Updated: Jul 18, 2020
As a health coach and personal trainer, I have helped many clients reach previously unattainable goals --from losing 100 or more pounds to gaining muscle weight to increasing cardiovascular endurance to increasing mobility and reducing pain. Whenever I have a new client, regardless of client type (virtual, remote, in person, etc.) I always begin our first session with a conversation around their goals and their readiness for change. What I often discover is that there is a dissonance between the change that people want in their lives, and the daily actions that they take in their lives. They do things habitually and wonder "Why do I keep doing that?!" because it doesn't line up with the type of results they want for their lives.
You may find yourself in a similar situation one day-- where your daily routine doesn’t quite match up with the life that you’ve planned for yourself. Maybe you want to quit smoking because you hold the cognition that smoking ultimately leads to disease and premature death, but you struggle to smoke less than a pack a day. Or, perhaps you are pre-diabetic and want to become healthier, yet you find yourself snacking on candy and cakes everyday. It could be that you are in an abusive relationship, and even though you know that you deserve better, you stay. Whatever the situation, the formula for the pain and perceived loss of control remains. These chasms between a person’s cognition (beliefs) and their actions is referred to as cognitive dissonance.
When a person experiences the state of cognitive dissonance, what’s actually happening is that they are harboring two opposing beliefs at the same time which affects their ability to act harmoniously. Instead, these two opposing beliefs compete for dominance, and subsequently, the behavior expressions of that person. For example, a person who wants to lose 90 lbs probably shouldn’t be eating cookies every night and drinking a two liter bottle of coke every day, but I’d find that this is exactly the situation of some people. On the one hand, they might say to themselves, “I need to lose 90 lbs of excess fat because I want to be healthier and disease free which will be facilitated by getting my weight down to a healthier range.” On the other hand, this same person might also hold the belief that “Eating cookies and drinking coke give me comfort, so when I’m stressed I turn to these pleasantries.” You can instantly see how this can dampen a person’s ability to lose the intended weight, because the antagonist to the belief in the need to change is rooted deep in the individual’s emotions and defense mechanisms against their stressors.
Cognitive dissonance, however is distinct from hypocrisy because the person is oftentimes unaware of the cognitive battle and therefore does not with any sense of authority choose to behave incongruent to their goals in behavior change. When a person says to themselves, “I want to do _______” (fill in the blank) but, “instead I tend to do _______” (fill in the blank) , they feel as if they have little control over their own actions, and thus developed a learned helplessness where they have convinced themselves that they are incapable of positive behavior change.
Fortunately, this delusion is simply untrue. Changing your behavior, especially one that you’ve lived with and developed over some time, is a difficult feat, but achievable nevertheless.
Here are 5 tips that I have found to be helpful--not only my clients, but to myself as well whenever I have faced the reality that I am holding opposing cognitions which impact my ability to reach my health and life goals:
#1: Identify what your opposing cognitions are and write down the pros and cons of the behaviors associated with each.
I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage that the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. If you don’t spend a bit of time identifying what your opposing beliefs are that are impacting your ability to truly enact positive behavior change in your life, you’ll be stuck in a behavioral holding pattern for longer than comfortable.
Once you’ve identified the hero and anti-hero of your cognitions, write a list of pros and cons of the behaviors associated with both of them. You may want to title your columns: “How this belief is helpful” and “How this belief is harmful.” By doing so, you’ll quickly be able to see on plain paper how certain behaviors are either helping or harming you and choose to conscientiously replace harmful cognitions with ones that are in harmony with behaviors you’d like to adapt in the future.
#2: Write down your core values and eliminate any behaviors that don’t align.
Core values are not just for businesses! A person’s values inform how they live their life. If they value kindness, for example, you will be able to see evidence of this in their actions. They will be kind not only to others, but also to themselves. If they value power, you will see this person stop at nothing to garner control of their interpersonal relationships. Whatever the case may be, understanding your overarching core values will help you with guiding your own behavioral mechanics. If any of your thoughts and behaviors fall outside of your written core values, it’s time to let them go. They have no business in your life.
If you were able to write the list from Tip #1, then do a side-by-side analysis of this list and that one. Really iron out the kinks by sifting through both lists and highlight (yes, with a highlighter) any evidence of self-sabotage. From there, simple, do more of the good stuff and change will soon follow!
