The biggest obstacle to perfect health is your mind

March 31, 2011 in Perfect Health | 22 comments


weak link in chainRecently, someone asked me which step (of the 9 I’ve just written about) is the most important in attaining perfect health.

My first response was that, despite the title of the series, there’s no such thing as perfect health. One of the few things we can be certain of in this life is that we are all dying from the moment we’re born. If such a thing as perfect health existed, and we could attain it, we’d be immortal. (And based on resource limits and the destruction humanity has wrought on this planet, immortality would be an absolute disaster – but that’s another story.)

However, we can take steps toward perfect health, and that’s why I wrote the series. Among those steps, it’s impossible to say which is most important because the answer will vary from person to person. Most of us want black and white answers to questions like this, because they provide the illusion of safety and certainty. We want the answer to be the same for everyone, because it’s easier to follow a system or a prescription than it is to find our own way. And as tribal animals, we humans like to be part of a group. Hence the power of social movements, whether we’re talking about the Paleo/Primal lifestyle or the popularity of Justin Bieber.

So, while I can’t tell you what the most important of the 9 Steps is for you, I can tell you what the biggest obstacle to perfect health is for most people: their own mind.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link

What I’ve observed in myself, in working with patients and in almost 20 years of meditation practice is that each of us has a significant blind spot or area in our lives where we lack awareness and insight. As a crude analogy, let’s call this a weak link in our chain and assume that the chain represents health.

Most of us invest the majority of our time and energy strengthening the parts of our chain that are already strong. These stronger links are where we feel comfortable and confident, where we can operate safely within the bounds of who we think we are.

And this is where the problem lies. No matter how much we strengthen the links in our chain that are already strong, if there’s still a weak link the chain as a whole isn’t stronger. It can break just as easily.

A better approach, of course, would be to focus our efforts on the strengthening the weak link. But that is much, much harder to do. Why? Because it usually requires us to step out of our concept of self and challenge our very identity. It asks us to grow and evolve and shine the light of awareness into the dark corners of our psyche. This isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s not as simple as popping a pill or eliminating nightshades from our diet. It’s a life’s work.

Meet Joe Paleo and his weak link

To make this even more clear, let’s take a hypothetical person: Joe Paleo. He was a high-school and college athlete and has been interested in nutrition and fitness his entire life. He’s on a Paleo diet, does Cross-fit and takes all the right supplements. But he’s still not as healthy as he’d like to be. He’s a little overweight, he’s tired, and he’s not sleeping well.

So he starts to tweak his diet. Is dairy the issue? Should he add white rice, or be completely grain free? How many carbs? What about intermittent fasting? He also tries some new supplements and makes adjustments to his exercise routine. But Joe still doesn’t feel better.

Why isn’t Joe getting better? Because he’s just strengthening the parts of his chain that are already strong – and ignoring the weak links. In Joe’s case, it may be that stress management or practicing pleasure are the weak links. But his first challenge in addressing them is that he’s not even fully aware that stress or a lack of pleasure are problems.

This is where our own minds become the biggest obstacle in our quest for perfect health: we often can’t see what our weakest links are, because, by definition, those are areas where we lack awareness or insight.

But even once we become aware of what our weak links are, it’s still difficult to work with them. We’re fighting against a lifetime of conditioned beliefs about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. In Joe Paleo’s case, perhaps he was raised in a family that didn’t value rest or pleasure, but placed a high premium on success and accomplishment. This makes it hard for him to carve out time to relax or have fun.

What about me?

My own weak link is pleasure/fun. I’ve got the diet dialed in. Exercise? No problem. I’m even very committed to stress management. But what often falls through the cracks for me is making time for pleasure and fun.

I know this is the weak link in my chain, because the periods of my life where I’ve emphasized it have been the periods when I’ve enjoyed the best health. But lately, as I’ve been immersed in running a busy private practice, teaching, launching products and preparing for the arrival of my first child, I haven’t made much time for pleasure or fun. And my health has suffered as a result.

