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How to stop "good behaviour, bad behaviour" thinking - By Sasha High MD

Oct 14, 2020

Many people have black and white thinking. It’s simpler, right? It’s easier to say, this is good, this is bad, then to really assess the nuances that fall in the grey zone. Let me give you an example, we tend to do this with people. We put people into categories of good and bad. This person’s my tribe, or they’re not my tribe. This person’s good - but if they say one mean thing or have a nasty tone, well immediately they get moved over into the “bad” category in our mind. Because it’s harder for us to think about - well maybe their kid was up all night the night before, and they had no sleep, and they’re generally a great person but they were having a bad day and maybe just weren’t behaving at their best. Nope, they’re just bad.

I want to propose that this black and white thinking is actually really detrimental - in life, but tonight we’ll focus on the weight journey. It is the mindset of habitual dieters because they constantly see themselves as being either on a diet and restricting from foods they love, or off the diet and eating the “bad foods” they enjoy. The technical term for this is dichotomous thinking or rigidity - and it has actually been studied and research has found that it impedes people from maintaining a healthy weight.

When we place moral judgment on our health behaviours - so if I eat a salad that’s good, but if I eat pizza that’s bad. What inevitably happens for many people is that they don’t separate the behaviour from the person. So instead what is internalized is this: if I eat salad, I’m good, but if I eat pizza I’m bad. Did you see that? It went from if I eat salad that’s good, the behaviour is good, to if I eat salad I’m good (as in I’m a good person), but if I eat pizza, it’s bad and I’m bad. It’s subtle but this is the crux of the issue - the behaviour becomes the identity. And herein lies the problem.

I want to use a parenting example... If you have a child who is misbehaving, it is so important to separate the person from the behaviour. Your child may be behaving badly, but they are not a bad child. If you start saying stuff like: “Stop being so bad. You’re so disruptive. My kid is so bad…” Well that child is going to internalize those words and form their identity around them. And a kid who believes he’s bad.. What’s he going to do? He’s going to act badly because he’s acting out of his identity. So with my kids, and we have 3 young kids all under 6 so I’m by no means an expert, but trying… with my kids, my husband and I have found that in those moments when they’re acting out, if we do the very opposite, if we remind them of how much they’re loved, how they’re wonderful, how they’re accepted no matter what, how they’re such a joy to our family… then the behaviour turns around because they reconnect with their identity as loved children who are honoured and respected, and then their actions follow.

It is the same thing with adults.

If every time you overeat, you tell yourself how terrible you are, you’re such a failure, you can never get it together... then you will take on the identity of someone who is a failure and can never get it together. Your actions will follow your belief about yourself.

I’m going to say that again because this is so critical: YOUR ACTIONS WILL FOLLOW YOUR BELIEF ABOUT YOURSELF. And then you will fulfill that prophecy because you will act out of your identity as a failure and your actions will result in failure. 

This is what happens when you deem behaviours as Bad or Good. Because when we think a behaviour is Bad and we do the Bad behaviour, we ourselves are Bad. Right? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard patients tell me: “Oh Dr. High, I’ve been so bad. I’m so bad.” 

This kind of thinking doesn’t lead anywhere positive. Truthfully. It might seem a little self-righteous in a way because you’re identifying behaviour, you’re fessing up to it, but that type of thinking is actually going to perpetuate the behaviour because now you’re heaping on guilt, shame, perhaps remorse, and a sense of failure for “being bad”, and then you’ll continue to act that out.

Let’s go back to my earlier parenting analogy. This morning, my daughter who is 5 was upset and speaking rudely to me and generally acting out. But I sat down and I said: “Sweetie, I love you so much. You’re my favourite girl in the whole world. Would you like a hug?” And I just waited and she thought about it for about 5 seconds and then came in for the hug, we reconnected, she turned around with a smile on her face and we moved on with our day. Behaviour changed because her identity was secure. So what if we treated ourselves the same way? Several weeks ago I talked about fostering self-compassion. We need to do this - we need to parent ourselves with kindness, with unconditional love. When we mess up, eat off plan, make a poor choice, we need to be that parent who says: “Sweetie, I love you so much. You got this.. Let’s just move forward and keep going.”

So this is what I want to offer. Instead of thinking of behaviours as good or bad, I want to introduce the concept of workability. Now I’ve talked about this before, but workability is essentially just asking - is this action, behaviour, eating plan, etc working to give me the life that I want, is it aligning with my values and taking me where I want to go? By moving away from thinking of behaviours as good or bad, we’re taking out the moral judgment, the self-shaming and criticism and instead moving into a place of observing with curiosity and problem solving. Hmmm… when I do this, is it working for me? If it is - CELEBRATE THAT. Give yourself affirmation - don’t gloss over the healthy behaviours you are already doing - you need to give yourself kudos to counteract all the times your brain hones in on the negative. Self-affirmation and doing it regularly is so critical. We actually make this a homework activity for patients in our clinic.

And then if you identify actions that are not taking you in the direction you want to go, you can explore with curiosity - ok, what is it that is driving these behaviours? What am I going to do about it? How am I going to problem-solve this? Hm… I notice that when I stay up til 1am watching Netflix, I have no reserve the next day and I end up wanting to eat anything and everything. Hm… that isn’t really working for controlling my weight. So what do I want to do about that?

This type of non-judgmental assessment in a self-compassionate way is going to empower you to make better choices and move forward in the direction that you want to go.

Ok - let me summarize.

  1. Good habit, bad habit, or good behaviour, bad behaviour thinking stems from black and white thinking and this mental rigidity generally backfires and perpetuates behaviours that we consider “bad”.

  2. Your actions will always follow your belief about yourself. So your self-talk is important and who you believe yourself to be, being firm in your identity as someone who is worthy of love and kindness and care is so important.

  3. Workability is asking yourself - is this working for me? If yes, affirm yourself! If no, ok - what do you want to do about it? Problems solving will take you a lot further than beating yourself up.

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