As a psychologist I work with a lot of people who want to make a change in their lives. They want to be more outgoing, assertive, or confident…less depressed, anxious, or boring…and so on. We could probably all benefit from making one change or another.
I have found myself lately writing about making changes. It’s my business, but I’m also fascinated by what motivates people to change, why some people are successful and others aren’t, and why change is easier for some than others. And what are the barriers- either real or perceived, to change?
One barrier that many people experience is a tendency to alternate between extremes. We may not be motivated to exercise one day- but the next we are. We get fed up with how we feel, we’re shocked by the number we see on the scale, or our favorite jeans feel a little tighter than usual… Not only do we decide to exercise, but we vow to work out 7 days a week. That’s how you get results, right? No more playing around, it’s time to commit! Or, we don’t just decide to eat better, but we decide on no more sweets, no more salty snacks, no more greasy foods, and no more alcohol. Just salad and water from here on out!
See a problem here? You can’t go from A to Z in one day- it’s too extreme. At least most people can’t. Cold turkey works for a small minority of people, if even for a week, a month… or four months. But most of us will be slipping that very afternoon, rationalizing why we should eat that piece of cake, order pizza, or skip our workout. The problem with extremes is that they’re just too difficult to maintain. It’s too big a change from what we’re used to- not to mention barriers that I mentioned earlier. Real barriers include time, money, responsibilities like work and caring for children, stress, and more. Perceived barriers can include any of these, but are usually in our own minds. Things like, “Eating healthy is too expensive…the gym is too expensive…or it takes too much time to do A, B, or C”. Or maybe we believe we just can’t do it. Chances are these barriers can be addressed and worked around if you really want to make change.
However, the title this post has to do with another problem with extremes. When we commit to a change, go hard toward it, but at some point falter, we feel like we failed. It makes us feel bad- especially if we “mess up” quickly or we just “failed” for the 400th time. We feel negative, and we label ourselves as failures, losers, wimps, and so forth. We might even “hate” ourselves. So what do we do, but revert back to our comfortable place of eating and drinking what we want, lying on the couch watching TV, or sleeping in. That is, until we feel motivated enough to try again.
But what constitutes failure, anyway? For most of us, since we’re thinking in extremes, anything less than perfect = failure. Eating one cookie (or 8) while trying to avoid sweets; drinking a beer after work on Tuesday when we’re trying to avoid alcohol on weekdays; or having seconds at dinner when our goal was small portions. And when this happens, we might as well go to town, right? That’s the mentality that contributes to relapse for those avoiding drugs or alcohol. “If I have one beer, I might as well get drunk”. If one slip-up is a failure, then most people are doomed before they start! And yes, I’m simplifying something like addiction; however, the thinking is the same.
So what can we do about it? One strategy I have found helpful is to compensate. To compensate can be defined as “to offset, counterbalance”. This is a good strategy to use, rather than thinking in all-or-nothing terms. Compensating can help us to “get back on the wagon”, so to speak, before we have fully fallen off, and can help us to view issues in terms of setbacks, rather than failures. It’s easier go get back on the wagon if one foot is still hanging on than if it’s a mile ahead of us, right? In the long run, you’ll have greater success viewing things in this way than in the old, all-or-nothing mindset.
Here are a few examples of how compensation can be used:
– If your goal was to avoid sweets and you eat a donut at work, have a light dinner or eat a salad. Or maybe that’s one less excuse you have to skip the gym.
– If you decide to walk or exercise for 30 minutes a day and you missed yesterday, be sure to do it today. Even go for a few minutes longer today.
– If your goal was to go to the gym 3 times a week and you only made it once last week, try again this week. That one time was better than none.
– If you are trying to be more calm and you find yourself yelling at your kids at 9am, take a break and try to refocus on your goal. Or if you had a “bad day” with your children, do your best to make tomorrow a good day.
– If you decide you are not going to drink alcohol during the work week and you have a glass of wine on Monday, it doesn’t mean the rest of your week is ruined. Try to abstain the rest of the week until Friday.
The point here is not to immediately jump to a negative mental place because you slipped up. When you become aware of it, catch yourself and get back on track. This may not be an easy mentality to shift to, if you’ve been used to the extremes- but being easier on yourself can help you to stay motivated and to keep going. And healthy behavior should be about leading a healthy lifestyle, not just getting to point _. Even if you do make it there… You lose 20 lbs, fit into _ size pants, or you stay away from alcohol for 30, 60, or 90 days- you should feel great, but your task then becomes to maintain it. You will never fully be “there”, meaning you don’t have to watch what you eat, keep exercising, watch what you drink, etc. BUT, you will never get there to begin with if one mistake = total failure. Give it a try and see what you notice.
If you find that you have been through one cycle or another too many times and you don’t feel you can get started or stick to a plan long enough, consider talking to a professional like a psychologist. He or she can help you to formulate realistic goals, evaluate any blocks that might be holding you back, and develop the motivation and confidence to persevere- especially when it gets tough. For a referral, click here or here. Take care!
Dr. Jesse Matthews is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chester Springs, PA. He helps people of all ages to address many kinds of issues. You can view his Psychology Today profile here. For any questions or to arrange an appointment, please contact him at 610-482-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.