Ten years after actress Marilu Henner started her best-selling “Total Health Makeover” series, she's in better shape than ever — at peak health, working with a very active online community at Marilu.com, and celebrating life with her new husband. Now she's back with an inspiring guide to making your life work for you, whatever your age or condition. Here's an excerpt from “Wear Your Life Well”:
What do you truly want to do with your life? Have you ever really figured it out? I’m not just asking what you want to be when you grow up. This has more to do with your overall life design and covers more territory than just your career.
This includes everything — your family, education, diet, health, free time, hobbies, friends, home, travel, even your mission statement. I mean, in theory we all know what we want in our lives, and most people are deeply rooted in the lifestyle they’re already living — whether or not they’re happy about that! But have you ever truly thought this through and conceived in detail your ideal life, without thinking about the obstacles to or consequences of actually pulling it off? Doing this could become the most important exercise you’ve ever undertaken.
If you really could design your ideal life, how close would it be to the life you’re living right now? When asked this question, most people propose a life with more than they now have, which usually means a bigger and better house, a more successful and rewarding career, more time to spend with family, more money, owning a business, being famous — the list is endless. We naturally want more, but we rarely factor in the consequences of having more. There are responsibilities that automatically come with having more in your life, and even though we don’t always consciously think about it, we are aware of it subconsciously. Deep down we know that these responsibilities challenge what we’ve already set up in our cozy little comfort zones.
The risk of losing some of our comfort in life plays a prominent role in our efforts to attain our goals. We know that changing our lives for the better may come with a price tag, and that price is more responsibility, leading to more stress, and therefore less comfort. It’s difficult to create the life you want until you identify, control, or at least understand your own comfort zones. You also need to be aware of your life goals, so you can recognize which comfort zones you’re protecting — and which responsibilities or burdens you may be avoiding.
My comfort zone Everyone has his or her own unique comfort zones that come in all shapes and sizes. I have some that are significant and others that are trivial. My silliest comfort zone is the way I like to sleep. For years people have teased me about my sleeping requirements — a room so dark you never know what time it is. (Elvis would have been proud!) In fact, I have “blackout shades requested” written into every location contract I sign, but not because I’m a diva. I need to sleep in a dark room because I love to be awake! Any hint of light represents action, and I automatically want to be part of that action.
No matter how crazy my sleeping comfort zone seems to others, it’s certainly better than my eating comfort zone was years ago, before I got healthy and lost fifty-five pounds. Back then I lived under the tyranny of stupid diets, thinking that alternating deprivation with gluttony was the way to go. The discomfort of being heavy and bloated all the time was even part of this comfort zone. It was only after I acquired the necessary knowledge and retrained my palate that my eating comfort zone changed.
In figuring out how to use what you have to get what you want, it’s necessary to take an honest look at your whole life and see where you’re at, right here, right now.
What are your comfort zones? What have you set up in your life to support the good and bad behaviors that make you “you”? How do you relate to everyone and everything around you, from your eating patterns to your sleeping rituals, your exercise routines to your clothing choices, your relationship strategies to the way you think and feel about yourself? What are your habits that may even feel comfortably uncomfortable? What made you set up certain conditions so that you can continue to succeed ... or fail? And where did you learn how to set up these conditions? Are you mimicking your parents? Rebelling against your family? Or have you just learned the best way to survive?
Looking at other people’s lives, you may often think, I could never live like that. Their schedule is too crazy. Their house is too chaotic. Their relationship is too dramatic. Yet, when you look closely, you see that it works for them! We all have those quirky things we think we need in our lives in order to survive. If someone took away your comfort zone, what would be your backup? Would you need one? Or would it be better if you were forced to give it up with nothing to replace it?
You get interesting answers when you ask people, “What does the phrase ‘comfort zone’ mean to you?” The responses will vary, but what is most telling is that each person mentions first the area of his or her life that needs the most help. Many people talk about their relationships, and yet pick the same unhappy situation over and over again. It proves that we all know what we’re trying to get away with, and that we’re not fooling anyone — least of all ourselves!
