Staying Motivated Tip #9: Don’t Neglect the Dark Side of the Force

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I was reading through my previous blogs in this series of motivation tips when I realized that, with all the emphasis on positive thinking, a reader could get the impression that you should never say a harsh word to yourself when things aren’t going well.

That’s definitely not true.

There are plenty of times when we all do things that are just plain...well, let’s just say they aren’t very well thought out. When that happens, it doesn’t always make a lot of sense to just pat yourself on the back and say, “Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time.”

Sometimes, you really do need to point out to yourself exactly how and why what you’re doing is less than totally brilliant or desirable. And you need to do it in a way that will help you remember this lesson before you act the next time this issue comes up.

In my line of work, we call this toughlove, and there’s definitely an art to it, whether you’re delivering the toughlove to yourself (OK for amateurs) or to someone else (recommended only for seasoned experts with martial arts skills and/or a good lawyer). Done poorly, toughlove can and usually does cause more problems than it solves. But done well, it can be very effective, so it’s definitely worth learning how to do it to yourself the right way.

Probably the best way to illustrate this is by looking at a very common problem that often responds better to a little self-administered toughlove than to happy talk. This problem is familiar to dieters everywhere. You run into some tempting food that isn’t on your diet plan, and that familiar inner struggle starts up. “I really shouldn’t.” “But it’s only one little treat, I’ll make up for it later.” You have the treat, but that’s not the end of the story. Later on, you’re tired and trying to decide whether to cook those steamed veggies you planned for dinner or order a pizza, and you find yourself thinking “Well, I’ve already blown it for today, might as well have the pizza and start over tomorrow.”

This is the point where a good healthy dose of toughlove can really save the day. But what, exactly, should you say to yourself?

Before you read on, take a moment to remember back to the last time you were actually in this situation. What did you say, and how did that work for you?

There are several things you could do in this kind of situation that would definitely qualify as tough, but not so many that would qualify as real toughlove. For example:

  • You could mindlessly go with this blatant rationalization and then beat up on yourself mercilessly later on for being stupid or weak-willed enough to fall for it.

  • You could reject the obviously irrational rationalization, and switch to a less dubious one, like “Well, I’ve been pretty good lately, and I really am too tired to cook a meal—so I’ll go ahead and have the pizza this once, and just make sure I get back on the wagon right away.”

  • You could point out to yourself how dumb it is to think that making things worse by eating even more could ever be a good idea, and tell yourself to go cook your steamed vegetables because that’s the right thing to do.

  • You could say something to yourself along these lines: “Alright, now hold on for a minute here, sport. We both know that doesn’t make any sense, right? So why not just get honest and admit you don’t want the steamed veggies, and you do want the pizza. Then we can think about it for a minute, and decide what’s the best thing to do. Which one of those choices do you think will make you feel better after you’ve done it?”

    Only one of these options—the last one—is authentic toughlove. The first one, obviously, is a real non-starter—it gives you the worst of both worlds. The second one could be a perfectly legitimate decision to make, but it’s not toughlove because it doesn’t really make you look at the situation from a different angle and think about it. The third one is definitely tough, but it’s not toughlove either—it doesn’t open any new doors, and may even make you feel resentful or deprived if it becomes a real habit.

    The final statement, though, has all the ingredients of good toughlove:

  • it forcefully points out that the thought/behavior in question isn’t a very good one, but it doesn’t attack the person for having/doing it;

  • it acknowledges that the person you’re speaking to (yourself, in this case) has good intentions and values (honesty) that can be used to come up with a better approach;

  • it frames the problem as a conflict between different desires or needs, both of which can be legitimate, and rejects the idea that one choice is inherently “good” and the other one “bad.”

  • it challenges the person to step outside the perspective or assumptions they’re currently using, and find a more helpful way to look at the situation.

    If you want to effectively challenge yourself to question your assumptions and attitudes, start thinking differently, and put some of your bad habits behind you once and for all, you’re probably going to want to get pretty good at the “dark art” of toughlove, so you can criticize, question, and challenge yourself without being mean, perfectionistic, rude, condescending, or superior. Remember that you’re going to react to bad toughlove the same way you’d expect anyone else to react—by resisting, rejecting, not cooperating, or getting pretty passive aggressive—even if you’re the one giving it to yourself. If you try to make sure that your self-talk includes all four of the ingredients above, you should get off to a good start.

    How are you at giving yourself a little toughlove when you need it? Does it work?

