False Hope Syndrome: What is it and how do you avoid it?

False Hope Syndrome is defined as unrealistic expectations of self change by J. Polivy. We’ve all experienced it. You’ve had it! You’re sick of this problem, whether it’s a bad habit or something that’s missing in your life and you are going to do something about it. You’re fired up, gung-ho and laying down the law. You are going to do what you need to do and that’s all there is to it. And then tomorrow rolls around. Or next week, if you’re really riled up. But now you’re all fizzled out and drained and just can’t lay down the law again. What happened?

As rational animals, we shine supremely at rationalizing whatever suites us at the moment. When you’re fed up and fired up, it’s easy to believe that we can continue riding that high right on into success. (Ah, if only…) When we feel so strongly about something, it’s nearly impossible to think that we will ever feel anything else. And the way we feel in that moment, we have all the motivation and drive we need to act. In believing we’ll continue to feel this same conviction, we also believe that changing our behavior will be as simple as 1, 2, 3.

Setting Realistic Expectations

The first step to setting yourself up for success is to align your goal and your expectations with your reality. How do you do that?

  1.  Cool, Calm and Collected – Avoid setting goals and detailing action plans during that initial ‘fired-up’ phase. This is the surest path to failure! This raw energy may serve you well for brainstorming. Then once you’re cool, calm and collected return to devise your ‘realistic’ action plan.
  2. Analyze Your Reasons – From this calm place, try to analyze why you want what you think you want. You read that correctly. Is this goal what you actually want or are you projecting? Are you really dieting for health or do you just want to wear a bathing suit without embarrassment? Be honest. If you try to wrap your real reason in shiny, gold paper, your setting up a classic case of False Hope Syndrome.
  3. Analyze Your Goal – Now move into objectively observing and trying on the ‘real’ goal. So you want to be swimsuit ready. You’ve come clean and recognized that health benefits are the icing on your pun-filled cake but not the true motivating factor. How will your goal realistically work into your life right now? Are there other factors you need to acknowledge? What will your new daily reality look like? What pitfalls can you foresee and what action plans do you have in place to deal with each? This step is a big one. And an ongoing one. As you move further through your objectives towards achieving your goal, it’s important to continually and objectively observe. Be open and honest and flexible.
  4. Question Everything – While I would offer this piece of advice about any and everything, in this case, I mean to question each objective repeatedly along the way. So your goal is to be swimsuit ready by June. Some objectives you’ve set may be to eat a salad at least once a day and to peruse healthy recipes weekly for inspiration. Will eating a salad a day ‘really’ move you toward your goal? It may if incorporated into a healthy, well balanced diet but not if it’s followed up by a dessert more caloric than the burger you’d otherwise have eaten. Will browsing healthy recipes move you toward your goal? It may if they keep you fired up and motivated and if you actually eat them. But it won’t if all you do is pursue. Perhaps, it’d be helpful here to redefine your objective. Rather than an ambiguous ‘weekly peruse healthy recipes’, your objective could be clarified as: ‘select one new healthy recipe a week to experiment with’. See the difference? And why continually questioning as you go along is so important?

Setting Yourself Up For Success

Following the above suggestions will help you avoid setting unrealistic expectations to begin with. Here are a few more pointers to keep in mind as you move through your process of change.

  1.  Internalize Your Successes – You accomplish what you accomplish because you’re that good! You have what it takes; you put your strengths to work for you; you kept your eye on the prize and worked hard for it. YOU did it!
  2. Externalize Your Flops – Set backs are a part of life. The encouraging part is that they are absolutely within our control. It starts with understanding how or why the set back happened. Then make adjustments as needed. Let’s say you’ve ordered that burger every day for lunch and have had nary a salad. Upon reflection, you realize you’ve gone out to lunch with the office skinny-minnies who are ordering burgers and spaghetti every day. Hmmm. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Don’t put yourself in a position of having to rely upon will power alone. That’s not fair. Instead, find a healthier eater to lunch with or even seek out a designated dieting buddy. Whatever the flop, understand why it happened and correct accordingly.
  3. Enlist Support – Back to that dieting buddy….Whether it’s a diet buddy at work, a supportive spouse, an encouraging friend, Mom emailing you recipes every day or even an online group, having a support system in place is crucial. As social animals, we can’t do it all alone. We need other’s perspectives and feedback and encouragement.
  4. Be Your Own Best Friend – Perhaps the single best thing you can do for yourself is to be your own best friend. Engage in  some mental role reversal. Your best friend (played by You), has set this goal and these objectives. Does the goal seem a good fit for him/her? Are there glaring aspects that have you scratching your head? Or maybe you see a far simpler path to the desired goal. Perhaps, your friend needs help seeing these things. What about when you’re friend flops? Do you berate her? Tell him how stupid and pathetic he is? Tell her to just give up? No? So don’t say those things to You either. Hear your friend telling you that you’ll do better next time; that you’ve made it this far and that you have what it takes to keep going.

 

False Hope Syndrome comes into play when we are so fired up, so excited that we become momentarily overconfident and overly optimistic. While I am a die-hard optimist, balance is the key. Take a step back and move forward from a place of true confidence and from a foundation of solid optimism.

I encourage you to reread last weeks post, ‘Goal Planning a.k.a. Cleaning House.’ The first two stages are where you really need to be aware of False Hope Syndrome. Too often we amp ourselves up during those planning stages but fizzle out quickly when it comes to execution. You know you’ve fallen for False Hope Syndrome when the action stage never sees much action. Don’t abandon your goal. Revisit it with the above filters to make it more specific to you and what you really want.

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Now that you have a working definition, can you think of a time you experienced False Hope Syndrome?