If there were a real psychological mirror you could look into as you assess your personal abilities (much like your car’s side mirror), it would likely have the following message etched in small letters at the bottom: Caution: You may not be as capable as you appear. So, when you are looking and feeling good, enjoy it. But if you are planning to make some personal changes, take a closer look at yourself and your goal.
I don’t want to dampen your enthusiasm. After all, as you no doubt have read in much of the self-help literature, you can gain a lot by thinking positively– whether your goal is to be kinder to yourself, alter your eating habits, or even stop biting your fingernails. Thinking positively can carry you far, but it can also lead you down the garden path, leaving you deflated and despairing when you find that you’re back to your old problems.
If you have experienced this letdown, take heart — the problem is not you. It’s the very human tendency for self-enhancement. We like to feel good and so we have an innate inclination to view ourselves in a positive way; even when it’s not exactly realistic. Of course, there are many people who struggle with low self-esteem; and we can all relate to thinking poorly of ourselves at certain times or in certain areas of life. Yet, when people are asked about how they rate on attractiveness, intelligence, or in other areas, they often see themselves as better than average. According to researchers Polivy and Herman (2002), there are some common types of unrealistic expectations that set people up for failure when they try to change. These are unrealistic expectations in the following areas:
Amount of change: People often think they are capable of changing more than they realistically can, rejecting more modest and achievable goals. For example, one study (Foster, Wadden, Vogt, and Brewer; 1997) assessed weight loss expectations by obese women in a 48-week program. On average, patients wanted a 32 percent reduction in weight, which is a lot more than the 5-10 percent reductions recommended by experts. Because their expectations were so high, they were more than disappointed by the average 35-pound weight loss at the end of the program; a loss that “is larger than that produced by most dietary treatments.”
Speed and ease of change: People are often overly optimistic in that they expect to change more quickly and easily than is reasonable. Again, overweight dieters often begin their diets with high hopes and then, within a few short weeks, feel defeated by their slow progress. People who struggle with other addictive behaviors, such as alcohol abuse and smoking, also tend to underestimate the effort and time it takes to change their behavior; and so they often relapse.
Effects of change on other aspects of life: People also overestimate how much they can improve their lives with a given change. Staying with our dieters, they often imagine that weight loss will bring them better lives in many areas, such as being generally happier, finding a romantic partner, gaining the respect that they desire, and perhaps getting a job promotion (although obese individuals are often stigmatized, these expectations are often too high). If you have any doubts about how people overgeneralize the benefits from their efforts at self-change, just look at what magazines have to say (implicitly and explicitly) about the benefits of losing weight, being sexy, and earning more money. What people often fail to recognize is that it is enjoying – or gaining satisfaction from – the path to their goals that makes them happy, rather than the goal itself.
By taking these cautions about the ways you might deceive yourself to heart, you give yourself a better chance at success. So, I encourage you to move forward. Go ahead and believe in yourself and your plans for change. Reaffirm that you have the motivation and perseverance to attain (and maintain) your goals. Remind yourself of all the problems you can leave behind and all the benefits you will be able to enjoy. But, do yourself a favor and be realistic in the scope of your expectations. This will help you be patient with yourself during times of slow progress; and, when necessary, to encourage yourself and try again when you relapse. With positive, but realistic self-perceptions, you can truly become the person you want to be.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.
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