One of the biggest challenges to healthy living, I’ve learned, is developing the ability to say “No.”
It sounds easy enough, right? It feels like everyone around us can easily turn down things they know they shouldn’t have. We ask ourselves, “My friend can say no without flinching; why can’t I?” and, before we know it, we’re filled with a sense of self-loathing, wondering why we can’t get it together like others. Of course I know what it’s like – I’ve been there before and, in some ways, am still there now.
The weird thing about self-control, what we’ve come to know as “will power,” is the belief that everyone is born with the same ability to say no. It’s always propped up as being something like a tool in a dusty drawer somewhere that you have to simply whip out and use.
I can speak from personal experience when I tell you, it ain’t that easy.
When you’re admitting to yourself that you struggle to say “No, I don’t want to eat any more of this food,” you’re not “making excuses” – you’re admitting that something presents a real challenge for you, and that’s okay. In fact, Dr. David A. Kessler, author of the amazing book The End of Overeating, would not only understand you, but agree with you.
When you’ve spent so much of your life saying "yes," those first few “no”s are difficult and painful, thanks to a term known as “incentive salience.” In the book, it is described as “the desire, activated by cues, for something that predicts reward. It’s a learned association – we learn to want a food or some other substance we once liked. We may not even like that food (though we often do). But it’s the wanting, not the liking, that drives us to do the work necessary to obtain that food.”
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’d realize that we’re not struggling to turn down the broccoli. We’re not struggling to turn down the turnips. It’s usually the sweet stuff – the soda pops, the juices, the comfort foods, the sugary-fatty-salties of the world – that’s got us feeling sad and angry about our ability to say no. It’s usually something that we have some kind of emotional connection to – the memories associated with it make us feel good and draw us to it, or the actual consumption of it serves as some form of stress relief. Either way, consuming it makes us feel better. Those feelings are a part of that cycle – they’re self-reinforcing.
The trick to will power, is in ceasing to approach it like it’s a tool you pull out of a kit, fully intact; instead, treat it like a muscle – under-used, weak, and in need of rebuilding through training. For someone who has had little experience with displaying self-control, you will absolutely struggle in the beginning. But, as your will power muscle strengthens, so will your resolve… and your ability to say no.
How do you work to strengthen your will power muscle? For starters, take a long hard look at the foods to which you just can’t say no. (Are they processed foods? You know those are engineered to make it hard for you to say no, right?) What event triggers the indulgence? Is it simply seeing your favorite food? Or is it stress? From there, look for different ways to handle the situation. Find a new method of stress relief. Tell yourself, “Wow, that looks delicious, but I have something else to do right now,” and then go do it.
Simply saying no isn’t enough – you need to acknowledge the trigger (or cue, as it were), so that you can begin to lessen its effect on you. Tell yourself, “the only reason I’m even remotely interested in that is because it’s in front of me. I don’t even want it.” And move on.
Research the feelings and triggers, and understand that – for someone who is new to saying “no,” there will be more to turning down food than simply stomping your feet and saying no. Give yourself some space to learn and grow, and your body will thank you for it!
Erika Nicole Kendall is the writer behind the award-winning blog A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, where she blogs her journey from 330lb couch potato to certified personal trainer and nutritionist. Ask her your fitness-related questions on Facebook and Twitter.