Making Mistakes

In January, Beck Institute offered a six-week, live weight management webinar series for the first time. Each week, I presented several CBT skills that individuals need to learn in order to help them gain control of their eating and consistently make choices that are in line with their goals. We also offered a 10-week small group coaching session. At our last session, I asked my group, “What was the most, or one of the most, important things you learned over these past 10 weeks?” More than half of my group had the same answer: in this journey, everyone makes mistakes, and it was important to learn how to get right back on track once that happens.

Making Mistakes

Because this was so important to my group, I thought it might be helpful to give a refresher on making mistakes and how to recover from them. Like any other skill-acquiring procedure, making mistakes is part of the process. No one would expect to learn to play the piano without ever hitting a wrong note. No one would ever expect to learn to play tennis without missing a ball, or learn to speak a new language without conjugating a verb wrong. In learning to gain control overeating, many people think that they should never make mistakes. When they inevitably do, they take it as a sign that something isn’t working, or something is wrong. We let our clients know right from the get-go that they will make mistakes in this learning process, just like they would in any other.

The most common sabotaging thought we hear is, “I’ve made a mistake. I’ve blown it for the day, so I might as well keep eating and get back on track tomorrow.” We remind our clients that in virtually no other area of life would we ever buy into the notion that just because we made one mistake, it makes sense to keep making more. If you were driving down the highway and missed your exit, would you think, “I’ve blown this trip,” and drive five more hours in the wrong direction? No! You’d get off at the next exit and get right back on track. If you were walking down a flight of stairs and stumbled down a few, would you think, “I’ve blown this stairwell,” and throw yourself down the rest of the stairs? No! You’d get up right from where you caught yourself and walk down the rest.

Once you make an eating mistake, continuing to eat in an off-track way is like driving more hours in the wrong direction. It’s throwing yourself down more stairs. It just doesn’t make sense!

We also work with our clients on establishing the idea that any point they stop themselves is better than continuing to eat in an off-track way. Stopping at 500 extra calories is better than stopping at 1,000 extra. Stopping at 1,000 extra is better than stopping at 2,000 extra. Any point at which you can catch yourself and recover puts you in a better position than waiting even one moment longer. The good news is that your very next eating decision (and it’s probably not too far away) is your next opportunity to get right back on track!

We also remind our clients that if they get off track during the day, catch themselves, and recover, they get to go to bed that night feeling so proud of themselves. They get to go to bed feeling triumphant about their ability to get right back on track, instead of going to bed inevitably beating themselves up for an off-track day.

By the way, if you’re interested, we have another webinar series starting the second week of August. Here is more information.

Extra Relaxation

My client Susan has been struggling to keep dessert contained after dinner. For the past few months, she was able to have two cookies (the serving size that fit into her day) and leave it at that. Recently, she has been having sabotaging thoughts about having additional cookies and often gives in.

First, Susan and I tried to figure out why she wanted more cookies. We knew that she had her dessert soon after dinner, so it wasn’t hunger that was urging her to eat more. Susan said that often when she finishes dessert, she starts doing whatever paperwork she hadn’t been able to get to during the day. One of the sabotaging thoughts she was having about eating more cookies was, “I’m not ready to get to work yet.” Susan realized that it wasn’t a desire for more cookies that was driving her to have more than her planned amount, it was a desire for more relaxation. While the cookies tasted good and she certainly didn’t mind eating more of them, it wasn’t the taste of the cookies she was craving. It was the extra break before starting work.cookies in a bowl

I reminded Susan that achieving everything on her Advantages List and getting more relaxation in the evening were not mutually exclusive goals. She could have both – so long as she didn’t use extra food as a means to relax. We came up with a plan to help her achieve both. First, we decided that she would start keeping her cookies in a container in the freezer so they would be hard to get to. When it was time to eat dessert, she would get out the container, take out her two cookies, and immediately put it back where it came from. That way, if she was tempted to get more, they wouldn’t be immediately available. We also decided that she would tape a Response Card to the container that said, “You don’t need more cookies, but you do need more relaxation. Eating extra cookies will make you mad at yourself; doing something else to relax will make you proud.”

