Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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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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Could Too Much Clean Eating be Bad for Your Mind?

By Lynne Gots, posted on April 3rd, 2016.

You can’t walk past the magazines in the supermarket, go out to dinner with friends or check your Instagram feed or Facebook these days without being bombarded by diets aimed to cure whatever ails you. All these plans—whether they’re gluten-free, Paleo, organic, vegetarian, or vegan—involve eliminating foods purported to cause a host of health problems.

One such popular program goes so far as to promise it will “change your life in 30 days,” offering testimonials (which, I might point out, do not count as scientific evidence) from participants who claim it has cured them of a long list of so-called “lifestyle-related diseases.” These include but are not limited to: high blood pressure and high cholesterol, diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2), asthma, allergies, infertility, depression, bipolar disorder, arthritis, ADHD, and inflammatory bowel disease. The psychiatric literature, last I heard, doesn’t consider depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD lifestyle-related diseases. That’s a topic for another post. But for now, I’ll get back to the subject at hand.

Even the widespread trend towards “clean eating”—whose proponents like to think of it not as a diet, but as a lifestyle choice or even a movement—comes with rules. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Eat only “whole” meats, preferably organic, whose sources you know. Eat only whole grains. Avoid all processed and refined foods (e.g., sugar, baked goods, white flour, white rice, empty-caloric junk foods). Avoid saturated and trans-fats. Drink at least 8 cups of water a day.

“What’s wrong with trying to follow a healthy eating plan?” you might ask. And my answer would be, “Nothing. Usually.”

But if you tend to become fixated on avoiding specific foods because you’re excessively concerned about controlling your weight or think they might cause cancer or other diseases, be careful. Even a so-called “non-diet” like the clean-eating approach can lead to emotional struggles for perfectionistic people prone to eating disorders or health anxiety.

Any time perfectionists impose all-or-nothing restrictions on themselves, they run the risk of getting upset and ditching the diet altogether if they think they’ve broken the rules. It doesn’t even have to constitute a major transgression, such as picking up a Big Mac, fries, and large Coke from the MacDonald’s drive-through on the way home from work. If you’re evaluating your food choices from the perspective of a black-and-white mentality (and comparing them with the colorful Instagram images of the kale smoothies, grain bowls, and lush farmers market produce others appear to be eating), you could easily beat yourself up for popping a handful of M&Ms at the movies or having white rice with your homemade, clean Pad Thai. Then you might decide you’ve blown it for the day (or week), and let loose with a full-blown binge. You’ll feel guilty, vow to atone and never stray again, and set yourself up for the next self-punishing cycle of deprivation and excess.

Let me make my position clear before the critics jump on me for questioning sound nutritional practices. I’m not suggesting you go overboard with the junk food and the trans-fats. I’m not urging you to forego whole grains in favor of Wonder Bread. I’m not recommending you trade your bottled water for a Big Gulp. I’m not even telling you the clean-eating lifestyle is bad. (Though I might be telling you not to drink the diet Kool-Aid du jour without seriously evaluating its claims from an evidence-based perspective).

But when food—no matter how nutritionally pure, unadulterated, and good for your body it may be—becomes a source of internal conflict, guilt and anxiety, you might want to think about what it’s doing to your mind.

As with most things in life, moderation and flexibility are the keys to emotional wellbeing. Your mindset about eating is just as important for your health as the foods you eat. Sadly, Instagram can’t capture that.

 

 

 




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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.

Contact Dr. Gots

202-331-1566

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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