‘Know Thyself’ was a phrase coined by Greek Philosophers in a bid to enlighten their students of their own habits and beliefs, before they took on the great mysteries of the universe. Why? Well they believed that if you don’t understand yourself, how can you ever understand the world around you?
This maxim still stands today and transfers into modern psychology – to know and understand ourselves, to be ‘self-aware’, means that we can have greater self-control. Self-control is the key to achieving our goals and aspirations.
What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness is the practice of truly understanding your own beliefs and the way you react to situations. Self-awareness is the cornerstone of developing good, healthy habits. Because only when you truly understand why you do something that you consider to be negative or a bad habit, can you start to make changes.
Self-awareness is understanding why you feel, the way you feel. Now, the whole navel-gazing thing can be uncomfortable, but, once you start to unpack your feelings, take a step back and look objectively at why something makes you feel that way, you can then start to challenge yourself to react differently.
In management speak, there is a process called Root Cause Analysis. Root Cause Analysis is a process that helps organisations prevent disasters from happening. And it is a really simple technique. For everything that goes ‘wrong’, or in this case every negative response that you might have you simply ask ‘why?’ and you keep asking ‘why?’ until you get to the root cause. When you get to the root cause you understand what needs to change, you can reframe your thinking on it and develop some strategies on how to change your reaction and responses.
How can self-awareness help with lifestyle change?
So you might be wondering why I am banging on about getting to grips with your inner most thoughts and feelings. Well, we know that our relationship with food, is an emotional one. So if we can start to understand how our emotions relate to poor eating decisions, we can start to make some changes.
When I first had children, I loved to bake – I still do, I find it really relaxing, I feel like a ‘real Mum’ when I bake, and I enjoy creating things. I do it a lot less frequently now, and we will come on to why, in a moment. I loved to bake, because I also loved to eat cake (and scones and pies)! I also loved giving people cake! I loved the excuse of having a cup of tea and a slice of cake, whenever we had a visitor when I was on maternity leave, which would sometimes be a couple of times a day. I would make a cake just in case we got a visitor, then we could share it. Then once you have made the cake, you have to eat the cake, so a full cake could be gone in a couple of days, max!
As you can imagine, the baby weight didn’t disappear as you would think it would, so the cake had to go. I realised that whilst it felt lovely and wholesome to bake cakes, and like I was being a ‘real Mum’, it wasn’t going to end well. Being a ‘real Mum’ to me also meant making sure that my children (or child, at that time) grew up happy and healthy, with a good body image and a healthy weight. I sat back and looked at whether my cake baking (and eating!) was conducive to the life I wanted to lead. More than anything I wanted to be a positive, healthy role model for my new baby girl. I didn’t want her to feel as unhappy as I did with the way she looked. I wanted her to be comfortable in her own skin. I wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin! I didn’t want her to be teased at school like I had been. These were my true inner beliefs, so I had to change my behaviours to match up with this.
So I changed my focus from baking cake, to cooking really healthy meals instead, lots of lovely soups with tonnes of veg, and then when we got to weaning, blitzing up veg and fruit, and tried every single Annabel Karmel recipe in the book! I got as much enjoyment out of creating these foods, as I did creating a cake. I was determined that both me and my daughter were going to live out our lives, as a healthy as possible. And that inner belief still stands today, and it is what keeps me focused on making the right choices.
If I have a bad day, I still crave cake. I want to go home, get in my PJ’s and eat a big slab of cake, with a massive cup of tea. Because it makes everything feel better, or so we think. But, so does a hug from my husband and the kids, or my Mum and Dad, and a bit of a vent and a cry, or now going for a walk or a run, or doing some exercise with friends. And, once I have got it out of my system I feel better. Because I understand what my inner most beliefs are, it helps me to make the right decisions around food, even though I am craving it. I don’t buy the foods that I know will be my go to, when I am fed up. I have worked out what my other coping strategies are when I need them.
If you take a step back and look at the situations when you comfort eat, or pick at foods mindlessly, and become aware of those situations, that in itself is a massive step. We talk a lot about being honest with ourselves, and being honest and accountable and accepting responsibility for our own decisions is definitely the key to our success. Only when we do this, can we actually make some positive changes. If we continue to lie to ourselves, and blame everything but our own choices, we will never change.
How many of you, after reading the article about Picking, suddenly became very aware of that behaviour, and were able to control it? We had comments from some people that they had never picked before, but after reading the article or discussing it, suddenly felt that they were picking all the time. I don’t doubt what these people are saying is true, but I wonder could it be that these people did pick before and they were just completely unaware? Once you become aware of the behaviour, you can choose to change it.
So when it comes to picking – why do you do it? Boredom? habit? its in your eye line? The boredom and eye line thing can be dealt with immediately – find something else to do and remove it from your eye line. Habit, is slightly harder, more deep rooted. But, if you are engaged and mindful of the picking behaviour, you are one step closer to controlling it. Just being mindful of it will mean the next time you go in the fridge for the milk and habitually reach for the slice of ham, cheese, or handful of cherry tomatoes, you can choose whether you carry on and eat that food, or you can choose to ignore the food, pick up the milk and shut the fridge door.
When you are feeling happy, level headed and content, take a step back and think about what your true beliefs are about how you think you should live your life. Then think about whether the way you respond to situations is conducive to your inner beliefs.
How do those responses make you feel? If those responses aren’t conducive to what you believe, and they actually make you feel sad, then you have identified something that you can improve. Don’t beat yourself up about it, you are now aware of it, and are one step closer to getting to where you want to be. We have talked a few times about dopamine in our brains this last few weeks, and there is more than food that creates this release, so change your response to another dopamine releasing activity. The article ‘You are not a dog’ can give you some ideas.
It might be just one response behaviour that we need to change, we might have a few. Whatever you do, don’t try and change too much at once. Pick one thing at once – start with the one that is going to give you the most bang for buck.
Think back to me on maternity leave, baking cakes. I could have chosen to just stop eating cake, and continued to bake, because I enjoyed the activity of baking – I could always just give the cake away, right? But what would my chances of success have been? Probably slim, because if I just chose to stop eating cake, but carry on making it, the cake was still there. By going to the root cause, and changing that to be more in line with what I actually wanted and believed in, I succeeded in changing the behaviour.
Then take action..
- Write down why you want to do this – your ‘sense of purpose’
- E.G. “I want to become known as the person who always walks the walk”
- Identify when and why you comfort eat or pick
- “I mindlessly pick at food every evening when making tea/coffee in the evenings
- I do the same the moment I walk in from work when, on autopilot, I walk straight to the fridge to eat”
- Agree a response
- “I will change my routine by taking the time to make tea in a teapot and coffee in a cafetiere. I will consciously not eat anything during this new process as it occupies the time waiting for the kettle to boil.”
- “As soon as I walk in from work, I will head straight upstairs, brush my teeth and jump in the shower”