How Do You Like Your Porridge?

I have one question for you …

How do you like your porridge?

I am not talking about literal porridge … although it would be kinda hilarious if I were!

I am asking how well you know yourself. How adept you are at discerning “what is too much,” “what is too little,” and what is “just right” for you.

For you are the two critical words.

You are Goldilocks and the porridge is your life.

Another way to put it is, “What is your unique threshold of tolerance”?

“Becoming Goldilocks” is not simply a philosophical thought experiment. The ability to both discern and place healthy boundaries around your “porridge” is critical when adopting and maintaining a healthier lifestyle. I would go even one step further and say it is the key to happiness; but for now let’s stick within my scope of practice and discuss how “knowing your zone” will positively impact your health.

Let me take you through a few examples.

Goal setting

Contrary to the popular health discourse, no one is born a “goal-setting ninja,” and for most of us “just doing it” is not a useful or possible life mantra.

Goal setting is a skill … a skill most of us were never taught. We mistakenly conflate stating a “wish” with setting a goal, as if putting something we want out into the ether will make it miraculously happen. Stating that you “will lose weight” or “start drinking water” will unfortunately not make the weight fall off or the water enter your belly! We are often so gung-ho to get up and moving that we skip critical preparatory steps … goal assessment, scheduling, etc.

One way a “wish” becomes a “goal” is by making both the goal itself and the parameters needed to “give the goal legs” within our threshold of tolerance—i.e., the goal needs to pass the Goldilocks test.

The goal needs to fit within the Goldilocks “just right” pocket of challenge and comfort.

A goal should be challenging enough to be stimulating, but small enough to be achievable. The “win” is key. The benefits of anything are moot if one can’t make oneself do it.

How are your goals?

Are they not challenging enough to be inspiring? Are you too competent, too bored to move forward? If you are too comfortable (if you stay with that one core exercise you have done your entire life) you will never evolve. That core “no challenge” is the “too little” bowl of porridge. Expand what you do—your breadth of activity. Try a new sport or a new machine at the gym. Or expand how well you do something. Stick with running, but go deeper. Maybe train for a marathon.

Are your goals too far along the “discomfort” continuum to be realistic?  If they are too unrealistic to be possible, if they fall under the “too hot” porridge label, consider finding something you can do consistently. For example, if you hate running or running always injures you, then don’t aim to run—running might fall under the “too much” heading.

Find a balance between “challenge” and “comfort.” Live at the edge of your ability but not on such a high diving board that you can’t jump.

Recovering from an injury

Recovering from an injury offers excellent “manure” for self-development—an opportunity to cultivate the skill of listening to the body as it tells you what is “too much,” what is “too little,” and what is “just right.”

With too little exercise or motion you will not get stronger.

With too much exercise, especially too much of the wrong kind of exercise, you will reinjure yourself.

With just the right amount of the right kind of activity—usually physio-type exercises—you will slowly recover.

What injuries can teach you, if you are open to learning, will depend on which porridge you bias towards.

If you have lived thus far as the type of person who pushes through everything—who goes for the piping hot bowl of exercise—an injury can be an excellent opportunity to learn to chill, to recover, and to prioritize daily small acts of self-care such as physio.

If you typically bias towards the cold bowl (procrastination, TV time, and inconsistency), an injury can teach you the importance of showing up daily and putting in the work.

Injuries are a particularly useful way to sharpen the “knowing yourself” knife; what your body will need will change as you get stronger and as the nature of the injury changes. Instead of being frustrated by this “moving target,” understand it as an amplified example of the moving target of life. Use it as opportunity to learn to listen to your body and what it needs. Think of it as accelerated learning.

Understanding your nervous system

This section is inspired by Deb Dana’s The Polyvagal Theory In Therapy. Polyvagal theory is used to explain the wiring of our nervous system. The basic tenet is that our nervous system is continuously responding and adapting (below our level of conscious awareness) to perceived readings of safety and connection. As we learn to listen to the signals the system provides we can better curate environments, relationships, and self-talk that serve us. In Kathleen speak, the book is about learning how to “read” the signs provided by the nervous system to better know what is too little, too much, and just right for your unique self.

Dana outlines three basic nervous system responses. The “ventral vagal” is our creative, calm, in-control, “I feel safe” emotional home. “Dorsal vagal” is the “I am sacred and I am retreating into myself” home (think “ostrich head in the sand” self). “The sympathetic” is the “mobilized, fearful … fight or flight” response.

Don’t think “good” versus “bad.” Humans need all three responses; each serves a purpose. The issue becomes when we get stuck disproportionally in one type of response path—when our system can’t “dance” between all three. The goal is to cultivate a system that can, as needed, dynamically move back and forth between dorsal, ventral, and sympathetic. This dynamic flexibility comes from knowing yourself and feeling safe, secure, and capable.

