Episode 31: Healthy Habits – Gretchen Rubin Book Club

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The Secret to Making Healthy Changes

Why do some people seem to develop good habits with ease, while others only make it a day or two before reverting to their old ways? Why can we make some changes easily, while others seem impossible? When it comes to our goal of reversing autoimmunity through diet and lifestyle, the stakes are high. Our choices have a huge impact on how our disease expresses itself. For many of us, it’s the difference between disability and a full and functional life.

So, what’s the secret? Gretchen Rubin is an expert on habit change, and she says it all comes down to knowing ourselves. She developed a a theory called, “The Four Tendencies.” She says that each of us falls into one of four habit personalities: rebel, questioner, obliger, or upholder. By knowing which we are, we can choose strategies that support (rather than thwart) our efforts to change. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Knowing ourselves is the key.  She writes about this in detail in her book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

Today, I invite 4 guests onto the show (including myself). We each have a different one of the Four Tendencies, and we talk about how that has effected our ability to make healthy changes in our lives, specifically when it comes to autoimmune healing.

Update: Gretchen Rubin has published a follow-up book with more strategies for each personality, called The Four Tendencies.

Listen to the Show

Show Notes

  • Intro (0:00)
  • Thank You to our Podcast Sponsor – Paleo on the Go (2:41)
    • A frozen meal delivery service, they have a large menu of items for the paleo autoimmune protocol (AIP).
    • Use the code PHOENIX for 10% off your first order.
  • Meet Our Panel (3:31)
    • Caroline Stahlschmidt has Hashimoto’s and she is an Upholder. She was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s six months after her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer.  Stress and trauma often precede autoimmune onset. She was lucky in that she was diagnosed quickly during a routine doctor’s visit. A big part of her healing journey was transitioning from a vegan to a paleo diet, and focusing on digestive health. Her husband is now cancer-free, and Caroline is now symptom-free unless she’s under stress.
    • Eileen Laird has rheumatoid arthritis and she is a Questioner. Tune into episode 1 to hear my healing story.
    • Monique Sauve has rheumatoid arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome, and she is an Obliger. RA onset was mild at first, so it took two years to get a diagnosis. When she told her doctor she didn’t want to take methotrexate, her doctor fired her as a patient. Monique tried the Road Back Protocol, which is a long-term, low-dose, antibiotic protocol for RA. It put her into remission for two years, which was wonderful, but then she developed chronic fatigue syndrome which she believes was caused by taking antibiotics long-term. At her worst, she felt like she had the flu all the time and was unable to work. She started working with a doctor who introduced her to the paleo diet in 2005, but it took 3 years before she was able to make that change. Since going paleo, she has more energy, fewer migraines, less joint pain, more mobility, and greater function throughout her daily life. She’s back to work part-time. She still occasionally eats some of her inflammation triggers like nuts and nightshades, which sets back her healing. She’s hoping this book will be the key to making those changes stick.
    • Lizzie Lee has rheumatoid arthritis and she is a Rebel. She had a severe reaction to an antibiotic (Levaquin) which resulted in a disabling level of tendonitis bodywide. She tested positive for RA after that, but her rheumatologist thought it was only an antibiotic reaction, and 6 months later, her blood tests normalized. Her pain improved simultaneously, but never disappeared completely. She got pregnant and felt better during pregnancy, but had a flare after delivery (which is a common pattern with RA). At that point, her RA blood tests were high again. After her strong reaction to the Levaquin she was reluctant to take medication, so her doctor agreed to postpone. After a series of infections (flu and sinus infections), her symptoms dramatically worsened, disabling her with the pain. At that point, she decided to try the autoimmune protocol, and her symptoms began to improve somewhat but she plateaued in her healing. She had been indulging in a lot of AIP treats and experiencing recurrent yeast infections. She went to a functional medicine doctor, who tested and treated her for candida, and her symptoms improved dramatically. Now, her pain is manageable, and she’s able to function and enjoy her life again.
  • An Overview of the Four Tendencies (22:05)
    • Caroline is an Upholder. Upholders meet inner and outer expectations with ease, and they like rules and structure. For Caroline, that meant she was able to successfully make an overnight change to a healing diet, but the risk for her is a tendency to become too dogmatic.
    • Eileen is a Questioner. Questioners easily meet inner and outer expectations but ONLY if they make sense to them. They like research, question authority, and trust their own judgment the most. For Eileen, this meant she also successfully switched to a healing diet, but only after doing exhaustive research. One of the reasons she loves the reintroduction process, is it tests the diet rules and lets us personalize our diet to our individual body’s needs.
    • Monique is an Obliger. Obligers meet outer expectations easily, but struggle to meet inner expectations. They sometimes have trouble saying no to people and often place other people’s needs over their own. A key to maintaining habits for them is external accountability. For Monique, it was a relief to realize this was her tendency, because she used to beat herself up for not following through on intentions, and now she realizes why that’s a challenge. Here are the ways she’s used external accountability to maintain healthy habits: (1) Her husband helps her stay on track with a paleo diet, because her health means a lot to him as well. (2) Groups have also been essential. She started with a GAPS yahoo group, and then transitioned to an AIP Group on Facebook. (3) She also likes taking classes to reinforce new healthy habits.
