Recently, my good friend, Claire, recommended a podcast from Hidden Brain to me. The podcast, called “Tunnel Vision” deals with the concept of scarcity. Hidden Brain is actually one of my favorite podcasts, and so I had heard the episode before Claire recommended it to me. But on Friday, I re-listened to it, and it started opening up some interesting doors in my head, new ways to use the lens of scarcity, that have kept showing up the past few days. I wanna talk about scarcity for a minute first.
Scarcity is, of course, when we don’t have enough of something. “Tunnel Vision” deals with how our behaviors change in that circumstance, how our judgment might be clouded. One of the main scarcities that the show deals with is that of money. One of the stories is of a woman who, upon losing her job and leaving her husband, finds herself suddenly strapped for cash. After suffering for a period attempting to make ends meet, and with the entirety of her brain signaling to her that she was being a bad mother, she gets a credit card that she almost immediately maxes out by purchasing household goods and food for her children, as if padding for a hibernation. While she paid her minimum payments for the first few months, she wasn’t able to keep up. In her desire to meet her family’s basic needs in the short term, she forgot about other maintenance necessities, such as gas. This short-term thinking temporarily relieves the feeling of lack you might have been experiencing up until that point in a near-constant state of emergency. As the podcast explains, this story in which the main character wasn’t able to pay off her card until a year after she maxed it out may be seen on the surface as a ripe place for judgment. After all, it’s that line of thinking that often causes people to support the scale back of governmental assistance programs, because “poor people just don’t know how to spend/save their money wisely.”
On the contrary, the podcast argues that a scarcity mindset makes it difficult to focus on anything else but what you’re lacking. They discuss an experiment done with conscientious objectors near the end of WWII who were put on a starvation diet in order to understand what hunger does to the body and how to help the many Europeans on the brink of famine and malnutrition in the aftermath of the conflict. During this experiment, the researchers expected the participants to, in their extreme hunger, take their minds off of food. To not think about it, view anything related to it, plan future meals, etc. The opposite, in fact, was the case. In their extreme nutritional deprivation, they became acutely focused on food and eating. What was scarce in their life became an unhealthy obsession. They had a type of tunnel vision around food and couldn’t really think about the bigger picture beyond the deprivation of their basic need. Similarly, the woman who maxed out her credit card from the jump could only think of providing her family with those everyday necessities that she hadn’t been able to provide with consistency after her job loss and life shift. The podcast argues that instead of creating a punishment for thinking this way, governmental programs should instead view people with a scarcity of money (and cultural capital?) the same way we view airline pilots.
Airline pilots have a very stressful job with a lot riding (no pun intended) on their successful performance. If they mess up, the consequences could be very, very devastating. However, airline pilots are not robots; they are human beings. So, cockpits aren’t designed to break down or allow disasters to happen in the face of human error. Instead, they are “fault tolerant,” meaning that, if a pilot messes up, there are several layers yet to go before any crisis would take place. The cockpit is designed to handle mistakes from a sleepy human being. It’s designed to handle honest errors or common slip ups. Relatedly, since poverty creates a similarly overwhelming and all-encompassing demand on one’s attention, how much more should we then create “fault tolerant” policies to accommodate people in the tunnel vision of money scarcity? In fact, as the podcast relates, policies designed to “help the poor” often run on an even stricter fault intolerance. Missing one day can mean you’re out of the program because you “don’t care.” Not remembering to do something because you had to take care of your child, an aging parent, or because you had to deal with some other kind of business or persistent issue related to your situation is grounds for expulsion, or at least not to be taken seriously. It’s a basis to be generalized as lazy, irresponsible, uneducated, not really wanting to “help yourself” or some other similar notion. In order to truly help folks, the policies meant to give them a leg up shouldn’t punish them from the start without considering the tunnel vision they may find themselves experiencing.
