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The Ego Trap is a concept by Dr. Doug Lisle and is a partner in crime by the pleasure trap and usually goes hand in hand with it. Understanding the dynamics behind it will help you to fix not only the food issues in terms of healthy eating and weight loss but also the psychological dynamics behind it.
When we are up to something challenging in life, our ego gets in the way. Any version of the ego trap is a situation where the expectations others have towards us are higher than you actually have for yourself. A classic example of this is when you communicate to your environment that you are making a dietary change to lose weight.
Now everyone expects that you can do it, because hey, it can’t be that hard to lose weight, right? But unfortunately, the majority of people don’t know, no matter how slim they are, that we are all in the pleasure trap. The modern food we eat is too calorie-dense for us and impossible to moderate. Even if the majority thinks to do so. A lot of people – naturally slim – are so not because they are disciplined, but because they have the genetics and are equipped with a much more sensitive satiety mechanism, which signals them earlier to be satisfied after eaten a certain amount of food. And yet, they too cannot resist the majority of western food.
Satiety is a very natural mechanism, if you try to control it, it is like trying to portion breathing. But achieving natural satiety only works if we eat what is right for us. Most of our modern food is not. But very few people know that, and that’s why we’re all in the pleasure trap. Now that those around you know about your new venture, you stand in an arena where everyone is watching you and all of your slip-ups.
These people either have a high opinion of you and/or think it can be done easily after all, but your expectations are more realistic and below that. Since humans have lived in small groups (20-200 people) for millions of years, it is extremely important to them what their environment thinks of them and/or what appreciation signals they receive from them.
If you don’t make it, you feel very bad because it comes with a loss of status. If you don’t do your best, you can’t be criticized. Therefore, it makes sense for your nervous system to not try to maintain the persisting status. That’s why many don’t lose weight or try to eat healthy. They set the goal too high. This is a classic example of the ego trap. Projects in life are doomed to fail if we set the goal too high, such as: “I’ll never eat junk food again.”
How does motivation works in weight loss?
It works through a cost-benefit analysis in our minds. This is designed by nature not to try something challenging first. Because if you don’t try something, you have nothing to lose. By the way, the ego trap does not only apply to losing weight but in all areas of life.
Many parents with good intentions are unconsciously catapulting their children into an ego trap, for example when they shower their offspring with compliments about how great they are and how they will become the next Beethoven or the next Einstein. And to top it off, the parents tell everyone they know how smart their offspring is. This is a classic case of the ego trap. The expectations placed on the child are unrealistically high, and the child knows it. He knows very well that he is not the next Mozart and that his own ability is well below that.
The result: the child learns the musical instrument only half-heartedly or for an upcoming exam, etc., because it feels it cannot meet the expectations.
Parents and friends mean well when they praise you highly, but unfortunately, it is often the wrong tactic to motivate us to start something challenging or difficult. The result: you start several times, only to quit again because you never live up to the expectations.
This is a classic case for procrastination. Someone – dead or alive – gave us the signal to get XY done, but we only got 80% of it done because 80% is the limit of our personal abilities. Your intuition tells you that you can only get it done under the expectation of others. This puts us in a motivation trap. Because your possibility is below the expectation. You lose status because of that and it hurts!
Status and esteem – another word for ego
“That was good for my ego” or “that was not good for my ego.” Ego is the word we use when we receive appreciation or status feedback from others. Ego is just another word for it. For this reason, our instinct signals us not to start a certain goal when to bar is set too high.
Examples when we use the word ego but status/esteem is meant: You applied for five jobs and only got rejections. You tell your friends and say, “That really hurt my ego.” The school crush, all the girls are into him, flirts with Susi and she tells her friends, “Ladies, that was good for my ego.”
The conventional and common recommendations are unrealistic when it comes to losing weight. There is something else important to consider here. Alcohol, cigarettes, and our modern food are so stimulating that it is very difficult to get rid of them. You are not only in the ego trap but also in the pleasure trap. Losing weight in itself is already a difficult undertaking and with the additional pleasure trap even more. When we aspire for something higher, it is because we want status signals from others. This is a subconscious process that you are not aware of when you want to lose weight, for example.
A helpful strategy for your weight loss motivation
Instead of aiming for 100%, it is more helpful to aim for 80%. Create daily micro-goals. The “Starch Targets” by Dr. Doug Lisle are a useful tool for this. You try to check off 80% of these small goals every day.
Set the bar somewhere between low and too high
When we think we can gain more status or esteem from others by trying to start something, and even if we don’t succeed, we feel we don’t lose much in the process. This is a perfect situation where we get very excited about the prospect. The best approach in this situation is not to tell your environment that you want to lose weight. If they ask you because, for example, they notice your new diet, say that you are trying something new and see how it goes.
This way, you don’t set the bar high, and those around you don’t have any expectations of you, because you’re signaling from the start that you might not make it. But it’s a boost for your motivation, because what do you have to lose?
The internal audience, a driver for motivation when losing weight
Each of us has a kind of internal audience. You know the inner voice, for example, when you have to study for an exam and instead of studying for four hours you only studied for two, this inner voice turns on and you know exactly that you did a lousy performance. Or that great feeling when you accomplished your morning workout routine and the inner voice tells you, “Well done!”. That inner voice is a fair mechanism. It reflects exactly what you’re doing. If you did a great job at whatever, you get positive feedback from your internal audience, and if you did a bad job, you get bad feedback. These trophies from your internal audience don’t come for free. Say, as it is often made believe in many motivational coachings and seminars à la Tonny Robbins. You can’t trick your internal audience. This mechanism is dynamic and not considered in most of today’s psychology.
Other examples of the internal audience
Do you know this feeling, for example, when you are doing something, singing, or doing something good for others, and you imagine how you get positive feedback from very specific people for that?
You catch yourself doing it and sometimes even feel embarrassed that you have such motives, but that’s exactly what your inner voice is. It craves appreciation ;-).
Whether it’s real or not, your inner voice doesn’t care. Because we are social creatures, we desire positive feedback from those around us. That’s what makes us happy. Another example is the feeling when your apartment is messy and you feel great about it when you’ve tidied up, even though you’re not expecting guests the next few days? This is the inner voice sending you positive feedback regarding your tidying up. It imagined what it would be like if others saw your mess and motivated you to clean up.
Of course, this all happens subconsciously. Even if you haven’t lost 10 pounds after a week, but you’ve accomplished 80% of your goals, your internal audience will signal positive feedback. That feels great and that’s the key to what motivates you to keep going. So instead of relying on feedback from others to motivate you, be more sensitive to feedback from your internal audience.
Shift your focus from how much appreciation you get from the outside regarding your goal to how much appreciation you get from your internal audience.
Side note: Few people know that you can only lose around 50 grams of fat per day. Everything else is just water or stool. Losing weight is a marathon, not a sprint! Do you know what can actually be helpful in terms of healthy eating? You plan for failure. This will be different for everyone because everyone has a different starting point.
However, it’s also important not to set your goal too low or you won’t achieve your maximum success. Relapse is part of the recovery is a famous quote by Alcoholics Anonymous and according to Dr. Jen Howk also applicable in terms of healthy eating.
As once said by the famous basketball coach John Wooden, “Focus on the process and not the outcome. We don’t care about winning, because success comes from knowing you did the best you could.” Or as Daniel Coyle says, “If you want to learn new things, you have to love making mistakes.”
Feel free to contact me if you need help with this.
Dr. Doug Lisle on the Ego Trap: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCVGtK85WBw
Beat Your Genes Podcast – Episode 161: Explaining the Ego Trap 1 of 2