Lies We Tell Ourselves

People typically don’t brag about their dedication to cocaine, or their disciplined daily alcohol consumption. These behaviors (excessive drug use or drinking) can bring upon bona fide addictions, and literally destroy health, happiness, and quality of life.

But what about other addictions—unhealthy obsessions that masquerade as conscientiousness, dedication, devotion to something “healthy?” How often do you hear people proudly telling others about their obsession with the gym, their ever-progressively restrictive dietary protocols, or the fact that they’re tied to their Blackberries 24/7?

“It’s called discipline.”

“I’m more driven than the average person.”

“Obsessed is a word used by the lazy to describe the dedicated.”

Stress and Justification

These are the things people will tell themselves when their behaviors around food, exercise, or work creep from healthy dedication to unhealthy obsession—and even addiction. They may use these pithy statements or pieces of “fitspiration” to justify their behavior—behavior you suspect has crossed the line from healthy to damaging. They do so because the stress levels they have created feel so good they can’t fathom not continuing this behavior at this pace. (These are the people who would never voluntarily take a week off from exercise, take a vacation without their laptop, or indulge in a slice of cake at their sister’s wedding.)

You may even fall into the trap of admiring these people—looking up to them, because their actions and justifications suggest that you should.

“Jenny is amazing—she’s had a cold all week, and still shows up for the 5 a.m. workout.”

“Chris has worked every single weekend for the last three months straight—he’s such a superstar.”

“Jessica is so committed to her diet—she’s not even eating fruit anymore, because of the sugar. I wish I had her willpower.”

Don’t Be Fooled

What you have to understand is that this behavior is not healthy, it’s not admirable, and it doesn’t make you stronger/better/more dedicated. It makes you sick. It makes you a stress addict, with disrupted hormonal and inflammatory feedback loops. (We’ll explain exactly how this works in future articles.)

This is not healthy behavior.

And don’t be fooled by the smoke-and-mirrors these folks will use to make you feel bad for even questioning whether their behavior is healthy or not.

“You’re just jealous. You wish you could stick to your diet like I can.”

“Days off are for lazy people with no drive.”

“You sleep nine hours a night? Imagine how productive you could be if you weren’t sleeping in so much!”

Because chances are, if you’re in the middle of this cycle, you’re not willing to admit it. At all. In fact, you’re probably pretty angry just reading this article. You probably think we just don’t understand how truly dedicated/devoted/motivated/tough you really are. You probably think that because you’re getting fitter, losing weight, getting promoted, that all your hard work is paying off—and normal people just can’t comprehend what it’s like to have the discipline to work as hard as you.

The Vicious Loop of Stress Addiction

Of course, you’d be wrong. You’re not super-human, or elite, or gifted with an uncommon amount of willpower. You’re just stuck in the vicious cycle of a stress addiction loop. Because for a really long time, the stress you are creating for yourself feels really good. Which makes you think that what you’re doing is good for you. But it’s not, because your behavior is creating inflammation in your brain and disrupting your brain chemistry, adrenals, thyroid, and probably sex hormones, too. And pretty soon, you’ll be in a position where the only way you can feel normal (not even happy, just normal) is to create just a little more stress for yourself. And then more. And then even more. (Does this sound like an addiction concept called “tolerance?”) And the more you perpetuate this behavior, the more your health, happiness, and quality of life take a sharp decline.

You’ll be depressed, or barely keeping the depression at bay. You’ll be anxious. You’ll be irritable and irrational. You’ll start feeling like things are moving too fast, that you’re barely keeping up, that it’s all unraveling quickly. You’ll feel more isolated, so you’ll be less social. And the only thing that will keep you feeling even remotely like yourself is more of the same stress-inducing behavior.

Because at this point, you need it.

Practice Real Dedication

We’re not saying that everyone who exercises, works hard at their job, or tries to eat healthy is obsessed. Just like not everyone who has a glass of wine is an alcoholic, there’s a line that some people cross and others do not. But we do take serious issue with these “fitspiration” gems that suggest that addiction or obsession is to be admired—and that those who don’t push themselves to that extreme are simply not dedicated, motivated, or tough enough.

