Here is a little philosophical breakdown of decision-making, and a way to look at solutions that might clarify the implications of choosing one thing over another. It might sound a little new-agey, a little hippied out, but really it has nothing to do with “energy,” “spirits,” or “the earth mother.” It’s just a way of thinking about things, and I’m still developing it.
Part of my job as a personal trainer is to help the client understand what a solution is. This is how I define a solution: an expression of a reaction to a problem that attempts to address the problem.
There are different types of solutions. One of the central premises of this article is that most bad habits are the result of stress and attempting to find solutions for stress. A chosen activity initially serves as possibly healthy or at least non-harmful outlet for stress, only to become a harmful habit that seems to be out of the client’s control.
As fitness professionals, we are trying to curb harmful behaviors that are often the result of stress, like stress-eating. In turn, our aim should be to help the client identify the root causes of stress in his life so that the stress itself, and the harmful behavior that arises from it, can be not only “dealt with” but eliminated. In order to do so, we must affirm the client’s feeling of control over his own life.
Seeing a solution as an “expression of a reaction” puts responsibility for the chosen solution solely on the client. When he’s stressed out, one possible solution is to exercise, while another is to eat something fun and unhealthy. Both are reactions to a problem (stress) in an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to address it in some way that alleviates it. That is, there is reasoning behind it.
Seeing decision-making in this way divests it of any intrinsic “rightness” or “wrongness” and attempts, instead, to assign a logical reasoning to his reaction, whether it is a potentially harmful reaction (like overeating to deal with stress) or a beneficial one (like exercising to deal with stress). It helps him cultivate a sense of conscious decision-making and in turn empowers him to decide in what way he wants to express his reactions to stress, or indeed any other problem.
He is also able to see how a chosen solution to a short-term problem interacts with a longer-term goal, which is the first step in helping him make better decisions overall.
There are two parts of any solution: the product, and the expression. These parts form the two main categories of solutions: positive/creative and negative/destructive.
The solution’s product is what the solution is intended to accomplish. The product is either positive or negative.
Positive: intended to produce SOMETHING; a concrete material result.
Negative: intended to GET RID of something; a deliberate absence of concrete material result.
The solution’s expression determines the manner in which the solution is implemented and reflects the way in which problems are viewed. The expression of the solution is either creative or destructive.
Creative expression: the active use of creative thinking to produce ways of dealing with the problem that further or maintain bigger-picture goals. Problems represent potential creative outlets. Dependent on a knowledge of alternatives.
Destructive expression: the passive reliance on habits which operate at the expense of bigger picture goals. Problems remove the capacity for creative thinking. Occurs when there seems to be no clear alternative.
Now, a note about all this: there is no value judgment implied by my use of the words “negative” and “destructive.” The terms are meant as purely descriptive. When a person removes unhealthy food from his house, that is a negative solution in that it is intended to produce the absence of something, but it is certainly not a bad one. The positive solution would be to obtain healthy food, which is the next step he should take.
Similarly, consuming low-quality proteins or sugars to recover from a workout could be described as destructive because doing so may not be in line with nutrition goals, even though the net effect of doing so may very well be beneficial, psychologically if not physically. The creative expression would have been to consume adequate protein throughout the day so that post-workout recovery is not necessary, or to seek out healthier, better alternative protein and carb sources. Again, this is the next step in the client’s progress.
In our complex lives, of course some negative and destructive solutions may be necessary and are okay. If a person thinks too much about what the perfect decision is, it’s easy to become paralyzed by fear of making the wrong choice. As in the two examples above, if a certain action helps the client progress ultimately, or stay the course, there is no need to be pessimistic and dismissive of these beneficial solutions.
Just the opposite: the negative/destructive solutions usually come first (“I’m not going to eat any candy today,” which is a negative solution), and the positive/creative solutions come later, when the client is actually becoming accustomed to a healthy lifestyle (“I’m going to eat fruit to deal with my sugar cravings,” which is a positive solution).
Essentially, this way of thinking about solutions is a tool for trainers, clients and people in general. It is not meant to serve as a strict be-all end-all perspective on the subject. Rather, it can help clarify the impact of our decision-making on our health and hone the skill of being solution-oriented.
So What Does This Mean To The Trainer?
It is the trainer’s job to provide the client with a knowledge of alternative means of dealing with problems. For example,
-Sugar craving? Your body wants sugar, so eat fruit!
-No motivation? It’s not the quality of your character! It’s the quality of your SLEEP! Get better sleep! And eat nutrient-rich food, not insulin-spiking empty calories!
-No time to exercise? Identify habits/routines that don’t help you (stopping at Starbucks in the morning, TV-watching, staring into space during lunch hour, and the like), and spend that time doing something that WILL help you!
-Don’t like broccoli? Let’s try cooking it differently! Or try a different green veggie!
Oddly enough, these alternatives are not common knowledge. They are generally not divined by extreme concentration, nor are they automatically understood by “good” people while “bad” people remain ignorant of them. They are simply learned and taught, like any other technique, and this is where the trainer comes in. Learning such simple alternatives allows the client to view a problem as a creative outlet, instead of relying on habits in the face of adversity, habits which can create more adversity by taking away his sense of control.
Stress and poor self-esteem are both caused by feelings of having no control, or helplessness. In order to reverse their effect, the client must be made to feel that he is not ruled by habits; rather, his decisions are his own and his life is under his control, if not all of it then at least aspects of it. It must be allowed to start somewhere, and that “somewhere” can be his habits.
Recognizing that stress-eating, or any other harmful habit, is a rational reaction to stress—and does indeed seem to help in the short-term, otherwise why do it?—is the first step towards cultivating the client’s understanding that he is in control, that the stress-eating is a habit that he continues to decide to engage in. His body is registering a strain, and he doing something in order to ease that strain. Makes sense to me.
The next step is identifying alternative solutions that replace his feelings of helplessness with feelings of empowerment, and that award him with results, both physical (like weight loss) and psychological (like feeling good about himself). This holistically ties the impact of his decision-making and his lifestyle to his overall physical health, which should be the goal of any fitness professional.
Thank you for reading!