A rulebreaker’s guide to becoming a healthy person in an unhealthy world.
Deviant: n. One that differs from a norm, especially a person whose behavior and attitudes differ from accepted social standards. — American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth ed.
For much of my life, I tried hard to pass for normal. That didn’t go so well.
It’s not like I wasn’t warned. Throughout my childhood, both my sociologist dad and my hippie mom tried hard to convince me that “normal” was overrated.
On a daily basis, my counterculture parents seized every opportunity to point out the inherent nuttiness of mass culture. They encouraged me to see its foibles, its artifice, its prejudice, its materialism. They urged me to question authority, to challenge convention, to find my own way.
I knew my parents to be good people, but to me, their advice seemed spectacularly bad. Even at a young age, I understood that normalcy was the price of entry into the “real” world. It looked like the only way to win. So I rejected a lot of what my parents taught me and chased normal instead.
I did OK at that for a while. I tried hard to wear the right things, eat the right things, do the right things, have the right things. But it seemed like the harder I worked at achieving the markers of mainstream success, the less healthy and happy I got.
Throughout my adolescence, I looked to women’s magazines for health and beauty advice. My health and self-esteem plummeted as my formerly stable weight wobbled — and then rose.
At college — deskbound, stressed, sleep deprived, and fueled by cafeteria food — I gained more weight and lost more confidence.
By the time I turned 30, I was stuck in some profoundly unhealthy ruts. I assumed this was because I wasn’t doing things “right.” Clearly, I just needed to try harder.
So I doubled down with more extreme diets and more aggressive workouts, none of which I could maintain for long. I scoured health and fitness magazines for advice, and bought into an endless series of “Better You!” self-improvement plans, hoping that one of them would fix me and my life for good.
Breakdown to Breakthrough
Looking back, I can see now that my efforts to conform were squeezing the life and light right out of me. But at the time, I was too busy obsessively poking at my body’s imperfections to notice.
Meanwhile, my career was ramping up. With it came new stresses and new symptoms: rashes, acne, digestive problems, back pain, night sweats, carpal tunnel. I couldn’t sleep. My eyelashes started falling out.
One day, feeling overwhelmed by the impossibility of doing everything I had to do, while also trying to be everything I felt I had to be, I hit my breaking point — literally.
In a fit of self-directed frustration, I let out an anguished scream and stomped my foot on the wooden floor, hard. Too hard. Hard enough that, well, I broke my foot.
I heard the bone snap. I felt the sickening crunch. And in a strange, out-of-body moment, I watched my body crumple to the floor.
It was then that I had three important “aha” insights:
- I had just broken myself. I had directed so much untethered, unconscious violence against my own body that I had succeeded in snapping my own skeleton in two. That capacity for self-violence scared me.
- This was nothing new. While the breaking of bone was novel, the dynamic of self-violence was not. I had, in fact, been breaking myself — for years. I’d been breaking my digestion, my biochemistry, my healthy limits, my self-regard, and my peace of mind.
- I was not alone. Initially, lying there broken on the floor, I felt a bit sorry for myself. But when I thought about it, I realized that pretty much everyone I knew was suffering from a similar fate. All of them were breaking themselves in some way. All were battling various symptoms. Many were taking prescription medications to get by, but most seemed to be getting worse, not better, over time.
And so, from my moment of misery came a moment of great clarity: The mass-media advice and conventional health prescriptions I’d been attempting to follow were not working for me. Or for most of the people I knew. Period.
It was time for a change.
It didn’t happen all at once, but little by little, I began letting go of mainstream health-improvement solutions, and I started listening to my body instead.
I learned what I now call “the Skills of the Healthy Person.” I gave up dieting, calorie counting, mass-market magazines, and TV. I learned how to make and enjoy whole foods. I abandoned bikini-body workouts and discovered ways of moving that I actually enjoyed. I started spending a little time outdoors each day, honoring my need for sleep, and safeguarding time for play and relaxation. I stopped chasing “success” as a metric of success.
Basically, I embarked on my own Plan B. Then Plan C. Then Plan D.
As I experimented with new ways of living, my life got incrementally better. Then dramatically better. I discovered that “normal” was indeed overrated, and also profoundly damaging — at least for me. I also discovered that there were many ways of living that I enjoyed more.
And so began my adventures in Healthy Deviance.
The most basic premise of Healthy Deviance is one you likely know from experience: Being a healthy person in our unhealthy culture is ridiculously challenging — at first, anyway.