Real dedication is taking time to rest and recover when you need it. It’s creating a healthy relationship with food, such that you are able to enjoy a night out or a special meal without guilt, remorse, or  punishment. It’s finding a balance between furthering your career, and enjoying the quality of life that your job affords you and your family. Real dedication is knowing when to ask for help, acknowledging when you’re in over your head, and admitting when you need a break. That’s real dedication—and the kind of behavior that we all should be encouraged to emulate.

Do you fear your own behavior has gone from healthy dedication to unhealthy obsession? Do you know someone who needs to slow down and change their behaviors, but hides behind a curtain of “dedication” and “devotion?” Share your thoughts in comments.

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  1. Nettie says

    WOW!! you simply did not just strike a nerve–you nailed the perfect description of myself. I have a serious lump in my throat. Sometimes it takes an objective view to make a person realize unhealthy behavior patterns–THANK YOU for providing that for me.

  2. Naz says

    Yes my husband is like this…. I think if I wasn’t around he would live in the gym! He’s been this way ever since we met (7 years ago) and even before that. He exercises up to 3 hours a day (2 x 1 hour sessions in the gym and 1 hour of walking outside).

    If he doesn’t do this everyday he gets headaches, moody, upset and basically no fun to be around. I’ve tried telling him plenty of times that he doesn’t need to do all that but he says this is how he is. It’s hard to change someone’s habits after they’ve been doing something for so long.

  3. Nikki says

    What an amazing article! I was once trapped in this ‘dedicated’ mindset, thinking that I was better than everyone and even more virtuous for working so hard and being so ‘discipline’. It was the fear and anxiety that kept me stuck in the cycle…what would happen if I didn’t continue to push myself and be better than everyone? I was not free. I was trapped. Just as any other ‘addict’ I reached a low and had to make the decision to change. Thankfully I have healed from that mindset and am a true believer in balance and wisdom. Thank you for posting this!!!

  4. says

    I have to say I just love your posts lately.

    More and more, you guys contsistenly demonstrate a no nonsense commitment to health. I feel like I can count on you to skip to trends and the get-page-views-quickly posts — and focus on long-term, true wellness. Very cool. Thanks!

  5. Susan says

    Great Blog. Reminds me of a true story – When I was in nursing school, a professor stood up before a class of 75 students and very proudly praised a student that HAD A BABY and still managed to show up for her clinical rotation 5-6 days later. I thought WTH? Why wouldn’t the school make just one stupid exception and let her make up a precious clinical day later in the semester so her body could heal another week? They never made exceptions. Clearly this particular nursing professor didn’t get it…

  6. says

    Yes, yes, yes. I love it when you guys tell it like it is. I’ve noticed, especially with cold season upon us, a consistent stream of comments about people showing up for their workouts despite being sick, and I can’t figure out how they think they’re going to get better while stressing themselves.

    From my perspective, humans are separated from the tangible work and play of what was normal human life for a long time (hunting, gathering, building shelter, raising children, contributing to a small group, etc.). People now mistake stress for purpose, hence its addictive nature.

    But let’s be honest, when we’re talking about the American population as a whole, this overdriving population is much smaller than the population that needs to get off the couch. It reminds me of the fear we all have about anorexia (less than 1% of the population) that prevents people from having honest conversations about rising obesity rates (more than 30% of the population). Those motivating comments are very different depending on who’s beholding them.

    But that’s what you guys are all about: knowing thyself. And I know I’m not on overdrive. :) If anything, quite the opposite.

  7. Kristin L says

    So what you are saying is I shouldn’t copy/paste “Obsessed is a word used by the lazy to describe the dedicated.” and put it on my inspirational quotes board. Huh… The sad part is that was honestly my first reaction-guess it is time for a little self evaluation. Thanks for the great post!

  8. says

    Thank you. I may just block the FB friend that posts about her 5am workouts before her newborn wakes up, before she goes to her 15 hours a day job as a high-powered lawyer. Just reading her posts are stressful.