Next, we agreed that after Susan finished her cookies, she wasn’t allowed to get to work for at least 15 minutes. That way, she would prove to herself that while dessert was over, relaxation was not. She decided that in those extra minutes, she could do some quilting, call a friend, listen to music, scroll through social media, write in her journal, read an article, or do something else fun and relaxing. Not only would this help her get the relaxation that she needed, but it would also get her mind off of cookies and on to something else, which would likely make the craving for more go away completely. With this plan in place, Susan was ready to get back on track with dessert!

Busy Work Period Blueprint

When I first started working with my client Jeff, he was in a period of struggle. He had fallen into many unhelpful habits, like getting fast food for breakfast every morning and not exercising. Only about nine months prior to this, he was in a great place. He had been working out with a trainer twice a week, eating well, and had lost more than 20 pounds. As he entered into a busy work period, things fell apart. He stopped exercising and taking the time to meal plan and meal prep. Before he knew it, the 20 pounds came right back.Man at dusk

Initially, Jeff and I worked on getting things back on track. He started exercising again and easing away from unhealthy, convenient food options. He slowly resumed meal planning and cooking. After a few months, Jeff was once again feeling great, although we knew busy work times would continue to be a vulnerable area for him.

A few weeks ago, Jeff told me that he knew he was about to have a busy few weeks at work. He was slightly nervous that it would be a repeat of the past. Jeff and I came up with a plan in session of exactly what he would do, how he would get himself to do it, and why it was worth it to him to do so.

When we met this week, Jeff was just coming out of his busy period. We agreed: it was a huge success. He did so much better this time than he ever had in the past. Jeff and I made a list of the things he did this time, so that the next time he got busy at work, he would have a blueprint already established for how to proceed.

Jeff’s Strategies for a Busy Work Period

  1. Continue to prioritize healthy eating and exercise. Don’t fool myself into thinking that it’s okay to slip on either one of these. They matter, they’re important, and they’re worth it. No cutting corners on my healthy habits because that will lead me somewhere I don’t want to be.
  2. No matter what, schedule in at least 30 minutes for lunch and go get a salad from the restaurant down the block. Don’t take the “easy” way out of going to the bakery in my building to grab a quick pastry because that won’t make me feel good.
  3. Continue to take time for breakfast, even if this means getting up 10 minutes early.
  4. Even if I have to cut back number of exercise sessions or the length of a session, anything is better than nothing. Don’t buy into the all-or-nothing thinking that if I can do my whole workout, it’s not worth doing anything.
  5. Remember: Doing these things will make my busy work period BETTER, not WORSE. They will keep my mind and my body sharp. I’ll actually have more mental bandwidth to tackle my work when I continue to prioritize self-care, not less. Continuing to practice my healthy habits will not just be “one more thing I have to do,” it will make doing all the other things easier.

With one successful busy work period under his belt and this blueprint to refer to for the next one, Jeff feels much more confident that he can and will stay on track, no matter what’s going on with his work.

How Full Do I Want to Feel?

While my client April was out running errands last week, she realized that it was past lunch and she was really hungry. April was right near her favorite pizza shop, which had recently reopened, and the idea of getting pizza seemed hugely appealing. When April got to the restaurant, she knew that getting one slice of pizza and a salad would be the smart choice. She ended up ordering two pieces of pizza, a salad, and she threw in a black and white cookie for good measure. After eating both pieces of pizza and the cookie, she ended up feeling very overly stuffed.Pizza

We discussed this situation in session, and April realized a few things that she could have done to have a different outcome. First, we recognized the importance of prioritizing eating on a regular schedule and not allowing herself to get caught up in errands, even if she was being productive. It is unquestionably harder to make a decision that’s in line with your goals when you’re very hungry and have no clear plan in place.

