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What the Hell Phenomenon: How Judgment Prevents Change

The phenomenon is real. You're trying to make a change in your life. Maybe it's drinking less or shopping less often. Maybe it's a new diet or exercise regimen. Only to feel shame and anxiety when you slip up. Change seems impossible. Why bother?

This is on my mind at the end of Lent, the season when some Christians give up something—coffee, chocolate, anything—to reflect on sacrifice. Most of people I know who gave up something report that they only lasted a day or two, a week maybe, before they cheated, but instead of jumping back on the horse and trying again, they utter the words that prevent us from making changes: Why bother? I'll probably just screw up again. (And please know I've been guilty of this too!) But interestingly, studies show that this shame and guilt we feel at failing is exactly what fuels our failure to begin with.

In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal describes the what-the-hell effect, a spiral of anxiety, indulgence, shame, and then overindulgence. It's simple: gamblers who feel the most ashamed following a major loss are the most likely to "chase" the lost money by gambling more and borrowing money to try to recoup their losses. The worse a person feels about how much they drank they night before, the more they drink that night and the next—the shame drives them back to the bottle, probably drinking more than they had the night before.

When I bring this phenomenon up to my clients, they usually nod: "Yes, that's how I feel! If I've already screwed up, I might as well give in. But..." they add. "If I wasn't hard on myself, I'd probably be really bad." And I think: when did we become a society that can only motivate ourselves and accomplish things by anxiety and shame? The research doesn't back up "shame motivation"! In fact, McGonigal goes on to say that people with the most self-compassion towards themselves are more likely to accomplish their goals and stick with them.

But how do we step out of the what-the-hell phenomenon when it might be all we've ever known? By acknowledging the anxiety and guilt that propels our addictions and then—GASP!—forgiving ourselves and trying again.

There is no shame in failure, whether it's giving up cigarettes for our health or coffee for Lent. Making lasting changes (or even changes for 40 days) is hard for everyone. You're training your body and mind to function in an entirely different way! It's not a linear progression upward towards success. It's ups and downs, failures and small victories. And you can get there! But you're likely to get there faster with compassion, not anxiety and shame.

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