“It was never the chicken’s fault”


So, this happened …

If you’ve ever been trapped in a car on a railway track, unable to release the safety belt, unable to start the engine, staring at a train that is just seconds away from smashing into you and ending your world, then you know what a panic attack feels like.

When I was about 25 years old, I started suffering from really bad panic attacks. I had taken on way too much in my life and without realizing it, I had pushed myself to the edge. At the time I had just completed five years of university plus a professional qualification, was trying to keep a social life, was working a lot of overtime (to be fair, I loved my job, so it wasn’t all bad), and I was competing on the South African national team for Tang Soo Do (a form of Korean Karate).

That’s when I started to have panic attacks. These were horrible! Every attack was like a train was about to smash into me. I would be gasping for air, suffocating, and I was convinced I was going to die. Which sucked. You can imagine the amount of adrenalin that ends up swimming around your veins if you ‘nearly die’ several times a day for months. This of course worsened my sleep, and a shortage of sleep was a key contributor to the problem in the first place. It was a vicious spiral, and I was losing.

Chicken was a big trigger for me at the time. Chicken, for goodness sake!

When I would eat chicken for dinner, my tummy would feel weird, and my skin would start to prickle, and a sweat would break out. I would convince myself that the chicken I cooked must have been off, that I had food poisoning, and that I was going to die. And then I’d start to have difficulty breathing, thinking that my time was up.

Of course I didn’t die, which was nice. I didn’t die the first time, nor the next dozen times I had chicken. A few hours would pass, the feelings would resolve, and I would fall asleep exhausted (but alive), it being clear that there was nothing wrong with the chicken.

So naturally I stopped eating chicken. At the very least, I eliminated the possibility of death from eating chicken which had gone off (which I suppose was possible, and could be nasty). And now the panic attacks would surely stop.

But it was never the chicken’s fault.

The problem was I was over-stressed with too little rest. So cutting out chicken didn’t help the panic attacks.

After taking chicken out of my life, I started getting panic attacks every time I ate fish (because the fish must have gone off!), or whenever I took a flight (which was often) because the air on the plane was being contaminated by fuel fumes and I was going to suffocate on the flight (not that I’d ever heard of that), or when I realized that my aircon must be leaking poison at night (and I would surely not wake up the next day).

But it was never the chicken’s fault.

It wasn’t the fish, nor the air in the plane, nor the aircon in my room. The problem was my health. And as long as I was in denial about that (albeit unintentionally), no matter what trigger I eliminated from my life, the problem would (and did) persist.

It was only when I became clear that I should be dealing with the real underlying problem and not with the symptoms and the distractions, only then did my health start to improve and the panic attacks started to ease.

I had chicken for dinner tonight, and it was delicious.

Simple Definition

It was never the chicken’s fault: While problems have their causes, they also have symptoms and irrelevant distractions. We can only solve a problem when we deal with the real underlying cause, although it’s too easy to end up focusing on the symptoms and distractions.

Discussing what it means

In this #hashtag-story, I recall a time when I had pushed myself a little too close to burnout, and was in a state where small things, things as insignificant as what I decided to eat for dinner, would be enough to trigger a severe panic attack. I’d spent my time identifying and trying to eliminate these triggers, when the real problem was my health, and the triggers were actually just symptoms.

You can compare “It was never the chicken’s fault” to #[It’s not about the typo], since in a sense both are about blame. But while this #hashtag-story is about inward blame, the other is about an outward blame (where we tell people something that sounds credible in order to avoid telling the truth, regardless of whether we can actually put our finger on what the underlying truth is).

  • I’m always getting sick because of the pollution (it’s not because I smoke)
  • I lose my temper because of him (and because of her, and because of them, and her too), and if I take him out my life then I will stop being angry
  • I’ve not actually gained weight, they just make clothes smaller than they used to
  • My children procrastinate on homework all the time because they’re lazy, not because my shouting makes homework such a horrible experience for them
  • I regularly miss my sales target because I was allocated a bad district
  • I don’t get promotions because I’ve had a string of bad bosses
  • The chicken is causing my panic attacks, so I’ll stop eating chicken.

Sure. Except it was never the chicken’s fault.

I get that Denial is part of a normal psychological process, and that it’s one of our coping mechanisms, but it can stick around too long. And the sooner we acknowledge what the real problem is, the sooner we can deal with it and move on.

I recently had coffee with a friend of mine who, during this time of Covid19 crisis, has been questioning many parts of his life, including which country he should live in, whether he fits in his corporate job or whether he should do something completely different. I used the “It was never the chicken’s fault” #hashtag-story to challenge his thinking. It was not to say that he is wrong and that he shouldn’t change countries and that he shouldn’t change careers, but rather to point out that his sense of un-ease might have been brought on purely by Covid19, and that perhaps there is nothing with those other areas of his life. I was just challenging him to consider the possibility that – perhaps – it wasn’t the chicken’s fault.

I sometimes find it helpful – particularly in this context – to not think in terms of black & white (it’s only about the chicken vs It’s only about my poor health), and rather to think in terms of shades of grey (“Hmm, it feels like it’s 70% chicken and 30% health”). This actually allows my thinking to evolve along this continuum over time, which is particularly powerful when denial is the strongest. Even just mentally allowing for the possibility that it’s not all of one and none of the other, and visualising the possibility of sliding along the scale, is enough to start the process. Starting to let go can be the hardest part, and a continuum feels less threatening than an instantaneous and complete reversal of one’s belief system.

Seth Godin, author and entrepreneur and marketer and influencer, sometimes writes #HashtagYourLife-style posts in his blog. He’s got one called ‘Bear Shaving’, which is similar to “It was never the chicken’s fault”, where he notes that if people are shaving bears as a way of dealing with global warming, then they’re clearly not dealing with the real underlying issue.

In future, when you catch yourself blaming something secondary rather than dealing with the primary problem, make a point of quickly flagging it with this #hashtag. This allows all the contaminated and bias-filled detail to melt away, leaving you with the essence of the matter. And then you can solve the problem, effectively.

Making it personal

I’d like to ask you a series of questions for you to think about. Get ready with your notepad (yeah, the one you use every time you #MakeItPersonal, whether it’s paper or a Word document) and let’s begin. (It’s worth re-reading the notes you scribbled in relation to #[It’s not about the typo] before we begin.)

  • Are you – let’s be honest now – aware of anything that you’re currently in denial about? Don’t worry, you don’t need to admit to anyone other than yourself. Since you’re probably not in 100% denial about it – after all, it popped into your head when I asked this question – can you estimate how much in denial you are at the moment: 80% 60% 40% 20%? And how much in denial will you be tomorrow? And next month? Get a sense of how much you can let that denial fade away.
  • What is the main thing that you’ve been telling yourself is getting in your way of becoming a little fitter, or losing a bit of weight (or gaining weight, whatever goals you have)? What could you do to help admit that it’s not as much of an obstacle as you claimed it was?
  • As they say, “It takes two to tango”. So look at a key relationship (your partner, your boss, your kids) and and look at how you antagonize each other, even mildly. Now look at how much blame you ascribe to your ‘partner’ being the problem, and think about what you can do – regardless of what they do – to improve things. Take responsibility for doing the right thing, and stop focusing on the chicken.
  • What other thoughts come to mind about situations in your life where you’re so busy focusing on distractions that you’re not allowing for the possibility that there is something bigger and deeper here that needs to be addressed?

Related stories

#[If Snake-X then Antidote-Y]

#[It’s not about the typo]

#[The Hello Kitty Stapler]

#[The mid-life crisis which is caused by the mid-life crisis]