healthy indulgent life
with Dr. Michelle Marks

The Psychology

The Healthy Indulgent Life is extremely rewarding, but it requires practice in certain proven psychological skills and strategies. I call them mindset skills. This page provides an introduction to these skills. This is a content rich page; that means there's quite a bit of writing with not too much filler and fluff. My intention is to offer you enough practical information so you can begin to make the lifestyle changes you desire. 


If you're not sure how to approach this page, you can either choose to read it all at once and then begin practicing, or make it into a class - reading and working on one section at a time. I promise you that these skills and strategies really work if you practice them and incorporate them into your life. 


On my shop page, I offer additional resources if you want to learn more about any of these strategies. 

Healthy Indulgence is a Positive Choice


Anytime you take on a challenge, you need motivation. And the key to motivation is knowing how meeting that challenge will make your life better. You need to ask yourself, "Why is it important for me to lead a healthful and balanced life?" "What will healthy indulgence offer me?" "How will healthy indulgence make my life better?" And you also need to ask yourself, "What are the consequences of not leading a healthy  lifestyle?" and "What are the downsides of healthy indulgent living - what would I have to give up?" Once you determine why it's important to you, write down your reasons on an index card or a paper that you will look at all the time.  You always need to be in touch with your why. When you know why this lifestyle is for you, you can choose it without ambivalence.  That's how it becomes a positive choice, rather than another something you "should" do.


Mindfulness

You may be familiar with the term mindfulness.  It's all over the media these days, and this valuable, ancient practice happens to be the foundation of the healthy indulgent life.  


Mindfulness means being in the present moment, without judgment. That sounds simple, but it's quite challenging because the reality of our lives is that we're rarely in the present moment, and we are constantly judging and evaluating.  Mindfulness involves working to cultivate raw attention to our experience and at the same time it's about noticing how much we're distracted by thoughts, emotions, sensations, judgments, plans, and memories.  When we start to pay attention, we notice that our minds never, ever shut up. Not for a second. Our minds are like untrained puppies; all over the place.  We spend most of our time being swept away by whatever distractions happen to show up or experiences are triggered.   


Have you ever had the experience of reading a book or article, and when your eyes reach the bottom of the page you realize that you weren't really reading the page at all - your mind was swept away by some stream of consciousness that happened to occur while you were reading? Or been in conversation with someone and realize that you're totally in your own head, and not participating in the conversation with the person? This is what I'm talking about. When this happens we're not just missing the story or the conversation - we're missing our own lives. Our distractions might simply be harmless distractions, but they can also cause trouble by leading us to misinterpret situations, to have negative emotions, and to act in ways that are not in our best interest.


Practicing mindfulness involves placing our focus on something in the present moment, and then noticing what goes on in our minds when our minds wander, and choosing not to engage with whatever shows up. A common misconception about mindfulness is that it involves getting rid of unwanted thoughts or clearing our minds. This does not happen!  As I mentioned, the mind never, ever shuts up. And I use the term "practicing" because it takes practice. It's not something that you do and experience instant results, like flipping a switch. Think about mindfulness as a muscle. It takes exercise just like building stronger muscles takes exercise. Mindfulness practice is like bicep curls for your mind - for your wisdom. 


Mindfulness is important for the healthy indulgent lifestyle because the lifestyle requires paying attention to your food choices and being in control of them.  And when you're being swept away by inner objects, "you" are not in control. You are at risk for emotional eating and all kinds of eating that have nothing to do with being in control of your choices. Mindfulness also gives you the capacity to truly enjoy and savor your indulgences - to be present and engaged and to fully appreciate them rather than gobbling them down mindlessly.  


The good news is that practicing mindfulness is simple and can fit into anybody's schedule, no matter how busy.  Many of the experts suggest that you need to spend at least 30 minutes a day practicing mindfulness, but in my experience, even a few minutes a day can yield benefits. 


And let's dispense with any thoughts of mindfulness as a woo-woo, hippy-dippy practice. I've been a proponent of mindfulness practice for years and have noticed that many people won't consider mindfulness because they think it's some kind of silly, new-age fad. But as eastern wisdom has met western scientific rigor, there has been a flood of research clearly showing the value of mindfulness for so many outcomes. Practicing mindfulness really does improve the way your brain and body functions, and this impacts emotions, behavior, habits, and pretty much everything. 