The point is to challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zones if staying in one doesn’t move your life forward. Staying in your comfort zone seems to be one of the main barriers to achieving your goals, because it keeps you rigid and less adaptable to diversity and change. When you’re in a comfort zone, you’ll tend to do the same things over and over because it’s easy. You know what to expect and how to respond without thinking.
But what if you really like everything just the way it is? Is there anything wrong with staying in your comfort zone to keep it that way? Well, possibly not. But does anyone really want to keep everything in his or her world exactly the way it is? Do you really want the same old boring path of least resistance? That can become dull awfully fast, and eventually you lose sight of all the possibilities you’re missing out on because you’re no longer exposed to better alternatives, including healthier, more varied, sometimes simpler, and sometimes more innovative choices. Protecting your comfort zone also tends to support bad habits rather than helping you and new ways to navigate your life by allowing healthier habits to become a part of it.
I think many people are afraid to challenge their comfort zones because they know, consciously or subconsciously, that change caused them a certain amount of stress in the past. Even though we usually gain something from taking these risks, we are reluctant to test those boundaries again because of the uncertainty and stress we associate with the unknown. The sad part is that this becomes more of a problem as we get older. Kids don’t have nearly as much stress over leaving their comfort zones as adults do. They are much more adventurous because they haven’t quite settled into their comfort zones yet. People over sixty have an especially difficult time leaving their CZs. (Try talking your grandmother into changing the meat-based diet she’s been eating all her life!)
So, here’s what I suggest. Don’t think of challenging your comfort zones as something that you have to force yourself to do. With that attitude, you’ll end up avoiding change altogether. Instead, think of each new challenge or change as an exciting new adventure. Try to recapture the innocent, non-jaded enthusiasm you had as a child. Don’t overanalyze and worry about failing or having a bad experience. Whatever your new endeavor is, take it all in as part of the experience. Think of every comfort zone detour as a mini-vacation from yourself, and don’t get upset if the hypothetical “hotel room” outside your comfort zone is noisy or doesn’t face the pool!
Testing these boundaries can actually be a lot of fun! And remember, there are many subcategories to your comfort zone — your health, love life, family, finances, career, and so on. Each has its own defined comfort zone. Here are just a few suggestions to help get you started:
In the food category, try a vegetable you’ve never tried before. If you’re always making the same old side dish, like steamed broccoli, try preparing something totally new, such as daikon or jicama. Ask for advice from your produce manager, or do a little research on the Internet about choosing and preparing a new, exotic vegetable. We often avoid trying a new vegetable because we don’t know how to wash, cut, or prepare it. That’s out of our comfort zone. Don’t just limit this change to a new vegetable. Try new kinds of fruit, grains, beans, and pasta. And don’t just fix the same old pasta sauce; ask your friends to share some of their favorites. Prepare a new recipe every week. We stay with our old standbys because it’s easier; we know exactly what to buy and how to prepare it. To spice things up a bit, try a recipe from another country or culture. Your family might just love the surprise. Don’t be afraid to botch it up. That might even add to the fun.
In the discipline department, try having a sugar-free, dairy-free, meat-free, or fast food–free day (or entire week or month if you’re more advanced). This is a great way to explore how much better you would feel if you ate a cleaner diet.
In the lifestyle category, consider reading a book in a subject you know nothing about. We tend to explore areas we’re already familiar with because it’s easier; it’s in our comfort zone. Try a weekend getaway that’s very different, too. Surprise your spouse — don’t give him or her a chance to nix the new choice; everyone needs their comfort zones pushed! And make sure you keep an open mind throughout the experience.
