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Mind and body

Look back then move ahead

Typically, New Year's resolutions are about looking forward and vowing to change for the better. • In our culture, many of us are told that it's best not to look back. Most likely this notion comes from the fact that we often experience guilt over past behavior. We tend to look for mistakes and judge ourselves harshly for making them. • However, looking back — without criticism and judgment — can be our best teacher. Psychologists help people learn to be more introspective, to look at their thoughts and feelings, in order to live life more successfully. They also help people take a detached look at their behaviors so that they can learn how to better handle similar situations in the future.

So, eager as we might be to look forward, our efforts likely won't meet with much success if we don't begin by looking back.

But fear and judgment can't be a part of this process. They will only kill the motivation we need to succeed.

I am an avid gardener, and so I know all about learning through my own mistakes. "Right plant, right place'' is the lesson good gardeners ultimately learn, but that is easier said than done.

A plant may not like the "perfect spot" you chose for it and you may have to move it around until it tells you where it "wants" to be. Or the plant may not flourish anywhere in your garden, and you must learn to live without that particular variety.

Whatever the challenge, successful gardeners go about this process with a scientific approach, not a judgmental one. We go with what works, not with what we only wish would work.

So it should be with New Year's resolutions. Look back calmly, gather information, accept what did and didn't work in the past, and intelligently use that data to plan the steps you will take in the upcoming year.

What would this look like with respect to health and fitness? Let's use my client Roger as an example.

Roger knew that his lifestyle had to change, because it had led to him becoming overweight and unfit. His laboratory results left a lot to be desired with his cholesterol and blood sugar results out of healthy ranges. He also complained of a stressful job, fatigue and a desire for more enjoyment in his life.

Roger told me he tried dieting many times with disappointing results throughout the years. He understood what he'd been doing wasn't working, and he needed a new approach.

We started slowly, increasing his activity gradually so it didn't feel like a burden either physically or, even more important, emotionally. We made similar changes to the quality of his food, including some short lessons on eating nutritiously with little to no cooking.

We periodically took inventory of his progress with behavior changes and, most importantly, in his thinking and attitude. This is important if the changes are going to be permanent.

At the end of the first year we did a more extensive inventory. Roger was doing a good job on nutrition and actually looked forward to his daily walk. But he wanted to build more muscle. So, the coming year's resolution was adding strength-building to his lifestyle, being careful to find enjoyable ways to do this.

Next came a resolution to change his habit of snacking while watching television. Building on his success at improving the quality of those snacks, he turned his attention to reducing the quantity.

Today, Roger is much leaner, fitter and healthier. But the biggest change in Roger has been that he now knows how to be his own teacher. He takes periodic, nonjudgmental inventories. At the end of the year comes a deeper inventory. He knows that learning and changing can be enjoyable and rewarding, and he intends to keep it up for the rest of his life.

Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send your questions to her at

Look back then move ahead 12/28/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 28, 2012 3:30am]
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