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The real reason your unhealthy habits keep winning

When you woke up this morning, you were pumped to start the day so you could dust off the healthy habits you’ve been putting off for… well, your entire existence. In no time, you’re on a roll: You eat the calorie-equivalent of air for breakfast, take an hour to complete a 15-minute yoga routine, and even order a green tea instead of your usual bucket of coffee. But then, it happens…

The box of cookies you left in your office taunts you and says it won’t leave you alone until you eat one (or, it could’ve been your conscience, same diff). So, you eat one. You end up feeling so pathetic (“You can’t even be healthy for eight hours?!”) that your guilt pushes you to eat a second cookie and a third, until you pull a Cookie Monster and practically devour the wrapping.

“We are such a perfectionistic society, we think in ‘all-or-nothing’ terms,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Steps to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “When we do something we wish we hadn’t, we beat ourselves up mentally. As our distress (guilt, shame, anger, helplessness) increases, we think, ‘Well, I already screwed up, so I might as well eat another one (or skip another workout).'”

According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, practicing self-acceptance may be the best way to boost our self-worth and avoid self-destructive behaviors… like pastries. “By practicing self-acceptance, you stop engaging with the judgment spiral, which allows you to get back on track to becoming a healthier and happier you,” says Lombardo.

The study’s authors completed five different experiments, all of which confirmed that practicing self-acceptance helps reduce a person’s likelihood of self-destructing, and increases their chances of improving within the areas where they fall short (“Me like cookies!”).

For example, in one study, participants read about the concept of self-acceptance and were then asked to choose between a luxury magazine or the book Persuasion and Influence for Dummies. As the study’s authors predicted, participants were more likely to choose the book over the magazine, proving their desire to improve their overall well-being.

So how might this concept translate after your unsuccessful face-off with the bag of Oreos? “Putting self-acceptance into reality is not easy for most, as most of us are our own worst enemies,” says psychologist Nicole McCance, M.A. “It takes practice and reminding yourself in the moment, before you eat the box of cookies, that part of the process of reaching any goal is having failures along the way.”

Here are tips to get the ball rolling, courtesy of McCance:

1. Cut yourself some slack

Notice how hard you’ve tried and acknowledge your successes. You may have caved by early afternoon, but be proud of the healthy morning you had — and repeat it tomorrow.

2. Nurture yourself

Be as nurturing to yourself as you are to others, and you’ll notice the urge to sabotage will decrease. In fact, what would you say to one of your friends if they came to you about the affair they just had with an ice cream cake? Then say it to yourself.

3. Accept your imperfections

Part of being human is making mistakes. Period.

4. Don’t punish yourself

Learn from your mistakes and keep trying. Eventually, your healthy habits won’t feel like work anymore.

5. Let it go

Don’t collect your shortcomings. Simply acknowledge there are things you need to work on, trust that you’ll get to them, and move on with your intended goals.

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