Dr. Heather McKee's Evidence Based Insights


The Kindness Habit (Part 2)

The Kindess Habit (Part 2) Acceptance

"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."  

Carl Rodgers

In the previous blog, we learnt about how our own self judgement (i.e. not what others are thinking) drives our own insecurities, how you can break free of this cycle and how building a kindness habit is crucial to maintaining your other healthy habits for the long term.

If you missed it you can read, part one of The Kindness Habit here.

In the interest of continuing to cultivate this habit this week we are going to look at why accepting, rather than battling our negative thoughts can keep us on track with our health habits.

All too often, when it comes to our healthy habits we tend to have a very black and white outlook on the process of achieving our goals. We approach our health goals as if we can simply go from A to B in a straight line without any room for deviation off that path.

Yet the truth is that life doesn’t work in that way, and with so many decisions, options and temptations around, improving our healthy habits doesn’t work in that way either. 

In one of my previous research studies, we found that those who were unsuccessful at sticking to their healthy habits often abandoned their goal as they felt so bad about giving in to temptation. They felt that if they didn’t implement their healthy habits perfectly, then why bother at all?!

This all or nothing mindset is extremely detrimental to achieving your goals.

It is important that we let go of this idea of perfection, in particular it is important that we let go of the negative feelings associated with trying to do things perfectly. It does not lead to long term success, in fact it enhances the likelihood that you will be unsuccessful.

In contrast, research has found that those who are successful at sticking to their healthy habits, have a different outlook on failure. Once they did something that was contradictory to their goals, rather than beat themselves up about it, they looked to learn from it. Once they gave in to temptation and strayed from their goals, they became curious as to why this had happened. Rather than berate themselves for a lack of willpower, they understood that this lapse in healthy behaviours was temporary and after examining why they had strayed, they then moved on.

Life is imperfect and therefore we need to know how to cope with things when they don’t go to plan. It is important to make mistakes every now and again, so you can learn how to bounce back from them and continue with your health goals.

So how do you fail better?

Well step one is acceptance.

What is acceptance?

Acceptance is recognising that your thoughts and feelings are merely thoughts and feelings, that they are not good or bad, positive, negative, optimistic or pessimistic. What acceptance is really concerned about is whether these thoughts and feelings, your own internal self-talk, is helpful and if it will spur on your motivation to continue with your goals.

Why is acceptance important for creating healthy habits?

Let’s face it, more often than not the automatic default when we go off course with our healthy habits is not to cheer ourselves on or root for ourselves to get back in the saddle. Rather, the default tends to be to beat ourselves up for failing.

This discourse needs to change.

As we saw in The Kindness Habit part 1 our self-criticism is not what keeps us on track, rather it tends to have the opposite effect derailing us from our goals.

We cannot control our thoughts.

This battle for control is what causes us to suffer.

True acceptance is not about tolerance, putting up with, avoiding or admitting defeat.

It is instead a curiosity where you let thoughts pop up and float away, without fighting to keep hold of them, running away from them or dwelling or indulging in them and giving them too much attention.

How do we learn to accept our negative thoughts when we go off track with our healthy habits?

It is important to remember that if our thoughts are motivating then they are useful thoughts and are helping in keeping you on track with your goals.

However more often than not you find yourself tangled up in a negative thought spiral that undermines your commitment and effort towards building your healthy habits.

Acceptance allows you to objectively examine your thoughts in order to determine if they are helpful or not.

In order to learn how to accept our thoughts we must firstly develop our self awareness skills. One way to do this is through mindful self-monitoring.

How mindful self-monitoring can keep us on track with our healthy habits

In order to understand how mindful self-monitoring helps us with acceptance of our flaws let’s look at it from a body image point of view.

Most of the time those with a negative body image tend to focus on how their body shape upsets them, how frustrated they are that their body is a certain way. They focus on how these feelings make them unhappy. They don’t take time to examine these thoughts and feelings more objectively.

Being deeply emerged in negative thoughts or emotions is the exact behaviour that we wish to change. Developing an objective point of view is the key skill that helps with this.

Just like keeping a food diary helps you objectively understand the patterns in your eating habits, so you can look for areas to make changes that will help support your health goals. Becoming more objective to your thoughts can help you identify negative thought patterns in order to help you examine the usefulness of these patterns and whether or not they support or hinder your ultimate goal pursuit.

5 ways to develop your mindful self-monitoring skills to help build healthy habits that last?

