Careful: Sharp Edges

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Change is difficult enough without making it harder for ourselves. Here’s how to avoid goals and personal standards that do more harm than good.

The High Cost of ‘High Standards’

Absolutes come easily to most of us, especially when we’re angry or sad. After breaking a diet and demolishing an entire pizza, it seems natural to proclaim “enough is enough, I’ll never eat pizza again.” On the face of it, this might seem like a good enough plan. However the chances of actually going for any period of time without eating pizza are pretty slim. Also, the focus on pizza neglects the bigger picture: there are lots of foods and patterns of eating that could lead to diet failure, not just the pizza.

To put it another way, the “no pizza” plan has a sharp edge, or rather, we might say it’s double-edged: one edge is an absolute standard (no pizza) while the other edge is a lack of scope that misses the broader goal of eating right.

Never Say “Always”

Sharp-edged standards, while sometimes necessary (as in the case of highly addictive drugs) come with a number of downsides. Standards that contain the word “always” or “never” are like drawing a line in the sand with yourself. You say “don’t cross this line”, but if you do, what happens? Often, the first transgression can be taken to invalidate the whole goal and plan: “oh, well, I’ve had one slice of pizza, so I broke the rule, so I might as well eat the whole thing!”

Another downside of the all-or-nothing approach is the fact that absolute adherence just isn’t necessary for a lot of goals. Most people can maintain a healthy weight and still enjoy small portions of what we think of as unhealthy foods. And I’m not talking just about dieting: if you’re more attentive to a relationship even some of the time (perhaps even just once) it can make a measurable difference.

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Third, all-or-nothing standards can be intimidating and discouraging. Living without a favorite food or lifelong bad habit may seem impossible at the outset. If the sacrifice seems too large, people will give up, especially if the standard comes from outside of them rather than being self-selected.

(Permanent) Failure is Not an Option

A “sharp edged” plan for change doesn’t include contingencies for what happens when things get off-track. Therefore, one very direct way to take the bite out of such a plan is to say what happens if you do (to keep our example going) eat pizza. Perhaps you’ll stop yourself at one piece or have something healthy and filling to go along with it. Taking it a step further, I believe the best plans are ones that can be used no matter how well or badly things have gone to date.

The 90% Solution

As I said above, sometimes perfection just isn’t necessary to success. Figuring out how much change is actually required can be encouraging and liberating. It’s not always so obvious how much effort will be needed. Often, just altering one or two things, doing something a little less, or something else a little more can be all that’s required.

Getting away from an absolute standard also allows a shift of focus towards the positive, and away from the negative — what we don’t want or can’t allow. Rather than “no pizza”, we’d be better off with some positive end such as “eat a salad with every dinner.”

Fall Off, Get Back On

Sometimes, rather than abandoning an all-or-nothing standard, it can help to simply think about it differently. Anyone who’s watched a small child learn to walk knows it involves a lot of falling down. It’s a good thing that children don’t usually get discouraged very easily at this stage, or we’d have a lot more adults crawling around. If the standard is to walk, then every fall is a failure. Very small children seem to know intuitively that the right answer to falling down is getting up and trying it again. If only ‘mature adults’ could keep this attitude, we wouldn’t have so much trouble with absolute standards. Learning to surf or ride a bicycle is often much the same: getting better all but requires falling off. Rather than seeing the all-or-nothing standard as something that has to happen today, think of it as an aim, so when you ‘fall off’, just ‘get back on.’

For Better or Worse

It’s perfectly possible to change without any recourse to standards at all. Rather than some abstract measuring stick, you can use your own previous behavior as a guide. At the end of every day, you can ask “is what I did today better or worse than yesterday?” If it’s worse, figure out what went wrong and how to do better tomorrow. If today was better than yesterday, the same question still applies: what was the change that made the positive difference and how can it be repeated, enhanced, or expanded? We may not always be able to measure up to the goals we set for ourselves long ago, but improving on yesterday puts success always within reach.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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