This past weekend, my mom and I took a mother-daughter trip to the Superbowl of pageantry, the Miss America pageant. It’s held every year in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which means that in addition to the lure of gambling, it’s also home to some of my most tempting vices. Namely, funnel cake, cupcakes, and gummy worms.
How much do I love gummy worms? A whole lot. I also love gummy bears, Dots, Mike and Ikes… you get the picture. It it’s pure sugar, fruit flavored, with zero nutritional value, it is for me.
Or, I guess I should say, it used to be for me.
This weekend I had a major aha moment, and it all centered around the It’sugar store right across from Caesar’s Palace.
After a very good forty-five minutes of playing Blackjack on the cheap-o tables at the Tropicana, I was up $30 and was looking to splurge (side note, I am great at Blackjack because I ALWAYS follow the rules and never bet enough to get emotional. If you want to always finish up, that’s the secret). My heart was set on a little plastic baggie full of sugary, gummy goodness.
So there I was, standing in front of It’sugar, and it hits me: eating gummy worms used to make me happy, but it’s not something that is ever going to make me happy long term. Sure, the dopamine spike is nice, but it doesn’t last. So, I could treat myself to the quick sugar hit, or I could save my money and spend it on something that would last a bit longer.
You guessed it: there were no gummy worms to be had.
My choice to not spend my money on my favorite gummies had little to do with willpower, but instead had to do with my recognizing that in that situation, and in every situation, I have a choice.
Earlier this year, I would combat a bad day, reward a workout, and treat myself with food. Gummy worms, French fries, slices of cake from Publix… it’s no wonder that I gained weight, and it’s quite honestly surprising that I didn’t gain more. I always chose the temporary high over my long-term goals because I characterized myself as someone who lacked willpower. Further, my poor decision almost always led to a whole day (or more) of poor eating decisions because I “had already screwed up.” But willpower is a self-construction, and can be so overwhelming when you’ve already determined that it is something you lack.
I have been a longtime student of Brian Tracy, and one of the most powerful mantras he shares is simple: “I am in control.” In every situation, no matter how bad it is, there is always something that you are in control of. You always have a choice, at the very least in how you react to your situation. Further, most of the time, the situation we are currently in is a direct results of other choices we’ve made.
Willpower is an overwhelming concept because it requires you to decide exactly what kind of person you are going to be and then make every choice in alignment with that concept. When you make a choice that contradicts the bigger picture, it’s easy to beat yourself up because it feels like you have failed.
Instead, it is much easier to look at each choice on an individual basis. Will I choose gummy worms or a non-sugar substitute? Will I choose to go to CrossFit or will I rest today? Will I choose to go to bed early or stay up late and wake up tired? Each time you make a positive choice that propels you towards your goals, you feel good. In this way, taking on life choice by choice builds you up because it gives you the feeling that you are constantly succeeding.
Both views will get you to your goals, but approaching each situation like you are in control and have a choice builds your self esteem through little successes along the way.
On Sunday afternoon, I chose to buy new (all-natural, fancy-pants, expensive) soap. Not because I dislike gummy worms, but because I am happier now than I ever was eating junk food every day. Because sugar-induced dopamine spikes trick you into thinking that you can eat your way happy, when in reality, true happiness stems from feeling empowered, unstoppable, and in control.
Today, you might be so far from your goals that you can’t even envision what it will look like once you hit them. That’s okay – everyone starts somewhere. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow to make a change, you can start with your very next choice.