    • Lizzie is a Rebel. Rebels resist all expectations. They like to do things their own way and in their own time. If someone tells them to do something, they are likely to do the opposite. When she told her doctor she wanted to try the AIP, he told her she wouldn’t be successful and it was a waste of time. That drove her to prove him wrong. She also really thrives on challenges, so the fact that the AIP can be hard also motivates and energizes her.
    • Take the quiz, to learn your tendency.
  • Best Habit Strategies for Each Tendency (36:22)
    • Caroline (Upholder): (1) Convenience –  Healthy food needs to be convenient and available when she’s hungry, so she does a lot of batch cooking, meal planning, and travel planning. (2) Abstaining – This is especially important for Caroline in terms of desserts. If she has a little, it sets off cravings to want more and more. She’s better off not having any. (3) Pairing – This means putting two habits together where you never do them separately. Choose one that you like to do, and one that’s hard to do. This way, one works as a reward for the other.
    • Eileen (Questioner):  (1) Monitoring – Research shows that keeping track of a habit makes us better at that habit. A symptom journal is a great way to monitor your progress on a healing diet. (2) Scheduling – When we put things on our daily calendar, we’re more likely to do them. Fridays are my meal planning day. Mondays are my offline day. And I also set a timer throughout my day to make myself take breaks from the computer, and also to go to bed on time.
    • Monique (Obliger): (1) Like Caroline, abstaining is an important strategy for Monique also. She can’t have a little without wanting a lot. (2) Like Caroline, convenience is also a biggie. She always makes sure she has food prepared whether at home or traveling, and she’s very excited when she finds a paleo-friendly restaurant. (3) Accountability – Monique is thinking of hiring a health/nutrition coach. In the past, she didn’t want to spend the money, but now she realizes it could make a huge difference in her healing, by increasing her ability to stick 100% to her healthy habits.
    • Lizzie (Rebel):  (1) Lighting Bolt – A moment when everything changes and you are ready to make a huge habit change overnight. For Lizzie, it was her doctor wanting to put her on immunosuppressants. (2) Like Monique, Lizzie is also an abstainer. (3) Treats – These aren’t earned, they’re simply given, and they are things that bring you pleasure. Rebels love treats. Keep in mind that these are healthy treats (not dessert). Three treats Lizzie loves are tea, baths, and time in the sunshine. (4) Identity – Seeing your healthy habit as part of who you are. This really works for Lizzie.
    • The book contains many more habit strategies: Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.
    • Update 2017: Gretchen Rubin published a follow-up book with more strategies for each personality, called The Four Tendencies.
  • Loophole Spotting – How We Rationalize Unhealthy Choices (49:26)
    • Caroline (Upholder): The loophole she’s most tempted to use is the False Choice –  Where you pretend that if you follow through on your healthy habit, it will prevent you from doing something else important. For example: “If I meditate this morning, I won’t have time to complete my work today.” or “If I take time to exercise, I’ll have no time left for my husband.” It’s a sneaky loophole, because it sounds convincing, but it’s rarely true. Usually, we can do both, we just don’t want to.
    • Eileen (Questioner):  The loophole I see a lot of people use is the Questionable Assumption. For example, “I’ve been on this diet for a month and haven’t seen any improvement, so obviously it doesn’t work.” For many people it takes a few months to start seeing a difference, especially after years (or decades) of living with autoimmune disease.
    • Monique (Obliger): The loopholes she’s most tempted to use are: (1) Moral Licensing – “I’ve been good, I’m feeling good, and one little indulgence won’t hurt me.” But the truth is, it’s a slippery slope. Her strategy is to abstain from the temptation. (2) Tomorrow – Monique has new habits she wants to start, like a tai chi class, or a 21-day sugar detox, but she tells herself that now isn’t a good time. She’ll do it later. With this loophole, you can postpone things forever.
    • Lizzie (Rebel):  The loopholes she’s most tempted to use are: (1) Lack of Control –  The idea that something else is causing our behavior. For Lizzie, she blamed candida for her poor food choices, but now that it’s gone, she doesn’t have that loophole anymore. (2) Arranging to Fail – Using a social event like a wedding, birthday or holiday as an excuse to go off-diet. You can celebrate these events without eating inflammatory foods. Your health is worth it.
  • Final Words of Wisdom (56:05)
    • Caroline (Upholder): Use your natural tendency to follow rules to your advantage, but don’t get too dogmatic. Question the rules once in a while, and schedule fun into your life, too.
    • Eileen (Questioner): Trust yourself, do your research, be inspired by the success stories, but don’t get caught in “analysis paralysis.” There comes a time when you’ve done enough research, and it’s time to act.
    • Monique (Obliger): Go public with your diet and lifestyle plans, so that you have some external accountability. Join groups, either locally or online. Find an accountability buddy to help you do this diet together, and consider hiring a health/nutrition coach if you can afford it, for the ultimate accountability.
    • Lizzie (Rebel): Look for those lightning bolts to prompt you to change. Don’t let inner conflict come between you and a great habit. Be inspired by challenge. Embrace the habit as part of your identity. Be yourself, embrace your tendency, and do what’s best for your body, mind and soul.
  • Outro (1:00:48)

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