I’ve been working with my client, Rachel, for about a month. In session last Thursday I found out that one night earlier in the week she had gotten into her kids’ Halloween candy and ended up eating way too much of it. Rachel told me that this made her feel really terrible and made her question whether or not she could even do this thing (i.e. lose weight and keep it off). It was clear to me that Rachel was being extraordinarily hard on herself about making this mistake and she was catastrophizing, thinking that because she messed up once it meant she couldn’t ever get it right.
I first reminded Rachel that learning to diet really is like learning any other skill and that mistakes are an inevitable part of any learning experience. I asked Rachel if there was another skill she has learned in which she wasn’t terribly hard on herself when she made a mistake. Rachel told me that several years ago she taught herself to sew. “I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning and none of my early pieces turned out exactly how I wanted them to.” I asked Rachel what she did when this happened, and Rachel said that she just took time to figure out what went wrong and how to correct the mistakes the next time. “And imagine if every time you made a sewing mistake, you told yourself how terrible that was and questioned whether or not you could ever really learn to do it.” “I probably would have given up,” she told me. But because Rachel was accepting of those mistakes, she learned from them, got better, and eventually learned to sew everything she wanted to.
The reality is that thinking she’ll never make a dieting mistake is just as far-fetched and detrimental as it would have been if Rachel thought she should have learned to sew without ever making a mistake. I also asked Rachel how long she’s been struggling with her weight. “It seems like my whole life,” she told me. “At least 30 years.” I reminded Rachel that she’s only been working on these new ideas for a month¬ – and asked her if it seemed realistic to expect that she would get everything down perfectly in 30 days, after over 30 years of not doing these things. “No,” she admitted with a laugh.
I knew that it was important for Rachel to recognize ahead of time that she is going to make mistakes and she can’t have the expectation that she’ll be perfect. If she expects to be perfect, then each mistake will feel like a huge failure and demoralize her greatly. And the more demoralized she feels, the harder it will be to get back on track. If, by contrast, she makes a mistake and is kind and accepting towards herself, she’ll be in a much better position to recover immediately.
Rachel told me that she understood what I was saying but still didn’t think that she would be able to remember it when she made a mistake. I agreed with her that just hearing this one time in session likely wouldn’t make that much of a difference. What she needed to do was write down these ideas and practice reading them every single day. The more she reads them, the more they will get in her head, and that’s when it can really start to make a difference. Rachel made the following Response Card and committed to reading it every single day for the foreseeable future: