Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: Why Making Demands on Yourself Won’t Help You Reach Your Goals

We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.

In the last few posts we’ve been reviewing thoughts that might interfere with achieving health goals. This week we will explore why making demands on yourself won’t help you reach your goals.

The psychologist Albert Ellis is famous for telling people to “stop shoulding on yourself.” I can’t think of an area in life where the word “should” is used more often than with diet, exercise, and weight management.

Why do we use this word? In some situations, the word should may bring good results by reminding us of things that are right and most consistent with our beliefs. I should study for my test instead of going out with my friends. Once you say this you know you’ll feel guilty if you go out. Since you don’t like feeling guilty, you stay home even though you don’t want to. Doing well on the test reinforces your strategy to use the word should.

But sometimes, should is a way we superficially deal with a situation to make us feel a little bit better. If I am talking to my dentist and say, “I know I should floss more often,” this statement probably won’t lead to action. It’s used to relieve the embarrassment I feel for all the problems with my teeth. This type of should makes me feel like I’m doing something, even when I’m not and have no intention to. In a situation like this, using should takes the pressure off, but may actually make it less likely that I’ll change my behavior.

If you want to manage your weight long-term, shoulding yourself is not the best strategy. As in the dentist example above, it may actually prevent us from doing what’s important. Even if you have short-term success guilting yourself into action, this won’t be effective in the long run. Even if it worked, who wants to feel guilty or pressured all the time? Telling yourself you have to do something strips away your perception of freedom and can lead to feeling disgruntled and even angry.

Imagine if the Christmas-time bell ringer for the Salvation Army stopped you at the grocery store, shook his fist at you, and said, “I know you have enough money to contribute to help us. You should stop thinking so much about yourself and your family and give to those who barely have enough to eat or don’t have a home to live in.”

Telling yourself you have to do something strips away your perception of freedom and can lead to feeling disgruntled and even angry.

How would you respond? I suspect you’d react in one of two ways: Either you’d walk on by (even if you were considering a donation before he started his diatribe), or you’d feel guilty enough to reluctantly throw some cash into the red container. No matter what you decided to do, you wouldn’t feel good about the bell ringer—and next time you’d probably use a different entrance to avoid the red kettle.

No one likes being strong-armed, so why do it to yourself? Telling yourself you should eat and exercise in a certain way will make those activities less desirable. You’re almost certain to (1) rebel against yourself, or (2) engage in exercise and dieting with a chip on your shoulder. Either way, you won’t be able to keep this going very long.

In a way, you’re telling yourself you aren’t smart enough, good enough, or disciplined enough to make choices based on what you truly want.

If I tell myself, “I should have an apple, not the cake,” I end up losing no matter which food I choose. If I eat the apple I feel deprived. If I eat the cake I feel guilty. If I eat both of them I feel even worse.

Maybe you substitute a different word for should:

I have to

I need to

I ought to

I’m supposed to

These phrases yield the same results. If we want to make lasting behavior changes and feel good about it, we need to stop talking to ourselves that way. Be nice to yourself. A simple change in words can make all the difference. Instead of using those demanding should words, try something like this:

I could have the apple or I could have the cake.

I could go to the gym or I could stay home.

I can take the elevator or walk up the stairs.

I could order dessert or wait until later.

You are giving yourself a choice — not a command. With this approach you can weigh the options, looking at the pros, cons, and consequence of each decision. Sometimes you might decide on the cake, but you needn’t feel guilty if you figured out how it could work within your larger goal of being healthy. If you decide on the apple you don’t need to feel deprived, because you decided it was the best decision.

As you go through the day, watch for the times you “should” yourself and try viewing these situations as a choice.