My commitment to myself is to try to do one purely pleasurable or fun activity each day. Some days I’m more successful than others, and I always have to look out for the tendency to fall back into my old pattern.

If you want perfect health, focus on your weakest link

This article got a bit longer than I intended, but here’s the point: if you want to move closer to perfect health, focus on your weakest link. And if you need help identifying it, it’s the area you’re least likely to value as important and the place you feel most uncomfortable or uncertain about yourself.

Remember the 80/20 rule I wrote about earlier, where 20% of your effort will yield 80% of the results? That’s just another way of expressing what we’re talking about here. Just a little bit of attention on your weak links will produce a huge benefit. On the other hand, even relatively massive efforts to strengthen the links that are already strong won’t lead to much improvement.

So what’s your weak link? And what commitment can you make to yourself to strengthen it? Let us know in the comments section.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Michal Palczewski March 31, 2011 at 2:29 pm

My weak link is trying my damndest to loose that last 5-10 lbs of fat, and trying everything instead of just chilling and letting it come off slowly.

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LoriK March 31, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Thank you for this post! I do a monthly “task” list of things I want to focus on each month, and I am going to look hard to find my weak link – and not look at the food as the weak link.

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Mallory March 31, 2011 at 4:39 pm

GOOD post, it is so true, for me especially. live life as it comes, keep yourself grounded but not to grounded.

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Matt O'Connor March 31, 2011 at 5:59 pm

My weak link – RSS feed subscriptions to 14 paleo blogs, 6 WAP blogs, 6 GAPS blogs and 16 general health blogs.

No wonder my head is permanantly in a spin when it comes to treating my chronic health issues.

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Alan Watson March 31, 2011 at 6:02 pm

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered:

“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money in order to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future. He lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

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Chris Kresser March 31, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Alan: that about sums it up!

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Mike OD April 3, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Great quote, maybe some of these can fit in as well….

“There’s lots of people in this world who spend so much time watching their health that they haven’t the time to enjoy it.” ~ Josh Billings

“As a people, we have become obsessed with Health. There is something fundamentally, radically unhealthy about all this. We do not seem to be seeking more exuberance in living as much as staving off failure, putting off dying. We have lost all confidence in the human body.” ~Lewis Thomas, 1979

“What some call health, if purchased by perpetual anxiety about diet, isn’t much better than tedious disease.” ~ George Dennison Prentice, 1860

and wrap it all up with a little humor:
“Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals dying of nothing.” ~ Redd Foxx

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Chris Kresser April 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Great stuff, Mike. Thanks for sharing.

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Anonymous April 1, 2011 at 12:43 am

I like your approach and the first thing I need is the 9 steps.
For my profile, here’s the initial info: I’m 92, widowed January 2010, have 3 adult children, wonderful family relationship, one grandson, 2 granddaughters, 1 great granddaughter.
I’m a retired electronic engineer, still maintain contact with other retirees. No longer work out regularly but still ski (lower level) and bicycle ride.
More may follow in time.
Regards, Browny1

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Anonymous April 1, 2011 at 12:43 am

I like your approach and the first thing I need is the 9 steps.
For my profile, here’s the initial info: I’m 92, widowed January 2010, have 3 adult children, wonderful family relationship, one grandson, 2 granddaughters, 1 great granddaughter.
I’m a retired electronic engineer, still maintain contact with other retirees. No longer work out regularly but still ski (lower level) and bicycle ride.
More may follow in time.
Regards, Browny1

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Susan Ventura April 1, 2011 at 2:52 am

thanks for another enlightening article! my weak links are definitely stress/pleasure related. i’m a serious intellectual introvert by nature and often feel overwhelmed by world events as well as daily life stress. so many times i’ve been told i’m too serious and/or too sensitive, i definitely need to work on “lightening up”, without making it feel like work! a bit of an oxymoron it seems.

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Wellness Mama April 1, 2011 at 5:20 am

My weakest link is not getting enough sleep. I know the importance for overall health, especially the adrenals, but its easier said than done (as I write this comment after midnight!). Great article!

