Body Image and Weight Loss Part 3: Reinforcement
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It is nearly impossible to turn on your TV, go online, or even go out in public without being bombarded by society’s idea of the ideal body. It is not only frustrating, but it can also be extremely discouraging. Experiencing this way of thinking on a regular basis can reinforce a “box thinking” mindset, that there is a particular way that each of us is supposed to look. This also makes it harder to take those steps towards change. Luckily, there is a way to overcome the feelings of stagnation and defeat with reinforcement.
When it comes to Body Image and Weight Loss, becoming proficient in the following four skill sets will help you achieve your goal of mastery and confidence over your health and body weight:
I discussed Awareness as it pertains to Body Image and Weight Loss in the first part of this series, and in the second part, I reviewed Nonjudgment and Curiosity. In this installment, we will take a look at Reinforcement and its role in keeping you on the path to positive, lasting change.
Years of research and over a decade of my own professional and personal practice have confirmed the time-tested wisdom: reinforcement is the most effective way to achieve lasting change. When you want to shift your behavior, defining the steps needed to move toward your goals and reinforcing those steps repeatedly, will help you achieve the results you desire.
At times, my clients will ask, “Am I supposed to ignore what is wrong and just focus on the ‘positive,’ pretending that everything is fine?” My answer is a resounding, “No!” You need to acknowledge problems as they appear in your life because awareness of what is happening and what you do and do not want is the first step to change. Once you have this nonjudgmental awareness and are clear on your goals, it can be defeating, punishing, and stall your progress to continue focusing all of your attention on what is wrong or difficult to change. Reinforcement is not about ignoring problems as they appear, it is about focusing your attention and intention toward what works to optimize your capabilities for change.
Reward, not punishment, helps produce and maintain lasting change. This means you get to be kind and encouraging toward yourself when you do what works, instead of looking for the mistakes and giving yourself an internal lashing. When you use reinforcement for what is working, as opposed to punishing yourself for slip-ups or relapses, you empower yourself to move forward, and you ignite motivation.
Another point to remember about the reinforcement-change experience is that change is not a linear process. Progress does not happen in a straight, upward moving way; in fact, you will almost certainly experience multiple ups and downs. No one can go from a lifestyle of eating nothing but processed foods to eating healthy, whole foods with no struggles or setbacks. Change does not work like that. Most of the time, you will go back to engaging in behaviors that you would like to stop. Even if you follow behavior-change protocols to a “T”, you will find yourself having urges or engaging in old, ineffective behaviors at some point. You will crave and possibly eat that food that drains your energy, blow off that walk to watch TV, and stay up later getting less rest than you know you need.
Going back to old behaviors is part of the process of change, not failure! Moving momentarily backward can be perceived as a sign that progress is happening. You are headed in the right direction and engaging in old, ineffective behaviors is part of making the changes you want. Knowing that this is how the process works will allow you to stay encouraged even when things don’t go exactly as you had hoped.
You can anticipate this process and give yourself a break when it happens. Instead of judging yourself, giving yourself a mental slap with harsh self-critical thinking, or giving up, you can reinforce yourself for noticing when you have gotten off track and decide the most effective step to take next. “Failure” is an opportunity to notice, take a small step toward the path you want to be on, and reinforce! Practice this over and over and over until the practice becomes what you automatically do.
The more you engage in this cycle, the sooner you will notice lasting change happen and stick. Remember, going back to your old ways is a part of the process of change, and does not signal failure! In the moment you notice you have relapsed, you can then make a new choice about what to do next. The more you practice becoming aware that you have reverted to old ways, reinforce your noticing (being gentle with yourself and without judgment), and get back on track, the sooner you will be on course and more quickly reach your goals.
To stay motivated and moving toward goals that you value, you must build the muscle of Reinforcement. Finding what you are already doing that is working, or taking very small steps forward, and then rewarding those actions creates sustainable motivation for change. Think of it this way: punishment extinguishes motivation and reinforcement creates, ignites, awakens and maintains motivation. Where you have reinforcement, you can create motivation.
Let’s practice building this muscle:
Start with noticing your breathing. You do not have to change or alter your breath. Simply notice that you are inhaling and exhaling. Pay attention to where in your physical body you feel your breath.
Now, for the next three to five breaths, pay attention to where you feel your breath in your physical body and when your mind wanders away or zones out, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
When you notice yourself wander and bring you attention back to your breath, you can think of this as a weight lifting rep, or an exercise to build your ability to put your attention where you want it.
Now, let’s go further. Using this idea of placing the mind where you want it to be in the moment, recall one thing you did in the past day that was effective. Unless you achieved a huge goal in the past day, this exercise requires you to let go of judgments and find where you were effective. Do not dismiss anything for not being “good” enough or “big” enough. If you were tired and you got up on time, that is an accomplishment. If you felt depressed and did not want to get out of bed but you took a shower, perhaps that was effective. It does not matter how big or small you think this action was, take a moment and pick one effective action you engaged in over the past day.
When you have that behavior in mind, reinforce it. You can reinforce this behavior a number of ways: you can reinforce with self-talk, such as, “Good job,” or “I did it,” or “Nice!” Remember, your focus is on what you did well and reinforcing it. If your mind wanders to telling you that it wasn’t good enough, your practice is to gently bring your focus back to what you did well and reinforce it. You may also reinforce your behavior through soothing touch. Maybe if feels soothing to place your hands over your heart center and notice the warmth, or one hand over the other hand, or gently cup your face with both hands. This is touch that feels loving and sweet. Again, when your mind wanders to you or your behavior not being good enough, gently bring your attention back to what you did well and reinforce it.
This is the practice of increasing your motivation in a way that is sustainable and reliable. You can practice this every day – find one thing you did well and practice turning your mind toward noticing what you accomplished and reinforcing it. When your mind goes toward judgments about you or your behavior not measuring up, this is punishment. It will extinguish your motivation and ability to move forward. It’s not wrong, this is just what minds do, they wander, and they come up with judgments. Your task is to calmly notice when this happens and bring your attention back to reinforcing your accomplishment. Practice, practice, practice this and you will notice your motivation grow and your ability to take more steps toward your goals increase.