We’ve all had a pair of those jeans somewhere in our house. Jeans that haven’t fit us for years, but we keep anyway. Thinking, hoping and maybe even praying to fit back into them. Thinking that somehow fitting into them would shift our lives for the better.

In her book Life is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful and Live Intentionally, Patti Digh talks about her high school Levi’s and what they represented.

Over the years they’ve become a symbol, a talisman, an icon of my perfect high school shape, that lean and strong teenage body that ran and hiked and climbed and bicycled everywhere, that simpler shape before broken hearts, sexual harassments, dead parents, business suits, big promotions, missed deadlines, inane meetings, working with mean people, being mean myself, dead friends, terrorist attacks, hydraulic systems failing on planes I happened to be on, and just plain living the overrated adult life.

Digh tried desperately to get into those jeans — to no avail. (Something else I bet we can all relate to.) She felt like an utter failure, despite her successful and fulfilling career, wonderful family, great friends and all-round good life.

She writes:

I still couldn’t fit into the jeans. I beat myself up for failing to reach that goal. I joined fitness clubs, worked out with a trainer named Thor in DC, who nearly killed me, drank Master Cleanse Lemonade, joined Weight Watchers, and studied before-and-after pictures in Shape magazine as if I were consulting the hieroglyphic special edition of Man’s Search for Meaning. Even with all those starts and stops and high expectations, and the few successes, the jeans still hung in the closet, unworn and taunting me. 

But something interesting happened to jolt Digh from her jean-fitting mission: Digh’s 12-year-old daughter, Emma, complained that she didn’t have any pants to wear, so Digh suggested she try her Levi’s. A few minutes later, Emma emerged saying the jeans were too small.

For 30 years, Digh had tried furiously to fit into a pair of jeans that were too tiny for her thin young daughter.

Many of us can relate to setting ridiculous, unrealistic expectations and putting ourselves under immense pressure as though these goals were easy to execute. And when we inevitably fail, we can probably relate to punishing ourselves. Whether that’s to insult our bodies, to go on yet another diet, or to work out longer, because that’s what we deserve.

Digh concludes her essay with a poignant point, something that I’ve learned in the last few years of writing Weightless (thankfully):

Do those jeans represent a carefree, simpler more active life, a less stressful way of living, a life less encumbered? Perhaps those are goals I should reach for, not the jeans.

If you haven’t already, very soon you’ll see articles popping up about new year’s resolutions and fitting into those jeans. These articles will tell you how wonderful you’ll feel losing weight and make you feel ashamed and guilty for your current size and probably admonish you for your lack of willpower.

They might suggest going on a restrictive diet, exercising five times a week or until you can’t see straight, posting your photo or another image for “inspiration.” I like to think of these as fake goals, goals that don’t have much meaning, except to make us feel bad about ourselves and punish ourselves.

Digh features two excellent, thought-provoking activities to help readers discover their authentic and realistic goals.

In the first exercise, Digh suggests to free-write about yourself:

  • For five minutes, write a description of yourself.
  • Stop. Cross that one out.
  • Set the timer for three more minutes and describe yourself again without using anything from the first description.
  • Stop. Cross that one out.
  • Set the timer for three more minutes and describe yourself again without using anything from the first two descriptions.

She says that in this last description you’ll probably reveal the real you, “the one beneath all those titles and awards and achievements.”

In the second activity, Digh suggests writing a list of 10 major goals, and for each one asking: “When I achieve that goal, what’s behind it? What more will I need or want once I achieve it?”

Review your list every morning for 37 days. If you find that you’re not taking action toward some of these goals regularly, this doesn’t make you lazy (unlike what you’ll read in some articles).

From far. “Perhaps, instead, those aren’t the real goals,” Digh writes.

It’s like when I vowed to lose weight every year and exercise daily. I rarely did. And if I did for a few days, I’d be miserable most of the time.

It’s because these goals weren’t meaningful to me. I didn’t connect to them. I felt like I should lose weight, and in order to do that, I had to exercise.

I didn’t want to start exercising to nourish my mind and body. I wanted to start exercising because I didn’t think I was worthy, pretty or happy unless I lost weight. That exercise was meant to punish me, not to make me feel good or to become healthier.

Digh concludes by suggesting readers spend about five minutes a day (for 37 days) finding clothes that we’ve been saving for when we lose weight, and to “Give it away to someone who needs it now.”

Can you relate to setting unrealistic goals or holding onto your smaller jeans? What do you think about Digh’s story and suggestions?