So, my title is Black Sheep. You know, "Are you the black sheep in your family?", or "I've decided to quit smoking and now I feel like the black sheep when I'm out with my friends who all smoke." Oh, and here I go again...gotta look up the term to be sure I really understand what it means and where it came from...
- Dictionary.com cites one definition as "a person who causes shame or embarrassment because of deviation from the accepted standards of his or her group".
- The American Heritage Dictionary cites a definition as "a member of a family or other group who is considered undesirable or disreputable".
- The origin of the term, as listed consistently by numerous sources, appears to be that in a flock of white sheep, a black sheep was considered less valuable or worthless because it's wool was more difficult, if not impossible, to dye. Not only did the black sheep stand out, but it was inconsequential, or worse, despicable.
So, now that we have that straight, let me tell you how my day started, but in the most generic sense possible to preserve client confidentiality. One of the hardest things for people who are trying to incorporate physical activity and a healthy diet into their already busy lives is to deal with the peer pressure from family and friends...to avoid veering too far out of what is considered the "norm" of current lifestyle and habits. Whether with immediate family, close friends or new acquaintances, trying to change poor diet habits or be more active can create situations wrought with anxiety for the one who is trying to change. I can remember a friend who, when we scheduled lunch together or dinner as couples, would consistently pick the "greasiest-spoon" or worst chain restaurant I can imagine (Chili's, Olive Garden, Applebee's). Both my husband and I dreaded time together with this couple because we ended up making excuses why we didn't want to eat, and rather just had a few beers or a glass of wine. Why we just didn't suggest an alternative or 'fess up and articulate our dislike for the food... I don't know. Well, I do know - we didn't want to offend them, or seem like "black sheep" because we're not lovers of Wendy's and Taco Bell. Although we truly felt it was detrimental to our health and knew how we'd feel the next day (bloated!), we tried to maintain the norm. And I could go into some really deep-seeded "nasties" I've heard conveyed from my own family regarding how I'm "starving" my husband (which gives him very little credit, aside from punching me in the gut!), or simply the lack of acknowledgement for personal health goals or professional goals that I've achieved...simply because they're related to health and fitness. But in a nutshell, from my perspective and those of my clients, the majority of the time, the undermining or "nasties" typically go out to those trying to get healthier, and are coming from those who lack the self-awareness to know they're not healthy or don't have healthy behaviors, those who are in denial of their current health "situation", or those who know they're obese and physically inactive, but can't deal with it so they lash out at those who are trying to deal with it.
So, back to the email. I have a client with whom I feel the last hurdle is her ability to confidently function in coffee shops and restaurants with friends and acquaintances when they pressure her to "get something other than coffee", or join in on the bagel- or danish-fest. My email to her this morning eluded to that - well, actually it right out described a scenario and exactly what I hoped would play out; what she would be thinking and exactly what she might say. I actually cracked myself up conjuring up the scenario! But my whole point was that we know eating whole, healthy foods is good for us, and sometimes, if the alternative is to refuse versus join in, it's uncomfortable. Why is it that doing something different, albeit a better way, a healthier way, or simply a different way that's undeniably right in comparison, is so hard? Because we don't want to feel like the "black sheep". Being different is hard...until you understand the payoff and believe in the way of life you're creating for yourself so much, that you begin to pity those who are undermining you, versus feeling like an outcast. (And I'm sorry I used the word "pity" - it's harsh, I know.) Anyway, you begin to feel...well, elite...your health is better, your energy is better, you like yourself more, you know that by doing this for yourself you are ensuring your ability to care and do for others better in the future. You respect yourself. I suppose it's not unlike become super-proficient at something else, like, say playing the piano. If asked to play at a party, and you accommodate the request, why would you feel like an outsider or a black sheep if you rock the party and entertain people? Would you feel bad because you were so good, and one of the few (maybe the only) person at the party so skilled to be able to perform upon request? No! You'd feel honored and grateful for the effort you put into the training. The same mental processes should go into your feelings about trying to create a healthier lifestyle.
Sociologists call the little phenomenon I'm describing above, as it relates to health and wellness, "social undermining". With respect to diet and nutrition, family members rank first, second to significant others and friends undermining a person's attempts at improving their health; and with respect to exercise and physical activity, friends ranked first, followed by significant others and family. It makes sense that family would be the first to sabotage healthy diet attempts since family gathers tend to be based around food and meals. What a shame that events that should serve to support and bind families can actually ostracize individual members who are simply trying to improve themselves. And as it relates to the friends and significant others that fail to support attempts to increase physical activity levels and intensities in our lives, once again, many of those saboteurs simply see the time you wish to spend improving that part of your life as cutting in on the time you used to or could be spending with them.
How we respond in these times of feeling "sheepish" has also been studied. The most common responses to undermining are to "ignore it" or "try to explain one's self". That's not very easy to do when you're dealing with people you love and care about...being on the defensive or sticking our heads in the sand? So much for unconditional support, huh? I guess it makes sense ...you've probably seen articles written in health and fitness magazines in the past few years about social networks promoting obesity? I remember one headline that said "Are your friends making you fat?". Isn't that sad?
Once again, I digress. Back to the day, the email, etc. As the day went on, I thought back to that email I'd sent earlier several times. My day was busy and fairly under-productive. As I often do, I threw dinner together a bit too quickly and didn't cover the pan I used under the very hot broiler with foil...causing the spray oil, EVOO, cauliflower and onion that were on that pan to form a permanent union! So here I am with my hot water and Brillo pad, trying to scrub every last bit of the burnt oil and food off my favorite Calphalon pan. The whole time I was scrubbing (which felt like forever), I was thinking how my mom would wonder why I was trying to get it so clean and spotless...yep, I'm the black sheep in my family for A LOT of things! But then I quickly turned that negative thought around. I remembered that my grandmother would appreciate it! Yes! Negativity abated...for tonight!
You see, we all have our black sheep moments. Our ability to change our internal thoughts of guilt and potentially anger for the lack of acceptance and support, into positives is as important as trying to build our confidence levels up so that we can politely and politically deal with these situations. If you have a desire to eat healthier, be more active or lose weight, you're going to have your black sheep moments, I guarantee it! Heck, the reason I named my little healthy company "RebelHealth" is because I whole-heartedly believe you have to be a rebel for your health - a rebel against conventional and mainstream diet strategies and advice, sometimes a rebel against conventional western medicine, a rebel against overly processed and refined foods, and a rebel against "comfortable" forms of exercise and physical activity. Be confident in your decisions to get healthy. Know that by choosing whole foods and veering from the norm in the name of health IS the right thing to do. Pull your shoulders back and smile graciously when you decline that offer to join a friend for a Venti Caramel Macchiato - and know that your choice of latte or plain black coffee is YOUR decision, and it's a good one. Instead of feeling guilty that you are about to decline the offer to hit the mall on Saturday with a friend in lieu of that much needed 3 mile run, ask your friend to join you on the run, and then hit the mall. Pressure works both ways!
And the next time you envision a flock of sheep, perhaps when you're counting them while trying to get to sleep, think fondly of that lonely black sheep. Though it's wool may be harder to dye, black is always IN! Why try to change it. Relate to it in a confident and progressive way...let's hear it for the Black Sheep!!ACSM Hlth Fit J. 2009; 13(3):14-19