I said to April, “At least you had the thought that getting one piece of pizza and a salad would be smart. What were the thoughts that led you to get a second piece and a cookie?” April thought about it and realized that she must have said something to herself along the lines of, “I’m starving. I just want to eat something that will really satisfy me.” I asked, “If you had gotten one piece and a salad, how do you think you would have felt when you finished eating? Would you be satiated? Would you still be hungry?” April told me that she definitely would have been full, because one piece of pizza and a salad is a satisfying meal.

In talking it through more, April realized that either way she would have ended up full. If she ordered one piece of pizza and a salad, she would be pleasantly full and would have the satisfaction of knowing she made a good choice that was in line with her goals. If she veered from that and ordered two pieces and a cookie (plus a salad that she never ended up eating), she would wind up overly full and regretful.

To help her remember this idea the next time she was faced with an eating decision and was having the sabotaging thought, “I’m starving. I need something extra and really satisfying,” she’ll ask herself this question: Do I want to feel one piece of pizza and salad full, or do I want to feel two pieces of pizza and a cookie full? This will help remind her that either way she’ll be satiated, but if she sticks with the first choice, she’ll be full and proud of herself.

All-Or-Nothing Exercise

One of the biggest mistakes I see many of my clients make about exercise is that they display all-or-nothing thinking about what exercise entails. Last fall, my client Mark was going on long walks for exercise. Most days he would go for at least an hour, sometimes upwards of two hours. Over the long and snowy winter, Mark fell out of the habit of walking outside. As the temperatures started rising and the snow melted the past few months, I asked Mark if he had gotten back to walking. He admitted that he hadn’t. His schedule had shifted, and he was much busier at work. Mark told me that he hadn’t been able to carve out an hour, let alone two hours, any day.

This was classic all-or-nothing thinking! Mark had it in his head that a walk was at least an hour long. If he didn’t have an hour, then he couldn’t do anything. I reminded Mark that there were 59 other options between a 60-minute walk and a 0-minute walk, and that anything was better nothing. A five-minute walk was better than a zero-minute walk! Mark and I agreed that it was actually important for him to schedule in some smaller walks throughout the week, even if he had time for a longer one. This would teach him that a walk could be any length of time.

When I started working with my client Rachel, she told me that she signed up for a marathon for the past three years to motivate herself to train and start exercising. Because the idea of doing a marathon was so overwhelming, she ended up doing nothing each time. Much like Mark, Rachel needed to start small and prove to herself that exercise could be anything; it didn’t have to be a marathon. She decided to sign up for a 5K instead. For the first time in several years, she was able to start training and get back to exercise.Woman hiking and thinking

I also saw all-or-nothing exercise thinking in my client Jen. Like Rachel, Jen used to be a big runner, but she slowly stopped running and gained a lot of weight. Jen wanted to get back to exercise, but every time she tried, she got demoralized from how hard it felt. Wanting to immediately be as fit as she used to be stopped Jen from doing anything, so we worked hard on not comparing where she was today to where she had been years ago. Jen was able to let go of her expectations on where she thought she “should” be and start small. She was able to return to a much stronger level of fitness over time.

If you tend have all-or-nothing thinking about exercise, start small! Even if you have the time to do more, prove to yourself that exercise can be any amount of time and break the thinking pattern that says exercise must be long, hard, or very rigorous. Anything is better than nothing!

