Phil had been on every diet known to man and had failed each time. Each failure adding to his belief, that not only did dieting simply not work, but that he too was destined for an early demise.
He was also a smoker and worked in a highly stressful job, which he acknowledged wasn’t good for him either. But he needed his job and smoking helped to take the edge off his stress.
Our belief systems allow us to make sense of our world. They colour our perspective and we hold on tightly to them, especially the ones we have cultivated over time.
We also seek out others who hold similar beliefs, because that makes us feel justified in our beliefs.
Many of Phil’s friends were also overweight and smokers. If everyone else is the same, that makes it more OK, doesn’t it?
Being challenged on your beliefs feels like a threat. It’s uncomfortable and may cause you to vehemently defend your position.
But what if you gave yourself permission to hear out another opinion or viewpoint, to stay curious and open to considering if your belief needs an update?
Because our knowledge and understanding of “what is true” is changing all the time as new research uncovers new insights.
In her TED talk, psychologist Kelly McGonigal spoke about having to rethink her approach to stress. For years she had advised her clients on the stressful impact of high stress on health and mood.
It’s well documented that exposure to chronic levels of high stress is a contributing factor to many forms of illness and disease that may lead to premature death.
But what of the impact of a person’s belief system about stress? Was there a difference between those who believed that stress was harmful and those who believed it was just a normal part of life?
What changed her belief system was the findings of a longitudinal US study that followed 30,000 people for 8 years asking them how much stress they had experienced over each preceding year, and whether they thought the stress was harmful to their health.
They then used public death records to find out who had died.
What they found was that,
People who had experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying.
But this was ONLY true for those who also believed that stress was harmful to your health.
Those who experienced a lot of stress but did not see this as harmful to their health were not at increased risk of dying and had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study including those who said they had had little stress to deal with.
This makes Henry Ford’s quote more valid.
“Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right.”
Challenging Phil about his belief about diets not working, wouldn’t have been very rewarding for him or me as his GP.
What was more helpful was to ask him some better questions,
“Other than not dying prematurely, what other reasons do you have for wanting to lose weight?”
“What do you believe would help you the most in achieving your weight loss goals?”
Phil immediately came up with the answer to the first question. It mattered enormously to him to be fit enough to play soccer with his young son on the weekends.
Now he had a positive outcome to work towards rather than trying to escape dying young.
It took a little longer for him to work out the answer to the second question.
Phil recognised that by believing dieting didn’t work, he was setting himself up for failure each time with each failure further cementing his belief that he was wasting his time.
It was time to rethink his approach and beliefs about how to lose and maintain weight loss.
He decided that if he was going to achieve his goal, he needed a new strategy that would support and reward him for persevering and to celebrate small milestones along the way. He had to accept that there would be obstacles and speedbumps along the way that would test his ability to find a way forward and these were to be expected and not an indication of failure.
Phil achieved his target weight within six months.
He quit smoking and spoke to his boss about changing some aspects of his work that could alleviate some of his stress.
He started playing soccer with his son on a regular basis.
He also started a workplace support group, for others like him who were battling weight-related issues.
He was happier and healthier than he had been for a long time.
And he no longer believes that dieting doesn’t work.
What he believes in now is,
- the power of having a positive goal to work towards,
- having others around for mutual support and encouragement,
- the power in shifting his relationship with food towards seeking the healthier options more often, rather than dieting per se and savouring the increase in energy and vitality he now enjoys.
Belief is a powerful tool that can help you achieve your goals.
It gives you focus, provides certainty and a map. By shaping your thinking, you determine your actions and behaviour.
As Stanford Professor Carol Dweck discovered in her work on motivation and mindsets, adopting a growth mindset is where you hold the belief you can improve and get better by application of effort and practice. This, not talent or ability is what contributes to your success.
When you believe that things can be better.
When you have hope and optimism for your future.
You now come from a place of possibility.
And that’s where the magic lies.
Are you holding onto some beliefs that are holding you back?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
*Phil is not his real name
Dr Jenny Brockis is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker, trainer, coach and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is available for purchase.
If psychological safety, burnout prevention and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.