I have a sweet tooth. I remember having an affinity for sweets for as long as I can remember. I didn’t have much sweets growing up, though. They were just not a normal part of my early years. I really can’t explain how I developed this sweet tooth but I know it is alive and well within me. My temptation of choice: tiramisu. The fluffy, coffee-flavored, chocolatey decadence is my kryptonite, and I can’t remember ever turning it down. I once bought a 7-pound tiramisu cake from Costco, you know the ones that are intended for a party setting (read: For a LOT of People). I ate the entire thing by myself in one week – that’s 1 pound per day. I don’t know whether to feel proud or disgusted. That was back in my younger days. If I did that today, there would be serious consequences.
I’ve made a concerted effort to cut back on sweets in recent years. It’s just not healthy, and the latest research is increasingly providing evidence that sugar is addictive and that it follows the same addictive patterns (neurologically and psychologically) as illicit drugs. Even though I may know the science behind why sugar has harmful potential and, as a psychologist, I may know the mechanisms and processes of making positive changes; it can be very difficult to avoid sweets. Knowledge alone is not enough to make positive life style changes. And this is why many of us, myself included, struggle with long-term healthy changes. We have a lot of knowledge but oftentimes it does not translate into actual behavior. You see, a strictly knowledge-based approach (what psychologists call developing insight) is often not powerful enough to effect change. How many of us know that we need to reduce sugar intake and increase leafy green intake? Or how many of us have learned that increased stress at work corresponds with increased arguments with our spouse? Despite this insight and awareness, how many of us struggle with making necessary changes?
To make healthy changes, we need to examine the totality of our experiences, and understand the intersection of our individual psychology and our physical and social environment. I may intellectually resolve (that is, I have the motivation, insight, and knowledge) to avoid sugar but a 5-minute walk in my neighborhood reveals a McDonald’s (home of the 99 cent ice cream cone), several corner markets with quick grab-and-go snacks (ever heard of Little Debbie’s?), a large grocery store with self-serve desserts along with an entire aisle dedicated to cookies (aisle 14 in my store). It doesn’t take much effort to satiate my “fix”. Add in a social group that prefers to meet over dessert, coupled with a work environment where someone is always bringing in donuts or homemade brownies, add in a barrage of deliciously sweet-themed billboards, along with numerous food delivery services that will bring sweets right to my door…these are powerful forces that can derail our desire to make positive change.
Don’t get me wrong, we are all responsible for our own behaviors: the person most responsible for our well-being is ourselves. But neglecting the totality of the picture and neglecting the myriad forces that intersect with our individual resolve is an incomplete plan of action. It is akin to riding a bicycle with only one working pedal or driving a car at night with no headlamps, but only a flashlight. Sure we can make some progress but we are expending a tremendous amount of energy, not getting as far (or better) as we’d like, which ultimately can lead to discouragement, mental fatigue, and hopelessness. At this point, we are likely to quit and make some dangerous, sweeping conclusions about ourselves. I call them character indictments: “I’m not good enough”, “I’m just not meant to succeed/be happy”, “I’m a lost cause”, or “I’m a failure…” These toxic beliefs about ourselves, in turn, further demotivate us, and we find ourselves in a negative cycle of inaction, unhealthiness, and hopelessness. We are stuck.
Getting out of the negative cycle and making lasting positive changes requires a comprehensive understanding of our behavioral patterns, thought processes, and emotional reactions in relationship to our physical and social environment. This multipronged approach helps us develop a holistic strategy, making sure that we are addressing all the relevant factors that are negatively influencing us.
While my sweet tooth will probably always remain active and alert, understanding my physical and social environment provides me a broader picture of factors to pay attention to and to be responsible for. I could have get-togethers at my home where I can have more oversight into what is being served. I can remember the days where donuts are served at work and bring my own healthy snack (or just avoid the lunchroom all-together). I can practice saying “no thanks” to the dessert menu prior to eating out. Now, can you please pass the pie?