#3: Focus on slow and steady behavior change by attending to one new positive behavior at a time.
Change in any form, but especially behavior change, certainly doesn’t happen overnight! If there’s one thing that I have learned from helping others reach their health and fitness goals, and through personal lessons in operating my own business, it’s to BE CONSISTENT! Anytime that we are moving towards a goal, you must expect to fail from time to time. I’m not referring to complete failure (although sometimes that happens as well) where you are seemingly back to square one, or possibly even a little bit behind where you first started off your journey. Every little setback can feel monumental and hope dwindles the more frequently these setbacks occur. Remember to expect hard times as you press forward. Also, remember to not be discouraged when these failures occur. They are normal and to be expected. Get comfortable with failure, but get even more comfortable with action. If you have a day where you didn’t behave the way that brought you closer to how you visualize yourself or your future self, find comfort in knowing that it is okay. Pick yourself up from the floor, and try again tomorrow. Don’t entertain beating yourself up about what did and didn’t happen yesterday. You are on a journey, and you will never be able to reach your destination if you don’t exhibit some grit throughout the process of behavior change.
When I work with new clients, they often find themselves wanting to change all of their unhealthy behaviors at once. They want to lose the fat, gain the muscle, uproot their diets, run everyday, meditate, get more sleep, stress less, read more, quit smoking--all at the same time! The pain of their cognitive dissonance is such that they have grown impatient and will try anything to make the dissonance go away. Even though it took them years of experiences to develop their contradicting beliefs and actions in the first place, many people want an immediate and easy fix.
I’ve found (and science backs me up!) that it is more effective to focus on changing one or two behaviors at a time before moving onto another behavior change scenario. For most, in order to effectively introduce and anchor a new habit behavior into your life, it takes around 66 days at minimum. For some, it takes less time, for others, more. That being said, for a health or fitness client, I would generally be focusing on helping them with building six healthy behaviors over the course of each year. In this way, their brains have time to understand that their behaviors will become part of their lifestyle, as opposed to a fleeting fad that catches on today but fades within a month or so. Trust in the process and remind yourself constantly that even though it seems like you’re not making progress, or even as if you are backsliding, the fruits of your labor will come after consistent tending to the seeds of change.
#4: Put encouraging visuals everywhere!
Although I personally support the idea of learning preferences to learning styles, the inarguable truth is that the majority of humans prefer visual stimulation in their learning culture. When developing new habits and thought patterns to bridge the gap of cognitive dissonance, some people do well with adding visual aids to remind them to stay the course. Whether what works for you is motivational word art, a vision board, sticky notes, or something else, create an environment that is conducive to your goals.
To give you an example of this tip in action: I am on a personal journey to eat less heavily processed foods. In order to support this goal, I have subjected myself to a pescatarian based meal plan that focuses on whole, nutrient dense foods. I’ve created a visual for my meal plan for an entire week and switch it up every week to reflect a different menu of foods that serve my goals. I’ve decorated my weekly meal plan with colorful marker doodles and placed it in the middle of my refrigerator. That way, every time that I open my refrigerator door, I am reminded of the plan and am encouraged to follow it. If I decide to detour from the plan, I’ve come to understand and accept that my conscious decision is probably more rooted in hypocrisy than in cognitive dissonance. Nobody wants to be a hypocrite! In order to keep my unprocessed food plan realistic for my lifestyle, I give myself two days per week to loosen the reigns and enjoy foods that deviate from the week’s menu.
#5: Surround yourself with people who can help and encourage you.
I can’t stress enough the importance of having the right people in your corner. If you are struggling with cognitive dissonance, it’s easy to feel as if you have no power or as if your mind is at war with you. By having people (whether that be friends, family, a healthcare team, a support team or a life/health/fitness/financial coach) by your side, you don’t have to feel as if you are working through your dissonance alone.
About Author: Brandi Nik Kilbourne is an American Council on Exercise (ACE) certified Personal Trainer and Health Coach. She is the founder of CNG Fit LLC which is the parent company of CNG Fit Lab Fitness & Nutrition and FitNu Life coaching services.