Shift from “Being Good” to Feeling Good!
Our culture is flooded with books, programs, and apps telling you what to eat. Recently, WW (formerly Weight Watchers) even launched an app for children called Kurbo, which uses a traffic signal approach that attaches value to foods, deeming them a green, yellow, or red choice.
The motivation for a child as young as eight using this app is what’s most concerning to me. After gathering age, height, and weight to determine the user’s BMI, the app asks them about their goals: Which one is most important to you? Eat healthy? Lose weight? Make parents happy?
(Unfortunately, this marketing strategy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing as I’ve written about before. Restrictive dieting has been shown to lead to disordered eating in children, and coupled with an inflexible, anxious personality, may feed into life-threatening eating disorders.)
Why you do anything is everything!
As a Doctor of Behavioral Health, my focus is on what works. Your motivation pathway often determines whether a new behavior will be another short-term sprint or a long-term lifestyle change.
Change for the sake of extrinsic motivation, such as gaining acceptance (being good) or reaching a goal (such as looking good) have consequences that can sabotage your efforts or even make a situation worse.
- When someone sets out to change because they feel bad about themselves, it’s a shame-driven process. Although this type of motivation can initiate change, it rarely lasts. I’ve never met anyone who will take care of themselves if they don’t care about themselves.
- Change to make someone else happy also backfires. Once an expectation has been set, if they stray, they are likely to feel judged. Most people will do anything to avoid feeling judged, driving them into isolation: sneaking, hiding, and “getting away with” their behaviors. This perpetuates the shame and isolation by being “good” in front of others then hiding their “bad” behaviors. Because they resent having to engage in these behaviors, the shame gains energy and becomes anger.
Anger is the number one reason my clients binge or engage in self-destructive eating behaviors. They end up hurting themselves when others don’t even know they are angry.
- Whether it’s a parent, partner, or health professional, change to make someone happy doesn’t turn out well.
- Goals may be helpful, but people often become too fixated on the outcome. The problem is that an extrinsic reward is too far away for the brain’s reward center to experience any pleasure. If they aren’t enjoying the journey, they can’t wait to stop so they’ll find pleasure again. This is one reason diets have a 95% failure rate.
- When they are following a predetermined set of rules, they may get a small burst of dopamine in their brain when the app says, “Only 2 red foods this week – way to go!” – but the reward doesn’t last.
- Following rules can lead to rebellion too. Most people begin to play the “on the diet, off the diet” game. As they begin to experience “diet fatigue,” the time off the diet becomes longer and the desire to eat all the red foods grows stronger.
The bottom line is none of this feels good.
I used to say, I valued health and wanted health, but I really had no idea how to cultivate health. “Health” as a goal was elusive because it was often externally measured by lab results or on a scale.
Intrinsic or value-driven change—feeling good—creates long term change because it changes your reward pathways.
Therefore, “health” must become a felt experience, a state of being.
What does it feel like to be healthy? For me, it is having the physical energy, mental clarity, and self-confidence to live out my passions in life.
Mindfulness bridges the gap from external to internal motivation
Mindfulness encourages experimentation with our internal feedback loops and cooperation with our bodies to guide our decision-making. It’s an empowering process to discover when, what, how, and how much to eat that leaves us feeling our best, or what combination of food, movement, and stress management behaviors feels good.
This autonomy is essential for becoming self-directed rather than other-directed. Practicing curiosity and attention helps one notice what feels good. The brain responds by building new pleasure pathways, or habits, in response to the “felt experience.”
Mindfulness is noticing the twinkle lights of our daily life, rather than being fixated on and waiting for the flood light.
If you want to learn more about how to make the shift from “being good” to “feeling good,” you’ll love this free webinar with Kari Anderson DBH, LPC, CEDS and Michelle May MD! Just provide your email below for access.
Do you need help discovering your intrinsic motivation for healing your relationship with food and your body?
Please join Drs. Michelle May and Kari Anderson at their annual Mindful Eating Retreat for Emotional Eating and Binge Eating.