You have to deviate from all sorts of unhealthy norms and forgo making all sorts of easy, automatic choices. You have to maintain a base level of vigilance just to avoid getting sucked into the vortex of the dominant-culture machine — what I call our Unhealthy Default Reality.
That takes moxie and effort. It also invites judgment and pushback.
When you challenge the Unhealthy Default Reality, you risk coming across as odd, obstinate, or downright disruptive. Do that long enough, and at some point, someone will disapprove. Someone might even ask you the exasperated question I so often asked my oddball parents: “Why can’t you just be normal?”
If anyone asks, here’s your answer: Because what currently passes for normal in our culture is crazy:
- 50 percent of U.S. adults have been diagnosed with at least one chronic illness (many have more than one).
- Two-thirds are overweight or obese.
- More than half of Americans rely on daily doses of pharmaceutical drugs.
- 80 percent aren’t thriving mentally and emotionally.
- 97.3 percent aren’t practicing even four of the health habits essential to well-being, such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy diet and BMI, and getting regular exercise.
- Translation: Only a single-digit percentage of U.S. adults are currently healthy, thriving, and on track to stay that way.
New-Era Survival Skills
So, what does it mean to live in a society that reliably produces more unhealthy, unhappy people than healthy, happy ones?
It means we are all facing the same, socially awkward choice: Break the rules, or break yourself.
I’m going to suggest you break some rules. The Healthy Deviant approach doesn’t try to mold you into a particular shape or size. It doesn’t insist that you follow a specific diet or burn a certain number of calories. Instead, it invites you to challenge some assumptions and embrace some simple self-care practices. Those shifts will empower you to make whatever other healthy choices you decide are in your own best interest.
This approach may seem counterintuitive at first (Wait, no diet or exercise program?!), but it is based on a rather obvious fact: In a hyper-challenging situation (like the one we are living in now), an aware, energized, resilient person stands a far better chance of surviving than a distracted, depleted, fragile one.
And here’s the great news: While a person can happily spend a lifetime mastering the art of Healthy Deviance, it’s possible to get a jump on the essentials in a single day. It all starts with embracing what I call the Nonconformist Competencies.
The Nonconformist Competencies
Want to escape the vitality-sapping pull of our Unhealthy Default Reality? Start by upgrading your awareness, resilience, and healthy-living know-how. These Nonconformist Competencies and strategies support healthy self-regulation without demanding stringency or self-denial. Aim to develop them at your own pace, on your own terms, in ways that feel good to you.
1. Amplified Awareness
What it is: The ability to consistently notice, assess, and respond to what’s going on both within and around you.
Why it matters: To outwit the Unhealthy Default Reality, you must first notice when and how it is messing with you. Our culture trains us to react slavishly to external triggers and sensory cravings (Ooh, I smell doughnuts!) but to ignore our body’s signals, symptoms, and state-changes (Ugh, I feel drained, or Ouch, my stomach hurts).
Developing the ability to closely observe your own experiences without judging or dismissing them helps you hear what your body is trying to tell you — rather than reacting to whatever crazy messages and temptations the “normal” world is throwing your way. This gives you a huge advantage in pursuing your own highest choices rather than somebody else’s agenda.
Healthy Deviant Strategies:
- Slow down. Several times a day, especially when you’re feeling stressed or drained, consciously slow your pace and deepen your breathing. Stand up straight. Drop your shoulders away from your ears. Assume a relaxed but regal “here and now” posture. Observe how your mind and emotional state shift to match. Keep doing that.
- Tune out and tap in. As often as possible (at least a few times a day), turn off all electronic devices and mass media. Use the quiet time to track your thoughts, feelings, and impulses. Pay attention to what’s happening around you and whether it is triggering, energizing, or depleting. Notice the state of your body and mind. Plug your ears and listen for your own heartbeat.
- Ask questions. When you feel regret or frustration about an unhealthy choice or behavior, ask yourself with real curiosity: What happened there? We tend to make iffy decisions when we’re stressed or worn out, so consider what might have set you up (over the past few minutes, hours, or days) to be vulnerable in this instance. Notice which circumstances repeatedly lead to trouble. Then, rather than beating yourself up, simply ask: What are my choices now? How might I be kinder and more responsible to myself next time?
- Schedule brief daily check-ins with yourself (morning, noon, and night) to assess your physical, mental, and emotional states. Just ask: How am I doing now?
