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Knee-Jerk Reactions To Failing To Meet Your Health Goals Don't Work

When you respond appropriately, you don't delude yourself, but you also don't make something a bigger deal than it needs to be.

10/31/2017 16:27 EDT | Updated 10/31/2017 16:34 EDT
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Within fitness discourse, supposedly "soft" concepts such as "compassion," "appropriate responses," and "self-trust" are too often understood as, at best, secondary to the discipline needed to "be fit" and, at worst, the opposite of what a "disciplined" person needs.

Wrong.

For years I have conceptualized self-compassion, self-trust, and the ability to "respond appropriately" as important-but-somewhat-separate entities; connected, but not causal.

My epiphany? Compassion, trust, and the ability to respond appropriately are inextricably linked; their nascence is akin to a chicken and an egg. Each concept cannot exist without some mutual interplay. Self-trust and compassion are what allow for appropriate health responses. Without the ability to respond appropriately, it is almost impossible to "live" one's health goals long term; one will constantly give in to unreflective emotional reactions and desires. In other words, they are the difference between contemplating resisting dessert and actually reaching for the herbal tea, not the cookie.


Appropriate responses


When you respond appropriately, you don't delude yourself, but you also don't make something a bigger deal than it needs to be. Your "response toolbox" includes more than the two ends of the health reaction binary of "anger, shame, and belittling self-talk" or "self-pandering and coddling."

Too often our health responses are the opposite of productive; they are disproportionate, all-or-nothing knee-jerk reactions. Let's say you're distressed over gaining five pounds. One unproductive, unmeasured response is, "I am worthless and fat and I will starve myself to lose this weight." On the other end of the spectrum one might think, "Screw it! I might as well gain another five. Five pounds doesn't mean anything."

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The problem needs to be given an appropriate response — a productive response. "Despite the five pounds I am still a worthwhile person. Instead of overreacting I will take rational steps so that in four weeks I will have lost the weight."

Don't chose denial. Don't "lean into" depression. Decide on a strategy. If it doesn't work, "reroute." Form new strategies. Learn from every experience.


Compassion


Compassion allows for appropriate responses. Too often people conflate "compassion" with "letting yourself off the hook." I get told, "I don't need to be nicer. I need discipline."

Compassion does not equate to "easier." Compassion means demanding more of yourself, but demanding more because you love yourself, not because you hate yourself. If you say you will go to the gym, go. Establish boundaries — with yourself and others. Hold yourself accountable. Commit to learning non-judgmentally from every experience.

Form an allegiance with yourself.

Replace belittling and denigrating unproductive self-talk with a productive, growth-oriented, compassion-filled inner dialogue.

Compassion allows you to respond — versus react — to health stimuli.


Self-trust


The ability to respond appropriately hinges on a belief that when given options (e.g., fries versus salad), you will have the inner resilience to make a decision that your future self will be proud of.

When you don't trust your inner resilience, you often use rules as a "bunker of safety." Adhering to a strict program means one doesn't have to live in the murky land of indecision.

Or, you let the pendulum fully swing to "do anything" land. Again, there is no murk — no rational decisions have to be made. You simply react emotionally and "do what you want." (Unfortunately, the "want" usually results in a shame hangover — but that is a topic for another article.)

Consider a mantra that you say whenever you want to make a less-than-idea health choice. Something like, "I care enough about myself to make a choice that my future self will be proud of."

The in-between of the two extremes — the "thinking realm" — can feel very uncomfortable; muddling through what choice to make can feel time-consuming and scary. What if it opens Pandora's box? Yuck.

Don't get me wrong. I am not knocking habit formation or health "rules." They are often a critical first step; they helped me evolve from "unhealthy teenager" to "healthy, active adult." Dedication and discipline can be good qualities, but they can also be — in part — a manifestation of a lack of self-trust.

I am not saying anyone should adopt the "I no longer care" attitude. That is a cop-out and the unhelpful polar extreme. What I am saying is, rules provide a facade of certainty in the very uncertain world of health. Work on self-trust so the world slowly becomes less scary and you don't have to bypass the problem-solving stage. The "have-to-ness" of anything is what scares me.

How do you build trust? Hold yourself accountable. Set boundaries. Foster awareness.

Take a pause every time you want to "give up" to consider how your future self will feel depending on the choice you make. Visualize the chicken-and-egg nature of appropriate responses and trust. Use the visual as incentive to make a healthy choice.

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Visualize healthy choices feeding your internal levels of trust. Note and celebrate every time you are "reliable" to yourself. The more positive choices you are aware of, the more self-trust is fostered. The more trust that is fostered, the greater the chances are that you will not fall into all-or-nothing binary thinking.

Consider a mantra that you say whenever you want to make a less-than-idea health choice. Something like, "I care enough about myself to make a choice that my future self will be proud of."


Main take-away


The ability to respond rather than react to health stimuli is required whether you go to CrossFit, follow Weight Watchers, or just try to "eat healthfully." Consistency is needed to reach any health goal. Responding appropriately allows for consistency. Skipping a workout with an "oh well" attitude is an example of "reacting." Convincing yourself to go when you don't want to — because you know your future self will be proud — is "responding." One's ability to respond appropriately is inextricably linked to levels of self-trust and self-compassion. Self-trust fosters the formation of a compassionate, empathetic — yet boundary-filled — inner voice.

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