  9. says

    I met a woman like this recently. She is in amazing shape physically and works out like a machine. She participates in her own bootcamp twice a day and then sometimes does an additional workout on her own. It seems to me she uses it as some kind of therapy, as some people would escape to the TV or a bottle, she escapes to the gym. I agree, it’s not healthy. Any time something takes over your life, it’s time to take a step back.

  10. Marisa H says

    Well it’s spot on, except I wish you wouldn’t use “indulge in a slice of cake at a wedding” as an example. I really don’t think eating garbage that makes me sick is “indulging”, nor is it for most people who eat real food. I’d like to enjoy the wedding, not admire the bathroom. Unless you 100% have no reaction to eating gluten (how many people can say that?), then it is not ok. Ever. This is not obsession.

  11. luv says

    I was this way for a while when I first got on my health kick, but finally balanced out everything. Just this past summer, I tried to tell one of my students in a fitness class I teach who was working out 2 to 3 times a day and trying to stick to 1200 calories that she needed to relax and stop trying so hard to get that perfect body for her Hawaiian trip. She got mad at me, told me it was her body to do what she pleased, and she never came back. She’d been with me 2 years. I didn’t wasn’t to see her get ill or injured. It is unfortunate when people don’t want to hear the truth, but she couldn’t understand why she was losing around her middle…

  12. says

    @Marissa: Let’s not lose the forest for the trees here. The food we chose in this example doesn’t really matter – we just want people to understand the intention. People who avoid foods they are allergic or sensitive to are smart, and of course that is healthy behavior. People who are terrified of putting a bite of anything that isn’t Paleo/Whole30/sugar-free/fat-free/ their mouths are NOT healthy. They’re sick, and that’s the population we’re speaking to.

    For those of you who can relate to this, I’m glad the language resonates. It resonates because I wrote it, and this was me for many, many years. Write about what you know, they say, right? It took me two years, the help of a few good functional medicine doctors, one amazing psychologist, and an amazingly patient and in-tine husband to recover. It’s not easy, but recognizing your behavior needs to change is the first – and most important – step. Be proud that you’ve taken it.


  13. luv says

    That should have been – I didn’t want to see her get I’ll or injure herself. And she couldn’t understand why she WASN’T losing sound her middle. I tried to tell her Iggy was her rigidity and stress level. And you know what? Once she took her trip and relaxed, she dropped some weight.

  14. says

    Love you and your truthiness. This was me two years ago, able to Do All The Things (lift heavy! run a BQ marathon! shed fat!) until work stress piled onto my physical stress and took me right down. I am still slowly climbing out of that awful low. It’s been a hard process to realize that Doing All The Things is what got me here and will KEEP me here.

    Another piece of my challenge is that I didn’t get active until 4 years ago, so I often still have this outdated vision of myself as a lazy excuse-maker. If I’m uninterested in a workout, I question whether I’m being lazy or truly in need of the extra rest. It’s ALWAYS the latter, but my foolish brain first jumps to the former, and makes me feel guilty, unless I shut that voice up and get logical.

    Being an overachiever is not all it’s cracked up to be!

  15. says

    Balance is the key (and the thing so many of us struggle with). I wonder if we spend so much time retraining ourselves early on, not to be so lazy, eat such junk or move so little, that we always fear a return to our less healthy pasts (or the potential unhealthy lives we believe our co-workers, friends or families lead).

    Learning new “healthier” habits can become dangerous when we stop listening to our bodies or moods and lose all balance between living well and enjoying the life that we only have for such a short time.

  16. Fergatron says

    I’ve been struggling with depression for a while now. No motivation for anything and I exercise like it was a religion! I actually sat with my mouth open while reading this, as I feel 100% this way. I eat clean and train hard. But I don’t feel healthy or good. I’m antisocial and always in negitive situations that I usually bring upon myself.

    I feel lost though on how to get help and improve the situation. I’d really like to see some suggestions appear on this!

  17. says

    This is a brilliant article. Sometimes, the behaviors are changed to healthier ones, but the underlying psychological problems that created the negative behaviors are still there, and then they take over the healthy behaviors. I went through this (still am figuring it out).

    Thank you for calling this behavior out. It is common in the health community we’re a part of, and like you said, it is usually admired and thus, condoned, even though it’s far from healthy.