The final example in the podcast was what resonated with me the most: scarcity of time. This is one that I think the majority of people can relate to. On the podcast, there was a story about a highly motivated and deeply driven med student who, in an effort to be the best at everything she did, essentially didn’t leave room for anything other than working on those things and becoming the best in her field. She hardly slept, had a pretty poor diet, and in her free time (from her sometimes 15-hour shifts) she would spend up to 3 hours per day working out. That’s a scary calculus. She wanted to be healthy, but she was going about it all wrong. She realized this when she almost forgot to prescribe insulin to a newly-admitted diabetic patient. It was at this point that she decided to seek treatment.
This med student described her scarcity as a time thing, but I also think it goes beyond that. And this is where scarcity can become a lens for more than just time and money. In the med student’s case, it was a scarcity, or perceived scarcity, of something desired in life. Some identity you want to have, or some body you want to feel good in, some ambiguous, yet “perfect” thing that is hard to reach by healthy means. The more that she worked out, the less she had time for other things like laundry. So it started to pile up. The more it piled up, the less she wanted to be around it, and the more she decided to keep exercising. She was in a tunnel.
Eventually, the med student was able to relax her lifestyle and put an art room in her home. She started eating better and getting more comfortable at not doing something at every moment of the day. She found that when she implemented these lifestyle changes, she was actually performing better at work and less concerned with being perceived as some all-star med student. We all intellectually understand this result, but it’s very difficult to put into practice when operating from a scarcity mindset.
It made me think of my own relationship with food and with health overall. The lens of scarcity is actually something I have found tremendously beneficial as I’ve been reflecting on this my wellness practices lately. So here’s the more personal reflection:
I’ve almost always loved food, though I’ve not necessarily always been super concerned with what went in my body as long as it tasted good. I had a brief issue with an eating disorder in my adolescence which hasn’t cropped up again in the form of actually restricting my food intake to unhealthy levels to lose weight. I do, however, believe that it’s remained with me in other ways. I think there are many reasons for this, chief among them is the intense pressure to look a certain way. My brain is so wired for it at this point that I notice how pretty much every other woman looks around me, on the internet, in movies… everywhere. I’m not even thinking about it explicitly, but I’ve observed it a great deal after I made myself aware of the subtle behavior. I don’t want to believe that I do, but I have whole conversations with myself (which are still fairly subconscious) regarding how I stack up to whatever person I’m looking at. In some underlying place, I am tremendously concerned with how I look and how other people perceive that. I wish it weren’t the case, but I have to be honest in saying that it is. I am aware of it, which is a good step, but I am also working towards actively creating new mental habits and rewiring my (plastic!) brain to help guide these feelings to more productive, gentle, and loving places and expressions.
At this point in my life, I love to cook, and I love eating foods that nourish my body and taste wonderful. I truly love the experience of looking at recipes (as evidenced by my ridiculous library borrowing history), purchasing the ingredients, allowing the aromas to fill my kitchen, and best of all, sharing it with other people. My relationship with food specifically has grown into something much better than it ever has been over the past couple years. As a general rule, I don’t worry too much about the amounts that I am eating. As long as I’m in the main sticking away from processed foods and listening to my body, I don’t worry as much about fat/calories, etc. I generally eat until I am no longer hungry, or until I can sense myself getting full. I am a naturally slow eater and I’m grateful for that as it stops me before I feel myself getting too full. I also don’t have a problem packing up leftovers from my plate and typically don’t feel the impulse to overeat even if there’s still food left. I love to bring food to work and can count on one hand the times I’ve gotten take out for lunch at work. I just prefer to bring my own stuff, especially since I do a lot of home cooking and really, truly need to use up what I make so it won’t go bad. On a practical level, I just straight up really don’t like feeling bad. I don’t like having headaches or pain of any kind (shocking, I know.) I don’t like the feeling over over-fullness. I don’t like cravings. I don’t like getting hungry after eating only an hour or two before. I like to eat whole, unprocessed, and flavorful foods. Enjoying these things without feeling guilt or shame helps me stay on a good track food-wise. I have never really felt like I have to eat this way because of some health or guilt-related reason. When I’m cooking for myself at home, I rarely make something that isn’t in some way good for me.
