For the longest time, I struggled to get healthier – it seemed that I couldn’t lose weight or stick to my diet no matter what I tried. It seemed to me like I was sabotaging myself, that I had no willpower, self-control or discipline. Often, I wondered if I couldn’t even stop myself from eating a cookie, how was I going to do all the other amazing things that I wanted to accomplish in my life?
Looking back today from a healthier place in my life, I can see clearly how using discipline or willpower to get healthier is a myth. Not only are these methods inept but they also make us feel like failures, pushing us deeper into depression and affecting our confidence.
The real reason we are not able to make lasting health changes is because we secretly don’t want to. Our unconscious is motivated to keep up with our bad habits because they help us avoid our real feelings and anxieties.
Avoiding how we truly feel makes us feel less stressed and so our subconscious easily overrides our conscious wishes. This is known as avoidant coping in psychological terms and is a common way we deal with stress and worry.
Using the 3-step framework below is a useful tool to break out of the avoidant coping cycle of overeating and finally get healthier like you always dreamt of.
Step 1 – Learn to identify the symptoms of self-sabotage
The first step is to identify your patterns of self-sabotage – i.e., what is your default avoidant pattern that stops you from making progress?
Some common ones are:
- Overeating: Many of us turn to food for comfort – because we are eating to feel emotionally better, we tend to eat far more than just eating to feel physically satisfied. The emotional or stress-related void that we are trying to fill with food leads to stress eating, emotional overeating or binge eating which makes us feel out of control and guilty.
- Procrastination: Another common avoidant coping mechanism is procrastination. By procrastinating on going to the gym for example, we don’t have to confront the reality that we are not very fit, we don’t have to compare ourselves to other strong people at the gym and we don’t have to make an effort to squeeze in this activity at the end of a long day. All of these help us feel better in the moment, which is why we procrastinate again and again.
- Negative thoughts, feelings and emotions: Self-sabotage also shows up as rumination – negative thoughts, feelings and emotions swirling around in our brain. It seems like we can never be fully happy, we are self-critical and we compare ourselves to others. We question our willpower and self-control and this leads to lower self-esteem making us depressed.
- Obsessive control: Because we are not able to make positive changes, we feel out of control about our health. So, we tend to compensate by being obsessively controlling about other things in our life – like being a perfectionist at work, keeping the house extremely clean or going to the extremes with food engaging in very restrictive diets.
Step 2 – Dig deeper to find the cause of your avoidant coping
Once you find your default coping pattern from step 1, it’s time to dig deeper to find what you are avoiding that’s causing you to compensate in this way.
To do this, use the rule of “5 Why’s” consecutively. For each why, you need to give yourself an answer with the next why questioning the previous answer. For example, if you are binge eating, your “5 Why” conversation might look like this:
- My default pattern is overeating at night. Why?
- Because it makes me feel better. Why?
- Because it’s my reward at the end of a long tiring day. Why?
- Because it’s the only time of the day I have for myself. Why?
- I can finally relax after the kids have gone to bed. Why?
- I am running around all day and just sitting at the table longer is my time to chill before I have to tidy up the house.
At the end of the “5 Why” conversation, you should have a deeper answer to your coping – something that feels like a fundamental truth, that makes you sigh and makes you feel a little sad.
It can also be liberating to finally realize what’s holding you back. Most importantly, if you change this root feeling or behavior, it should instantly stop you from engaging in avoidant coping.
For example, in this case of binge eating – if you take some time out for yourself to relax in between the day, you’ll be far less tired by dinner time and automatically less likely to rely on food to feel better.
Step 3 – Accept your feelings & make a change
The last step of the process is to acknowledge the result of your “5 Why” exercise to be true. It’s easy to brush this off and feel like something this simple can’t really help.
Sometimes, it’s hard to come to terms with the things holding us back – for example, we don’t want to admit that we aren’t going to the gym because we are embarrassed at making a fool out of ourselves in front of everyone else.
Being honest with ourselves and taking actions to bust through this discomfort though is where real progress and change comes from.
To make lifestyle changes that stick, we don’t just need to make conscious efforts to develop healthy habits but also recognize and win over the unconscious battles happening deep within. I hope this 3-step process to identify, accept and change some fundamental truths about yourself will open up a path towards finally making permanent changes to your health.
Sai Aparajitha Khanna helps ambitious women quit emotional binge eating and build habits to live a successful life at home and at work. A psychology nerd and big-time foodie, Sai blogs at My Spoonful Of Soul. Get her three limited-time gifts for Pick The Brain readers to quit mindless emotional eating today.
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