  18. Eileen says

    I love, love, love your articles! You provide balance in a community that’s often extreme, and talk about life from all aspects, instead of just diet and exercise. You are fast becoming my favorite blog.

  19. Daniel says

    Sabrina… Love the Colbert “truthiness” quote.

    Love the article. I too balance between a clear need for healthier lifestyle and “doing too much”. I have to admit that I love the rigidity and “following the rules” that comes from a program like “Whole30” but it can translate into an obsession. I need to evaluate where I sit on this scale. I described to others in my life that I love, love, love the Whole30 program because there is no grey area. Here are the rules – now follow them. I described it to many that the rules are “like a security blanket” for me. Everything is black and white. I can or I cannot. Some in my life saw this as a shame, I found it comfortable.

    When I finished my whole, I continued on until my “cake at a wedding” happened (treats with my kids) and I spiraled into a weekend of poor eating and feeling “completely crappy”. I quickly followed up with a personal commitment to my own Whole60. Maybe this is the need for obsessive control or maybe it is the need for a structure that keeps me healthy. All I know is it is getting colder and I really need my security blanket to keep me warm!


  20. cpb says

    Great article, and like many others, it feels like it was written for me. I am still working through learning to “let go” and get out of the cycle that led me to burn myself out. Knowing what I have to do and getting there are two different things, but am slowly getting there. I still suffer from guilt when slowing down, and have to remind myself that I am only putting pressure on myself (like I am sure most of us are) and don’t need to be “perfect” (whatever that is!!)

  21. Maury says

    I took so much on it was making my head spin. Fortunately, much of it is all coming to an end on Monday. I have said NO to everything else, and taking some time off before I start loading up my “plate” again. I am trying to establish balance….hard when all of my role models are over-achievers, over-doers and busy all the time. Time for a new normal. I don’t want that life anymore.


  22. says

    @Sabrina: I, too, used to Do All the Things. And wouldn’t let anyone else do any things either, because no one could do them as well as I could. For a long time, I was rewarded for it – promoted like crazy at work, succeeding at the business we started, leaning out and getting fitter from my over-exercise. But then things started to fall apart, mentally and physically – and once you cross that line, sister, it’s a multiple-year journey to get back to sane and normal.

    The brain will ALWAYS want to go back to what makes it feel good – what rewards it. That’s what that little voice inside your head is telling you – I miss the stress, I miss how it gave me a buzz, let’s go back there, shall we? You’ve got to override and remind yourself that you have other ways of feeling good and rewarded now – healthier ways.

    @Jessica Jane: Thanks, JJ!

    @Alexis: I think your point is solid – we’ve been dieting, exercising, berating ourselves for not working hard enough all our lives, practically. It can be hard to give ourselves permission to slow down! Sometimes, taking a voluntary rest day is the most bad-ass example we can set.

    @Fergatron: I’m sorry that you’re feeling at the end of your rope. We’ve got a two-part series on stress junkies linked in the above that might help you get started – part two has some tips for getting out of the cycle. First and foremost is trying to identify your “trigger” behaviors, and working on those. If you know that getting out of bed and checking email first thing in the morning winds you up like crazy, then set a rule that you aren’t on your computer until you’ve eaten breakfast and read for a 1/2 hour. If the spin class you take spins you into competitive overdrive, stop doing the class (ASAP) and try something else, like yoga or walking. (And not that hard-core heated power yoga, either.) If you’re drinking coffee or taking in other forms of caffeinse, stop. Cold-turkey. 100%. For a really, really long time. Eliminate any areas of stress you can, in any form you can think of… and get some help from a professional. Talking through this can make a world of difference right away, even if you don’t solve all your problems in one sitting. Best of luck to you.

    @Khaled: Thanks for your observations. This kind of behavior is common with a lot of Type-A perfectionists, and there does seem to be a number of those in our community, for one reason or another.

