Nancy* is always taking care of other people. She loves to cook and serve a delicious meal to friends and family, but no matter how many times they ask her to join them at the table, she just can’t sit with them. “I eat while I’m cooking,” she says, “and I want to be nice to myself, too. If I sit down I’ll eat more, and I’ll be unhappy with myself.” But the truth is that Nancy is never really happy with herself. She is always striving to be thinner, prettier, more successful, nicer, sweeter, more loved and more loving. Whatever she does isn’t good enough for her.

Harry* works hard at a demanding, high power job. He is very generous – he’ll buy anything for his wife and children. But they would like for him to spend more time at home. Harry loves his family, but he feels that he deserves some time for himself. He used to play golf on the weekends, but he doesn’t have time anymore; so after work he’ll meet a buddy and have some drinks. What’s wrong with that? He’s just taking care of himself, right?

Anne Marie* has had a hard year. She is going through a nasty divorce. After another horrible conversation with her almost ex-husband, she needs something to soothe herself. She sits down at the computer with a cup of tea and a bag of cookies and starts surfing her favorite shopping sites. She says this is giving herself some tlc. But two hours later she is uncomfortably stuffed with cookies and has spent more money than she can afford.   

Sam* has been on a cleansing diet for several weeks. He tells everyone that he feels wonderful – “lighter, more energetic, calmer.” What he doesn’t tell them is that he also feels lightheaded and nauseous and that his heart seems to be racing all the time. Sam has always struggled with his weight. This is finally a step in the right direction – he has always said that once he lost that extra weight he would feel so much happier.

Do any of these stories sound familiar? If so, it may be because you and/or someone you care about are struggling with a problem that’s extremely common these days:

Some of the things you do to make yourself feel better actually end up making you feel worse.

Why is this? And what can you do to change this all too familiar story?

We live in a world that admires hard work. We therefore admire self-control, even when it blurs into painful restriction. Nancy, for example, does not like the way she looks and often feels fat even though she actually keeps herself painfully thin. She feels that she is taking care of herself by sticking to a rigid diet and excessive exercise plan. Extremely critical of herself for almost everything she does, she feels secretly proud when she can feed a delicious meal to everyone else without succumbing to the temptation to eat it herself.

This pride at what she sees as an accomplishment is also her downfall. The one thing that Nancy feels good about, the one thing that makes her feel successful and in control, is destroying her physical and mental health. Nancy is anorexic. She is in danger of starving to death. And still she cannot stop dieting and exercising.

Harry is also extremely hardworking.  He goes drinking with his buddies because it helps him to relax. He says it doesn’t hurt anyone. But that’s not actually true. Harry’s wife worries about his drinking. He has gotten into several car accidents driving home after a night with his buddies. He says it doesn’t affect his work, but she is not so sure. She thinks Harry might have just gotten passed over for a promotion because the after effects of the drinking are slowing down his thinking.  She loves him and doesn’t want him to destroy their life together; but she doesn’t know how to help him make a change.

Too much of a good thing – whether it’s something we generally think of as healthy, like a diet or exercise, or it’s something we think of as potentially unhealthy, like too much alcohol or fried food or chocolate – can backfire on us. And it’s the backfiring of the very thing that we started doing to make ourselves feel better that can end up making us feel worse.

When I was giving talks about my book on daydreams, I wanted to show how to use daydreams to unlock your creativity; but I was frequently asked if it is possible to daydream too much. The answer I gave was the same as the one I’m giving you now: if we do too much of something that’s good for us, it can become bad for us.

Here’s just one more example: some years ago I hurt my back rather badly. The only time it felt better was during yoga, so I started taking more and more yoga classes. After class I felt better for an hour or two, but then the pain returned, sometimes worse than before. Even with physical therapy and medication I was having troubles sitting, standing, walking and lying down. Finally, one very smart yoga teacher counseled me to take a week or two off. She suggested I do some very gentle stretching several times a day, but no strenuous exercise. She was right. In my effort to work through the problem, I was, it turned out, continuously re-injuring myself. During my break from yoga the inflammation and the pain gradually diminished. When I went back to my practice, I quickly learned that I did much better with basic classes. I also learned to pay attention to my back’s reaction. Less exercise, it turned out, was significantly better for my health.

I want to be clear, however, that I am not saying that you should never indulge. We all have to give into temptation from time to time. Even overdoing it is okay –  what’s really important is to recognize that, no matter how much you might feel you deserve that indulgence (or over-indulgence, even), it may not do what you are hoping it will do for you.

But then, if it does backfire, if you do feel worse instead of better after your personal binge of whatever sort, don’t make matters worse by beating up on yourself or swearing you’ll never do it again or going excessively in the other direction. Restricting yourself from all good food might feel better for a moment, but it won’t work as a permanent solution.

Try this instead: Resolve to be more moderate for a while. Just take it a step at a time and see how it goes. You might just find yourself feeling a lot better!

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*names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy

Teaser Image Source: iStock_000025412524

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