There are multiple ways in which you can become more aware of your thoughts and thus take the first step to accepting them.

The exercises below may help you in defusing from negative thoughts about the performance of your health goals and other self-criticisms such as those about your body image. Difusion involves separation, disconnecting or viewing thoughts and feelings for what they truly are (simply lists of words and thought patterns), not what they try and tell us they are (i.e. dangers or facts). 

Defusing from your thoughts helps to lessen their negative impact on your behaviour. So diffusion is a vital step towards being able to act in alignment with your goals instead of letting your thoughts and actions be dictated by rules, reasons, self -criticisms and judgments.

There are many ways you can go about doing this in order to be able to accept negative thoughts for what they are, simply thoughts and be able to get back to things that are going to positively impact your long term healthy habit success.

It is best to choose the technique that feels right for you, or you can experiment with any of the below until you find one that feels right:

1.       Mindfulness meditation practice

Developing a mindfulness practice in general will help in terms of recognising negative thoughts and learning not to engage with them. Two techniques that can help with this in particular include, thought labelling and objective focus strategies.

Thought labelling – this is the practice of sitting with your thoughts, noticing them as they come up and labelling them. For example, say you feel you have overindulged at a BBQ with friends. Instead of immersing yourself in negative self-talk, notice the thoughts that come up and label them. "Oh there is my thought about not planning in advance", "There is my thought about my appearance", and "There is my thought about my future happiness". Labelling your thoughts that pop up can start to help you examine them more objectively, without involving emotions or feelings.

Objective focus – Next time you find you are giving yourself a hard time about something to do with your healthy habits. Rather than diving into your thoughts and swimming around in them while they eat away at you, like swimming in piranha infested waters. Try to tune in to your body in the present, what can you see, feel, hear? What is the texture of the seat you are on, what background noises both loud and quieter noises can you hear? What can you smell? The key here is to turn your awareness to your body and the sensations its experiencing in the present moment rather than allowing your mind to run away with itself instead.

2.       Letting go

Think about the negative thoughts or dialogues that normally pop up in response to when you go off track with your healthy habits. Think about the impact of holding on to this particular thought or storyline has had and is going to continue to have on you. Can you identify specific unhelpful self-judgments that you have become fused with? The storylines you tell yourself? For example, not being good enough/thin enough/rich enough/smart enough etc. Can you pay attention to and list these common stories. You can carry out the exercise completed in The Kindness Habit Part 1 to help you look at reframing these patterns of unhelpful thoughts.

3.       Thought reflection

Another option is to look at asking yourself a series of reflective questions:

·         What am I feeling?

·         What just happened to lead me to feel this way?

·         What am I saying to myself in this situation?

·         How would I like to react differently to this?

4.       The bracelet technique

In learning to note their negative thought patterns some people find it useful to use something external as a cue to heighten their awareness of these thoughts. You could choose to wear a brightly coloured bracelet on your right wrist. Each time you notice a particular thought, feeling or behaviour that you feel is unhelpful, move the bracelet from your right to your left wrist. Heightening your self-awareness of negative thoughts and helping you tune into a body based action rather than the thought itself.

5.       Metaphor

You can use certain metaphors to help you diffuse from negative thoughts. A common metaphor used is the passengers on a bus metaphor. You are the bus driver, whilst all the passengers are your thoughts, nosily chattering away and trying to distract you. However you keep your eyes on the road, focused on where you are trying to get to. Other metaphors and imagery people use are thoughts sailing down a river whilst we stand on the bank watching them go by, letting thoughts float away like a balloon, watching thoughts, like cars, drive past on a road whilst you stand at the side observing but not engaging.  

Why it matters

There is no denying that acceptance is not a skill that comes easily. However it is vital as instead of trying to control our thoughts, by coming to terms with them, taking accountability for our actions, accepting that we can’t change the past. We can alleviate the unnecessary suffering they cause and focus more on motivating thoughts that are going to get us to our goals faster and keep us there longer.

Ultimately, when we stop battling with certain thoughts and emotions our actions and behaviours stop being defined by them too.

Go forth and be kind to yourself!

Published on 15th May 2018 at 06:57 by Dr. Heather McKee

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DR. HEATHER MCKEE, IS THE UK’S LEADING WEIGHT LOSS AND BEHAVIOUR CHANGE PSYCHOLOGY SPECIALIST.
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This work is in no way meant to replace any medical advice. Dr. McKee is Non-HCPC-registered. Photography by Dylan Madden.

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