Dear Crucial Skills,
I’m in a weight loss program to lose the first fifty pounds and had a breakthrough of why I sabotage my weight loss efforts. I realized that I am negatively affected by my mother’s years of criticism of me and others who are overweight. I want to rid myself of these negative feelings, but I don’t know how to do that.
Can you help me overcome my negative feelings so I don’t keep sabotaging my weight loss efforts?
Thanks for your question. Many of us are working to lose weight or conquer other stubborn habits and your question taps in to several of the reasons we struggle. If we can answer your question, I think we’ll all benefit. I’m going to use concepts from our book, Change Anything, to suggest some possible solutions.
Be the scientist and the subject. We are all subjects in other people’s science experiments. People poke, prod, and provoke us to see if they can influence our behavior. The challenge is that many of these people are marketers and salespeople who don’t have our best interests at heart. Even when they do want what’s best for us—as your mother probably did—their actions often backfire, hurting us more than they help.
The solution is for you to become the scientist as well as the subject. Study your own behavior the way a scientist would. Instead of being discouraged by your setbacks, be curious about them. Notice, it was when you became curious about your self-sabotaging that you discovered the link to your mother’s criticism. This is a good first step.
Turn a bad day into good data. What you’ve discovered is a crucial moment—a time, situation, or circumstance when your success is especially at risk. Your particular crucial moment occurs when broken records begin to play in your head, repeating criticisms you remember from years ago. The risk in these crucial moments is that you will respond the same way you did years ago—with defiance. For example, the record in your head says, “Nobody will love you if you look like that . . .” and your automatic response is, “Oh yeah? Watch me eat this dessert and prove you wrong!”
Use a personal motivation statement. You need to find a way to replace your automatic, unhealthy response with a positive, healthy one. One tactic to try is a personal motivation statement. The statement should refute the automatic response and reconnect you with the positive reasons for sticking to your change plan. For example, it might say, “This isn’t about my mother or what she wanted. It’s about me, and what I want. What I really want is . . .” You might write this statement on a 3×5 card that you take out and read when broken records are playing in your head.
Learn new ways to manage your moods. Many of our bad habits are misguided attempts to manage our moods. For example, we eat when we feel down or we smoke when we feel frustrated. My bet is that the records you play in your head don’t just provoke your defiance; they make you feel lousy inside. If that’s true, then you need a healthy, positive way to boost your mood without busting your diet.
Managing our moods is a skill many of us never learned or never learned well. Our mood management attempts often involve spoiling or indulging ourselves. But there are far better ways to improve our state of mind. For example, recent research shows that doing something for someone else is far more effective than indulging ourselves. My mother says, “If you feel you need help, then go help someone,” and she’s right.
Become the scientist again, and look for better ways to boost your moods. For example, the Pleasant Events Schedule is a list of 320 different activities that people enjoy and is one place to begin your search. You can sort through the list and pick five or ten that might boost your mood. Try them. Test them out until you find a few that reliably work for you. Just make sure they boost your mood without introducing or reinforcing unwanted habits.
My closing suggestion is to remain the active scientist. Be the one who takes the reins and designs the experiments that will move your life forward. And remember that many of our bad habits started as solutions to problems that were real and remain real. We can’t just stop these bad habits; we need to replace them with more effective and healthier ones.