- Allow for some device-free, media-free, idle time each day. Use that time to relax and consciously redirect your attention toward beauty, or just let your mind wander.
- Build low-effort mindfulness exercises, such as deliberate nonrushing, deep breathing, and conscious eating, into your day.
- Develop your compassionate self-observation and reflection skills through journaling. Write down, without judging yourself, one thing you did really well today and one thing you’re interested in doing a bit differently tomorrow.
2. Preemptive Repair
What it is: The willingness to regularly replenish, restore, and reinforce depleted systems before they render you vulnerable and reactive.
Why it matters: We live in a culture that inflicts a lot of pro-inflammatory damage and also massively undervalues anti-inflammatory rest and recovery. As a result, our resilience is being persistently diminished, and what we think of as our willpower is constantly being worn down. To stay healthy in body and mind, you have to get ahead of that damage, resting before you are exhausted, replenishing your reserves before you become ill, proactively reinforcing your body and mind while you still have the wherewithal to do so.
Healthy Deviant Strategies:
- Run offense and defense: Our culture generally won’t prompt you to rest, take breaks, or prioritize self-repair until after you’ve broken down. You’ll need strong boundaries (and sometimes sharp elbows) to maintain space and time for your preemptive-repair priorities. Use them.
- Play the long game: Taking time to rest and recover immediately after a stressful experience can save you days, weeks, or even months you might otherwise lose to illness, injury, or mistakes. Our culture will tell you that everything is important and that it all must happen right this minute. Don’t believe the hype.
- Be responsive to your body: When your body is thirsty, give it a glass of water. When it longs for a walk around the block, a few minutes of sunshine, or an extra hour of sleep, make that happen. Your body clamors for rest because it needs rest. Acts of self-care may also be the only thing standing between you and some breaking point with a high price tag.
- Make a point of spending five to 10 minutes outdoors just enjoying that experience. Put your smartphone away. Listen to the birds. Look at the clouds, trees, and plants. Just be.
- Take one or more Ultradian Rhythm Breaks throughout the day, aiming for a 10- to 20-minute break every 90 minutes.
- If you normally have an alcoholic drink or two in the evening, try swapping that for sparkling water or herbal tea, and see if you sleep better.
- Invite a friend or loved one on a low-key walk to catch up in person. Consider walking a bit slower than your usual pace.
- At a time when you would normally watch TV or play video games, take a long, relaxing bath instead.
3. Continuous Growth and Learning
What it is: The ongoing expansion of your know-how and personal potential through the development of a growth mindset — one that greets challenges as opportunities and plays to your strengths.
Why it matters: As a rule, healthy people have mastered some skills that unhealthy people haven’t . . . yet. They include attending to nutrition and exercise, but also managing energy, time, and attention; making wise consumer choices; cultivating media literacy; and fostering a healthy body image.
Healthy Deviant Strategies:
- Be patient and persistent. There is no way to master all the Skills of the Healthy Person in one fell swoop. So take it step by step, and enthusiastically embrace the fact that you are always going to be learning and growing.
- Take a “beginner’s mind” approach. If you judge yourself harshly, if you assume being healthy is “too hard,” if you give up on figuring it out and finding your own way, you are playing right into the hands of the system that is breaking you down. Don’t fall for that trap! Instead, declare that you can learn whatever you need to learn to be healthy. Then start where you are — now.
- Celebrate small successes. Growth requires practice, exploration, and experimentation. It also responds well to positive encouragement. So affirm your progress. You figured out a new way to pack a healthy lunch? Excellent! You cut back on alcohol or TV time? Woo-hoo! Every step in the direction of your well-being is a good step.
- Spend five or 10 minutes reading ancient or modern wisdom literature each morning (before you check your phone or computer) and each night before bed.
- Once a month, pick a new healthy, vegetable-rich recipe that you can imagine eating regularly. Make it and see if it’s worth keeping in your repertoire.
- Subscribe to a podcast that helps you discover things you don’t know rather than just repeating the things you do.
- Attend a workshop on a healthy-living topic you find interesting.
- Ask a healthy friend to show you (vs. tell you) how he or she does a thing you would like to learn to do better.
The Revolutionary Road Ahead
The philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “It is no great measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” That is so true. But it is also true that being seen as maladjusted to one’s society is no walk in the park.
So as you begin deviating from the status quo, don’t be surprised if you raise some eyebrows. You might also get some ribbing or resistance — particularly from people who haven’t committed to taking care of themselves in similar ways.