Now, especially, after reading books like The Blue Zones, which I’ve talked about on here, and gaining deeper insight into my hormones after recently getting off birth control, food has become even more central to my life than it already had been. I think I used to just enjoy wonderful tastes, but I didn’t really have any general foods that I would gravitate towards or away from. Over Christmas last year, a good portion of my family became (and remain) vegan, which also got me thinking about an even lower portion of my diet coming from animal products. I am personally not even vegetarian, but my home cooked meals almost never contain meat (literally about 0.5/10 times will I cook meat at home), and now increasingly, they don’t contain much dairy either. I mostly use almond or oat milk when I need milk and don’t consume many eggs, or much butter at all. I do love my greek yogurt and cheese though for different dishes. Anyways, through all that, I kind of got more interested in intentionally healthful food choices and wellness in general (which I’ve discussed in this year’s blog posts a lot I think.) Before, I just focused on home cooking, and over the last six months, it’s been a bit more consciously oriented towards my overall wellness.
The reasons for these moves I think are of course the obvious ones: I want to be healthy. I want to live a long time. I want to grow old and see my kids and grandkids do their lives, and enjoy my time. I’m tremendously concerned with being available to my family– being helpful and a resource to my loved ones, including those ones I may not know for another 20-30 years yet. I want to make a difference in my community and have the concentration and ability to do so effectively. I want my body to serve me well as we enjoy a mutually supportive connection. I want to be happy and healthy long into my life. I don’t want to say “getting old sucks.” I don’t want to die from a preventable disease caused in part by the foods I chose. I want to have healthy habits so that when I (hopefully) in the future have my own family, creating nourishing meals won’t be the biggest deal of the century, but something I am confident in doing and able to prepare with my family without great stress. I’m sure there are more reasons than that, but there’s an important point in all of this. I think a lot of these reasons, though of course strong motivators and very good, are in some important ways also rooted in fear and scarcity.
Not enough time, not enough health.
How can I do all these things? Will I ever be doing enough? When will I know if I am healthy? It’s hard to learn and understand basic truths about nutrition and not want to constantly apply them to your life, even if you’re already doing a pretty good job most of the time. It’s hard to un-know things, or make choices you know might actually make your body feel bad, or have an otherwise negative impact on your health, even if it feels right on many other levels. On another level, my fear was also grounded in a negative self-concept and image.
Similarly, when I’ve been practicing yoga in the hotter weather recently, I’ve been increasingly aware of my body which was previously covered with leggings and more shirt material. I watch the person I do yoga with on YouTube and unconsciously think toxic thoughts to myself about my strength, my body shape, the fat on my legs. I compare myself. There I am, trying to focus and clear my mind, focus on my breath, and care for my body, but I’m thinking pretty much every thought that could possibly undermine those goals. Even in writing this, I struggle not to judge myself for judging myself. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this. This is where I need to be fault tolerant.
These were the thoughts sticking around in my head this morning when I listened to this podcast from A Couple Cooks. They interviewed Robyn and Andrew Downs, of Real Food Whole Life, who spoke a lot about mindset around food. I was able to put some wheels on my thoughts.
Carol Dweck developed a lot of the research we often cite around types of mindsets: fixed and growth. During my time as a 6th grade teacher, we often used this concept in our education strategies. Fixed mindsets typically manifest in giving up on something when it gets hard, which leads to less risk taking and low personal growth. A growth mindset, on the other hand, holds that when confronted with a problem (often seen in academic spaces, but holds true for all life, really) the person with a growth mindset responds not with, “I can’t do this,” but with “I can’t do this yet.” In other words, there’s room for change and growth. People with growth mindsets show stronger resiliency, greater risk taking, and stronger personal growth in their lives than their fixed mindset counterparts.
