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Fear Is an Excellent Motivator for Positive Change

I had a client decades ago when I worked in a Boston methadone clinic who used to tuck his stash of heroin under the trolley tracks in a hidey hole, so he’d know where it was but wouldn’t get caught by the police with it on him. He did get caught with and arrested and was then terrified about what would happen to him. When he was released from jail, we talked about how his fear response was working backwards—he felt fear after the fact when he should have felt it beforehand.

The point of fear, from an evolutionary standpoint, is to keep us from doing or repeating behaviors that will harm us. We wouldn’t survive without this instinct. But some people push away useful fear and, therefore, continue to endanger themselves. For instance, I have a client with COPD who had difficulty talking about how cigarettes were destroying his health, insisting that he was too uncomfortable to think about it. I told him that his discomfort with and avoidance of fear was exactly what prevented him from quitting.

In order to remain safe, we’re supposed to be uncomfortable pondering the terrible things that can happen to us. Discomfort is what leads to not making foolhardy choices. Who is going to succeed, the person who takes a cigarette out of the pack and thinks that each one she smokes will delete a minute from her life (that was how I thought when I quit the habit) or the person who becomes uncomfortable thinking about the dangers of smoking and, therefore, puts it out of his mind (that would be my client).

You assuredly know that an excess of high-calorie, high-fat foods will harm your health via heart disease, stroke, cancer, etc. Therefore, it’s a must that you experience the fear of damaging your health from the way you eat. I don’t mean to go out and beat yourself up because you ate two cookies. That’s not feeling the fear of harming yourself. Fear is different than self-disparagement, guilt, regret or shame.

My smoking client and I made a list of why he should be afraid of cigarettes and then talked about them until he could ponder them without pushing the thoughts away. I helped him be uncomfortable because that’s my job. In lieu of not having a therapist to help you sit with discomfort, make a list yourself of food-related dangers and read it for five minutes three times a day to keep them alive in your mind and stoking your fear.

Denial, as you’ve heard many times, is not your friend. It truly is your enemy. Allow yourself to be fearful of eating too much or too many unhealthy foods and sit with the consequent discomfort. It won’t kill you to be emotionally uncomfortable from fear. But it might kill you not to be.

Best,

Karen

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