This week, I had a session with my client, Joe. Joe has been doing well the last few weeks but when we met yesterday, he wasn’t in a good place. Very dejectedly, he told me that he had had a really bad day yesterday and was now struggling and feeling defeated. When I heard this, my first thought was not, “Uh, oh, that’s bad. How can I help him recover?” Rather, it was more along the lines of, “That’s interesting. I wonder if that’s entirely accurate.” I knew that Joe, like many of the clients I work with, tends to be very hard on himself and sees mistakes as an all-or-nothing thing: once he makes one mistake, it means the whole day is bad.
To find out whether or not Joe was accurately reporting how yesterday went, I asked him to take me through the day and tell me what he ate. He told me that he had his normal breakfast, lunch was a sandwich and some other things he had brought from home, but then dinner got messy. Although he ate the healthy food his wife had cooked, he ended up taking seconds and eating too much. He also then got tempted by the ice cream in the freezer, and despite not being hungry, ate some straight from the carton which really made him feel mad at himself.
I pointed out to Joe that it sounded like the whole day until dinner went well. “And was there any food earlier in the day that you wanted to eat but didn’t?” I asked him. Joe told me that he had resisted bagels and muffins at an office breakfast and walked by the vending machine three times that day without buying chips. “So yesterday, you ate a healthy breakfast, then resisted bagels and muffins, ate your healthy planned lunch, and resisted chips three times. Is that right?” I asked him. Joe agreed that this was correct. “What does this tell you about your earlier assertion that yesterday was a really bad day?” I asked him. Joe admitted that perhaps that wasn’t entirely true. “But I still got really off track at dinner time,” he said. I agreed with him that it was true dinner and after dinner didn’t go as he would want, but that in no way negates all of the other good work he did that day. Focusing only on the parts that he wished had gone better was taking a negative, distorted picture of how the day really went. If we counted up all of his eating experiences yesterday, the vast majority were ones he could be proud of.
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I discussed with Joe why it was so important for him to maintain a realistic perspective on how yesterday really went. “If you say to yourself that yesterday was just a really bad day, how does that make you feel?” I asked him. “Terrible,” he said. “If, by contrast, you say to yourself that dinner and after dinner got a bit messy but the whole rest of the day went really well and you were able to stay on track and resist many cravings up until dinner, how does that make you feel?” “Better,” he admitted. The problem with dieters telling themselves, inaccurately, that a whole day was bad is that, like Joe, it makes them feel terrible and defeated. This saps their motivation and makes it much, much harder for them to get back on track and do what they need to do. If, however, they keep mistakes in perspective and are able to see that often the whole day wasn’t bad, it makes them feel much better and less defeated, which keeps their motivation up and makes it easier to do what they need to do.
Once Joe was able to see that yesterday really wasn’t the crushing defeat he was making it out to be in his head, he clearly felt a lot better and told me he was much more confident that today would go well. I reminded him that at this point, we really only needed to troubleshoot dinner and after dinner because he mostly was able to be very successful the rest of the day. Nothing Joe and I did in session changed what had happened yesterday, but once he was able to view the day realistically, what did change entirely was his attitude and his mood – which would directly impact his ability to stay on track and keep moving forward.