How to Say “No” to Yourself

Yes, No, Try Again?It’s opening day at the ballpark. You’ve been waiting for this for many long, cold months. Some of your favorite people are with you. It’s a beautiful day. You’re off work. Life is good. You ate before you came because, having decided to go Primal, you know to prep yourself. That said, a few innings into the game the beer is looking good and your tap water – not so much. “Surely, one can’t do that much damage,” you think. “It’s the season opener, for Pete’s sake.” Two more innings later, you’re hungry. You’re caught up in the fanfare. You’re mildly jealous of the friends around you and their “devil-may-care” eating habits. You watch the vendors making their way around the sections. You conjure up the concession stand menu in your mind as you remember it from last year (or a few years before). The inner negotiation begins. Which is the least of all evils? (And what’s coming around the soonest?) You settle on a hot dog because you don’t feel like getting up and missing any of the game. Five bucks later you’re settling in with your snack, even pushing the envelope on how much of the bun you’re going to eat. A few minutes later it’s all gone except for the tell-tale smear of mustard on your lip. Though your team eventually won the day, you’re not faring as well. Your stomach turns funky that evening. You feel that old familiar bloating. Even the next day you admit you’re in recovery mode. You realize then, you’re going to need a better “no” plan next time.

Ah, the Nancy Reagan line made famous – just say no. It sounded so simple in the 80s, and even today we find ourselves wanting to believe in the easy button mantra for all our big, bad temptations. It should somehow be enough, we think – through sheer willpower or at least rational intellect – to deny ourselves what’s clearly not in our best interest. Too bad the human brain has such a capacity for irrationality, particularly when set in a modern environment rife with all manner of unhealthy lures – versions of what, in a twisted way, resembles what might have been adaptable long ago in prehistory.

Think about when you find yourself wanting or choosing to say no to something non-Primal – the foods and behaviors that seem fun and no-big-deal at the time but always come back to bite you in the you know what. Maybe it’s not the season opener but partying or work events that get you going down that road. Maybe it’s loading up on typical carb-based food when you take clients to lunch or eat at your Aunt Selma’s for dinner. Maybe it’s staying up late on the weekends or “indulging” in crappy roadside food when you’re traveling. Maybe it’s bowing to social pressure during the weekly card game or just bowing to old self-sabotage when you’re having a crappy day and want to remember your old “rewards.” And how many times have we all made the same mistake with the same consequences? How many bouts of bloating, itchiness or upset stomach will it take? How many hangovers (bread- or beer-induced)? How much grogginess, crankiness, and lethargy? How much weight gain (or regain) will we put ourselves through? Speaking of bad choices, it reminds me of that old Tootsie pop commercial – how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie pop? (You decide what’s at the metaphorical center here.) The point is, how long will it take before we stop catering to our present selves’ desires at the cost of our future selves’ health and well-being?

Whatever the case, at some point it comes down to the question of how. How do you identify and then catch yourself in the pattern? How do you gather the fortitude to make a different choice? Finally, how do you reinforce the behavior and make it solid habit?

Identifying the problem

You’ve undoubtedly seen photos of drunk or passed out (drunk) people whose “friends” captured the often unflattering moments for posterity. Sure, some are funny. Others could be cautionary tales in and of themselves. (Make sure there are no Sharpies in the house before passing out.) As ridiculous as these antics can be, there’s something undoubtedly clear about a lasting visual. One of the games we play with ourselves in these scenarios is telling ourselves in a weak moment that last time really wasn’t as bad as it was. We sugarcoat the past memory to serve our present hankering. Maybe some of us need an unbecoming image to remember genuine reality. Maybe it’s a selfie of yourself collapsed on the couch after some fast food. Maybe it’s a photo of the handwritten sign you put over your toilet, noting you really don’t enjoy spending the better part of an afternoon there and that cheese pizza wasn’t worth it. Maybe it’s what your stomach looks like after you eat wheat. Most of us know what does us in (and, if you don’t, some self-experimentation can easily get you there). The real problem is remembering it’s the problem. One strategically unsavory visual can be an exceedingly effective reminder.