Fantasy vs. Reality

My client Jeff was in the habit of eating a whole pizza several nights per week. While he knew this was sabotaging his health and weight loss goals, he found that he kept giving in to the lure of the pizza. In session, I asked, “What’s so great about eating a whole pizza?” Jeff thought about it and said, “I don’t know. It’s just so great. There’s so much sauce and cheese, and it’s so filling and satisfying.” I said, “Let’s look at this objectively. How do you feel psychologically when you finish eating a whole pizza? Are you thinking, ‘That was a great decision?’” Jeff answered that he often felt pretty regretful. I responded, “How do you feel physically when you finish a whole pizza? Do you feel pleasantly full?” Jeff responded that he often felt stuffed and somewhat uncomfortable.Pizza

This was very interesting to me: when asked what eating a whole pizza was like, Jeff said it was great and satisfying. When asked how he specifically felt psychologically and physically after eating a whole pizza, the answer was very different. No wonder Jeff kept eating a whole pizza! He kept buying into the fantasy of what eating a whole pizza would be like: satisfying and great. He would either not recognize or not pay attention to what the reality of eating a whole pizza was like: full of feelings of regret and being overly stuffed. Jeff made the following Response Card:

It’s true the idea of eating a whole pizza is great, but the reality is not great at all. I end up uncomfortably stuffed and mad at myself. In giving up eating a whole pizza, I’m really not giving up anything that actually feels good. It’s worth it to stop at a reasonable amount.

I’ve seen this fantasy vs. reality concept play out in many other ways in my clients throughout the years. When we first started working together, my client Jen would overeat ice cream every time she got very upset. We worked hard on building up alternate coping mechanisms for Jen to employ when she got upset that helped her feel better and continue to feel in control of her eating. In time, she saw that eating to soothe her upset feelings ultimately caused more upset: she ended up mad at the situation and mad at herself.

There was one instance a few weeks ago when Jen had a really bad day at work and fell back into her old pattern. She stopped at a convenience store on the way home from work, bought a pint of ice cream, and ate the whole thing. In session, I asked, “What were the thoughts at play?” Jen said she was thinking, “I don’t care. I had such a bad day, and I just want to feel better.” I asked, “And did you feel better? How did you feel when you finished the ice cream?” Jen answered that she actually didn’t feel better. She felt mad at herself for reengaging in old, sabotaging habits. But the reason she lapsed back into it was because she was thinking about how overeating ice cream used to make her feel, and not how it makes her feel now. Jen made the following Response Card:

It’s true that overeating ice cream used to make me feel better when I was upset, but it no longer does. Now that I know how great being in control of my eating feels, letting go of that control makes everything feel worse. Overeating ice cream no longer provides me the relief it once did.

Think about your own thoughts. Might there be times when you think something will be better than it actually is? If so, make a Response Card and start reminding yourself of the reality, not the fantasy!

All About Response Cards

Response Cards are helpful phrases written down on 3×5 cards or kept somewhere on your phone. They are one of the most powerful tools in the journey towards gaining control over your thinking, which will ultimately help you gain control over your eating.

CBT for weight loss and maintenance teaches us that it’s never the situation or the trigger that automatically leads someone to eat something, it’s their thinking about the situation. For example, my client Rachel got in a big fight with her sister and ended up going to the kitchen to eat a lot of cookies. It wasn’t the fact that Rachel got in a fight that automatically led to her eating cookies, it was her thinking about the situation. When she gets really upset, Rachel has the thought, “I’m so upset, I deserve to eat to help myself feel better.” Once she has that thought, of course she then goes and eats cookies.

In other applications of CBT, we call these “automatic thoughts” because they’re thoughts our brains make without deliberate effort on our part. In CBT for weight loss and maintenance, we call them “sabotaging thoughts” – thoughts that sabotage one’s overall eating, health, and weight goals.

While we can’t stop anyone from having these sabotaging thoughts (after all, they’re automatic), we can teach people to respond to them effectively so that they have a different outcome. This is where Response Cards come in. Whenever someone has a sabotaging thought, we ask them, “what would you like to say to yourself the next time you have thought? What might be helpful to hear?” Then, we have them write it down and read it every single day. Coming up with a great response to a sabotaging thought is wonderful, but it won’t do much unless you read it over and over and over again. The repetition of reading it is what will help it start to make new inroads into your brain.

