Recently, after a few unexplained health incidents and countless doctors appointments, I learned that my 12-year-strong vegetarian diet was leaving me vitamin and protein deficient. My job requires eating a lot of pre-ordered meals, so while a vegetarian diet is often a healthy option and had served me well in the past, these days it meant I was eating a lot of nutrition-less plain salads and empty cheese pizza. I was foggy-headed, frustrated, and constantly tired.
That’s how I found myself standing in front of the salad bar in my local health food store, awkwardly staring at the different kinds of pre-cooked chicken like a dad in the underwear section of Nordstrom. After careful consideration I reluctantly put three scoops of the blandest variety I could find into a flimsy plastic container, thought about putting it back, paced around the bar a bit, stared at it some more, and then apprehensively walked to the checkout.
When I got home with my box of plain chicken, I prepared my meal slowly. I buried the protein in a salad: arugula, corn, chickpeas, avocado, hemp seeds, and almonds. I was surprised by how conflicted I felt. Even if it was just a single meal, it felt like something much bigger. It felt like I was doing something wrong. It felt like I was breaking a commitment. It felt way too much like failure.
I was surprised by how conflicted I felt. Even if it was just a single meal, it felt like something much bigger. It felt like I was doing something wrong.
Remembering why I was making this change, I did my best to quiet my anxiety and began to eat. When I finished what was on my plate, I had seconds. After seconds, I ate the rest of the chicken, right out of the container. It was delicious.
Why was my decision to change my dietary habits attached to such strong feelings of apprehension and anxiety? For 12 years, I’d woven vegetarianism into my identity, giving it more power than it deserved. I had let it become part of who I was, and how I advertised myself to others. I had grown comfortable with the restriction and overly determined to honor a self-induced and superficial commitment. Years ago, it stopped being something I did for the health benefits, and became something I did because I was used to doing it.
After eating chicken, two things happened. My energy levels slowly returned to normal, and the people in my life celebrated the change. I actually received excited texts from friends, and coworkers enthusiastically offered to take me out to try meals I haven’t had since I was a kid. Nobody questioned the decision. My stomach handled it just fine. The world kept going, and I was free to eat whatever I pleased. One grilled chicken salad: the world’s quietest revolution.
… I’d woven vegetarianism into my identity, giving it more power than it deserved. I had let it become part of who I was, and how I advertised myself to others.
Taking that small step away from vegetarianism made it clear to me that my identity is not made up by trivial choices such as whether or not I eat meat. I am me regardless of the superficial habits that are woven into my everyday life. Breaking a habit that was no longer serving me, as intimidating as it may have been, was a liberating and healthy change.
Examining our patterns from a distance and abandoning the ones that we no longer need takes a good deal of courage. Sometimes, though our intentions are good, we trap ourselves in habitual routines without realizing how limiting they have become. But if we can learn to loosen our self-induced restrictions and actually consider what they are bringing to (or taking away from) our lives, then we’ll find that having done something for a long time isn’t a good enough reason to keep doing it.
Whether it’s in our diets, our careers, or our relationships, we can all benefit from focusing our energy on only the patterns that add richness to our lives.
Have you had a similar experience with breaking a habit? What was it?
Feature Image via Abby Louna