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Anonymous April 1, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Definitely sleep for me, and exercise to an extent as well. I’m a night bird trying to change my bio-clock to the traditional day shift. I keep relapsing back.

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Anonymous April 1, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Really awesome article Chris.

Putting this article at the end of the 9 steps as a kind of follow up in its self empisizes the concept of stepping back and looking at our selves as a whole. You further suggest the idea by its actual message which is to know your self, as its a process of stepping back and observeing. It makes me think of my favorite Aristotle quote “Knowing yourself is the begining of all wisdom”. You make a good point here especially to this particular audience. Most likely the people following this blog are allready following and or working towards better health, through diet and excercise. And this is not their weakest link. This article in particular gives us a unique (to most paleo blogs) and powerful idea to ponder with the real goal of knowing ourselves enough to know what our weakest link is and then working on it…now what is my weakest link? I think my weakest link is being happy now versus being happy when.

with Gratitude

-R

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Anonymous April 4, 2011 at 1:22 am

As a medical resident, my weakest links are by far stress/management and sleep. The unpredictable nature of my schedule and frequent overnight call/shift work not only disturbs sleep but causes stress due to the loss of control over my own time. It’s unfortunate that while we are training to care for people’s health, we sabotage our own in such a profound way. I realize that some people are less affected by these stressors, but I have had a very hard time. And while I try to maintain some semblance of a workout schedule and good nutriton, I have gained bodyfat that will not go away! I’m the quintessential picture of the chronically elevated cortisol person. I am hoping I don’t do too much damage to my body before my training is over (6 months and counting)!

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Anonymous April 5, 2011 at 12:52 am

I was wondering how you kept up that schedule! Glad to know you’re human :)

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Anonymous April 5, 2011 at 1:05 am

I forgot to add my weakest link – Exercise! My excuse is really lame so no comments from the peanut gallery please (unless you have a great solution). I don’t like washing my hair everyday because it’s hard on it. Working out daily means sweaty hair and having to wash it every day.

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Dana Seilhan April 28, 2011 at 6:35 am

Is there some reason you have to do formal exercise every day?

I just recently checked out the original Callanetics book from the library and will probably buy it. My stepmom had it when I was growing up. The movements of the exercises are very small and precise. You might break a sweat and you might not–and apparently, you get a lot of return for those small, precise movements.

But just doing housework counts as exercise, far as I’m concerned. One thing I think a lot of Paleo/Primal diet folks fail to realize or remember is that real “primal” people don’t bother with a formal exercise program–just doing the stuff they do every day keeps their bodies healthy. Think about ways you could un-automate some of your regular daily tasks and do more of the work yourself. Sometimes I think the Amish had the right idea.

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Anonymous April 29, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Hi Dana,

I guess there isn’t a reason I have to formal exercise every day, but I do know I feel better when doing “something”. A friend introduced me to T-Tapp (Theresa Tapp http://www.t-tapp.com) and it is something that can be done in as short as 15 minutes a day. I agree about the Amish as in a daily activity they get their physical exercise, sunshine and fresh air! Thanks for the response!

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Steve - Liquid Vitamins April 7, 2011 at 5:42 am

From years, we know that there is link between our personality and diseases. That said, a healthy mind for a healthy body. So everybody have to be aware of their personal behavior like emotions and the benefit of being happy and should try to make a peace living. An old tip says: by doing exercises you can have a Healthy Body and a Healthy Mind. However, it depends on how we take things into action! :)

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jw May 11, 2011 at 3:58 am

Great quotes from the Dali Lama and others. In terms of attaining “perfection”, I dont think anyone would argue its good to have goals but the tone here is we should “mind the gap” when it comes to being satisfied with progress toward these goals, or our ideal. This echoes what others have blogged here about being content with the present, and not stressed by the “gap” between where you are and where you want to be.

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Rebecca July 24, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Boy Chris, you really hit the nail on the head here! We are too good at avoiding the things which are hardest to change so we fool ourselves into thinking we are creating change by continuing to tweak our “strong links”. I just experienced a paradigm shift! :)
Definitely going to strengthen my weak link of pleasure/fun. Thanks!

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