In response to her sabotaging thought, “I’m so upset, I deserve to eat to help myself feel better,” Rachel made the following Response Card:

If I’m upset, I do deserve to feel better, but I also deserve to achieve my health goals. Instead of using food as a means to feel better, I can go call my mom, take a walk, do a mindfulness meditation or some yoga stretches, or listen to some music. These activities will help me feel better without sabotaging any other goals. Woman writing a Response Card

When I first started working with him, my client Mark was often going to a friend’s house and overeating pizza. He told me that his friends were all eating many slices of pizza, so it felt normal for him to do it, too. We discussed that Mark had to make choices that worked for him, based on his goals, not choices based on what other people were doing. Mark made the following Response Card:

My body doesn’t know or care what anyone around me is eating, it only knows what I’m eating. Just because other people are eating something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work for me. I have to make choices based on my goals and what will work for me.

Read every day, these Response Cards are a powerful tool in helping you to shift your thinking and response to triggers in a different way. There are no right or wrong answers about what Response Cards should say; it’s only important to figure out what responses are persuasive and resonant to you. Any time you catch a sabotaging thought, make sure you think about what you’d like to say to yourself the next time you have that thought (because if you’ve had it once, chances are very high you’ll have it again), and write it down. Read it every day! That’s what will enable you to have a different outcome the next time the sabotaging thought pops up.

Is It Time to Reevaluate COVID Habits?

Now that we have passed the one-year mark since life changed dramatically, I started thinking about habits that some of my clients fell into during COVID. While many of these were understandable in the chaotic and scary first few months, they are not serving them well anymore.

Like many, my client Mark started drinking alcohol much more frequently in the early days of COVID. While he used to be a social drinker, we realized that somewhere along the way he started drinking about two glasses of wine every day – which is roughly 1,600 extra calories per week! Because his eating is relatively healthy and he has still been exercising, the extra alcohol calories weren’t causing him to gain weight. They were, however, probably the culprit for why he stopped losing weight.

Mark decided he didn’t want to rely on alcohol every night to relax; he wanted to get back to only having some on the weekends. We decided he would cut back to one glass a night for two weeks, and then work on cutting it out entirely on weeknights from there. Since alcohol was acting as a stress reliever, it was critical to put other deliberate coping mechanisms in its place. Mark decided that every night before cooking dinner, he would do a 10-minute meditation. Instead of watching the news while he cooked, he would instead listen to music or entertainment podcasts. This way, he would still get stress relief but not the extra calories.

My client Kara was also having trouble losing weight. Like Mark, we looked for where the extra calories might be coming from. For Kara, it was extra indulgences when she ordered takeout. When restaurants shut down and Kara started ordering takeout more frequently, she might order a salad and French fries, because she felt the need to indulge. Kara realized that pre-COVID, she never would have ordered takeout French fries, but it was a habit that stuck around. Kara decided that she would make list of reasonable takeout options and stick to that moving forward.

When he shifted from his office to working from home last year, my client Jeff started staying up too late. Since he didn’t have to commute to work anymore, he rationalized staying up later and sleeping in. Jeff hasn’t been able to institute a regular bedtime or sleep routine for himself over the last year. He man running along pathoften stays up late snacking in the evening.

Jeff acknowledged that this habit wasn’t working for him anymore, and he was ready to reinstate a regular bedtime. Not only would this ensure he got enough sleep, but it meant he wouldn’t be up too late snacking. He would once again be able to get up early enough to exercise in the morning – a habit he had in place for years and helped him thrive.

If you’ve let some bad COVID habits creep in, now is the time to reevaluate them! It’s been over a year, so it’s high time to make sure your habits are working for you, not against you

A Different Type of Food Pusher

My client Megan had several hard days this past week. She told me that, on three separate occasions, she ended up eating things that she knew she shouldn’t – food she hadn’t planned that made her feel overly full and exceeded her limits for the day. In session, we discussed how all three situations involved her partner saying he was going to order a specific food. She said she didn’t want any, and he ended up getting food for her anyway. Once the tempting food was in front of her, Megan found it too difficult to resist.

