Sunday, August 30, 2009

Patience and Rewards

Tonight I'm thinking about rewards. Basic psychology tells us that human behaviors result from the cumulative rewards and punishments experienced in life. Do a good thing, get a treat. Do a bad thing, suffer in some way. It's simple enough. Very early on, we all learn what brings us attention, happiness, pleasure, and what brings us pain or punishment. And as we mature, we learn to delay our gratification for something important enough. We learn to be patient. Weight loss works the same way. For some of us, however, patience is the most difficult factor in the equation. In the words of Tom Petty, "the waiting is the hardest part!"

Life just isn't fair. Why does it take only days to gain five pounds, but weeks, even months, to lose it? Such is the complaint of anyone who has ever tried to diet. The slow-mo pace of weight loss can be very disheartening. I remember a woman from Weight Watchers whose entire goal was to lose ten pounds. It took her six months. Six months!! My first reaction to her story was disbelief - not so much that it took six months to lose ten pounds, but that she'd signed up for Weight Watchers to lose a lousy ten pounds! I sat there with my 50-some pounds to go, thinking Geez, Lady - you needed that much help and that much time to lose ten pounds?

It wasn't long afterward that I realized what an arrogant hypocrite I'd been to think that. After all, if only ten pounds was so easy to lose, why hadn't I done it? I mean, okay, it took her six months. It's better than not at all, which is what I'd been doing for years up until then. What does it matter how much people try to lose, or how long it takes them? The fact is that she stuck it out for six months to rid herself of that "lousy ten pounds." She was losing less than a half-pound per month, but she kept at it. She had been patient. Just a couple days ago I was bemoaning the mere half-pound loss I'd had after a couple weeks of "being good." This attitude is the crux of my problem with weight loss. I'm impatient. Of course, most of us are, which is partly why most people give up. (BTW, I'm also working on changing the "good vs. bad" attitude, which I'll deal with in another chapter.)

And again, there's the issue of rewards. One way to sustain any long-term effort is to give little rewards along the way. What happens when people are used to rewarding themselves with food? Actually, it's not uncommon to hear someone say, "You've lost 35 pounds?? Let's go celebrate with a hot fudge sundae! You've earned it!!" (No one would ever say to an alcoholic, "Ten months sober?? Fantastic! Let's go get a drink!")

Food rewards are deeply ingrained into our culture, from getting treats as little children, to going out for fancy dinner celebrations as adults. Let's face it - food is fun, and it's comforting when we don't feel so celebratory. I mention this tonight because I'm constantly catching myself thinking that way. For my activity today, I did some very strenous housecleaning and furniture re-arranging in preparation for a visit from an old friend. (I also took the dog for a long walk earlier.) Anyway, there was a lot of lifting, shoving, bending, going up and down stairs, and I worked up as good a sweat as from any G-Ball workout. My son also got into the action, and it wore HIM out, too!

When it came time to think about dinner, my first thought was, Wow - we should have something really delicious. I also thought about some kind of dessert for my son as a thank you. Perhaps it was my hypnosis training, or simply this determination to reign over my eating issues, but I stopped. I know there are lots of other ways to reward myself, and others - so why does yummy food always come up first? Habit, I guess - and ease.

But it's no wonder that significant weight loss is so hard for so many people. It takes a long time .... often a very long time .... and along the way, it can be hard to see any real results. The payoff seems like an illusion. At this point, for instance, I have a hard time picturing having only ten pounds left to lose. Sure, my workouts are getting easier, and my clothes are a little looser..... but this weight can't come off fast enough. Part of me still doesn't believe I can really do it. Meanwhile, I need to find other ways to reward myself for changing my habits, for keeping up the fight. And when I get discouraged, or if anything else in my life is causing me stress or sadness, I will find solace in something else. Perhaps I should just think about how wonderful it will be to not have my thoughts dominated by weight issues.


Corwin8or said...

Outstanding post! This is magazine-article quality, Ms. Irene. Not only are you leaving your old body behind, but you are leaving behind a body of high quality writing to inform and inspire others.

You started to touch on a fascinating Catch-22 here: A person with food issues has a challenge the smoker or alcoholic does not face. Those guys "simply" have to stop smoking or drinking. The food-challenged cannot stop eating.

Quite right: Our culture's "food = reward" structure is pernicious and deeply ingrained. Changing the way we think is possible, though. For example, although a nice dessert would be a fit reward for your son's help, it could also be said helping out one's mom is its own reward! "-)

MrsMadPanda said...

Great stuff Irene! The food = reward is pretty much a universal culture thing. All cultures have celebratory feasts for holidays and special occasions, so I think it's a part of human nature to some degree.

A reward idea for your son might be going to his favorite store and letting him pick out something or even giving him a gift certificate, or maybe an afternoon activity of his choice?