After the third consecutive night of no sleep, I was starting to lose it.
Our newborn daughter, who had looked so sweet and angelic in the moments right after her birth (9 on the APGAR – you go, girl!) had morphed into a demonic nighttime presence.
She needed less sleep than any human I had ever encountered. And when she did snooze, she did so with hair-trigger sensitivity to the environmental cues to full alertness: an adult cranium touching a pillow, an eyelid closing and not reopening within a tenth of a second.
As I walked around the bedroom, holding and bouncing her, for the third hour in a row (FitBit, where were you when I needed you?), I was struck by what seemed like a really good idea: go through my Rolodex (yes, an actual Rolodex – look it up, kids) and see who might want a baby to raise for the next 18 years or so.
Thankfully, my wife talked me out of it (or we went through our contacts and didn't want to bother them with a phone call at 3am, I honestly can't remember which), and so we kept on parenting.
Years of sleepless nights ensued, and approximately 18 months after our daughter began sleeping through the night, we met our newborn son, thus establishing with scientific precision the outer limits of human memory. And he was not much of a sleeper either.
In fact, it's only now, when they're 24 and 20 years old, respectively, that I'm truly starting to catch up on the Lost Years of Shuteye. It's like student loans, only nobody talked about forgiving my sleep debt at the Bernie rally last week.
And I tell you this not to brag.
If you want me to brag, I can probably muster up some stuff.
But taking care of tiny screaming babies in the middle of the night – every night – never felt like a choice.
At least not after the Rolodex.
Sometime's It's Not a Choice
Sometimes it just has to be done.
That's not precisely true, of course. There are plenty of stories of parents abandoning their kids, neglecting them, ignoring their needs, imposing well-intentioned “self-soothing” periods.
But to me and my wife, tending to our kids at night never felt optional. We knew that no matter what, if we had strength and breath, we'd cuddle them, change them, feed them, change them, burp them, change them, sing to them, take their temperature, tell them a story, change them, and so on.
We were in total Giving Tree mode for years. (“‘Come, kids, teethe on my fingers. Pee on my shirt. And then you will be, if not happy, mollified for a minute and a half.”)
If parenting at that level had required motivation, we would have failed. There's no amount of motivation that would have fueled our nightly care routines for that long. Tony Robbins could go suck a garden hose for all the good “getting us into state” would have done.
If parenting under those conditions required self-discipline and willpower, we would have failed. We were so ego-depleted by 3am that I probably would have been willing to sell my eternal soul to the Devil for an uninterrupted 20-minute nap in a made bed.
There weren't any self-help books that would have helped. There was no missing knowledge, no absent skills. There was nothing complex about the actions we had to take, night after night, day after day, to keep these little beings alive and well. We just had to DO, and DO, and DO, over and over and over again.
If it hadn't felt totally and completely non-negotiable, we would have failed.
Sure, there were strategies that made it easier. (My favorite one was not lactating, which meant there were times that I could stay in bed because I was useless. Sorry, Hon.)
Entire bookshelves at Barnes & Noble were devoted to techniques and hacks and tools and mindsets to help us get our kids to go to sleep and stay asleep.
Some of them worked, to a certain extent. (Swaddling was not as cruel as it looked, apparently.)
Some of them did not work at all. (I'm looking at you, Heartbeat Bear, Moses Basket, Keeping the Vacuum Cleaner Running, and Music for Little People's Lullaby CD (why the F is Loreena McKennitt screaming in the middle of “Courtyard Lullaby”?))
But it didn't matter. No matter how hard or how easy it became, we just kept DOing.
Not because it was easy.
Not because we were good at it.
Not because we were motivated.
Not because we had iron wills.
Because it was, in our minds, non-negotiable.
What's Your Non-Negotiable?
Here's the question: Is taking care of yourself THAT non-negotiable?
Because let's face it, there are a lot of obstacles to eating well, partaking in regular physical activity, managing stress, getting enough sleep (even if you're not struggling through the Lost Years), and having a satisfying social life.
Why is it hard to eat well?
Let me count the ways:
- Crap food is cheaper than healthy food, thanks to the Farm Bill and other brainless government giveaways).
- Crap food is tastier than healthy food, because we evolved to prefer calorically dense and salty whenever we could get it.
- Crap food is more convenient to procure than healthy food.
- Crap food is advertised everywhere, while healthy food is advertised pretty much nowhere.
- We associate crap food with our cultural and family traditions.
- Most of us grew up knowing how to prepare crap food, so it takes thought and energy to deviate from that default.
And we could produce similar lists of obstacles to exercise, stress management, and sleep hygiene.
In short, taking care of ourselves is hard.
But as we've seen, hard doesn't have to matter.
When something is non-negotiable, hard is irrelevant. If it's possible, it gets done.
