A few years ago, a counseling client sat down in my office and looked at me with a guilty expression on her face. I typically start sessions by asking how the time between sessions has been. We check in on goals, review reactions to situational stressors, and reflect on new learnings over the past week. This particular person was working on developing new habits to support a healthier lifestyle.
“Well, I didn’t eat healthier, and I failed to make it to spin class,” she said. She was disappointed and frustrated by her seeming lack of follow-through on her plan from the previous session and worried I’d feel the same way.
I often get this response among people that come into my office for food-related anxiety. The idea of proverbially “burying their head in the sand” to avoid facing the stress and negative self-judgment over food choices is all too common. The question she and many others struggling to stay with a new goal-directed behavior is WHY? “Why, when I am able to follow through with so many other things, do I struggle to make inroads with food and exercise?”
This leads people to feel frustrated, confused and defeated, questioning their own rationality and ability to succeed in future attempts to make effective change. It may surprise you to hear that my client’s (and probably your) behavior made perfect sense.
Most people fall short of their dietary goals for one of the following reasons.
1) You Have Competing Goals:
A person may want to lose 15 pounds. They may have a good reason to do so. Maybe their doctor told them that they are at risk for developing a chronic condition that could be avoided with weight loss. Or maybe they want to be able to run around with their kids. Maybe they just want to look good for an upcoming reunion (no judging)!
But what if they have other goals competing with the weight loss goal? Family, work or social demands often get in the way of a person taking the steps necessary to accomplish the designated goal. It’s important to look at these competing goals and determine which ones are the primary goals and which ones need to take a backseat in order for you to have success.
2) You Don’t Have The Tools or Skill-Set For The Designated Achievement:
Sometimes clients will come into my office without an understanding of what kinds of changes they need to make (this is another reason why I ask these clients to keep a food journal). One woman I worked with told me that she watched her mom regularly eat apple pie for breakfast and order dessert for dinner. She knew that this wasn’t “healthy” but she had no idea what “healthy” eating really meant. This wasn’t her fault, but she lacked the tools to meet her healthier living goals. Why would you expect to successfully drive towards a destination without learning to read a map?
Beginning with a qualified nutritionist or coach, or doing research online using reputable sources can have a huge impact on a person’s ability to move towards their goals.
3) Your Motivation Is External Rather Than Internal:
If your goal is superficial, it is very difficult to maintain motivation. Often a client will report feeling discouraged after exercising and eating “healthy” for a week or two, only to step on the scale and notice no change, or even worse, a gain in weight.
Or they will embark on a very restrictive diet and “white knuckle” it for a few weeks. Maybe with the goal of looking good for a specific occasion, but then quickly revert back to previous eating patterns and regain any lost weight.
Develop a why:
If you have a deeper “why” for health or behavior change, it is much easier to keep up with new (and often annoying) habits. My son, Will, decided to become a vegetarian a few years ago. This created several different changes in our family. Will is often willing to go hungry when out with other people if a vegetarian option is unavailable because of his personal convictions (an internal motivation).
It’s also caused my older son, Easton, to become an avid hamburger connoisseur! He only chooses the best hamburgers in the valley due to the limited consumption of red meat at home! As for our home cooking, our eating has become even healthier since one of my primary goals is to make sure my kids’ nutritional needs are taken care of (which can be more difficult on a vegetarian diet).
Sometimes external motivations can lead to internal motivations.
Many people begin the road to healthier eating and exercising because they simply want to lose weight for vanity reasons, and that’s okay. But you need something to motivate you when the going gets tough, and the cookies are in the breakroom.
If you are primarily externally motivated in making health changes, take note of the internal motivations that will keep you progressing on your healthy lifestyle path. Have you developed a love for a specific sport? What kinds of changes are you seeing in health indicators, like mood, blood pressure, or energy levels? Have you found a tribe of like-minded people that you enjoy spending time with that keeps you excited about your new, healthier pursuits?
4) Your Emotions Are Derailing You:
There is a false belief that knowing something is enough to change behavior. You know that dropping your dinner plate will likely cause it to shatter and definitely ruin your meal. You are probably pretty conscientious when carrying your plate to the table. But what if that plate is hot and you aren’t near the table? There’s a good chance you’re going to drop that plate despite knowing the consequences! Your reflexes kick in and override your brain’s frontal lobes (where decision making happens). If you don’t drop the plate, you’re going to get burned and your fight/flight animal part of your brain (the amygdala) is more concerned with physical harm than dinner presentation at this moment.
This happens with emotional reflexes as well. Our brains don’t know the difference between real physical dangers and anticipated or emotional dangers.
When you are feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, or have a crisis at hand, your brain moves from rational decision-making into habitual responses.
Think about the last time you had a hard day at work or a fight with a loved one. You felt terrible. You may have been sad or anxious. Negative thoughts and feelings dominated your thoughts. What did you do? Did you sit down with your favorite bowl of ice cream and binge-watch Netflix? Or maybe you dropped by a pizza joint rather than a healthier option.
Did you somehow “forget” about the healthier choices? No. But you moved from those frontal lobes and into the amygdala. By addressing the problems that are causing you to be emotionally upset, you are more likely to override these emotional responses. Consider journaling, talking with a friend, or getting help from a counselor to address the emotional triggers that are setting you back.
5) You Are On Your Way But The Goal Is Too Big And You Haven’t Reached It Yet:
Back to my “guilty” client. As we talked more in our session, she said that she had scheduled a weekly hiking date with her husband. She had also bought vegetables at the store that she was interested in eating (even though other family members weren’t totally on board). And started to follow a healthy food blogger to drum up some new recipe inspiration for weekday meals.
Had she lost a significant amount of weight? Had she started running marathons or winning weight-lifting competitions? No. But she was definitely gaining traction towards her ultimate goal of making sustainable changes in her health and well-being.
The Story, Continued…
A few weeks later, my client came into session and told me that she had, indeed, dropped a few pounds on the scale. Although she was excited about the weight change, she said that she was more excited about the internal changes that had transpired over the previous months. “I feel more empowered, energetic, and confident in myself,” she said.
Making lasting behavior change in any area of life is challenging. It requires effort, openness to change, honest self-evaluation, and a growth mindset, not to mention the ability to laugh at yourself and pivot when necessary. If you find yourself falling short of your health-related goals, consider whether you fall into one of the above categories and adjust accordingly. Your future self will thank you!
*Stories are provided to give depth and understanding to common and universal struggles. Personal or identifiable details have been altered, combined or changed to protect the confidentiality of clients and honor the therapeutic process.