Have you ever made a resolution that the diet starts today, only to succumb to the lure of a salted caramel brownie as you grab your morning coffee? Have you ever found yourself investing hours browsing dream holiday destinations online, when you knew you should be starting that overdue tax return? Or have you ever come back from a mediocre date, and decided that once again you had a terrible time, which must mean that you are unlovable and destined to spend your life alone with your cats.
Frankly, none of these responses are the best way to deal with these situations — in psychological terms they are called suboptimal responses, and many of us find ourselves responding in these ways far more often than we would like. The good news is, change is possible. It is possible to intentionally change your thinking patterns to avoid these responses, and to ‘bounce back’ from these setbacks. Today we welcome psychologists, Dr. Sue Morris and Associate Professor Annette Krochmalik who are going to share how to best do this.
An all too familiar suboptimal response scenario:
Let’s consider a scenario that may be all too familiar. It is nearing the end of spring, you’re sitting on the couch late at night with a block of chocolate, binge-watching Netflix, and you suddenly realise that summer is approaching and that the healthy eating regime you planned seemed to finish before it really got started. You’ve been too busy at work to make it to the gym, and your resolution to walk home from the train station after work has been hijacked by your fondness for Uber. Horrible thoughts pop into your mind: “I can’t stick to a diet; I’m a failure”, “I must look great in my swimsuit; otherwise everyone will think I am unattractive” and “I’m already so out of shape there’s no point going to the gym”. You feel so bad that you immediately text your friends to cancel your plans to meet them at the beach on the weekend, then finish the block of chocolate to make yourself feel better.
How do you change your negative response into a positive response?
First, think about how you got from relaxing happily on the couch enjoying a great TV show, to the suboptimal response of cancelling plans with your friends and scoffing the entire block of chocolate in record speed.
The reality is that the situation and your response are not automatically linked. Rather, your mind – including your thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and much more – influences how you respond to a situation. To make matters worse, often we aren’t fully aware of what our mind is doing, which is one reason why suboptimal thinking and responding can be so hard to change.
Good News! There is a solution to alter this thinking pattern!
The solution is to:
(1) become aware of your suboptimal thinking that is leading to that unhelpful response, and then
(2) optimise your mind to produce a better response!
Here’s some ways to optimise your thinking:
Become aware of the core beliefs
that you hold that influence your responses: Beliefs like “anything less than perfect is failure” will turn small setbacks or mistakes into disasters, like diet glitches turning into full-blown binges. Then, calmly and deliberately replace these beliefs with more optimal ones like “FAIL = First Attempt in Learning”. Are you aware of your core beliefs? What are they?
Soften thoughts that you must or should be or do something. For example, turn thoughts that you MUST be toned for summer, into thoughts that it would be nice to be healthier, and you will do what you can to make a positive change. Notice when your thinking is black-and-white, for example if you aren’t perfect, you are terrible. Introduce more shades of grey!
Look on the bright side of life:
Our brains are hardwired to notice negative things rather than positive things.. So we need to learn to pay attention to the positive things in life, whether it’s finding something good about a mediocre date (even if it was just the meal!), or focussing on positive things about yourself. Have a go at writing an “enough” list of all the things you are already good enough at, or have enough of. Instead of focussing on shortcomings, focus on your strengths, and the things in your life that you value. Every now and then, write down 3 things for which you are grateful. Actively seeking out the positive has been shown to have a meaningful impact on wellbeing.
Set goals, and track your progress against them:
When you have something that needs doing, start by setting a SMART goal – that is, one that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. This will help you to reality check aiming to lose those 5kg in the next 2 weeks, and set a more realistic and achievable goal (a realistic weight loss goal is ½ – 1 kg each week, but really, any downward trend is positive and needs to be celebrated!)Reflect realistically on whether setbacks mean that your approach needs tweaking, or whether your goal itself needs some rethinking. Setting small sub-goals, that you can check off they are achieved, enhances your self-efficacy (your belief that you have what it takes to get things done), which makes you more likely to achieve the next subgoal.
Prioritise what needs to get done:
We are often driven to do what feels most urgent, and often forget to prioritise those tasks that are important but not yet urgent. Eating healthily in winter when thoughts of lying on beaches are far away, is an example of an important but not yet urgent task, which we should devote time to. Conversely, manage the interruption of having your time hijacked by seemingly urgent but unimportant tasks (like responding to ephemeral social media posts about dream holiday destinations)!
Replacing suboptimal beliefs and mindsets has a positive impact on your wellbeing
Replacing suboptimal beliefs and mindsets with more helpful alternatives like the ones above will lead to better responses in many situations in your life. Instead of binge-eating chocolate and cancelling social arrangements, you can plan and prioritise your exercise and healthy eating, and most importantly, not over-react when the occasional slip-up occurs (which it will). And the good news is that all of these simple ideas have lots of scientific evidence to explain the positive impact that they can have on your thinking and your wellbeing!
I have found that becoming aware of my core beliefs, and my frequent ‘black and white’ thinking patterns so helpful in understanding my responses to a range of situations, especially when it comes to perfectionist thinking. If you want to learn more about this then I recommend reading Rubber Brain: A toolkit for optimising your study, work, and life! In fact, I’ve got five copies of this to give away, so get your entries in below!
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