The wonderful thing about this research on mindset is that it highlights the plasticity of our neurological wiring and the changeability of our behaviors. It makes flexible and porous the boundaries in our lives we previously perceived as static and solid. When Robyn was being interviewed, she talked a lot about her own journey of food and healthful choices as also being really informed by the concept of scarcity. Her mindset about her body was fixed regarding what she was eating, how she was exercising and how often, etc. When she first took on a more health-centered approach to food and life, it was based for a while on that scarcity that told her she wasn’t doing enough, didn’t have enough “health.” Even though she was making healthy choices, they were often extreme and not serving her. Her strategy was predicated on comparisons and “shoulds.” Her healthy diet was more like a series of mandatory tasks rather than a joyful way of life, and she lived in fear of what would happen if she didn’t do the healthy thing enough.
I don’t totally identify with this, but a great deal of it really resonated with me. I don’t cook the way I do because it’s a chore I feel I must do. I cook and eat this way because I find it genuinely enjoyable and because I can tell a significant difference in the way that I feel and the energy I have when I depart from my regular diet. However, I certainly feel a sense of scarcity around my own physical health and wellness. I worry a lot about my future and being well. I worry about the way I look, if I’m skinny enough, strong enough, flexible enough. I criticize my body on a daily basis and sometimes judge myself for not being strong/balanced/focused/bendy enough when I practice yoga.
I focus on the lack rather than the presence.
But the truth is that I have a body that serves me extremely well. It functions great, tbh. Because a vast majority of the time, I’m prioritizing food and yoga and many other practices that help me out, I almost never experience pain, even headaches. Since starting a super regular home yoga practice last October, I rarely experience back issues. When I do, I have a handful of stretches in my “tool box” that typically relieve it. Even though I can’t do a handstand, I know I am strong enough. (Also, as my good friend aptly pointed out to me last night as we were discussing these ideas: “When did handstands become a part of natural selection?!”) Despite not being able to run for more than like a minute (something I was painfully reminded of while running in vain to catch a flight in Miami two weeks ago *facepalm*), I can walk and bike for extended periods of time. There are other areas of my body that are naturally strong, and it’s OK for my body to be different. Rather than focusing on what I can’t do, I am attempting to rewire my brain in a way to focus on what I can, and what is possible for me with persistent, gentle practice.
I also have to mention that one of the most important things in this was checking out Robyn’s Instagram earlier today. I don’t use Instagram anymore because I felt personally that it was eroding my focus and was actually exacerbating some of the comparison issues I’ve described in this post (and more things, which you can read about in my most recent posts). But I found myself looking at her Instagram for a long time earlier today, reading her thoughtful posts and seeing photos of a woman whose body looked a lot like mine. It was incredibly powerful, actually. It was powerful to see her strong, doing yoga like I do. She even got certified to become a yoga instructor and wrote vulnerably about the negative self talk she experienced during that process, specifically that she couldn’t do a handstand or hold a chaturanga pose for long at all (so hard!!!) I resonated so much with her process and journey, and how she has eventually gotten to a place where she advocates that “gentle is the new perfection.” In other words, how can we move away from forcing ourselves through these “health hoops” to get to some place unnaturally fast, or in an unsustainable form?
Of course, it’s not the first time I’ve heard this message. I know that my process is lacking its core if I base it on self-critique. I know that my yoga practice is much emptier if I show up frustrated by things I can’t do yet. Or maybe ever (which is also OK because bodies are different.) The difference, I truly believe, was seeing someone who looked like me saying it. Someone who has a really healthy lifestyle, a child, a fulfilling career, runs an awesome food blog, hosts a podcast that helps to uplift people (esp women) everywhere. She’s not without her curves; she’s not able to do everything Yoga with Adrienne is able to do. She’s not perfectly, magazine cover skinny. But she is strong, healthy, and knows where she’s going and what she wants. She realizes the futility (after a huge amount of struggle) in comparison and scarcity mindset around health. She leans into experiences as they come to her, with self-reflection, not judgment.