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    NANHBH 6/13/2020
    There is a time & place for tough love. I need to remember not to overdo it. Report
    AQUAGIRL08 5/16/2020
    This is very helpful. Thank you. Report
    GRAMMY065 5/7/2020
    I agree with SHELLY-L in that I need to remember the “love” part of “tough love”. I am a perfectionist and when I don’t live up to my own expectations I am much harder on me than I would be someone else! I especially liked this point:

    “it forcefully points out that the thought/behavior in question isn’t a very good one, but it doesn’t attack the person for having/doing it”

    That is me in a nutshell! I attack myself! So I just want to thank the author for those reminders! Report
    LEANJEAN6 10/5/2019
    I can really relate to this--- It tells me to try harder to change- Report
    BONNIE1552 10/4/2019
    I need to give myself a little tough love for sure. Report
    thank you Report
    Thank you for this information. Report
    Wow. Yeah. Report
    This makes me realise just how very impulsive I am- I guess if I could catch myself in the act of choosing to graze while preparing meals then I could ask myself if I want that as much as another thing. I tend to reflect later and then either justify or beat myself.
    I hold the idea that it IS my choice and so which choice is really going to move towards my goals? Good one coach Dean! Report
    Last night I needed to practice this tough love. Wish I would have read this yesterday. Not that I don't ask myself why or should I, but last night it just wasn't there. But now I will give this more of a shot. I have turned thigs away after I have exercised and a thought, " I'll undo most of what I just did this morning" Nope not doing it! So sometimes the thought processes are working. Report
    I love the way you laid this out. For me, I never make it to the third or fourth part of the process. Seeing it laid out as a process here I think will be extremely helpful to me. This article makes the toughlove approach seem like something I can definitely deal with .. tough love. Especially remembering the "love" part of the "tough." I am more prone to being petulant because I feel deprived and then have a don't give a care attitude. Working through your process and really acknowledging each step will make me more successful in my choices. Thank you! Report
    I find that the SP nutrition tracker helps a lot with this. By entering in the cheat food right after I indulge, I can see how many calories I have left (if any) for the day. Most of the time, I realize that I haven't actually "blown it" - just overdid it a little. It makes me feel more accountable when the next meal roles around because I know I can still make up for it by walking an extra mile or "trimming the fat" off my next meal.
    Very informative - I often use an approach similar to your third scenario - tough but you end up resentful. I'm going to change my tactic - Thanx! Report
    TOUGHLOVE, Yep, I could use that every now and then. Awesome article. Keep them coming. Report
    Dean Anderson has done it again! A clearly written, helpful piece on how to get from here (sitting here with four stitches in my finger and a Pilates class I wanted to go in an hour and a half) to there (a strong, healthy body with lots of energy.) When I consider my options after reading this, I think that going to a Pilates class where I know I'll be putting stress on an already damaged hand, I think that I'll settle for walking and stretching gently today instead, and make sure that I get to the class next week, when my finger has had a chance to heal. I won't feel guilty, and I won't do something stupid, and I'll keep my goal clearly in mind. Thanks! Report
    excellent and true. afraid i haven't mastered the art. i would have done #3. Report
    I am terrible at it, and I know I need to improve! I'd say I think the whole part of scenario 4 but "Then we can think about it for a minute, and decide what’s the best thing to do. Which one of those choices do you think will make you feel better after you’ve done it?” Unfortunately, I tend to consistently make poor food choices and be way too easy on myself ("ok, that wasn't the best choice but I can still make good choices from THIS point onward") and then perpetuate the habit by NOT making the good choices, each time around. I definitely need to try thinking about how I'd feel after making the choice; maybe that'll help my tough love to be effective. Report
    Often when my husband and I go grocery shopping, we pick up that thing that we would like to have (ice cream, pizza) and then read the calories and fat it contains and more often than not put it back on the shelf. Reading the label helps us keep most of the bad stuff out of the house. Most of the time I'm good about telling myself not to eat something I shouldn't, and saying "No" when someone offers me something that I know I don't need and can do better than. I don't often have to use tough love on myself, but I know that if I don't use it I will never reach my goals! I have used tough love on some of my SP friends and they have used it on me too, and we still like each other! Love this site! Report
    1. Acknowleges the want or desire as real and valid, 2. neither it nor the person is good or bad for having a mere conflict of desires or needs, 3. each with their own payout that with a different viewpoint or closer squitiny as to those pay outs,4 one may be in a better place to make a responsible decision with the least amount of negative side effects.
    Thats what I wrote in my blog the other week...sounds about the same, so I guess Im headed in the right direction. I did choose the last option too. :-) Report
    Great article, Dean! Very appropriate and timely. Thanks for the words of wisdom. Report
    Yes, I agree there is a time for so called toughlove. I am lucky in that my daughter is very good at talking to me and making sure I stayon the straight and narrow. Not only with the diet but also in my daily lifestyle, she ensures I stay within my limits and if I dare to stray she makes it known to me in no uncertain terms. I am quite laid back and therefore can accept the words of wisdom as I know they are given in a loving way for my benefit. I can see,though, that it could cause friction if not taken in the spirit it is given. We must learn to accept toughlove as part of our lives as it is really for our benefit and ensures we live a better life in the end. A very good blog and extemely pertinent in today's society. Report
    EXCELLENT POST!! This needed to be written. We can't always sweet-talk our way through life. Stepping back and looking at the big picture before making a decision is very helpful in meeting your goals AND in having the control of pre-thinking and pre-accepting your decision. Report
    Excellent post - I really appreciate the way you break it down at the end. Thanks, Coach Dean! Report
    I am really loving reading your blogs. They really get beyond the surface of a "diet" and help me get into my head and examine the why's behind my behaviors. Thank you! Report
    Thanks for the advice, It gives me the permission to be honest with myself, but in a way that is not attacking and self deprecating. I really liked the article. Report
    I do believe there is a time to gentle help yourself and a time to be brutal. If a child didn't want an injection or an op....would we not give it, because the child is already in pain? Nope we would do what we gotta do. So for me reality is important, and if I'm messing around with healthy/unhealthy eating, then its time to get real and address that mamby pamby! Report
    I think people with weight problems have enough self hate and low self esteem, so I don't believe this is the right advice. Report
    Thanks, I needed this! Report
    I have talked to members about tough love. Maybe now they will understand what I talking was about. I hope so! Report
    I'm glad i read this! Tough love nothing wrong with it unless your ruthless! Report
    When I go over my calories for the day my toughlove is to spend extra time on the elliptical. So what I say to myself is, "how much time do you really have to spend on the elliptical tonight? " and that usually deters me from doing something really stupid. Report
    Thanks for reminding me what tough love is for Report
    Great Article Coach Dean. I've managed to test the temptation and stay on my weight loss track. Everything you've mentioned is so true! Not an article to forget and will be very helpful for sure. Thanks bunches! Report
    Thanks for the article. I usually try option 3 and get mixed results. Now that I know the right way to approach the problem, I can try it.
    I definately used tough love to say no to paczkis today! Report
    Don't we all have our demons to battle? Tough love is good. Report
    Hmmmm, maybe this will help with my #1 problem, procrastination, as well? Great blog, Coach Dean, as usual! Report
    I needed that one. Thanks for the tip! Report
    Thanks so much for this tool. I am someone who is mericiless when beating myself up and this will really help me instead of making me feel so ashamed. Report
    I really needed to read this. Thank you! Report
    I try to keep a balance between saying, "I'll do better next time" and "This will never happen again!" Sometimes I know it is okay to eat some chocolate or whatever, but if I'm not careful, I'm eating it every other day. I gotta get tough with myself and stop my bad habit before I lose control! Report
    I totally relate to this article. I have been working so hard on myself for the last three weeks; doubled my exercise minutes each week; ate my breakfast; ate my snacks, tried to eat healthy dinner; and drank water and still nothing! Oh yeah, I gained 4 oz.! I could choose to just give it up and use the excuse that I am old and just give in and forget about it; or I could say to myself "Humph" "Well that was not very nice" and continue on my way the same path I have set for myself since January. I chose to keep going because I am the only one who can do it. So I may curse at myself but I know later I will be praising myself for all the hard work. Report
    I have ALWAYS thought that being too easy on ourselves, and that little pat on the back when we made poor choices was certainly not working for me.

