It's drilled into our brains: "Nobody likes a quitter"; "Quitters never win"; "Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever." But could those sentiments be holding you back?
The world these days is a rapid-fire, crazy place. Smartphones keep us tethered to our offices 24/7. Our kids' after-school activities might lead us to spend nearly two decades of our lives as unpaid chauffeurs. Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere provide us with a constant feed of distraction. Downtime is rare if not nonexistent.
Yet, when I interview patients in my office—90 percent or more of whom complain of stress, fatigue, and the general blahs—the vast majority admit that in certain areas of their lives, they let their health and needs take a backseat to someone else's. Sure, sometimes they're doing so to further a career, and sometimes it's due to being the primary caregiver amid a challenging circumstance. But more often than not, it's because they've taken on the identifying role of the martyr.
• They're mothers who put their family's needs before their own.
• They're empty-nesters with ailing parents who haven't had a weekend off or traveled in years.
• They're young, wannabe executives pulling 90 hour workweeks to try to impress their bosses.
• They're community-minded folks serving on three different charitable boards.
• They're professionals who put their careers first, much to the chagrin of their spouses.
What they might not formally know, but I'm betting they've inherently learned, is that there are limits to our mental capacities. Once overwhelmed, the wells of one's resilience or willpower run dry. What they also might not formally know is that a dry well may lead to an overly full stomach.
To illustrate why, consider the simple study conducted in 1999 by researchers Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin. They asked students to remember either a two- or seven- digit number and then walk down the hall and choose from two different snack choices—fruit salad or chocolate cake. Those students trying to remember the seven-digit number were 50 percent more likely to opt for the cake than those trying to remember the two-digit number. Now compare the "stress" of trying to remember a seven-digit number with the stress of parenthood, employment, 24/7 electronic leashes, caring for sick parents, serving on dysfunctional charitable boards, burning the midnight oil, and generally feeling as if your world will fall apart if you aren't there to constantly hold it together. Couple that stress with the relentless current of temptation that invariably begs you to make dietary indulgences and take nutritional shortcuts, and go figure: It's difficult to consistently make thoughtful choices.
And this is where quitting comes into play. While it would seem to be the rare person who isn't twirling frantically through life, it's also the rare person who can't take at least one step back and carve out some space for themselves. Whether it's dropping a charitable board or volunteer position, asking your spouse to help out more around the home, losing one or more of your kids' after-school activities, turning your smartphones off when you get home, or formally scheduling in "you" time to your weekly agenda, I guarantee that life will go on. The charity won't collapse, your business won't go under, your kids will still turn into responsible adults, your spouse will still love you, and, meanwhile, your inner peace and personal resilience will improve.
Next time you hear that"quitters never win" consider a different cliché: "How are you going to take care of others if you don't take care of yourself?"
Do yourself a favor. Find something to quit. Take care of yourself.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April 2013.