Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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Why Counting Streaks May Not be a Good Idea When Building Habits

By Lynne Gots, posted on March 4th, 2018.

I’ve been meditating daily for over three years, half of that time with the popular app, Headspace. But recently,thrown off by jet lag following a trip to the West Coast, I unaccountably forgot to meditate one day and broke my streak.

I was upset by my lapse and tried, as any good CBT practitioner would, to challenge my all-or-nothing thinking. One day out of over a thousand is no big deal. Less than a drop in the bucket. It didn’t negate my progress.

But Headspace didn’t see it that way. It reset my stats back to Day 1. Even more aggravating, it started sending me motivational messages like: “A 3-day run streak is a great start to your practice! Next stop 5!” And, after 5 days: “Nice job. This is precisely how you build a solid meditation practice. Think you can make it 10?” At 10 days, they told me: “Your consistency is outstanding. You’re starting to build a lasting, healthy habit.” And today, 15 days into my new streak, I got: “Great work. Maybe everything changes except your commitment to meditation.”

I decided I needed to say something. Here’s an excerpt from the email I wrote to Headspace:

I had over 450 consecutive days of Headspace under my belt until a few weeks ago, when travel to the West Coast threw me off schedule and I somehow forgot to meditate one day. I was upset to have broken my “streak,” but I tried to practice what I preach to the many perfectionists I work with by forgiving myself for the brief, and ultimately insignificant, lapse.

But Headspace is making it harder for me to let go of my mistake! It reset my progress back to zero and is giving me motivational messages after three, five, ten, fifteen days of consecutive practice to tell me I’m on my way to a solid practice and a commitment to meditation. I suppose I could use those statements as a mindfulness exercise, treating them as if they were just random thoughts of my own creation, but coming from the “experts,” they are not at all helpful.

I have continued to use the app but now am having second thoughts. I’m not sure whether such a quantitative, competitive (albeit only with myself) approach is really how I want to frame my meditation practice. And I certainly will be less enthusiastic in recommending it to my perfectionistic patients.

You might want to pass this feedback onto your software engineers to see if there could be a way turning off the streak function, or sending out messages of self-compassion to those who’ve accrued a lot of hours but miss a day here and there.

I’ll let you know what they say.




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Posted in Behavior Change, mindfulness, Perfectionism |

OCD in The Age of #MeToo

By Lynne Gots, posted on February 3rd, 2018.

OCD is like an opportunistic pathogen, invading hosts with weakened immune systems. So it’s not surprising to see it thrive and spread when daily news reports stoke uncertainty and fear in those who are vulnerable.

The recent spate of revelations about sexual misconduct among the rich and famous, along with controversial reports in the last few years of a campus rape crisis, have brought a new demographic into my practice: young men in their twenties who worry about committing or having committed a sexual transgression.

Some of these men have been accused—and all exonerated—of inappropriate touching, nonconsensual or consensual but inappropriate sex with colleagues, students, or classmates; others live in fear of having a casual sexual encounter from their past surface and become fodder for an accusation.

OCD is having a field day.

As reporter Emily Yoffe chillingly details in a series of articles in The Atlantic , Obama-era federal directives governing the handling of sexual-assault allegations have prompted universities to craft vague and overarching definitions of sexual assault designed to protect the (mostly) female victims while stripping the accused of their right to due process. The Kafkaesque scenarios Yoffe describes—such as a third party accusation in which a friend reported her roommate’s boyfriend as an abuser and the alleged victim, refuting the claim, was told she was in denial– create the perfect medium for OCD to flourish.

Let me be perfectly clear. I am in no way minimizing the trauma experienced by assault victims. I believe charges of rape on college campuses should be taken very  seriously. They should be investigated thoroughly and, if the evidence points to a crime, prosecuted in a court of law. And I am not excusing the predatory behavior of the Harvey Weinsteins who have abused their power to intimidate and sexually exploit women.

But the men with OCD I see in my practice are not predators or rapists. In fact, most share two thinking patterns common in people with OCD: an excessive sense of responsibility and a highly developed sense of morality. They worry about causing harm and about being bad people even though, in the paradoxical way of OCD, they’re actually good people with a strong—perhaps even excessively rigid—moral compass.

So, no, I don’t secretly question if they might have done what they’ve been accused of or fear being accused of, just as I know with a reasonable degree of certainty that the people with OCD who confess to me their fears of being pedophiles are not a danger to children.

As with all OCD worries, however, facts and probability do little to assuage anxiety. So the challenge is to acknowledge the possibility of a dreaded occurrence—such as a false accusation–while not letting fear get in the way of living.

While it’s hard to push back, I can recommend a few guidelines to follow if you’re consumed by worries of being unjustly accused of sexual assault.

  • Don’t try to convince yourself that your worst fear is unlikely to materialize.
  • Don’t review the past for possible evidence of transgressions.
  • Don’t ask friends and family for reassurance.
  • Don’t scour Facebook posts for evidence that an ex might be angry with you.
  • Move forward with relationships rather than avoiding them.
  • Treat prospective or current sexual partners with respect, not suspicion.

Shakespeare said, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Resist the temptation to lie down with OCD.

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Posted in Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder |

Why You Don’t Need Willpower to Change a Habit

By Lynne Gots, posted on December 27th, 2017.

There’s no shortage of advice this time of year about eating clean and getting ripped. And while the prospect of a new you in the new year can be seductive, especially after a month of overindulgence, I’m not a fan of restrictive diets or New Year’s resolutions. They simply don’t work over the long haul.

Any rigid regimen carries with it the whiff of deprivation, of restraint, of saying “no” when your mind wants you to say “yes.” The key, we’re told, is willpower.

Just say no. Just do it.

Let’s be real. If it were so easy to turn away from that donut or force yourself out the door on a dark, frigid January morning to go to spinning class, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

We know from research that willpower is a limited resource. Over time, with repeated use, it becomes depleted, just like any energy source. And the moments when we most need it—say, after a stressful workday at happy hour when the margaritas are $5 and the queso and chips beckon—it’s gone.

So I suggest changing the narrative. It’s too easy to throw in the towel when you tell yourself, “I don’t have any willpower.” Those words render you powerless in the face of overwhelming forces beyond your control.

Instead of recruiting willpower to help you pursue your goals, consider building willingness power.

Willingness starts with motivation. Begin by looking at the costs and benefits of the behavior you want to change. If you want to improve your diet, for instance (notice I didn’t say “eat clean”), pay particular attention to what you get from the undesired habit. The costs will be readily apparent to you. But the benefits? Not so much.

To get you started, here are some real-life examples of the benefits of overeating (continuing to eat past the point of satiety or even to discomfort) I’ve heard over the years:

  • It relaxes me.
  • I enjoy the taste of food.
  • It keeps me from feeling bored/ lonely.
  • It’s social.
  • I don’t like rules.
  • I deserve a reward.
  • It passes the time.

Then look at the costs (I’ll bet you won’t have any trouble coming up with a long list) and review them daily or more frequently if necessary. Remind yourself why it’s worth it to forego all the positive associations with the behavior you want to change in order to achieve your goal.

In a nutshell, willingness means being open to feeling short-term discomfort for long-term gain. It’s a useful skill to cultivate, and not just for sticking with a diet or exercise plan but for all the challenges life brings.

So in 2018, ditch the idea of willpower and practice willingness power. You’ll be laying a more solid foundation for success.

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Posted in Goals, Motivation, Techniques |

This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

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2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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If you don't receive a response to an email from Dr. Gots in 48 hours, please call the office and leave a voicemail message.

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© 2008-2018 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.