One of the most common diet-sabotaging thoughts is, “I’ve made a mistake. I’ve blown healthy eating for the day so I might as well keep eating and get back on track tomorrow/on Monday/next week/next month/next year.” We work hard with our clients on the ability to catch themselves as they make a mistake and not wait to correct it. We always say that the most successful dieters and maintainers are not those who never make mistakes; on the contrary, they are those who get right back on track after doing so. Learning this skill may be the most significant predictor of long-term success.
My client, Tara, is a classic all-or-nothing thinker. She is someone who, in the past, has lost and gained upwards of 50 pounds multiple times. This is in large part due to her thinking that once she makes a mistake, she’s “blown it.” Sometimes, her eating can snowball for days or weeks at a time.
Tara and I have spent a long time working on the notion that in virtually no other area of life would she ever say to herself, “Since I made a mistake, I might as well keep making mistakes.” The analogy that resonates with her most strongly is, “If I’m walking down a flight of stairs and stumble down a few, I would never say, ‘Well I’ve blown this stairwell’ and throw myself down the rest of the stairs. No! I would get up right from where I fell and walk down the rest.” Every time Tara makes a mistake, we work on reinforcing the notion of picking herself up right at that moment and continuing the day on track.
Tara was finally able to put this into place over the weekend. She and her husband had rented a mountain house for a small vacation from the monotony of quarantine life. Although Tara and I had talked through eating plans for the trip, on Saturday afternoon her husband spontaneously suggested getting takeout from a nearby restaurant. Tara acquiesced and ended up eating something that had far more calories than she had planned for lunch.
In the past, there’s no question that Tara would have said something to herself like, “I’m already over for the day. I’m on vacation anyway, so who cares? Just keep eating and worry about getting back on track when you get home.” This time, Tara didn’t do this. Continuing to eat in an off-track way would be throwing herself down more stairs, and she was determined not to do that. She rethought the rest of her day and swapped in a lower-calorie dinner to help offset her unplanned lunch. She read her Response Cards and her Advantages List, went for a hike with her husband that afternoon, and stuck to her new dinner plan.
Tara told me that when she went to bed that night she felt victorious. She proved to herself that she could catch herself in the middle of the day (and in the middle of a vacation!), get right back on track, and end up feeling so great about her day. This is such a great example that even though Tara made a mistake earlier in her day, she was able to catch herself and go to bed feeling proud, not upset and regretful.