The “What the Hell Effect”

Something I’ve observed over the years (in my own life at times, as well as others) is what’s come to be known in some circles as the “What the Hell Effect.”  It goes something like this:  “Well, I really blew my weight loss/healthy eating/no sugar/Weight Watchers/Skinny Bitch – or whatever -plan today.  What the hell – I might as well really blow it.  I’ll start over tomorrow.”

Researchers have given this phenomenon a name – the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE), which has also come to be known as the “what the hell effect.”  The “what the hell effect” comes into play whenever we indulge in a behavior that we have decided not to indulge in, sworn off of, or committed to giving up. When it comes to food and eating, for example, a “dieting mindset” can trigger feelings of guilt and shame, of not “being perfect,” which can then spiral down into an overeating binge.

When it comes to change, an all or nothing mindset simply isn’t realistic.  Research shows that most individuals don’t overcome a problem on their first try.  Expecting perfection from yourself is a setup for failure.  The process of change very often involves trial and error, “one step forward and two steps back.”  Knowing this can prevent a full backslide into the old behavior.

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Here are some solid strategies to get you back on track fast when you derail in the moment:

  • Don’t use blowing it as an excuse to REALLY blow it. Acknowledge the lapse, forgive yourself and move on.   Everyone makes mistakes, blows it, from time to time.  Get right back on the horse, minimize the damage done.  Keep your eye on the bigger picture – a change to a healthier lifestyle is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Remember your why – the commitment you’ve made to a healthier life and what that means to you. Keep a strong vision in your mind of the person you are working to become and hold to that vision at times like this. The power of this kind of personal vision cannot be overstated.
  • Hopefully you have a support system of like-minded friends, family members or a group. (If you don’t have one, you need to get one!) This is the time to use them.  You may be feeling some weakening in your commitment – having someone to talk things through with can help you get back on track more quickly.
  • If you’ve blown your food plan for the day, and someone just dropped off a box of fresh pastries direct from the bakery, realize this: You have a choice, you really do. You can renew your commitment  by walking away and going on with your day, or not.  The choice is yours. Keep in mind if you continue on with your “slip,” it may not be as easy to start over the next day as you think it will be.  Each time you make the right choice for yourself, you strengthen your emotional muscle, and it becomes easier to make good choices in the future.
  • How’s that working for you? Love Dr. Phil or not, this is a great question to ask yourself if you find yourself in the same situation repeatedly.  If you break down and have a cigarette in a moment of stress, and then go all in and buy a pack (and find yourself doing this repetitively, having to start over – again) – How’s that working for you?
  • A side effect of relapse into old behavior can be a loss of confidence in yourself and your ability to change. Self-criticism and shame are not your friends. Reaffirming your commitment to change is.   We sometimes think chastising ourselves is a way to make ourselves “tow the line.”  It isn’t.  Forgive yourself and move on by renewing your commitment as calmly as you can,
  • Learn from it. What can you learn about yourself here that will help you deal with challenges in the future?  Were you exceptionally upset or stressed about an occurrence, worrying about the future, bored, sad?   What can you do differently when this occurs in the future?  Knowing that you will be challenged again – and developing a plan of action to deal with it – is key.

Remember – Change is a process, not an event.  You are in the process!

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