So the real issue in our suboptimal lifestyle behaviors isn't really difficulty or ability.
It's our willingness to negotiate.
Negotiation Secrets of Terrorist Toddlers
As my children grew older, they taught me a lot about negotiation.
Namely, that negotiating was a terrible idea when I wasn't willing to compromise.
Because the minute I opened that door, they would push and push and push to get their way.
Stay up an hour later?
Barge into my home office whenever they want without knocking and being invited in?
Eating the spaghetti and leaving the broccoli on the plate?
The minute any of these or a million other boundaries were breached, everything fell apart.
One hour past bedtime became three, because slippery slope.
My home office became a playground, because “Cat's in the Cradle” and did I want to miss their childhood?
The broccoli would end up in my mouth at the end of the day so I wouldn't have to make another dish dirty to store the leftovers.
Now, to be clear, there were many instances where negotiation was fine with me. I wasn't interested in being a despot. (Actually, I very much was, but found that the attempt was far too costly to my happiness and sanity to justify.)
So we did negotiate about things like bedtimes in general, how clean their room had to be before they could have a friend over, and how loud and long they could scream the lyrics to “This is the Song That Never Ends” before that friend had to leave.
And those negotiations were a useful contrast to the non-negotiables. They helped my children see that there was reason, and flexibility, and opportunities for shared decision making – in certain realms. Which took much of the sting out of the times my wife or I put our feet down, no discussion allowed.
How Often Do You Negotiate With Yourself?
When you see a yummy piece of cake that will not support your fitness or health journey, do you allow a conversation in your head about it?
- “It's only one piece.”
- “It's a special occasion.”
- “They'll feel insulted if I say no.”
- “Everyone else is having some.”
- “I'll go back on my diet tomorrow.”
When your alarm goes off at 5am so you can get a full workout in before work, are there protest thoughts running through your brain?
- “I'll just hit snooze one more time.”
- “Am I coming down with something? I'd better be responsible and sleep in.”
- “I'm not even sure that the treadmill is safe. Maybe I should wait until the weather gets better and just walk outside.”
- “I'll get up at 4am tomorrow and do a double workout.”
In other words, if you're struggling to behave day to day according to your goals, values, and priorities, the real question is, “How often do you negotiate with yourself?”
The Thoughts Are Not the Problem
You might be thinking, “Oh no, I have those thoughts all the time. I'm doomed!”
Good news: you're not.
In fact, those thoughts aren't the problem at all.
When my kids argued with me about non-negotiables, I didn't despair and throw my hands up: “Honey, I let them play in the street unsupervised because they kept arguing with me and wouldn't stop. There was nothing I could do!”
Children negotiate and argue and beg and plead and wheedle and cajole and flatter and inveigle and finagle – that's their nature.
And self-sabotaging thoughts arise in our brains whenever there's an option to take the easy way out. Whenever we can grab a hit of pleasure in this moment, even if it's at the expense of much more important future goals.
The thoughts are harmless.
As long as we refuse to negotiate with them.
How to Refuse to Negotiate
If you argue with those those thoughts, or resent them, or try to drown them out, you're going to lose. Because you're engaging with them. And they, like a small child eyeing an ice cream cone, have more stamina than you do.
The way to refuse to negotiate with self-sabotaging thoughts is simply to accept them calmly. They can stay. They can be loud. They can be strident. They can be unreasonable.
But they will not affect your behavior.
The cake-thoughts can turn their volume up to 11, and you're still not going to have the cake. Because it's non-negotiable, and you decided this well in advance of this particular cake-portunity.
The Siren Song of the Snooze Button (no, that's not a Loreena McKennitt tune) can sing as sweetly and persistently as it wants, and you're still going to get up at the specified time regardless.
Negotiating involves thinking.
And your strategy for following through on your commitments to health, as my friend Peter Bregman explains, involves NOT thinking.
Becoming Zombie-like in your relentless path toward health, just as I was Zombie-like in taking care of screaming children in the middle of a thousand nights.
Stay the course, and someday the screaming will become lackluster. No oomph, and no heart in it. Just an echo.
I can't say that the voices of self-sabotage ever quit; that's not been my experience personally. And I haven't had a single client tell me that it's smooth sailing from here on out; that their cravings have vanished completely.
But it doesn't matter.
Because you – and your life – deserve to be non-negotiable.
Want a hand ending the negotiation wars inside your head? An experienced health coach – aka me – can help. Think of me as the Supernanny, showing you how to discipline the unruly impulses that have so far kept you from the body and life you deserve.
Become a Health Coach
New cohort beginning March 2021. Live classes will be 10-11:30am US Eastern Time on Wednesday, so this is a Europe- and Africa-friendly class. Also for folks in the US, Canada, and Central/South America who have flexible mornings.
Find out more and apply here: WellStartCoach.com.
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