This made me thing of an amazing book I recently read by Meg Jay called The Defining Decade. Her famous Ted Talk is on the main ideas of her book (which was also, coincidentally recommended by Claire, who is singlehandedly propelling my life’s growth it seems!)
Jay’s book about claiming your twentysomething years and not stagnating. She explains how to get “identity capital” and the entire thing resonated with me a ton as I’m on the cusp of graduate school and delving into a career in higher ed. I’m totally compelled by the idea of claiming this time and not letting it pass me by. Working on my motherhood before I’m (hopefully) a mother, on my marriage before I (hopefully) have a spouse. Getting myself in order and asking the hard questions during a phase in life when taking things seriously might not necessarily be encouraged by society or represented in the media we consume. Although Jay talks a lot about ways you can claim these years and some of the consequences of letting them slip by in a state of prolonged stasis, she also encourages twentysomethings not to operate from a memento mori place.
People often say YOLO or allude otherwise to their death in justifying certain choices or even in making good choices. They look to their own expiration as the gravity surrounding the bigness of their actions now. I agree with this. I think remembering you will die is an important factor, it couches us in a degree of mortality that can galvanize us into action if things aren’t working. However, it’s also fertile ground for scarcity mindsets to grow. Importantly, Jay says that rather than fearing death, age, and any form of deterioration of the life experience, twentysomethings (and everyone else in my opinion) should replace memento mori with memento vivi: remember you will live.
This is a key shift. A concept so important I’ve thought of inking it on my body because scarcity and this deep fear of loss run so deep in my blood. I don’t want my life to be about pushing off deterioration so intentionally that I forget what’s in front of me. I forget how well my body is working, how good I feel, the blessing it is to truly love and not dread cooking wonderful, healthful foods. I don’t want to focus so much on my health and wellness that it becomes singular in my life’s experience. I want it to complement my life, to be a background for the other things, wonderful things, I am a part of. My future family. My career. My avocations: cooking, reading, writing, bicycling, etc. I know I am the type of person to focus hard on things, to run all the things I experience through a filter of my beliefs (like many people I’m sure) which can sometimes detract from my enjoyment of picnics, hanging out with friends, and other similar special activities that aren’t my typical routine. It’s because I care so much about living long and well that I feel this way. But I need to remember memento vivi, I need to remember that it’s right here, happening right now. My life. That the scarcity is of my own creation, and of society’s. It’s also resulting from the sexist culture I’ve been steeped in since becoming conscious that has been judging my body and teaching me to internalize that judgment on my own. I need to remember that I don’t need to participate. That I am enough. I am well right now. I’m doing what’s necessary already. I am realizing the simply truth that it’s OK if it’s not perfect, and, more importantly, that truly it won’t be. The goal shouldn’t be rooted in comparison. I want to trust and believe in my body, to treat it well, respect it, honor it, and recognize it for what it already so generously gives me.
Growth mindset supports these goals tremendously because it allows me to make these changes. I don’t have to continue what I’m doing. I can replace habits… with hard and consistent work.
I think of my brain sometimes like an open field. When I do something the same way every time, or when I learn something new, I tend to visualize that fresh learning as walking a new path in a field of high grass for the first time. After the first trek, the grasses are still tall, and there’s hardly any evidence that someone really walked there. But then I walk that same way again and again, and over time, it becomes clear that someone keeps walking there, and the grasses start to get matted down. Eventually it becomes the new pathway. The pathway I’m trying to learn to walk when I look in the mirror, step on my mat, put on my summer clothes, plate up my dinner, attend Memorial Day picnics, don my swimsuit in a public place. This pathway is possible. The pathway that replaces perfection with gentle, prizes functional and healthy bodies, appreciates diversity, cultivates self-love in an authentic sense is possible. I can make that pathway, and I can work to replace experiences and feelings that aren’t working.
Here’s to my (and your) non-gentle brain field pathways getting totally weeded over.
Until next time.