The simplest way to practice mindfulness is by sitting down and paying attention to your breathing. Since you're always breathing, your breath can be an anchor to the present moment. Rather than describing this in further detail, I've included a 20 minute guided mindfulness exercise for you below.  Click on the arrow  for your mindful breathing practice. 

Here's another mindfulness exercise for you.  This one is going to really help you move toward totally enjoying the healthy indulgent lifestyle. It's a mindful eating exercise.  You'll need some supplies to practice this one. When you're ready to practice mindful eating, you'll need a food item that comes in small bite size pieces, for example, raisins, chocolate chips, popcorn, or something along those lines.  It should be the type of food that you might eat by the handful all at once. When you're ready, grab a handful and come back to click on the arrow to practice some mindful eating. 


And Mindlessness


We've covered the importance of being mindful. And there is no underestimating the wide ranging value of mindfulness. But, sometimes it's helpful to be mindless.

 
Life is busy and complicated and we've got a lot on our plates. The many, many decisions we have to make just to get through any ordinary day can be exhausting. And when we're exhausted we don't always make the wise and reasoned choices that reflect our goals and values.  Specifically, when we're worn out, we're prone to make poor lifestyle choices. So to keep ourselves from getting worn out and off track in the midst of all our everyday activities, we need to simplify as much as we can by setting up routines and creating healthful habits that make healthful living mindless. 


For example, it can be helpful to keep your pantry and kitchen well stocked and equipped with tools and ingredients that offer you lots of healthful and appealing choices. Some people like to have meal plans like "Meatless Mondays" "Take-out Tuesdays" etc to reduce the amount of decisions they have to make around food, while other people find that degree of structure too constricting. There's no one size fits all approach to a healthy indulgent routine; you need to figure out what and how much structure works for you. You know your routine works when it's simple, it reduces stress and it doesn't trigger feelings of deprivation or rebellion. If your routine is too complicated, you're not likely to follow it, and you're definitely unlikely to be able to sustain it over time. If you want to have the option to choose and enjoy healthful meals most of the time, you need to have healthful meal options handy.  While this is not earth-shattering stuff, in reality, this is where so many people get off track.  So please, do yourself a favor and spend some time setting up some routines and preparing your life to support your lifestyle.


I also recommend you spend some time installing some healthful habits. I use the word installing because when you create a habit and practice it, you actually install a circuit in your brain that makes the habit mindless and automatic. Choose a healthful activity - something small, like drinking more water or taking 10 minutes a day for mindfulness and start practicing your new habit. You can make habit installation more effective by rewarding yourself each time you practice. People like rewards. Your reward doesn't have to be elaborate; you can save a favorite activity to be a reward for practicing your habit, you can throw a coin into a reward jar you use to save for a bigger reward, and you can even benefit from giving yourself a proverbial "pat on the back".  Each time you reward yourself, you strengthen your habit's neural circuit.


You may have thought about this already, but habits have a flip-side. We all struggle at times with "bad habits". You need to realize that it's not your fault that you struggle with bad habits.  As I just mentioned, habits are mindless.  They run along well worn pathways in your brain. So cut yourself some slack and know that psychology also offers proven methods to break unhelpful habits.  And guess what? Those methods all start with mindfulness. What I'm saying is that mindlessness is good when it simplifies and automates helpful habits and routines, but when mindlessness is not helpful, mindfulness is the antidote!


Stress Management


Our bodies come equipped with an ancient stress response that prepares us to deal with ancient dangers - like running away from wild animals. Here's a little taste of what stress does to the mind and the body: Stress sends blood to our muscles so we can run for our lives, and keeps blood away from our cerebral cortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning and judgment). This means that stress impairs our ability to be thoughtful and reasonable, and to make non-instinctive choices like the ones we have to make when we're pursuing challenging goals. Stress causes our bodies to convert calories into glucose (glucose is the body's fuel) so we can have lots of energy available for running away from predators.  If we don't use that glucose because we're not running away from predators but dealing with a stressful situation that doesn't require lots of energy, that excess glucose gets stored as fat. To make matters even a little bit worse, in the aftermath of stress, our bodies often feel unnaturally famished, which means we may eat way too much. 


