Photo of woman with a chin-length brown bob, standing near the river in diffused sunlight, looking contemplative about whether she has a problem with self-sabotage when it comes to her health.

I’m a copious note taker, so I have all sorts of notebooks filled with intriguing bits of information from conferences, webinars, and sometimes my own mind. But much like with the eternal question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?” if you take some really juicy notes, and they languish in your notebook, do they stay juicy?

So I’ve been making a point lately to leaf through my notebooks, and a few things caught my eye. Unfortunately, I’m less than good about always recording where and when I take my copious notes, but I think that some of the wisdom I’m invoking in this post comes from Karen Koenig, author of one of my favorite books, “The Rules of ‘Normal’ Eating.”

Intentions vs. actions

Do you find that you have the best of intentions about, say, eating more mindfully, going for more walks or tuning into whether you’re eating because you’re hungry or eating because you’re bored—maybe actually start to make a few changes—only to resume the very behaviors that are getting in the way of living a satisfying, fulfilling life?

You might want to eat better, become more physically active, take better care of yourself. That’s what you want on paper, but what happens when you read between the lines? What lies beneath?

What you might not be aware of are other, hidden motivations, such as adhering to our society’s thin ideal so you “earn” approval from friends, family, coworkers—and maybe from potential romantic partners. You might also want to feel more comfortable of your body, or more in control around food.

Photo of a brick wall with a neon sign that reads "This is the sign you've been looking for."
Uncovering the truth

A good clue that something does lie beneath is when your intentions aren’t aligned with your actual behavior. When you really want to do better but just can’t. This is a sign of unconscious conflict. For example, you want to:

  • Eat healthy, nourishing meals, but your fridge and pantry are filled with ultra-processed foods that never fully satisfy.
  • Start taking yoga classes at that new studio near you, but you never stop by to sign up.
  • Manage your blood sugar, but you don’t keep your doctor appointments.
  • Feel more rested, but you stay up late watching Netflix or playing Words With Friends.

Call this self-sabotage, call it relapse, but don’t call it being lazy or unmotivated. Don’t call it procrastination. That’s not the problem—the problem is unconscious conflict.

  • You are aware you want to go for more walks…but you are not aware that you’re afraid of being visible at the size you’re at.
  • You are aware you feel physically uncomfortable when you overeat…but you are unaware that you are afraid of not having enough food.
  • You say that you want to take better care of yourself…but you’re not aware of the deep-seated belief that you don’t deserve to treat yourself well.
Overhead photo of a woman's hand taking a slice of thin-crust gourmet pizza. There is a glass of white wine near her hand, and a dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table, which is covered with a white tablecloth.
How to overcome unconscious conflict

Find a middle path. When change is happening, it can feel uncomfortable and frustrating, but that’s OK. Don’t treat frustration as an end in itself, a reason to quit, but don’t just tolerate frustration and delay all gratification until the end.

Think choices, not rules. Do you tell yourself you “should” do something, only to end up rebelling? Instead of saying (and thinking) “I should,” say “I want.” Keep in mind that there are very few absolutes in life—most things are a series of choices and outcomes of those choices.

Recognize your value. When you love yourself, you feel deserving, and you feel you should have the best in life, no matter what you do. When you don’t love yourself, you feel you only deserve the best if you’ve been “good.” Either you feel 100 percent deserving, or you don’t, and this black-or-white thinking can block you from moving towards your stated intentions.

Learn non-food ways to comfort yourself. There are no inherently “good” feelings or “bad” feelings—feelings are value neutral. Feelings are our internal guidance system—they provide us with important information. While we may like some feelings better than others, but all feelings pass if we give them the space to do so. That said, you probably want to have tangible ways of comforting yourself, and what works for you will be unique to you. Some classic ideas are deep breathing, yoga, being in nature, losing yourself in activities you love, going for a walk. When you have success using these techniques, you can set aside using food as comfort without feeling that someone’s taken away your security blanket. I don’t have a single client who’s swapped food for another coping mechanism tell me they miss using food to cope!

Embrace “enough.” What does “enough” mean for you? Often, that’s a difficult question to answer, and it can take a lot of trial and error to figure it out. That’s one reason that diets can be so seductive—someone else is telling you exactly what’s enough…except it may not really be enough for you. When you allow yourself to experiment, you might have a little too much to eat sometimes, a little too little other times. That’s totally normal! As you keep making small adjustments, you will figure it out.

Photo of a young woman with blond hair in a ponytail, wearing heathered gray fitness leggings and a long-sleeved shirt, bent over in a wide-legged forward bend, with the back of her head towards the camera.

6 smalls steps to become less conflicted

These practices can help you become unstuck and clearer on what you really want, what you’re afraid of, and how to move past the fear to get where you want to be:

  1. Be honest with yourself. Denial delays real healing, whereas honesty and awareness give you a base from which to move forward.
  2. Cultivate curiosity. Now that you’re being honest with yourself, be curious about why you are behaving the way you are—without judging yourself.
  3. Reflect. What did your curiosity uncover? See if you can make any insightful connections between your feelings and fears, and your behaviors.
  4. Practice self-compassion. I see SO many clients who have very little self-compassion, even when they have abundant compassion for others.
  5. Embrace experiments. When you try something, and it doesn’t work, tell yourself, “OK, don’t need to try that again. Let’s see what else works.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
  6. Ask for help. You don’t have to go it alone. Stoicism isn’t the virtue you think it is. Sometimes, asking for help when you really need it most helps you become stronger.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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