I’ll give two examples.

In a well-functioning system, when a car is coming towards you, you go “sympathetic.” Then when the car doesn’t hit you come back to “ventral.”

Your boss yells at you …. You momentarily go dorsal. Then you remember you are an adult and not five years old and you pull yourself back to ventral. You breathe and calmly state your case.

In both examples, your nervous system fluctuates between systems but comes back to “ventral” once it knows that you are okay. Your nervous system is there to sense danger and regulate your safety. A good thing, as long as you don’t get trapped in any one state. For a trigger-happy system, one all-too-experienced with uncertainty and danger, it is harder to re-regulate back to the calm, centred state of ventral vagal; in a system wired from previous trauma, one stays in the sympathetic or dorsal state for longer than needed.

Are you wondering how this relates to Goldilocks?

Once you “know yourself” and your threshold of tolerance for different situations and environments (i.e., once you have pinpointed experiences that trigger you) you can better curate a life that keeps you in the “just right” zone.

Let me use myself as an example. My digestion is absolutely my thermometer of how happy my nervous system is. Through years of therapy I have learned to recognize the number of hours I can work before my system gets so sympathetically driven that I get digestion issues. Digestion occurs in a parasympathetic state (think calm ventral vagal). I also have a threshold of time I can spend at a party before my nervous system says “no” and my gut says “get me out of here.”

Now, you do you!!

What are the activities that make you feel calm, centred, and the best version of you? (i.e., ventral vagal). Do you need to meditate? Be in nature? Sleep? Journal? Talk to friends?

How much of these activities are needed to meet your “minimum required dose” to facilitate you becoming your best version of you? Thirty minutes? Ten minutes?

What are the activities that trigger you to go dorsal vagal (retreat inwards)? What about sympathetic (high, nervous energy)? Are there people who trigger shame reactions? Fear? What nudges you to feel unsafe, insecure, on edge? Too much social media? Too little exercise? Too much TV?

Learn to understand the amount of any one activity, type of person, type of food, etc. that best serves you and how to pull yourself back if or when you do get too high of a dose.

For example …

You look at social media and see all the “fit” people and you feel shamed and overwhelmed … basically like a piece of shit. You go dorsal vagal and tunnel into yourself. You go to bed and binge on Netflix. You are immobilized.

The first trick is to recognize that social media is in the “too much/not good for you” category.

Establish roads (in advance) that you know you can take to bring you “back.” A friend you can call who will encourage you to go for a walk. A water bottle perfectly placed to remind you to take a deep breath, drink, and just remember that you are worthy. Self-talk that will help encourage you to put down your phone and do some yoga. Something like, “Self, listen up. Yes, you are overwhelmed right now, but your future self will be happier if you just get up and go for a walk or do some yoga. Comparing yourself to an unrealistic goal on social is not helpful, but doing nothing will not help your mood or make you feel more worthy. Have some water. Move your body.”

Finally, find ways to shield yourself from social media in the future. Maybe unfriend toxic people.

It all comes down to asking yourself …

What is too much for me? What can’t my physical or mental body handle?

What is too little for me? What will keep me stuck? What threshold do I have to hit to feel challenged and stimulated?

In this moment what serves me?

What action in this moment will serve the future me?

Let go of “perfect.” No zone is perfect. Aim for flexible.

Find YOUR threshold. Your threshold and what will serve you is YOURS and yours alone. It has nothing to do with what will serve your mother or your sister or your favourite celebrity.

Figure out your nervous system—your Goldilocks spots—thrive in your own lane.

Concluding thoughts

Work to find your sweet spot, but be compassionate with yourself as you do. This is a process. Your “sweet spot”—the spot that allows you to feel challenged enough to be excited and invested in life, but not so challenged that you are paralyzed by fear—is a moving target. That is not only okay, but it is good. That means you are evolving. All experiences are simply data—opportunities to know yourself and to identify your zones.

Becoming Goldilocks is tricky. Health requires adaptation, and adapting requires tolerating enough stimuli that your body and brain are forced to evolve. Finding your “threshold” for success—your zone that is challenging yet manageable—is a process. We all need to be comfortable enough to progress forward but challenged enough to feel excited. Learn to tolerate slight discomfort, but be kind to yourself as you do.

Stop shaming yourself as you go. Shame is not helpful. You will not be perfect. Perfect does not exist. You will not state the “perfect” goal, be “perfect’ at recovering from an injury, or always be in the “perfect” nervous system zone.

Finding your sweet spot will never be easy but it will get easier. Think progress. Work on being agile. Think “feedback” versus failure.

I will leave you with a quotation.

That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased. —R.W. Emmerson