A little stress can be a good thing, but in today's world, we have too much of stress. And even though our stress doesn't usually involve having to run for our lives, our bodies respond with the full ancient stress response. Can you see how stress is the enemy of healthful, balanced living?


As bad as this news seems, the good news is that there are many tools available for you to learn to manage and neutralize the impact of stress on your life. One of the simplest ways is with deep and natural breathing. There is a true reason for the old advice to just take a few deep breaths when you need to calm down. Stress causes us to breathe rapidly and shallowly, and when we're under chronic stress, we get into the habit of breathing rapidly and shallowly all the time. When we practice slower, deeper breathing, we can restore our bodies to a more natural, balanced, and non-stressed state.  And then we can start thinking clearly and making rational decisions again.


Click below to listen to a lesson in natural, deep breathing. 

Inner Characters


As you develop mindfulness skills, you'll notice the non-stop chattering going on in your head.  Psychologists call this inner chatter "self-talk". And you may notice themes in your self-talk; types of things you say to yourself over and over. That's normal too.  I call these self-talk patterns inner characters because it can seem like your self-talk themes have their own personalities. It's important to recognize these inner characters because what they tell us can impact our moods and our actions. 


Everyone has their own cast of inner characters and they're not all troublesome.  But here are a few common characters that can wreak havoc with the healthy indulgent life.


The critic

The critic always has something negative to say to you. "You'll never succeed" "You're fat" "You're stupid" "You're a fraud" "You screwed up again". The critic can be relentless.  When we take on a challenge, the last thing we need is a relentless critic ripping us to shreds.  The critic treats us more harshly than we would treat our worst enemies.  Critical thoughts like this, especially if we're in the habit of repeating them over and over to ourselves can lead to pessimism, depression, hopelessness, and will sap the enthusiasm from your healthy indulgent life.


The rebel

Like a rebellious teenager, the rebel doesn't want to be told what to do. Our inner rebels are responsible for us not wanting to do anything we "should" or are "supposed to" do. And in a world full of "shoulds", especially related to health, diet, nutrition and exercise, the rebel can cause us big time problems. 


The lobbyist

The lobbyist always wants something and is responsible for cravings. You can recognize the lobbyist when all of a sudden you "need" something that you don't really need.  The lobbyist is full of clever tricks. One trick that often works for the lobbyist is to tell you that "you deserve it" when the truth is that, yes, you do deserve to eat whatever you really want; but the lobbyist may be pointing you toward things you don't really want. 


The food cop

The food cop sets food rules and watches carefully for violations. Then, to add insult to injury, when you violate your food rules, the critic shows up to scold you. The food cop takes the joy out of eating and creates anxiety about food. 


The wimp

Everything is too hard for the wimp. The wimp can't tolerate any hassles, frustrations or challenges.  It's pretty clear that listening to the inner wimp will keep us from pursuing any of the important challenges that can make life great. The wimp makes life safe, easy, and .... dull and unsatisfying. 


Mom ...

.... or dad, or grandma, or your culture. We tend to internalize the messages we learn when we're young.  Sometimes these messages can lead to unhelpful ideas about food and lifestyle.  Ideas like "You have to eat everything on your plate" or "It's important to be skinny" can come from our parents, our peers or our culture. We may internalize them and repeat them to ourselves, but they may not reflect the values that we have chosen for ourselves, and they may not serve our healthy lifestyle goals. 


We encounter problems when we listen to these characters as if they're speaking the truth. When you hear something often enough, you believe it. And when it comes out of your own head, of course you think it's the truth.  But the truth is that these inner characters often give us messages that are not helpful at all, and what's more, these characters are not even real; they're just mental habits - neural circuits with language. 


Fortunately, there are ways to deal with our inner characters.


A Mindful Approach

Through the simple act of noticing our inner characters without having to listen to them or get attached to their message, we can allow these characters to drift from our consciousness as we focus on the present moment.  For example, we can be mindful of our inner lobbyist, and when we notice our cravings, we can be aware of them like any other sensation or mental event, and allow them to pass.  This approach is known as "urge surfing" and it really works.  A mindful approach can also be very helpful in dealing with cultural and familial messages we've internalized. Mindfulness offers us freedom from our inner characters.


