Lee Jordan by Lee Jordan
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It’s the holidays! While many people are getting ready to observe their favorite traditions, you might notice another change that comes with the season. I’m not talking about the transition to cooler weather or fewer hours of daylight, but rather the gradual disappearance of your clients as they become swept away by holiday parties, family responsibilities, purchasing mania and feasts of all varieties. 

The end of the year is often when our clients experience extensive challenges in the pursuit of their wellness initiatives. We see it happening as they sink into a place they only recently expressed great joy, pride, and gratitude for having escaped. As health and exercise professionals, our initial feeling is to rescue them and to implore them not to lose all their hard-earned progress. Instead, we turn to science and evidence to inform our actions. The evidence tells us that leaping in to “save” our clients won’t work and will only likely drive them further away from the sustainable change they seek. This desire to help our clients in such a way is called the “righting reflex” and is a critical element in understanding behavior change (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). How, then, can we help our clients during these challenging months?

Encourage a Positive Mindset

“I help my clients discover, formulate and embrace an attitude of grace with themselves, as opposed to rigid expectations,” says Justin Fink, MS, an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist and Weight Management Specialist. “Rather than aiming for perfection, which may often lead to feelings of shame and guilt, my clients lean into self-compassion to foster resilience and a steadier response to the holiday challenges.” Fink finds this proactive approach to facilitating a mindset of self-acceptance helps offset a client’s tendency to slip into the common cognitive distortion of all-or-nothing thinking and supports their ability to remain present, aware and engaged as they grow through the challenges.   

Provide Uniquely Effective Tools

Routines and habits can become splintered during the holiday season, and excellent tips around nutrition and fitness are readily available. But what about tools our clients need to traverse the troublesome terrain of “have just one more, we are all doing it and, but I made it special for you appeals of the holiday season?” Judith S. Beck, PhD, an associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the president of Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, offers two powerful tools to empower and strengthen your clients’ ability to advance their personal wellness initiatives in the face of social pressure: 

Food Pusher Trap: Often well-meaning, the food pusher wants a person to eat some of this and more of that and is seemingly driven by a need to have others eat what, when and how they see fit. The food pusher will focus on the person who is currently in their sights until that person bends to their will, often recruiting the group and inviting them to join in applying pressure to meet their need to have the person eat as they choose. 

Tool: Rather than suggesting your client offer a list of reasons for why they don’t want to do what the food pusher is asking, suggest they use the broken record approach. Here, a person repeats their no response, never adding additional reasons, but staying with no or no thank you. Matching the verbal broken-record response with nonverbal cues that demonstrate a lack of emotion and convey respect but disinterest is an effective way to free oneself from the food pusher’s focus. Without drama and engagement, the food pusher has nothing on which to push; they become a teeter without a totter, the ride is over, and they, eventually, move on.   

People Pleaser Trap: A person who feels responsible for making others feel better about what they are eating and drinking has landed in the people pleaser trap. A people pleaser may find themselves thinking, “I don’t want to make everyone feel bad about how much they are drinking” or “I will disappoint my mother/father/brother/aunt, etc.… if I don’t eat [insert food]." This trap can ignite self-sabotaging thoughts and open the door to guilt, either by the choice to acquiesce or in the belief that you have ruined someone else’s experience. 

Tool: First, avoid ignoring the perceived issue by simply reminding your client that they can't control other people’s feelings so they should just stick to their plan. Doing so is actually a rigid all-or-nothing response, which doesn't allow space for the genuine emotions your client might be experiencing. Gripped by fear of disappointment, help your client walk through some self-analysis by asking themselves a few questions:

  • What strengths have you relied on in the past to weather disappointment? 
  • What are the costs or potential costs to you and your wellness initiatives if you abandon them to please others? 
  • What advice would you give a close friend in a similar situation?

This brief self-awareness and analysis tool offers your client the opportunity to discover their power to free themselves from the subjugation of pleasing others first and always.

Use these tips and tools to ignite the champion within your client, keeping them engaged and connected to their health and wellness goals through the end of the year and beyond.

Reference

Miller, W.R., and Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change. Guilford Press.

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