When it comes to exercise, I’m a firm believer in lots of variety. Fitness gains are much greater when your body is challenged with variation in resistance and movement. Physical improvements come from changeups in your routine. So explore new sports, dance classes, and exercises you’ve never done before. Do remember, however, to be cautious if you’re doing anything a bit risky, unless you want to end up in traction, which, by the way, is the ultimate comfort zone!
Being part of Celebrity Apprentice was a lesson in observing others and their comfort zones. Celebrities are known for negotiating into their contracts the little, and not so little, requests that make it easier to do their jobs. Often these requests are so over-the-top they are legendary. (Remember Michael Jackson’s alleged oxygen chamber required for his dressing room, or Marilyn Manson’s kitty litter box in lieu of the ... well ... loo?) Before we even started filming, a celebrity liaison called and asked our requirements in terms of food, drink, other amenities, and so on. I’m always very careful about my food, so I, of course, requested that we would be able to get healthy meals while on the go. I knew that we’d be working long and strenuous hours, and I wanted to make sure that I could eat the healthy food that I know is easily available in New York.
On the very first day, we were asked to submit a list of the foods we wanted in our War Rooms, the rooms where each team would be spending most of its time brainstorming. The list was as diverse as the people. One part of the group asked for every sweet, cheesy, meaty, unhealthy food and snack they could get their hands on — the junkier the better. And two of us on the team could not have been more opposite in our requests, including asking for fresh organic vegetables and a juicer!
I was amazed that some people could wolf down cheeseburgers, french fries, candy, cheese things, and banana splits — in the ten minutes they gave us to eat — and still try to think clearly. Temperature was another biggie. The War Rooms were on the same floor, and although we couldn’t hear each other, we were connected by a heating and air-conditioning system. Our team was always freezing and wanted to blast the heat, so of course, we’d constantly get a knock on the door from Vinnie Pastore or one of the producers saying, “It’s too hot in the guys’ room! What’s with all the heat in there, girls?” The guys, with all their muscle and mass, were always hot, and the women, with their smaller frames and lighter clothing, were always cold.
The battles between the sexes were not just about managing, marketing, and selling; it came down to a basic difference in day-to-day survival. We would occasionally share each other’s rooms for group or board meetings, and the contrast between the two rooms was obvious. The women’s room was always immaculate and organized, and the guys’ room was disheveled and filthy. Whenever I was in their War Room, I was too creeped out to even use their restroom. There was always a little bit of pee on the toilet seat and on the floor surrounding the toilet. Tissues piled up without being thrown out, and none of the guys seemed to mind ... or even notice! The guys’ CZ was so different from the girls’. You can be sure that Mars is a lot dirtier than Venus. It turns out that the sulfuric fumes we have detected from Mars are not from volcanoes! We also could not have been more diverse in terms of the way we approached being project manager and getting the best or worst out of our teammates. Some people were able to adjust to whatever the conditions were, while others had to have a certain state of chaos in order to succeed. This is not unusual. I’ve worked with actors in the past who were notorious for creating an onset atmosphere that was tumultuous for everyone, but because of the turmoil and tension, they were able to shine at everyone else’s expense.
The TV show Project Runway is also a lesson in observing other people’s comfort zones. Other reality shows use a similar strategy, but on Project Runway, it’s not only a question of outwitting, outlasting, and outplaying; you also have to create something that is special and beautiful and wears well — every week! Imagine what it would be like to be uprooted from your home, live with strangers, compete with your roommates for lots of money and a big opportunity, and still have to marshal your creative energies to design something special and beautiful that wears well — like your health!
As you read this book, keep in mind that your goal should be not only to push the envelope of your usual routine but also to learn to protect what you need to succeed.
Embracing your fears
What scares you? What are you afraid of? What wakes you up in the middle of the night, grabs your imagination, and keeps you from falling back to sleep as you play out various scenarios to their illogical conclusions? When I’m afraid of something, the writer in me loves to imagine every twist and turn my fear can drive me through; the actress in me puts myself in every role my fear will allow me to play.