In the long run, though, the rewards of Healthy Deviance vastly outweigh its costs. And, happily, it gets a lot easier and more rewarding as you go.
The best part? When one of us changes our life for the healthier and happier, everyone around us benefits. We bring more creativity, capacity, and compassion to everything we do, and our whole world gets better as a result.
I know that the statistics I shared earlier are daunting. But imagine a world in which our current ratio of healthy to unhealthy people was inverted. What if, instead of most people struggling and only a tiny minority thriving, it was the other way around?
What if the vast majority of us had energy, enthusiasm, and resilience to spare?
If enough Healthy Deviants start waking up and extracting themselves from the Unhealthy Default Reality, we can begin creating that better reality — now.
It all starts with a simple but momentous choice: to stop breaking yourself, even when that means breaking from convention.
Make that choice often enough, and soon you’ll find that you’ve stepped off the road most traveled, and embarked on a Healthy Deviant journey of your own making.
Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the only kind of Healthy Deviant journey there is.
Take the Healthy Deviant Quiz
Answer a few simple questions to discover where you sit on the Healthy Deviant spectrum — and get some next-step suggestions tailored to you: www.thehealthydeviant.com.
Three Renegade Rituals
EL’s founding editor, Pilar Gerasimo, shares three of her health-defending routines.
By Pilar Gerasimo
Ready to get serious about building your Healthy Deviant skill set? Start by building one or more of my three favorite Renegade Rituals into your day:
- Morning Minutes
- Ultradian Rhythm Breaks
- Nighttime Wind-Down
On the surface, these simply daily practices might seem like no big deal, but they amount to jujitsu moves — artful, subtle, low-effort shifts that achieve powerful leverage and bring surprisingly synergetic, high-impact results.
By working with and optimizing your body’s natural energy and biochemistry patterns, they rapidly help you feel stronger, saner, more centered, less frazzled. And by giving you a huge capacity and confidence boost, they lay the groundwork for otherhealthy choices.
Don’t feel you need to take on all three Renegade Rituals at once, or that you need to do them perfectly. Just do what you can and aim for gradual, sustainable change.
Practice even a single Renegade Ritual for a few days in a row, and you’ll find that the Unhealthy Default Reality’s grip on you has loosened a little.
You might also rediscover some powerful, autonomous part of yourself you didn’t even realize was missing. And from there, other healthy choices will come far more easily.
Renegade Ritual 1: Morning Minutes
As our bodies moves from sleep to waking, our brainwaves are in a transitional and highly impressionable state — a delicate space where subconscious insights are more accessible and where ideas and intentions are more likely to take hold.
Waking gradually, rather than springing into action or tuning in to electronic devices, lets you to harness this valuable, creative brain state for your own purposes. It also spares your brain the assault of outside forces and mass-media agendas when it is at its most vulnerable.
This brief, pleasant morning ritual can help you start your day on your own terms, so you can better manage whatever comes next:
First thing on rising, before you do anything else (especially looking at your phone, computer, or TV) choose a calm, feel-good activityand enjoy it for a minimum of three minutes. It could be meditation, stretching, reading poetry or wisdom literature, journaling, prayer, looking out the window, or stepping outside to see the sunrise and hear the birds.
- Feel free to change the ritual to suit your present state, so you never have to feel “not in the mood.” The morning practice is a pleasure, not a duty. I generally start my day by lighting a beeswax candle and then asking: What do I feel like doing now?Sometimes I just stare at the flickering flame; other times I do yoga, journal, pet my dog, or play my guitar.
- Consider using the last few moments of your practice to set your intentions for the day or to reflect on the things you are most grateful for. Close your practice with three deep, centering breaths. Notice how this can change the quality of your day.
Renegade Ritual 2: Ultradian Rhythm Breaks
The body is built for regular breaks throughout the day— much as it’s designed to sleep for about eight hours a night, thanks to circadian rhythms that are sensitive to light and dark cycles.
In addition to circadian rhythms, we have shorter cycles called “ultradian rhythms” that correspond to our active and resting cycles. Just like eye blinks and heart beats, ultradian rhythms are built into the body’s control systems. They are characterized by extended “peak” periods (about an hour and a half) of high-output focus and productivity, followed by shorter “trough” periods (about 20 minutes) of lower-energy, reduced-output recovery time.
Those energy troughs might seem like a drag and tempt you to reach for the coffee, but they serve an important purpose: They compel you to take a physical and mental rest. And this matters more than you might think.