    @Daniel: We’ve addressed this more than a few times, on the blog and in great detail in It Starts With Food ( Relying on the comfort of the Whole30 rules for 30 days is, I think, a safe place from which to build new habits and reshape old patterns. But you’ve gotta kick the training wheels off and test your new skills in the real world eventually – even if you do fall face-first into a plate of birthday cake. That’s not failure – that’s expected! And you’ll always have the Whole30 to get you back on track. I often use the Whole30 for just a few days or a week at a time, to remind me what it’s like to feel good and eat healthy – and that’s enough to keep temptations at bay and keep my decisions on track. This is a life-long process, and I have no doubts you’ll find your way.

    @CPB: I’m impressed with the awareness that many of you are demonstrating – it took me years to realize that my behaviors were unhealthy, and even then, it was mostly Dallas pointing out the problems (patiently and endlessly) that brought the situation to light. Keep up the good work and keep reminding yourself that the little voice in your head telling you to do more/go harder/be better isn’t telling you the truth about who you are, and what you should actually be focusing on.

    @Maury: Well done! Sounds like you may have just averted what could have been a crisis stress situation. Taking a break before starting any new projects is a great idea, but don’t be surprised if it’s hard to slow down after spinning so fast for so long. It may take a few weeks for you to settle down, but be persistent and stick to your “taking time for me” guns!


    @Eileen: Thanks so much! We love this direction we’ve been taking too – more to come.

  23. Erik says

    What are your thoughts on intermittent fasting? I know Mark over at Mark’s Daily Apple has become a big proponent of it recently. I would love to know your thoughts on the topic.


  24. says

    GREAT post, guys.
    Robb Wolf has addressed this on his podcast in the past — people write in who are likely smack-dab in the middle of adrenal burnout largely stemming from extreme amounts and intensity of exercise with little to no rest and recovery. (Even more so when doing that on as few carbs as they can manage.) People talk about doing hours and hours of biking, aerobics, or running, and I am SO GLAD that his response is usually something like, “What are you running *from?*” Someone doing that kind of thing has more important things to examine than, say, their n-6/n-3 ratio. Like you said — of course exercise and eating well are good for us. But there comes a point (and it’s slightly different for everyone) where it starts going the other way…the U-shaped curve and all that jazz. Just because some is good doesn’t mean that more is always better.

    I like that you think of it as “stress addiction.” I guess I still think of it as adrenaline junkies or something, because people get a rush out of the behavior — be it working out, working late, or micromanaging every morsel of food. People have to ask themselves what’s missing from the *rest* of their life that that behavior is the only way to feel that powerful and alive feeling. That kind of introspection can be ugly and painful sometimes, but it’s important to take a step back and figure out *why* we do these things to ourselves so we can maybe learn to let go.

  25. says

    @Erik: The short answer is that IF is a stressor that, in the right context, can have some health benefits. But first and foremost, it’s a stressor. So you’ve got to think about whether your life, your context, can handle the addition of yet another stress. For a chosen few – people who eat a consistently clean diet, t sleep 8-9 hours every night in spring/fall/winter, aren’t exercising too much or too little, have enough time to actively recover from their exercise and other stressors, and can successfully manage their life-stress… IF may be a good choice to test out. But we don’t know a lot of people like that, and we’ve never recommended adding an IF protocol to any of our consulting clients, ever. Context is everything.

    @Amy: The more we learn about stress in the brain, the more comfortable we are with the accuracy of the phrase “stress addiction.” We’ll be writing a heck of a lot more about this in the future, so stay tuned!


  26. Jami McCormack says

    wow….don’t really know what to say except…what would one do now? to change the chemical addiction to stress?? i would love to feel more free around all of this!! : ) great article once again you guys. thank you.

  27. says

    I am probably a little too obsessed with exercise and paleo. When I am in super paleo mode I am 200% paleo compliant to the point people think I’m crazy, but then I’ll take a week off and eat junk food. I also hit the gym every day for 90 to 120 minutes. I should cut back but I am still trying to drop a few pounds so I can get to 7% body fat.

