Healthy Change

Fostering better lifestyle behaviors

The Paradox of Acceptance and Change

Health behavior change is best built on a foundation of self-compassion.

I belive that long lasting health behavior change is best built on a foundation of self-compassion and self-acceptance. When I give talks on weight management, I always get the same question, some flavor of, "If we teach people how to accept themselves, then why would they want to lose weight?" It's a reasonable logical conclusion, but misguided. So let's talk about acceptance and change. 

Acceptance, from my standpoint, means treating yourself as valid and whole. Taking yourself as is and acknowledging that you are of worth and can pursue things that matter in your life. That is an inherently self-compassionate standpoint. The focus is specifically on accepting one's thoughts, memories, feelings, and bodily sensations. These experiences are largely out of our control. They are products of our history and the current context (what's happening around us right now). Saying it is "OK" to think what you think, and feel what you feel, when you think and feel it, is acceptance.

Ironically, this is a very powerful place from which to make important behavioral changes. 

We all have core values, like caring for and connecting with loved ones, learning and growing, engaging in pleasant and nourishing activities, just to name a few. Often what gets in the way of us pursuing these core values are unwanted or difficult thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily sensations. It may be hard to pursue intimacy because we have been hurt in the past, remember that pain, and have anxiety about being hurt in the future. Pursuing intimacy with someone means opening up to that pain, it might mean remembering past hurts, feeling that anxiety, and still moving towards intimacy despite being scared. This is an act of courage and it requires acceptance. Acceptance that what you feel and think is valid, OK, and does NOT need to be changed before you move in your valued direction (in this case, towards intimacy). So the very stance of acceptance towards what is happening inside you is what can propel you to powerful change with your behavior.

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How about healthy lifestyle? Well, in order to pursue a healthy lifestyle you may need to make room for some fatigue (simply from being active), feeling deprived (when we don't indulge all of our food cravings), and a host of unhelpful thoughts (often reasons why we can't or shouldn't do something healthy right now because… "there's always tomorrow/ it's a party/ you'll never keep it off," etc...), or perhaps stress and sadness (which maybe we have used food to soothe in the past). All of that "stuff" is fodder for acceptance. It's saying "that's OK" to what you think and feel when you think and feel it, in order to make some really powerful and important changes with your behavior.

In both cases, if you say "no, it's not OK to feel what I feel, to think what I think," then you immediately stop moving in your valued direction. You are now taking the stance that your thoughts and feelings must first be fixed before you do something that matters to you. We frequently take this stance, and it frequently limits what we can do and how much meaning and vitality we can create in our life. Saying "no" to what is happening inside you is a non-compassionate stance, it's suggesting that something about you is broken or not valid and needs to be "fixed" before you can live your life the way you want.

Part of what we try to do in our book The Diet Trap is help you see a way out of that stance. It starts by just looking inside and saying "I accept." Doing so let's you look at your behavior and say "I change."

Jason Lillis, Ph.D., is assistant professor of research at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

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