Have you ever succumbed to the “I just ate one cookie so I might as well eat the whole box” syndrome? Most of us become convinced that we’re hopeless, weak, or unmotivated, which makes us feel even more stuck than we were before. Indeed, we may just give up.
Psychologists call this the abstinence-violation effect: a harsh, all-or-nothing attitude toward our behaviour. It’s paradoxical, but the more we hold ourselves to this rigid standard, the more we then abuse ourselves with the very thing we’ve outlawed! One way around this type of self-sabotage is to know in advance that, whatever it is you’ve resolved to do, somewhere along the way you’ll blow it. You won’t stick to your savings plan, you will slack off exercising, and you will let yourself get caught up in perfectionism again.
It’s not because you’re weak or undisciplined, it’s because relapse (a temporary fall back into old ways) is an inevitable part of the change process. It simply goes with the territory.
You say you’re going to change, you may even do it for a short while, but then something happens and suddenly you’re back to eating junk-food and vegging out on the couch instead of exercising. Experts refer to this as “instinctual drift:” the tendency to slip back into old patterns. Why? Because the pathway to our old behaviour still exists in our brain. Our neurons have been trained to fire in a certain way. But, be encouraged because those very neurons are enormously ‘plastic’- meaning they can generate new cells and pathways. So, as long as you keep trying to develop good behaviours of eating and exercise you will ‘train’ those neurons to respond more consistently to the way you want.
Creating a pathway to new behaviour takes mental preparation, self-awareness, and lots of practice; many brain scientists say six to nine months. (So, if you believe it takes only 30 days to create a new behaviour, think again.)
The more you understand this, the fewer negative consequences there will be when you do slip up. You won’t have to punish yourself with overindulgence just because you relapsed today. Tomorrow you can make a different choice.
Those who study change say the best thing you can do is to prepare for lapses and commit to not giving up. What is it that you want to remember when you revert to your old habit? Write it down and pull it out when you need it.
Learn to forgive yourself. This keeps us from self-punishment that actually causes us to compound the error. So, when you back-slide on a resolution (whatever it may be), just forgive yourself and move on.
Will Durant said: “Forget past mistakes. Forget failures. Forget everything except what you are going to do now and do it.”
Don’t ever give up. You CAN make positive changes that lead to a healthier lifestyle!
(Adapted from an article by M.J. Ryan in ‘Good Housekeeping’ March, 2007)