Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Elephant vs. the Rider and How to Change

I recently read a book about change that told the story of the elephant versus the rider. The elephant is our emotional side and has great influence over how we think and act. The rider is our rational, reasonable side. Our elephant and rider both need each other, but too often they're mired in conflict. Imagine for a second your rider trying to use reason to control your powerful elephant, who has its own emotional agenda. Probably 9 times out of 10 the elephant is going to win this battle--because often our emotions are the ultimate driver. But what if your rider were able to somehow convince your elephant to do as he/she commands in a way that both work harmoniously together? How would the rider do this? Well, he/she would need to appeal to the elephant's emotion in a way that convinces the elephant to do what's asked. In other words, there would need to be alignment between the rider's reason and the elephant's emotion. This is hard to achieve, but it's ultimately how positive change happens.

Change happens when you're emotionally and intellectually engaged.

Each of us knows, thanks to our internal rider, that we should eat healthy foods and exercise regularly. But too few of us actually live a healthy life because our elephant is constantly in control of our rider. The price we pay for giving into our elephant (emotions) is not only a constantly guilty conscience as we stand in the all-you-can-eat buffet line, but also excess weight, poor self-esteem and, eventually, chronic health problems. There is a great conflict here--the rider says "No!" to that third, fourth or fifth slice of pizza, and yet the elephant is begging for it. Too often we fall victim to the whims of the elephant, even as we know we're doing the wrong thing, and then are mired in guilt as our internal rider scolds us and makes us feel like a failure. It's a seemingly neverending cycle that just flat-out makes us feel like a failure.

Often, it's the dawn of a new year that temporarily motivates our rider, a la the "New Year's Resolution," to tell us to get off our butt, get to the gym and eat salad instead of that fat-slathered Philly cheesesteak hogie we've come to love. And for a while we actually walk the walk and see results. Those jeans fit better, we have more energy and, by golly, a lunchtime salad is indeed good stuff! But over time our elephant grows lazy and we lose emotional engagement in doing what we know is right. The cycle of guilt then restarts and there we are once again falling on the sofa instead of going for a run, and standing in line for that Philly cheesesteak--salad be damned.

Ah, the $60,000 question: How to keep our internal elephant and rider in constant harmony so that we can stay on the right course? That's a question only you can answer by first figuring out what motivates YOU. We're all motivated by different things:

Some people go to the gym and eat salads because they are motivated by the fear of poor health. They might have seen a loved one succumb to a heart attack, stroke or cancer--or struggle with joint problems because of excess weight--and are motivated to NOT let that happen to them by living a healthy life. Fear is a huge motivator.

Others might be motivated by shame/peer pressure. Everyone in their family or circle of friends is skinny and here they are struggling with their over-powering elephant who won't quit nagging them to eat that half-gallon of Ben & Jerry's. Or they may feel shame when they try to fit into their favorite pair of jeans but can't. So they exercise and try to eat right because they want to fit in and avoid shame.

Some are motivated by incentive. We've all met the dude who does 1,000 crunches a day and benches 300 pounds because he wants to be appealing. Making himself look better than the "competition" motivates him to work out and eat his Wheaties. It's as simple as that. Incentive can be virtuous, too. You run every day because you want to finish that marathon and feel the pride of completing 26.2 miles.

Then there are those who are naturally passionate about physical activity and, maybe by sheer luck of the draw, find greater pleasure in a good salad than an artery-clogging plate of fettuccine alfredo. These folks are motivated to work out and eat right just because it's in their nature--it's what makes them tick.

There are other motivators; those are just a few of the more common ones.

Me? I don't really "exercise." I run and race because I love it and I'm hardwired to do it (passion). I do make a conscious effort to eat the right foods, in part because eating right helps me perform and feel better (incentive). I'm also motivated by fear--fear of not having the stamina to finish a race and run somewhat competitively. And so I train hard because I'm scared of the feelings of failure and inadequacy.

I know there are many folks who read my blog who are struggling with their weight and trying to get their rider and elephant to work together. I know this because I get a lot of e-mails from folks asking for advice--e-mails that I feel honored to receive. If you're struggling with your weight and find that that your elephant is dominating your rider--to your own detriment--consider taking a good, hard look at yourself and figure out what motivates YOU. Is it shame? Maybe fear? Incentive? Something else? Figure out what motivates you and then come up with a plan to hold yourself accountable day in and day out. Maybe you can hold yourself accountable by announcing every morning on Facebook that you're going to the gym and then, later in the day, report back on how your workout went. Or you could find a workout and diet partner and hold each other accountable. Journaling also helps people hold themselves accountable.

So, here's your plan:
  1. Figure out what motivates you. We're all different. Whereas passion and incentive may motivate me, fear may be your biggest motivator. And that's OK. Allow the fear to motivate you every day and eventually you may find new motivators, like incentive.
  2. Hold yourself accountable. Accountability will keep you on track. Very little in life is achieved without accountability.
  3. Make the change now. Once you figure out what motivates you and how you can hold yourself accountable, get started and don't delay!
Just remember that true change comes when your rider and elephant act as one and see the benefits of teamwork.

1 comment:

  1. good post. I have made similar commentary in regards to what you do to train for a race 25 weeks away (making the sacrifices and training you need to do for that goal long down the road - aka the rider) versus just doing what you want to do today (run hard, some mountain, ignore some work out). Same song, slightly different beat.