I reminded Megan that this would be an incredibly difficult situation for anyone to be in and was not a personal weakness on her part. It’s hard to resist food that you enjoy – even if it’s not on your plan – when it’s staring you directly in the face. While it would be easy to blame her partner for sabotaging her and think, “He just needs to stop ordering food when I tell him I don’t want any,” it’s important to remember that it’s not the food pusher’s job to stop pushing food on you. They’re food pushers; that’s what they do! It is, however, your job to start saying no or to start not eating the food that you said you didn’t want.Food on table

Megan thought about this and realized that by always giving in and eating the food that her partner ordered for her, she was teaching him to continue doing it! She was training to him know that if he ordered food, regardless of whether she said she wanted it, she would eat it. Because of this, we knew that the crucial step in changing this would be for Megan to start standing firm and not eating food she said she didn’t want. This will probably mean wasting food, but if it’s in the service of reaching health and happiness goals that are incredibly important to her, it’s worth it.

Megan decided that the next time this happened, she would take the food he ordered for her and put directly in the trash – both to make a point and to decrease the chances she would end up eating it. We don’t know for certain, but it’s likely that after she does this multiple times, he’ll get the message and eventually stop ordering her unwanted food. The good news is that he doesn’t have to stop ordering Megan unplanned food for her to stay on track. She’s not in control over what he orders, but she is in control over what she eats.

Entitlement vs. Treat

Most of the clients I work with have “slippery slope” habits – old habits that they’ve managed to leave behind but continue to be vulnerable to reactivating. For some, it’s once again starting to leave the serving dishes on the dinner table and taking seconds. For others, it’s forgetting to prioritize making a healthy lunch and falling back into just snacking in the afternoons. My client Erin’s habit is drinking wine during the week.

When we first started working together, Erin was drinking wine most nights. We added up the calories from her two-glass-per-day habit, and she realized she was consuming more than 2,000 calories each week in alcohol. No wonder she was having trouble losing weight! Erin worked hard to deliberately cut out wine on weekdays, instead enjoying it just on weekends. Doing so had a lot of benefits – she always woke up with a clear head and her sleep improved during the week, she felt better about the amount of alcohol she was drinking, and, of course, she started losing weight.Woman holding a glass of wine

When I met with Erin this week, she was feeling frustrated because not only had her weight loss stalled, but she had actually gained a few pounds. We discussed what might be contributing to this. I asked her, “Is there anything you’re doing now that you weren’t doing when you were losing weight? Or anything you aren’t doing now that you were doing before?” It didn’t take Erin long to realize that wine had crept back in, and she was now drinking it close to every night again, not just on weekends. For Erin, the creep was pretty slow, so she didn’t really notice it as it was happening. Before long, she had reactivated her old habit of daily wine consumption.

We discussed that in order to start losing weight again, she would likely have to cut back on the amount of wine calories she consumed each week. Erin acknowledged that this was true, but the thought of it felt really hard. Wine had once again entered her “entitlement” category – something she felt entitled to have every night. If she couldn’t have it, she felt deprived. The opposite of the entitlement category is the “treat” category – something someone doesn’t expect to have every night and, instead, views it as a treat or a bonus when she does.

I reminded Erin that once she gets used to having wine only on weekends again, it would shift from the entitlement category to the treat category, and not having it every night wouldn’t feel so hard. Erin thought back and realized that after about a week of only having wine during the weekends, she typically didn’t even think about it during the week. Most nights, it didn’t feel hard at all.

To take wine out of the entitlement category and into the treat one, Erin and I decided that she would create a new nightly ritual. Instead of pouring herself a glass of wine, she would brew some special tea that she really loves and do a five-minute meditation. That way, she would still get to drink something she enjoyed and that felt special, feel relaxation and stress relief from the meditation, and not sabotage any other goals. A win/win!