When It’s Good to Feel Bad

sad cloudNobody likes to feel bad. Why, just yesterday I, myself, spent part of the afternoon fighting feeling bad when I discovered that the vet had forgotten to clean my dog’s teeth while he had Jeremy anesthetized to remove a tumor. At first, I wanted to eat (imagine that!) to make myself feel better. Then I ruminated some more about it and wanted to kick the vet’s ass to make myself feel better. Finally I called a friend to see if she could make me feel better.

It’s understandable that I’d feel bad since my dog’s health is at stake, but ultimately those bad feelings weren’t very useful—the unsavory event had already occurred and there was nothing for it.

Sometimes, though, feeling bad can be helpful because it motivates us to change. For instance, what brings you to this blog? I’m guessing you want to adopt a high-nutrient diet for some reason. If so, it’s likely you’re looking either to lose weight, improve your health, or ward off future health problems. Regardless of your intellectual reasoning, it was probably unhappiness, discomfort, or fear of the status quo that stimulated your commitment to change. I mean, if you’re content and satisfied, why undergo the hassle of a dietary transformation? Pain–physical or emotional–motivates change.

Nevertheless, we humanoids don’t like discomfort, so we often derail our efforts at healthy eating with pain avoidance strategies. For instance, say you go out tonight with friends. Because they’re going to Buffalo Wild Wings, where your health is inversely proportional to their bottom line, you wisely decide to eat a big bowl of Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup and then plan to sip sparkling water while your friends shorten their lifespans with alcohol and deep-fried, acrylamide-laden everything.

All goes well for the first 45 minutes, but then the chocolate-drizzled dessert nachos arrive, and the remaining mozzarella sticks and soft pretzels have begun whispering your name.

“Come on, let loose! You only live once!” your friends cajole when you’re caught eyeing the last fried cheese curd. Willpower has run dry by now, and you dive in head first. Back at home, feeling bloated and guilty, you comfort yourself, “It’s ok, I had such a great time it was worth it. Next time I’ll do better.” Thus your primary motivator, pain, is swept quickly under the rug. And when next time arrives, you’re right back where you started.

What to do instead?

First, what NOT to do: don’t let yourself off the hook with consolations and promises for the future (as above). Remember that pain motivates change. Use that post Buffalo Wild Wing binge guilt hangover to propel you towards behavior that’s more in alignment with your healthy eating values. So instead of telling yourself, “Don’t worry about it. You had a good time—that’s what’s important, right?” or some other spurious rationale, try this, “Of course I feel bad. After all, I didn’t do what I said I was gonna do. Now, what could I have done differently to make sure I stuck to my plan?” By acknowledging your discomfort, you can use it to brainstorm strategies to employ in an upcoming night out with the gang. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’ll just keep repeating them over and over.

To Ponder

Psychological pain resulting from bad food choices is there for a reason—to remind you that you’re sacrificing an important value, your health. Instead of getting rid of the discomfort, let it motivate you to ask, “What could I do differently next time so I stick to my healthy way of eating?” Then come up with at least five action plans for helping you to stick to your food plan in a similar situation.

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