Something is better than “all or nothing”

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Lately it seems like I have a number of patients who are struggling. Whether it’s sticking to their prescribed meal plan, trying to incorporate more fruits or veggies into their diet or eating more intuitively, many of them are just finding themselves at a loss. When they are stressed out due to life’s challenges, they revert to their old ways of coping. For some that might mean restricting their intake and counting calories obsessively, for others that might mean zoning out on the couch watching TV with a bag of chips. Oftentimes I will hear the same reasoning: “I just couldn’t do [healthy habit] this week; it felt like too much effort.”

When we dig deeper, I often find that many of my patients have an “all or nothing” mindset about their eating. Either they are 100% committed to making healthy eating choices or they throw their hands up and say “screw it!” It might look something like this: a patient who has stated a goal that she only wants to eat out at restaurants twice per week found herself overworked and stressed and ended up eating out five times during that week. Or perhaps someone has set a goal of meal planning and grocery shopping every Sunday, but he just never gets around to it.

A lot of the time, these patients will come in to our appointment with their heads held low and feeling like failures. This isn’t the case! I look at these “failures” as data that we can use to help us in the future. Maybe the goals that were set were too much for that person at the time. Or perhaps there is another area of change that we should focus on. The best thing we can do in our session is to rework the goals that aren’t being met. Sometimes that means making these goals a bit more achievable (e.g. aiming for eating out 4 or fewer times per week for someone who is used to eating out 5 or more times per week).

The other idea I think is important is the “good enough,” concept. No one is perfect and similarly, when we expect ourselves to never fail, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Sometimes achieving parts of our goals is better than totally giving up completely. For instance, let’s say someone is really struggling with eating healthy lunches during the week. She is buried under paperwork and totally overextended at work and has been just grabbing a bag of chips from the vending machine. Ideally, she’d like to be packing her home-cooked lunches the night before and bringing them with her to work every day. But, it just isn’t happening. How about working on a middle ground solution? That could be bringing frozen meals for lunch instead of either buying potato chips or bringing home-cooked lunches. Are frozen meals ideal? No. But are they “good enough,” i.e. better than nothing? Absolutely!

The above example might feel uncomfortable for many people. Oftentimes, a patient will come into our session feeling like they have been “bad” because she didn’t achieve the goals we set last session 100%. What I say to that is: 1) maybe we didn’t set the right goal and 2) all you can do is the best you can do in that moment. Even if you don’t fully reach all of your goals, try to ease up on yourself a bit and realize that you are human. Something is always better than “all or nothing.”

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