  28. dennis says

    i practiced real dedication to my latest job as a dishwasher at whole foods. the other dishwashers were working at lightning fast speeds i was not able to obtain. i suspect a lot of them take in high amounts of caffeine. something that is flammatory and specifically upsets my stomach. however, every minute of every shift i dedicated to doing that job. after 5 weeks, they let me go. now im unemployed. anyone know of any job openings in MA? Or maybe somewhere warm? im trying to find a company that promotes something positive in a positive but not absurdly unreasonable

  29. Jofo says

    Just a very short thank-you note from a German reader – unique piece, sound advice! Your blog really stands out from the rest of the “paleosphere”.

  30. Catherine says

    I just found this through a link to it on the Whole30 forum and I can’t thank you enough for posting it!

    As I was reading, I kept nodding my head and thinking ‘yes, exactly right’ and feeling all justified for missing workouts lately or feeling comfortable enough with my eating habits to have Thanksgiving at a friend’s house (who happens to be a great cook, too!). Of course those people who obsess are unhealthy! I’m so happy to not be one of them…

    Then it struck me. I am one. I am living this life. I am addicted to stress. It was once my diet. And at multiple points in my life, it was exercise. Work has also been at the helm of my addiction. And most recently, it was the dream of owning and running a small-sustainable farm (with goats, chickens, ducks, bees, etc) while training for triathlons, while enjoying the great outdoors (like hiking, biking and kayaking), having a social life, and working full-time on a job that included a lot of travel. Guess what? It’s impossible. But doing ‘it all’ felt right (even though I was failing in so many ways). I loved having others comment on how amazing I was to be able to do so much. I was addicted to the attention and to the stress. But it could not go on forever. I was at a breaking point.

    We are selling that farm and making some major life decisions right now, but just last night, I was ‘missing’ the farm and all the things I had to do. I was ‘jonesin’ for the massive, never-ending, to do list. I had NO idea I’d gotten to this point, so thank you from the bottom of my heart for the eye-opening post. It looks like I’ve still got a lot of work to do to heal myself, but at least now I know what it is I need to heal!

  31. says

    Really glad this post is resonating with you – and that you’re seeing some of the issues for what they are now! The hard part is making the changes necessary to recover, but the awareness of the problem itself is honestly half the battle. Keep up the good work, all, and thanks for your comments.


  32. says

    It’s so beyond coincidence that I stumbled upon this post today. Just last night, I wrote a post on my personal blog, talking about a confrontation I had with a friend about my habits. She was concerned that I was obsessed with the Whole 30 and my fitness regimen. She is a recovered anorexic, so she knows what it’s like to thrive on absolute control/perfection when it comes to food restrictions. Here and there, she’s made slight remarks to challenge my behaviors. She’s told me I’m crazy for running off to use the treadmill after finishing interval training. She’s raised her eyebrow when I can’t have “just a taste” of the cupcakes she’s making. After she expressed her concern formally, I had to sit down and compare her analysis to reality.

    What I found is that, yes, on some days I do push myself a little more than necessary. I’m still adjusting to a new lifestyle and still working on weeding out old habits. I am doing the Whole 30 right now, so I am truly committed to 100% compliance in diet at this time. When I’m not on the Whole 30, though, I am always up for a hard cider, dark chocolate, goat cheese… I just know that I feel less inflamed and more mentally stable when I stay away from sugar and avoid foods that I’m sensitive to, like gluten, soy, and dairy. When it comes to exercise, I “go all out” on days that I have boundless energy. I’ll often find that for the two days following, I’ll need to recover, and I’ll respect that. I take extra sleep if I need to; I usually try to get at least seven hours, and more if I’m able. If I haven’t slept well, don’t have the energy, or find myself in pain, sometimes I won’t even go on my daily walk. It’s all about listening to your body and responding to its needs in an appropriate manner. That’s not to say we can’t misinterpret our needs and make mistakes; we’re all capable of that. The important thing is to learn from those mistakes and correct the behavior.

    Ultimately, if you’re well informed, you will always know better than anyone else what your needs are. Respect your rest, minimize stress, and moderate your healthy habits to KEEP them healthy. If I compare this to my current habits, I realize I’m doing fine. Being honest with yourself goes both ways: have the confidence to stay on a good path when others doubt you, but don’t be afraid to correct yourself when you realize you’ve strayed.