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Who Is Driving Your Health and Wellness?

Posted: 07/07/10 03:28 PM ET

As a student of how people change, I think often about an interesting conundrum, particularly as it relates to people choosing to be or not to be in the driver's seat, living a life that supports health and well-being.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, professors at the University of Rochester and developers of Self-Determination Theory, the most respected theory of human motivation, have shown that thriving results from satisfying three motivational drives: the desire to be autonomous: to make choices that are true to one's core, not imposed by others or one's inner critic; to be competent: using one's strengths and becoming skilled in life tasks; and to be connected: doing things that support others. These core drives are alive in us when it comes to taking good care of our mental and physical health, but for many people they seem to get buried and hidden from light.

There are some people like me for whom health, fitness and self-care are non-negotiable; we discovered at some point that we are not sane, creative, productive or resilient otherwise. Or at least we would be operating well below the level we want to live with. So we invented and mastered a lifestyle that puts us in the driver's seat. We built and sustain the energy and strength to handle whatever life throws our way.

Yet we live in a world where many people allow others to be in the driver's seat when it comes to managing their own health. My doctor is in charge; my genes are in charge; the experts and their prescriptions are in charge (e.g. nutrition, weight, fitness, meditation); my wife makes the health decisions; my job is in charge -- you get the picture. Someone or something else is in the driver's seat. People accept being in the passenger seat. Even worse, some sit in the back seat when it comes to taking good care of their mental and physical health.

What Deci and Ryan have taught us is that when we evolve under the control of others, such as doctors, experts, parents, workplace cultures, spouses or even our children telling us what to do -- sometimes in a smarty-pants tone -- we may miss out on the self-reflection and discovery needed to tap into our inborn drive to want to do what is best for us, and to discover the ideal formula to take us beyond surviving to thriving.

So we may either comply -- do what others say is good for us, such as taking our meds or eating broccoli -- or we defy, by resisting the request or advice. "You're not the boss of me" a colleague once shared as an example of his knee-jerk reaction as a child to someone in charge. When other people or external forces are in the driver's seat, failure is likely when people are trying to lose weight, get fit, or adopt any new habit.

Slightly better than being driven by other people or cultures to comply or defy, we may be driven by a negative belief we've constructed about ourselves. "I am a loser or a failure or inadequate because I can't lose weight, stay on a fitness routine, meditate longer than a few nanoseconds, or avoid doughnuts when they are put on a plate in front of me." Our inner critics are in the driver's seat. This kind of motivation, which sounds like "I should walk five days a week because that's what the experts say," is better than the knee-jerk reaction to the person in charge, but is still unstable.

I ask coaching clients to leave behind "shoulding" themselves because it's also not reliable. It evidences that they've swallowed the judgment of the experts whole, without digestion (to quote Fritz Pearls). Undigested external judgment shows up as one's inner critic. People have not done the homework needed to discover what works best for them nor let go of the negative self-talk. New motivational possibilities abound.

I encourage clients to act as though they are in the driver's seat. Be the boss who solicits advice from the experts, then experiments, reflects, adjusts and experiments again to arrive ultimately at the best choice for you: "I want to walk three days a week because I can fit it in (the five days recommended by my trainer is too much). I'm more relaxed and that helps me be more present and productive at work and home. I don't want to miss the benefits of my walks and I have backup strategies in place."

Getting into the driver's seat and figuring out what works for us as unique individuals, such that it becomes part of who we are and becomes non-negotiable, is the only way to drive when it comes to one's personal health. I learned a deep appreciation for the great diversity of genes and environments determining personal health in my many years working in the biotech industry. Expert recommendations and guidelines are valuable to take into account. However, they are based on hypotheses, probabilities, statistics, and uncertainties. They assume that we are all average and sit nicely in the middle of the bell curve. I don't think so. I'm in the driver's seat.

How about you? The long days of summer are a perfect time to get behind the wheel.

 

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