I hired a health coach/personal trainer, and have chosen nutrition and weight loss as my primary areas on which to work. He guided me in setting up week one goals, which I seemingly met with ease. Now I’ve been with him for close to eight weeks, and I’ve yet to meet the goals that we set for week two. Despite both of us brainstorming practical solutions to my potential obstacles, I come up with varying excuses for why I can’t meet the goals. Feeling like I can’t gain traction in getting results and getting to the place I want to be physically! I remain,
Hey Yaakov, thanks for reaching out.
I definitely hear you, brother. Nothing is more frustrating and disheartening than wanting to change and not making progress. For the record, there’s a famous maamar in the name of Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt”l, who’s quoted as saying, ‘’It’s easier to learn the entire Shas than to change a middah.” You’re involved in changing behaviors which are deeply ingrained, which is not an easy task.
While an exhaustive overview is beyond the parameters of this column, I can give you some crucial points to ponder, and when you are ready, you can reach out to a coach for added help.
This is Your Brain on Fear
Let’s consider what the brain does when it’s faced with a potential threat. This is important, because we need to understand what the brain considers a threat.
You’re likely familiar with the body’s fight-or-flight response. When faced with a threat - real or imagined, physical or emotional - the most primitive parts of the brain go into action to determine if the threat is a credible one. If it finds that yes, the threat is real, it will then go into survival mode and determine if you should stay and fight or run away - whichever one will most likely result in survival.
The fight-or-flight response is important in the case of true physical threats. For instance, if you’re out for a run and a vicious dog comes racing out at you, or if a shooter were to enter your building, these are real, physical threats to your safety. In either case, the brain will immediately determine if you should fight back or flee.
The problem with the primitive parts of your brain determining what is or is not a threat, however, is that they do not differentiate between real and imagined or physical and emotional threats. This can create ongoing anxiety and stress when our brains are continually interpreting potential threats to our well-being. In response to these threats, our brains also devise tactics to keep us safe from this potential harm.
As an example, let’s say you had your heart broken at some point in your life. Risking another broken heart is considered a threat to your brain, because it does not want to experience that emotional pain again. Consequently, with subsequent relationships, you’ve guarded your heart as a way of not having to experience that pain again. You might even go so far as to purposely sabotage relationships if you feel they’re becoming too emotionally intimate. This sabotage might be in the form of you suddenly becoming less responsible and doing things like showing up late (or not at all). Maybe you stop communicating as well as you had previously.
Over time, these tactics become imprinted on your brain. They become your brain’s go-to fix when it feels threatened. This, then, becomes your pattern. You don’t have to think about these tactics. They just become part of your comfort zone and your automatic response to feeling unsafe or uncomfortable.
These types of tactics are referred to as familiarity heuristic. In other words, your brain reverts to what it’s familiar with when faced with a threat. Remember, your brain’s job is to keep you safe and make sure you survive. What the brain considers safe is what is familiar. After all, what you’ve done to this point has kept you alive. You’ve survived so far, so as far as your brain is concerned, what it’s done to date to keep you safe has worked.
Unfortunately, what keeps us safe is also what often keeps us stuck.
In other words, the brain simply reverts to what it knows - what it believes and what is comfortable and familiar. Let’s consider your case again:
Although you didn’t provide me more info, I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess that you’ve had past experiences with weight loss, in which you may (or may not) have been successful with losing the weight. However, they weren’t long lasting and always resulted in regaining the weight, which resulted in you feeling like a failure. So, while you really do want to lose the weight, you may be engaging (subconsciously) in behavior that is keeping you safe, because if you’re successful at losing the weight again, you (subconsciously) fear that you’ll just gain it back again. This, in turn, would perpetuate and reinforce your feelings of failure. This is simply your brain attempting to keep you safe and avoid these feelings of failure. It’s as if your brain is saying, “Sure, Yaakov, you could lose the weight. You’ve done it before. But why risk it? You’ll just gain it all back and then you’ll look foolish and lazy. If you don’t even try to lose it, you won’t have to take that risk.”
When you begin to see “excuses” for what they really are - your brain simply trying to keep you safe, and in the process of doing so, reverting to what it knows - it can put a different spin on what we refer to as resistant or self-sabotaging behaviors.
“I think of ‘excuses’ as ineffective habits revealed or negative beliefs in disguise, both of which can effectively be reprogrammed,” says Amy McCann, a certified high-performance coach who specializes in stress management.
This is step one, identifying excuses for what they are. This is knowledge, and knowledge is half the battle.
In the next column, we’ll discuss some practical steps we can use to reprogram our “faulty” thinking and gain some traction by getting us out of our comfort zone.
Outcome: Take a deeper look at the excuses which you claim are stopping your progress, such as time, money, and family.
Growth Question: After identifying some of the underlying reasons, think how can I reprogram certain ineffective habits revealed or negative beliefs?
Action Steps: If need be, seek help from a behavior change specialist.
The information provided contained in this article is for educational purposes only. Rabbi Fitness LLC is not a doctor. The contents of this article should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any health problem– nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician. Always consult your physician or qualified health professional on any matters regarding your health and/or engagement in physical activity, especially if you (or your family) have a history of high blood pressure, heart disease, or if you have ever experienced chest pain when exercising or have experienced chest pain in the past month when not engaged in physical activity, smoke, have high cholesterol, are obese, or have a bone or joint problem that could be made worse by a change in physical activity.