what self-respecting kid doesn’t like pizza? I wasn’t an overly health-conscious adolescent or anything, but something about it didn’t sit right with me. Maybe it was the scalding hot tomato sauce, which to this day never fails to burn my mouth, or the abrasive crust, or the guaranteed messy fingers afterward.

Whatever the reason, I did eventually overcome my fears and learn to enjoy pizza. I still do, but yesterday’s feast was a struggle for me, and it led to me thinking about the issue of exceptions and how to make them effectively.

First, a little background…

A couple of years ago, I broke up with my then-girlfriend and found myself with considerably more free time on my hands. Up to that point, I had been adverse to any kind of healthy diet. I just didn’t feel inclined to suffer through eating grass and tree bark. I wasn’t even overweight, although I probably could have been considered skinny-fat.

But in that post-breakup moment, wherein I needed something new to focus on, I decided that the past 22 years of eating garbage had run their course, and it was time to get down to business. So, I started trying to eat healthier and exercise on a more frequent basis. I scoured the internet and found a solution that made sense to me and seemed like a sustainable lifestyle.

It took me close to two years to fully assimilate to my new and improved way of life. During that transition period, being consistently healthy was a struggle. You never really realize how unhealthy society is until you try to break free from it. Junk food is everywhere. Friends want to go out to dinner. People bring trays of cupcakes into the office for literally no reason. And sometimes, your mind just convinces yourself that one little bite is okay, even when it turns into twenty.

I stuck with it though, and now I’m at a point where I actually enjoy eating healthy more than eating junk food. It’s still tough sometimes, but on most days, I have no trouble avoiding cookies or turning down cupcakes. Even though they’re everywhere.

Now, back to my mention of exceptions.

Some members of my family, who don’t adhere to my personal health philosophy, have a hard time understanding the parts that seem controversial by conventional wisdom’s standards. I understand this difficulty because I would have felt the same way two years ago.

So, I was informed in advance that we were having pizza for Labor Day, and there was, essentially, nothing I could do about it. At first, I said I would eat beforehand and then come over, but I was told we were having guests, and that would be rude. My mom asked, “Can’t you just make an exception this one time?”

Of course I could. Did I want to? Absolutely not.

I know how I feel after an off-day of eating. It bums me out. It feels like all progress up to that point has been shot to hell. It feels unfair that I should have to sacrifice for others’ unhealthy habits. Did I have missteps once in a while? Obviously, but I would rather save those for instances when I had absolutely no control over the situation. If there was a way to avoid a misstep, why would I voluntarily choose not to take it?

Well, to make an increasing long story short, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet. I understand manners, and sometimes there’s no point in creating an unnecessary argument. Sometimes, you just have to eat pizza.

So, I ate the pizza, but I also managed to enjoy it by altering my perspective so that it wouldn’t bum me out too badly. Here’s how:

First, one cheat meal is better than an entire cheat day. People like to have a Pop-Tart for breakfast and say, “Welp, the day’s shot. Might as well start over tomorrow.” That attitude is detrimental and does more harm to your goal than need be. In the grand scheme of things, one cheat meal is only a blip on the radar, and it won’t undo months of progress. Several cheat days, however, will take much longer to recover from.

Second, I still had a great deal of control even though I was giving in to the pizza gods. I ate healthy all day so I wouldn’t be starving at pizza time, which would have caused me to overeat. I tried each kind of pizza, but I didn’t scarf down enough slices to make me uncomfortably full afterward. You don’t always have to kill yourself on an off day.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, after dinner, I went right back to my old habits. The path is always there, waiting for you to step back on. I didn’t think, “Oh, the day is ruined!” and stay up all night eating cookies and ice cream. One misstep doesn’t have to lead off a cliff. I stepped off the path, then course-corrected and stepped back on. Nothing worth agonizing over.

This is the mindset that has been most effective for helping me deal with those inevitable exceptions to my rules. I think it works for me because I’ve been trying to adhere to this lifestyle for so long that exceptions themselves have become unwanted. People who are just starting out, who haven’t fully transitioned and possibly don’t even enjoy what they’re trying to achieve, often want to cheat. They want and look for excuses to make exceptions.

The strategies above are not excuses for stepping off the path; they are mental adjustments for coping with stepping off the path when you wish you didn’t have to. The smaller the step off, the smaller the step to get back on.