A Practical Approach

It can also be really helpful to take a practical approach to our inner characters.  We can hear what they are telling us and then decide whether what they have to say is helping us or sabotaging our efforts to improve our lives.  A practical approach can neutralize the rebel, and here's another tip; the most practical approach to the rebel is to not trigger it in the first place.  Work toward creating a new mental habit of replacing your "should" language with "choice" language and you won't have to deal with the rebel at all.


An Argumentative Approach

When you logically question your inner characters about what they're telling you, their ideas don't  hold up. This argumentative approach is known as cognitive disputation and is one of the cornerstone methods in cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, a treatment that has been proven effective with a wide range of emotional and behavioral problems.  When you identify what your inner characters are suggesting, you can ask yourself questions like "Is this really true?" "Is there any evidence against this thought?" and "What's a more realistic point of view?" Using cognitive disputation, we can hear our inner wimp saying that it's too much of a hassle to change into our sneakers so we can take a nice walk. We can ask ourselves, "Is this really too much of a hassle? How hard would it actually be to change my shoes?" The answer, of course, would be that it's not too hard to change shoes. With disputation we can help our inner wimps to grow up. We can also use disputation with the inner critic, whose messages never stand up to scrutiny.  And we can work to build a new habit of replacing critical self-talk with warmth, flexibility and self-compassion.   


Using any of these three strategies will help you take the power away from these inner characters and return the power to you as you pursue your important lifestyle goals.  



Letting go vs Losing it 

 

I'm a big fan of Johnny Cash and once read this quote that was attributed to him: "You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space." I like it.


 Even though healthy indulgence is a flexible lifestyle that allows plenty of freedom, there has to be a line somewhere where you go from "letting go" to "losing it". A point where you've crossed from balanced indulgence to over-indulgence. I call that a lapse. One of the most important aspects of healthy indulgence is to keep lapses from becoming complete collapses. 


When we blow it, we have a tendency to say "What the hell" to ourselves and just give up completely. The "What the Hell Effect" as it's affectionately termed by psychologists, is particularly dangerous for people pursuing healthy indulgence. If indulgences trigger "What the hell", you've missed the point; the lifestyle won't work for you, and that would be a shame.  Indulgences can't be seen as violations; they have to be allowed. They need to be enthusiastically chosen and fully enjoyed as part of the lifestyle. 


 But when you do truly lose it, as you will, I recommend you follow Johnny's advice. See what you can learn from your lapse, forgive yourself, and move on. Return to healthfully balanced living. The capacity to forgive yourself builds on the skills I described above. Remember that you are not a slacker or a loser for being challenged and sometimes failing.  You are just human, so forgive yourself for being human. You'll be well served by learning to recognize your inner critic, and by offering yourself kindness and compassion. At the end of the day, I'm a practical person. If putting yourself down would help you make the most of this lifestyle and would improve the quality of your life, I would recommend it. But in reality, the only thing you accomplish when you put yourself down for lapses is to make more lapses likely, and to make yourself feel lousy.   


And Finally, a Little Willpower Wouldn't Hurt


Willpower - yuck! It doesn't sound like much fun at all. But it's important. Willpower is being in control of yourself and using that self-control to work toward a challenging goal. Even though people often say they don't have any willpower, the reality is that everyone has the potential for willpower.  Willpower is like a muscle; it just needs to be strengthened and exercised.  And guess what?  You've learned all the exercises.  The strategies I just shared with you are the exercises you need to build your willpower. Just like a good physical fitness routine involves training in strength, stamina and flexibility, the mindset skills and strategies I've laid out on this page offer a comprehensive mental fitness routine that will offer you the stamina, strength and flexibility of mind to enjoy healthy indulgence, and for that matter, to get the most out of whatever you choose to pursue as you experience the adventure of life. 


Disclaimer

The information offered on this website is for educational purposes and is not intended as any form of treatment. If you are experiencing distress or are having difficulty controlling your lifestyle habits, please contact a professional for support.