The flowers are blooming, the sun is shining and the mercury is rising. What does all of this mean? Yes, of course summer is on the way! So bring on the barbecues, the neighborhood block parties, boat rides, hiking, and lazy days by the pool. Oh, but you say there is one problem. That New Year’s resolution I made so many months ago has not yet been achieved. Yes, you know the one. The one we all make every year. To lose weight, get in shape, eat healthier, exercise regularly, and all of those things. So now that shorts, tank tops, and swimsuits are quickly being pulled from the closet the realization has set in that once again we are feeling frustrated by the way our bodies look in our summer attire. How does this happen every year you ask? We start out January doing so well. We skip out on the desserts, we go to the gym, and eat more fruits and vegetables. Then comes February and we feel deprived, frustrated, and we begin to tell ourselves that we “don’t care” what we look like or how we feel. We fall right back into our old patterns of behaviors. Stop right there. Don’t beat yourself up about this. There are several reasons that we tend to engage in this pattern.
One simple reason is that we set our expectations way too high. For example, if you have not gone to the gym in the past two years, why do we set a goal of going 4 times a week! Then when we don’t accomplish the goal we set for ourselves we “give up” and feel like a failure and blame ourselves for our short comings. What comes next? You got it, we fall right back into our old patterns of not going to the gym at all, because after all we are already a “failure” right? Wrong! So what do we do to change this pattern of behavior? We start with our thoughts. Yep, the first step has little to do with our behavior (or what we are doing) and more to do with how we are thinking about the situation. If this experience is reminiscing with you that is okay. Many of us engage in this “stinky thinking” or irrational thoughts. Maybe it isn’t about going to the gym. Maybe your struggle is about being able to stay on a strict diet and then when you eat something that you are “not supposed to” eat, you say to yourself that you messed up and might as well eat whatever you want for the rest of the day or week or whatever. Others of you may not engage in this thinking pattern around food at all. But what about that work project or grade on your last test? Did you set an expectation that your boss would praise you relentlessly for your presentation, or expect to receive an “A” on your last test? What happened? Maybe you did not completely accomplish your goal and you “beat yourself” up about it. “I am such a failure”, “I obviously am not cut out for this position”, “I knew I wasn’t smart enough to take this class”, or any number of negative statements that we say to ourselves when we believe we have fallen short of that “perfect” goal.
So now many of us recognize that maybe we don’t just engage in this pattern of thinking about our New Year’s resolutions, but in several areas of our lives. That is okay! You have just accomplished the first step to changing this pattern! Huh, you ask? How’s that? By recognizing that you are engaging in this thought pattern you can now work on changing it. You can’t change something if you don’t recognize that you are doing it! So pay attention over the next week, what areas of your life do you see these negative thoughts occurring. Is it at home with the children? If I am not the “perfect” mom/dad then I am a horrible parent. At work, I didn’t receive the highest score on my last performance evaluation so I must be an awful employee. At school, I didn’t receive an “A” on this test so I am stupid and should just drop out now. Or in your personal life, I wasn’t able to go to the movies with my friend last night, so I am a terrible friend.
So what is this type of negative thinking called? It is known as “all or none” or “black and white” or “dichotomous” thinking. This thinking occurs when we believe that we have to be “perfect” and if we aren’t we are a total and complete failure. So how do we change these thoughts? You have already accomplished the first step by recognizing that you are doing this, so you are well on your way to changing it! When we realize that we are having these types of thoughts we can tell ourselves to “stop”. We can look for the evidence to see if our thought is rational / accurate? What do I mean by that? Simple, if we receive a “B” on our last test instead of an “A” does that really mean we failed? Wouldn’t failing mean that we scored an “F”? So is my thought accurate… absolutely not! Let’s try another one. If I only lost 5 lbs instead of the 20 lbs I had set my goal at does that mean that I am a failure? Nope, losing any weight and working to develop a healthier lifestyle is not failing. What about if I only was able to go to the gym once a week instead of four times? You guessed it, once a week is better than none and you are working towards your goal of incorporating exercise into your life.
It can be easy to get stuck in these patterns of negative thinking. So when we recognize that we are doing it we can stop, look for the evidence to see how accurate the thought is, and then change it to something more real. Sometimes it can also be helpful to make sure that we are setting realistic goals. We can use percentages to help us realize that we are not a failure if we get a “B” or a “C” on a test or if we only go to the gym once a week instead of four times. Can we help ourselves to see that if we overeat at one meal that is still better than overeating at all three meals that day? We are already 2/3 better than we were yesterday when we over ate at every meal! Make sure to give yourself credit for what you do accomplish, even when it isn’t “perfect”, you are still making progress!
I encourage you to keep these thoughts in your awareness during the next week. Did you recognize when you were using the all or none thinking? Could you see the evidence that didn’t support your negative thought? Were you able to change your thought so that you could give yourself credit for your accomplishment? I hope you will be able to answer “yes” to most of these questions soon, but remember; these have likely been lifelong patterns of negative thoughts and you won’t change all of them overnight. So be gentle on yourself and give yourself credit for each all or none thought that you do recognize and change!Tonya McFarland, PsyD Licensed Clinical Psychologist Golden, CO 303-709-5897 firstname.lastname@example.org trustedtherapy.com