Your body is changing for the better. But is your brain on board? A cognitive psychologist explains how to be on the lookout for the unconscious “mental frames” that can bring your progress to a halt.
It took a lot of hard work and focused choices. But here you are — perhaps weeks or months into your fitness program — and you’re beginning to see and feel some real results. You’re looking leaner and more fit. Your clothes are fitting looser. You’re feeling lighter, standing taller, moving faster on your feet. Hey, you’re seeing a whole new person when you look in the mirror!
And then, something strange happens. Suddenly, perhaps subtly, you find yourself making choices you used to make, resuscitating less-than-healthy behaviors you thought you’d given up. Bit by bit, you start reclaiming that loose space in your clothing and retreating into the more familiar look and feel of your former, less-fit self.
So what gives? People get derailed from what appear to be successful fitness and weight-loss programs for all sorts of reasons, of course. In some cases, life circumstances or unrealistic expectations are to blame. In other cases, people burn out on overaggressive regimens, or simply fail to transition into sound maintenance programs. But there are also times when people abruptly reverse course for no apparent reason.
In such cases, there’s often an unconscious factor at work, and for anyone who has been working intently toward a fitness goal, the unraveling of all that hardwon progress can be both a maddening and mystifying thing to behold. It may seem as though we have a divided self, with one part of us willingly doing the work of getting in shape, and the other part of us busily deconstructing our progress while we’re not looking.
This, according to cognitive psychologist Michael Hall, PhD, is a classic case of “cognitive dissonance,” a psychological phenomenon that arises whenever an individual holds two opposing (i.e., dissonant) thoughts, beliefs, values or goals. In many cases, explains Hall,
one of our opposing ideas — or “frames of thought,” as he calls them — might be far less conscious than the other, but still surprisingly powerful. “If left unexamined,” he says, “our unconscious frames may compel us to act in ways we don’t entirely understand — ways diametrically opposed to our more conscious choices.”
A Method to the Madness
The key to understanding and dispelling such problems, according to Hall, lies in recognizing that some part of us is served — or at least thinks it is served — by our self-sabotaging actions. “One part of you may be committed to the idea of losing weight, and be motivated by the idea of looking more attractive and feeling more fit,” Hall explains. “But there may be another part of you that’s not at all convinced this unfamiliar state of being is safe or desirable. It experiences the change as a threat — a danger or challenge to another important value — and so it acts to reverse it.”
When it comes to issues of body shape and body image, though, we may find such reversals particularly perplexing. Why on earth, we might wonder, would any part of us not want to be in the healthiest, most attractive body possible?
Hall, cofounder of the International Association for Neuro-Semantics (www.neurosemantics.com) and coauthor of several books, including Games Slim and Fit People Play (Neuro-Semantic Publications, 2001) and Secrets of Personal Mastery (Crown House, 2000), explains this phenomenon in terms of “meaning” and “performance.” We attach meanings — interpretations, judgments, emotional associations — to everything we experience, he says, and then we perform, or behaviorally act out, those meanings in our everyday lives.
“The challenge,” he notes, “comes when we simultaneously associate two different or opposing meanings to a single experience, but don’t fully recognize that.” The meanings we attach to our bodies, in particular, Hall says, tend to be deeply personal, powerful and complex. We might have both very positive and very negative associations, for example, with the idea of an attention-getting figure, he explains. On the one hand, we may crave
that kind of attention, and desire the benefits it confers. On the other, we might hold a deep-seated belief that people with attractive bodies are superficial, or we might dread the idea of being perceived and judged in relation to our appearance. Regardless of our
conscious desires, Hall says, we’ll typically wind up acting out whatever meanings are most deeply held, or operating more actively, at any given time.
The challenge is that in many cases, we don’t even realize we hold a negative meaning until some triggering aspect of a given experience presents itself. Or worse, we never recognize it at all, but we react to it just the same. “Let’s say you decide to lose some weight and get in shape,” Hall says. “Consciously, because you attach many positive meanings to being slim and healthy, you perform those meanings by making positive lifestyle choices like exercising more and eating better.” Initially, you might be comfortable — even elated — about your progress. But then, as your body takes on unfamiliar characteristics, you may experience some unanticipated (and subtly disconcerting) reactions.
“Perhaps, as the result of your new appearance and fitness level, you begin to feel more sexually attractive and more confident,” Hall says. “Even though you might consciously attach many positive meanings to your desired state of thinness, if you have a more powerful, subconscious belief system that says getting sexual attention isn’t safe, or if you associate confidence with arrogance, or with the risk of being criticized, those beliefs may make the experience of your new thinness feel dangerous and deeply unappealing.”
As long as the unconscious, negative associations carry more import and meaning than your conscious desire to be thin, Hall asserts, they’ll cause you to begin performing those meanings — typically in ways that undermine your former, fitness-oriented behaviors.
Identifying the Disconnect
Whether you’ve self-sabotaged your fitness efforts in the past, or just want to guard against it happening in the future, your first step toward dismantling patterns of destructive mental processing is to learn to recognize them when they are happening.
To that end, make regular mental and emotional check-ins a part of your fitness plan. If you notice you’re feeling weird, uncomfortable or disoriented in your body, or if you identify that you’re engaging in a behavior that seems contrary to your chosen goals, get quiet for a moment. Go inward and ask yourself: What’s going on? What feelings or assumptions are operating now, and how do they support or oppose my most conscious priorities?
Hall refers to this moment of mindfulness as a “choice point” — a time when you can elect to either elevate your chosen frames and meanings, or let them be overridden by less conscious choices.
Using the suggestions in “Friendly Frames” (sidebar) as a starting place, take an inventory of your responses to both physical- and emotional-level changes. As you get into the habit of noticing what beliefs, reactions or assumptions are operating at a given time, you’ll become more adept at identifying your personal patterns, and at devising solutions for removing the psychological obstacles in your way.