Sometimes we fear what we feel we aren’t good at, can’t commit to, or are reluctant to learn. We’re afraid to look awkward, silly, or uncoordinated, so we play it safe and do nothing. There are always going to be fears; you’ll always be afraid of something. It’s just a matter of what kind of emotional muscle you’re willing to develop in order to be able to handle those fears and then move on with your life. If you can turn your fear around and learn to use what you’re afraid of, then your fear can often propel you to make a huge difference in your life. You’ll then be able to change your perception enough to open up and present yourself in a way that may not necessarily make you comfortable but at least won’t let you hide forever.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re reluctant to go to the gym because you’re afraid everyone is looking at you. Suppose you mentally prepared yourself for that fear by imagining yourself in that situation and then decided how you were going to handle it? What if you went to the gym and pretended that no one else mattered? You could say to yourself, “I know there are going to be people looking at me, but I’m going to look my fellow gym members in the eye and smile. I’m going to work out even harder than usual and enjoy the fact that I’m on display. I’m going to be excited to be what everyone else is thinking about today!”
It’s unlikely that you’ll ever see half the people in the gym again, so even if people are looking (and don’t think for a second they aren’t, because you’re doing it, too), what’s the big deal? We all look, compare, judge, and then think, “Oh, I’m not as bad as he or she is.” After that, most people go home and eat ice cream to celebrate their superiority. The next time you’re self-conscious at the gym, think of all the people going home to eat ice cream after seeing you and how, in a month, you’re going to be the fit one! Look at it this way: Fear on your face isn’t going to make you look any more attractive, but confidence and gusto will! A great attitude is contagious, but if there’s no one at the gym who wants to jump on the Gusto bandwagon, then let them be reminded of their own self-consciousness when they see a confident you! People’s first reaction to seeing someone who is self-assured is usually, “Wow! That person’s got something!”
Have you ever looked at an old class photo from grade school, and when you’ve shown people your classmates, they pick out someone and say, “This is a pretty girl,” or “That boy was cute”? And you tell them, “What? That kid? No way! She was kind of picked on,” or “She was mean,” or “He was a nerd.” Then you realize that your image of them has to do not with how they looked, but with how they behaved. This scenario is just as true for adults. We think the way we look matters more than our attitude, but it’s the exact opposite. Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be our best, or try to look good and be healthy. This isn’t a license to be a “nice” bad eater. But while you’re learning the tools that will make you more balanced, healthier, more fit, and better looking, it doesn’t mean you can’t improve your attitude to help speed up the process.
I used to be afraid that if I weren’t hard on myself, I would quickly fall apart. As a result, I fell in love with being hard on myself. Being “your own worst critic” doesn’t have to be a bad thing, because you then only have to worry about judging yourself. Why be concerned about anyone else’s harsh opinion if you’re the tough one? If done properly, being your own worst (best!) critic can bring about great success. You’ll be setting your own bar high enough to consistently improve your personal best. But don’t be afraid to be good to yourself, either. It isn’t the same as giving up, unless being “good” means allowing indulgent behaviors that are actually self-destructive.
It’s best to have a glass-half-full attitude about everything you do. Lighten up and learn to laugh at yourself. It’s amazing how many of your fears go away when you have a sense of humor about them. I’ve learned as an actress that there are two things you lose when you’re scared — your humor and your sexuality. They go right out the window! Fear really starts in your head, and if you really want to overcome your fears, you first have to turn them around in that powerful brain of yours.
As you read this book, you’ll be confronted with the same types of questions I’ve asked myself over the years in order to dig deep enough to change my life. Self-examination is never easy, but when you read or hear something that reroutes your thinking and inspires you to move in a more positive direction, then every step of the journey becomes more gratifying than the next.
Excerpted from “Wear Your Life Well,” by Marilu Henner. Copyright 2008 Marilu Henner. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved.