Sunday, April 09, 2006
A lot of people seem to be having motivation problems right now, so I thought that a few general ideas and suggestions might be helpful. What follows is very "psychological" and, I hope, will help you better understand and take charge of being your own best motivator. As they say, take what you can use, and leave the rest.
First, if you started your weight loss plan at the beginning of the year, it might help to know that now is the time when most people start running into motivation problems. In fact, the second half of January is when "new year's resolutions" start dropping like flies, and many people give up. If you don't want to be part of that particular crowd, now is definitely the time to reach a little deeper and try a little harder. Here are some things that might help you do that.
1. The biggest single cause of drooping motivation is unrealistic expectations. When you have all your hopes set on one thing, and something else happens instead, of course it's hard to keep on doing what, to you, doesn't seem to be working. That's exactly how you're supposed to feel, so that you don't fall into that peculiar form of madness that keeps you doing the same old thing over and over again, expecting to get different results.
But this natural reaction becomes a problem when what you have your hopes set on is something that just plain doesn't have much chance of actually happening. Like seeing predictable and consistent changes in your weight every week. Or expecting to go from confirmed couch potato to exercise maven by sheer force of will, without paying your dues.
So, if you find your motivation lagging because you're not getting the results you expected, the first thing to do is check and see how realistic your expectations really are.
When it comes to weight loss, here is what you SHOULD be expecting.
Shedding pounds is only one of many ways your body responds to lowered calorie intake and/or increased exercise and activity; often, this is the last change to happen. Some of you may lose weight easily and quickly at first, only to slow down later. Others may take forever to lose that first couple of pounds, but then get on a roll. Or your weight loss may come in waves with substantial periods of calm seas in between. All of this is perfectly normal.
Although we talk about weight loss in terms of numbers--calories in versus calories out--your body is not a calculator, and it doesn't operate like your checking account. It is a complex, living organism with all kinds of business to take care of, many needs and priorities to juggle, and usually, more than a few difficulties to overcome that we ourselves put in its way with our less than ideal habits and thought patterns. It's hardly fair, then, to expect that living up to your expectations about what number should appear on the scale at any given moment is going to be very high on your body's agenda. And defining success solely in terms of the number on a scale is one of those habits that can very easily get in the way of reaching your goal.
Your best bet is to put some faith in the process, and keep your focus on what you can actually control--namely, what you eat, and the activity and exercise you do. You WILL lose weight, if you do your part tolerably well, and most likely, it will even turn out to be at the expected rate when you look at it from the other end of the tunnel. That is, when you get to your goal and look back at the process, you probably will have lost at the rate of 1-2 pounds per week, on average. There just may not be very many weeks where you actually lost one or two pounds. That's what happened for me, over the 18 months it took me to lose 150 pounds. Those weeks where nothing changed, or I acutally went backwards, drove me crazy and sapped my motivation until I finally realized I was putting my attention on the wrong things. When I started focusing on the small positive changes I was making in my nutrition and in my capacity to exercise and be more active, life got much easier and more rewarding. That, I believe, is our role in this process. The rest is not up to us, and trying to control what you can't control is a prescription for failure.
2. When it comes to your own behavior, don't expect yourself to be perfect, and don't sweat the small stuff. The idea that anyone can, or should, manage to never overeat or skip an exercise session is, first of all, a form of false pride. Why on earth should any one of us think that we'll be the first human being in history to pull this off, or that if we don't, we're some kind of miserable failure as a person?
If you find that you are holding yourself to this kind of perfectionistic standard, or getting way to focused on what your scale says, or verbally abusing yourself for those bad days you have, give yourself (and everybody else) a break -- just accept the fact that, along with the rest of us, you will have times when your human appetites and your feelings are going to win out over your good intentions. It is not a big deal. Your job is to learn how to let these occasions teach you things you need to know about yourself, and that isn't going to happen if you spend most of your time and energy obsessing about your weight, or especially, getting down on yourself. That kind of useless self-abuse is just a smokescreen you are using to avoid your real responsibilities and opportunities. It is the polar opposite of honest self-appraisal. These may seem like harsh words, but getting past this problem is really critical to success--trust me, I had to learn this the hard way, and that cost me a lot of painful years and wasted effort.
Keeping things in perspective is also important. In the long run, going over your calorie budget by a couple of hundred calories, or missing an exercise session, just isn't significant enough to get upset about. In fact, it's the getting upset that can turn these minor problems into major ones, by destroying your motivation and your confidence such that you let one bad day turn into a bad week or month or lifetime. And getting overly upset is completely voluntary, not inevitable.
3. Make sure your expectations about motivation itself--how it works and where it comes from--are also realistic.
Many people seem to think that "being motivated" means not having to struggle with opposing desires, or at least that such struggles will be easy to resolve the "right" way. Not so. It is our nature as human beings to pursue both the immediate gratification of our sensual needs and desires (eating what we like when we want it), and the psychological/emotional gratification that comes from having and achieving meaningful but more abstract goals (being "healthy," "fit" and "attractive" as our culture defines these things). Both of these pursuits are necessary for the survival and flourishing of both individuals and their societies, and equally worthy of our loyalty and support. Judging one these pursuits to be superior to the other is to deny half of what and who you are, and set yourself up for endless and demoralizing inner conflict and turmoil.
At the same time, our "loyalty" to our physiological and social realities cannot be blind or unthinking. The sad fact of human history seems to be that, out of ignorance or fear, we routinely create cultures, social systems, and personal environments that are seriously out of balance. In the realm of eating and food choices, our modern world (and often our own kitchen) is crammed full of well-marketed, tasty foods that appeal to our innate predispositions (that sweettooth, or that fondness for rich fatty foods you've got) but are also nutritional and caloric nightmares. Most of us have to struggle continuously with this problem, and no amount of motivation will make it go away. (A little social engineering or political activity might, but that's a different discussion).
But I digress. The point is that motivation is not about resisting the lure of "bad" foods or the appeal of laying on the couch in front of the TV. It's about giving yourself the chance to make conscious decisions about what you want to do at any given time, and taking appropriate responsibility for your decisions. The main "enemy" of motivation, therefore, is the tendency to see yourself as the hapless victim of forces or urges over which you have no control, whether that force be a chocolate donut or the vast cultural apparatus that defines attractiveness in ridiculously unrealistic terms.
Your motivation will be strong in proportion to the effort you put into making your own decisions (regardless of what they might be) with conscious awareness, or weak in proportion to the effort you put into seeing your self as the helpless victim of your own urges, feelings and desires, or of circumstances beyond your control.
If you want your motivation to be stronger and more effective, do these two things: (1) CHOOSE to eat well and exercise as often as you can; (2) when you don't accomplish this, understand and acknowledge that it was by your own choice, and move on to how you can do things differently next time.
This is NOT the same thing as feeling guilty or being judgmental and negative about the decision you made. It is just the opposite. It is about accepting the decision you made as a valid decision made under less than ideal circumstances, and thus freeing yourself to look at those circumstances from the viewpoint of a powerful and capable person who has the ability to modify those circumstances, in large or small ways, so that it might be easier to keep your decisions in line with your intentions the next time.
In other words, motivation is not something you find or lose, have or don't have. It is the product of how you see yourself in the world: active or passive, effective or ineffective, powerful or victimized, normal or pathological.
There are many things that can happen, especially during our early years when we are largely dependent on others for guidance and caretaking, to push us strongly in one of these directions or the other. If you tend to see yourself as helpless victim, this is probably because at some formative point, you were victimized and helpless to prevent it. If you feel powerless to manage your own feelings and soothe yourself, you probably didn't have much help learning how to do that when you were young.
But history is not destiny, and from a psychological point of view, "reality" is simply a story we tell ourselves about how things are and why we are the way we are. If you want and need to change your psychological reality, change the story you are telling yourself. This does not mean denying or ignoring either your past or present circumstances, or inventing some nice fairy tale to take their place. If you are a single parent with young kids and a full time job, or a person with major medical or psychlogical issues to contend with, or someone who is so large that physical activity really is difficult, it WILL be harder for you than for some others to do what you need to do. You need to acknowledge that and be realistic about what kind of changes you can hope to make and how quickly or easily you can make them. But you can re-write your story so that these circumstances are not the determining factor in your success or failure. Your new story can be about how your creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance enable you to find full or partial solutions to these challenges, and to do the best that can be done with what you've got to work with--for yourself, and all the other people involved.
The story you are telling yourself at any moment is the foundation of your motivation, or lack of it. Make sure you are telling yourself the story you need to hear. And the best way to really come to believe your story is to see it come true in the small, well-chosen steps you take every day towards your goals.
I hope this helps.