Your body uses the “down” phase of the ultradian cycle kind of like a mini-sleep — to recover from one “up” period and prepare for the next. During an ultradian-rhythm break, your body is busy rebalancing your blood sugar, hormones, and neurotransmitters; organizing information in your brain; and regulating immune function. It also performs cellular-repair and detoxification tasks — the biological equivalent of patching holes and sweeping out debris.
Far from being a timesaver, skipping ultradian-rhythm sets your body-mind back, hampering its ability to rebound. Because important repair, rebalancing, and mental filing tasks have not yet been completed, and because your energetic reserves are diminished, your next performance “peak” — when it comes — will be significantly lower.
The more breaks you skip, the more your cognitive capacity and mood suffer. As the day wears on, your willpower gets depleted, and you become more vulnerable to cravings, impulses, and runaway inflammation.
Want to avoid all that? Here’s how to identify and make the most of your ultradian rhythms:
- Be on the lookout for signals that you need a break: fatigue, brain fog, loss of focus and productivity, yawning, fidgeting, difficulty keeping your eyes open, irritation, reactivity, food cravings, thirst, and loss of physical coordination.
- Take truly restorative breaks. Some ideas: Lie down for a spell; refill your water bottle or tea cup; have a healthy snack; get outside; do a little deep breathing or meditation; take a walk; do an easy manual task; connect with someone you enjoy.
- If you’ve been sitting still, move. If you’ve been exerting yourself, slow down. If you’ve been focusing intensely, let your mind wander.
- Resist the temptation to rely on coffee, sugar, and refined-carb infusions as replacements for ultradian rhythm breaks; these only run your battery down further. Web surfing, social media, and digital gaming are also inadequate substitutes for an actual break. All are too stimulating.
- Try setting a bell on your phone that reminds you to check in with yourself every 90 minutes. Once you start noticing your own ultradian rhythms, you won’t need this.
- Plan for a couple of breaks a day, one in the morning and one midafternoon. A 20-minute break is ideal, but any pause, even 5 or 10 minutes, is much better than nothing. The longer your break, the more your body can restore and repair itself.
Renegade Ritual 3: Nighttime Wind-Down
Just as our bodies go through brain-wave and biochemical shifts throughout the day, they also go through them as we prepare for sleep.
There’s no binary on-off switch you can flip to proceed immediately from one state directly to the other. When you try to shift from the “go-go-go!” pace you’ve been in all day and drop directly into deep sleep, the result is often insomnia, restlessness, worry, and frustration.
Having a nighttime ritual, by contrast, encourages a proper balance of pro-sleep neurotransmitters and hormones. It helps nudge your brain waves from frenzied toward sleepy, and it sets your body up to make the best use of its overnight-repair window.
The following Nighttime Wind-Down Ritual helps to prepare your body-mind for high-quality sleep while also encouraging you to build some self-care practices into the end of your day.
- Set an alert for 45 minutes to an hour before your chosen bedtime. When it goes off, shut down work projects and electronic devices and avoid looking at any lit screens for the rest of the night. (That includes your phone and tablet.)
- Lower the house lights and reduce the volume; choose relaxing music or silence over stimulating music or audio broadcasts.
- Sip some calming herbal tea as you get ready for bed. Finish up any little household activities, including preparations for the next day. Brush your teeth and wash your face slowly, noticing and releasing any temptation to rush.
- Prepare your bedroom for sleep: Block all external light sources, lower the temperature, declutter bedside surfaces.
- Read if you like, but avoid anything too exciting or disturbing, and stick to paper books. (Even if you are reading on a non-backlit electronic device, your brain will associate all that clicking and swiping with an executive-function state that’s antithetical to sleep.) The moment you feel sleepy, put the book down and turn out the light.
- Observe a nightly routine where you let go of the day. This could include jotting a positive reflection in a gratitude journal or sharing one with a partner; taking three deep breaths; repeating a mental mantra (e.g., “this day’s done and now it’s time to rest”). You might also try a relaxation exercise like this one: Progressively tense and then relax your entire body, working downward from your head to your feet.
- Allow for natural, gradual transition between waking and sleep. If you’re not drifting off, don’t panic or clock-watch. Instead, try a series of 4-7-8 breaths, where you breathe in for a count of four; hold that inhale for a count of seven; then slowly release over a count of 8. Or get up briefly and do any elements of your Nighttime Wind-Down Ritual you might have skipped or skimped on.