Catching yourself in said problem pattern

Oh, more mental games… Here, I think, we tend to selectively simplify a problem and dismiss its varied permutations. If we’re a moth to dairy’s flame (those of us who just can’t go there without major physical malfunction), we need to get specific about what we need to say no to – ahead of time preferably. Sit down one afternoon (maybe this one), and write out all the ways and times dairy (or whatever yours is) has done you in. Yes, milk, cheese, yogurt, butter. But other stuff too. Not checking the label on protein shakes. Asking a host or server for the recipe when you’re in doubt. Forgetting to say no cream in your coffee. Eating anything your mother makes. If something particular registers as a problem in your intellect but tends to squeeze by the rationalization center of the brain, put it at the top of the list. Especially if you have strong sensitivities or really want to make a hard and fast commitment to Primal living for optimum success (highly recommended), make this script second nature. Mentally consult it before saying yes to anything.

Saying no in the moment

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. You can do all the mental and logistical prep in the world, but you’ll still have a million moments in which you can go either way. It doesn’t matter that you ate before. It doesn’t matter than you have two full baggies of your favorite jerky staying cool and fresh in your mini-fridge under your desk. It doesn’t matter that you got your work done by 5:00 for once to avoid staying up late again. You’ll still face the pattern head on – whether it looks like fancy leftovers from the Board meeting now sitting in the break room or the Breaking Bad final season that just arrived via Netflix that day and is wooing you to stay up into the wee hours.

When we’re feeling lured into decisions we know will have negative consequences, we tend to purposefully isolate ourselves in our own swirling head case. The tempted part doesn’t want outside input. That’s exactly the time, however, to rely on someone else’s good judgment. Maybe you have a good Primal friend – or someone who is close enough that you can text him/her, and it won’t seem bizarre. Maybe you employ a trainer or personal coach who takes these kinds of messages. Even if the person is unavailable to call/text back, getting your thinking out of your head and into the light of day alone can give perspective. Alternatively, you could log on and send a message on the forum. Too many think in those moments if they only read some information that it will do the trick in convincing them. My experience is those moments are too late for that brand of intellectualizing. Reach out instead.

Do you have those aforementioned unappealing photos on your phone? (This is a good idea btw – making them mobile.) Again, this is a tactic that doesn’t require mental gymnastics and will evoke a basic emotional response. (Remember, the more dramatic the picture, the better.)

While this might require a bit of patience, think of your choice in that moment as a game show. Maybe it’s the Price is Right. Put your current option in the context of that narrative. Do you really want to spin the wheel (insert offending food/beverage/behavior) again and go over rather than quit while you’re ahead of the game? You’re in the eternal conflict of the psyche weighing present versus future gains. Inject some humor into it and feel the cascade of perspective. Do we really get that hooked by something unhealthy for us? Yes. Visually imagine yourself taking your body or brain off that hook.

Finally, remember that you’re not really saying no. You’ve chosen to live this way in order to say yes to many incredible things – yes to good, genuine food. Yes to feeling vibrant, balanced and energetic. We’re masters at creating our own (or buying into others’) sense of scarcity and deprivation and imagining dramatic emotional and social fallout as a result. See all that for the b.s. it is. Saying no to the ballpark fare means saying yes to having the intestinal well-being to go out afterward for a real dinner – and feeling great the next day.

Reinforcing desired choices

This isn’t about rewarding good behavior (unless you want to see it that way). I always caution people to not get too caught up in the idea of good and bad. We’re not practicing for obedience school. We’re cultivating consciousness of our own behavioral and emotional patterns in order to better exercise free will. Remember those unflattering photos of what you don’t want to remember? Try the same thing of what you do want to repeat. This is you happy and fully sober after a sporting event. This is you looking relieved and proud having managed to avoid the party buffet (or giving it a subtly obscene gesture to indicate your victory). You get the idea. Make a collage of these moments. Log them on your computer or FB if you enjoy (and your friends enjoy) that kind of thing. Now hold in your mind what genuine Primal luxury you’re going to grant yourself. Sometimes reward has its place after all.

Thanks for reading, everyone. How do you catch yourself on unproductive paths and say no to what led you down them? Share your thoughts and stories.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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