    I'm proud to say I used this technique last night and it worked! My husband took me to his favorite pizza place and I got the salad bar and made great choices with the dressing and toppings. Before going, I accepted that I almost ALWAYS cave when we go there and then feel really bad afterwards. This time, I said to myself, "you could cave again, OR you could decide that all the exercise you're doing is not going to work unless you make better choices about food. You can enjoy dinner and still feel really good afteward if you just slow down and make a good decision here." Report
    It really sounds like being aware of what your doing and being in control of what you are doing. Sometimes that rational thinking is easy, sometimes not so easy. Report
    BOY DID I NEED THIS!!! I am having a real struggle with why I am doing all of this and this really helped..... Report
    This really is tough love, I do appreciate it though. Just this morning I had to discard of a package of thin mint girl scout cookies. I ordered the cookies before I came on the site and I received them last Friday so they have been a strong temptation ever since. I know a few is not bad but I also know that once I opened the pack I would have kept eating them and found a reason to justify eating the whole thing! Thank you so much for the article, I am not alone on this journey :)

    Talking about getting on track...this article is that. Whenever we think negative or "weigh our options"...we think we are belittling ourselves instead of "tough loving" ourselves. We need "think through it " in our daily lives. The forgivenes is
    you stopped and thought about it. How do you feel about doing it? and At what cost? Report
    Oh I have definately had these days! I vow to never have those again! My husband is usually the one persuading me, but I've told him not too, and he understands now!! In order for me to stay healthy and be fit, I must obide by my diet! Of course there are days where you can eat out, but do it wisely. Instead of deep dish get thin crust, and instead of cheese, get a veggie pizza with no cheese. The only fat you should have is the crust. Arent they making whole wheat crusts now? ( I could be wrong, but I know alot of fast food places are trying to have healthy items) Anyways, great article! I needed to remind myself today after going 6 days straight with no break! Great uplifter! Good luck everyone on your goals! Report
    This blog was just what I needed today. My method of tough love was definitely spread out among the 1st three choices & no wonder I never felt better about my choice! Now to put it into practice & help myself begin to feel better about myself. Thanks! Report
    Great article, lots of common sense, Thanks Dean!!! Report