When Being Healthy Becomes Unhealthy

In a recent article, I differentiated between moderators and abstainers. To summarize, moderators prefer more frequent but controlled indulgences, while abstainers fare better with more restrictions and less frequent, larger indulgences. (Think: a few slices of cake here and there vs. the whole dang thing at once). Read that article here.

Society tends to view the common practices of abstainers as “unhealthy” or even “clinical,” in some cases. I don’t disagree that the large indulgences of abstainers can share some characteristics present in binge-eating disorder, but there are also some stark differences. The biggest difference is that abstainers know they are over-indulging, and in most cases plan for it. In contrast, sufferers of binge-eating disorder often aren’t even aware when they binge eat.

The hard-wiring that makes individuals better abstainers also drives them naturally toward an extremist personality.

I have an extremist personality. This means I like to go 100% toward whatever goal I might be chasing at the moment. In the same regard, if I don’t feel compelled to put forth my full attention and effort into an activity then I often won’t waste time putting forth any effort at all. This presents itself in many ways:

 I can’t have just one slice of pizza, I want the whole pie.

I don’t just modify my workouts when on vacation, I will set aside time to locate a gym that has the equipment I need for my workouts.

Before I commit to sitting down to write a new article, I need to know I’ve got a few hours to work uninterrupted. I can’t work in short spurts. (Lest I get distracted and put my full attention into a different activity before I finish.) In fact, every unfinished draft of an article (that I got distracted from or couldn’t finish in a single writing session) is sitting incomplete somewhere on my desktop. 

I know there are some of you out there who are the same way. Sure, the activities you deem important enough to commit yourself to might be different than my examples, but the fundamental idea is the same:

“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” – Lone Survivor

I won’t make a judgment whether this is good or bad, it just is.

This extremist personality, when controlled and directed appropriately, can lead you to accomplish phenomenal things. However, I do want to discuss when it might become bad. This is when risk and sacrifice toward a goal turns into a compulsion. Once you lose the ability to distinguish between conscious sacrifice and automatic compulsion, then you get into trouble.

From the authors of Peak Performance:

“Elite athletes are abnormal. Elite anything is abnormal. Otherwise, it’s not elite. Pushing boundaries in any endeavor requires taking big risks with the mind-body system. Sometimes these risks are healthy. Other times they aren’t. When these risks become pathological, however, like in the case of an eating disorder, is when the person taking them loses the self-awareness that they are taking them in the first place. When trying to cut those extra few pounds or work those extra few hours is no longer a conscious decision, a well-calibrated risk, but instead an automatic compulsion.”

Make no mistake, there will be sacrifices along the way to achieving your goals. This could mean sacrificing some of your favorite comfort foods to improve your health. Or, in more extreme cases, this could mean missing family events if you are competing for that CEO position at your company.

Those individuals who have an extremist personality often find it easier to make these sacrifices in an effort to reach extreme levels of accomplishment. Again, when this becomes problematic is when you’re no longer making the conscious choice to sacrifice these things.

Your willingness to miss family events becomes your default response, instead of weighing the pros and cons.

The avoidance of your favorite foods is no longer a short-term strategy to reach a very specific fitness goal, but instead morphs into perpetual feelings of guilt and shame any time you consume these foods.

When conscious choice turns into an automatic compulsion—that’s when trouble arises.

My advice to you, especially if you have this extremist personality, is to stay mindful and vigilant about the sacrifices you make to reach your goals. Are you purposefully choosing to avoid those foods, miss those events, and complete those workouts in pursuit of your best life?

Or, are you avoiding the guilt and shame that comes if you don’t?

Stay mindful and vigilant about the sacrifices you make to reach your goals.

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