Uprooting the Shame & Surveillance of Behavior Change: The Wellness Check

Glass of water on table


I want to drink more water daily. I know water impacts my migraines. If I drink a minimum amount of liquid daily, plus take my daily medication, my brain does okay. But if I get dehydrated, my brain will stop working, sometimes mid-sentence, and I feel miserable for an afternoon – or even a few days if I miss taking further medication. A steady stream of water makes my life more manageable and enjoyable on many fronts. 

There’s really no downside to drinking more water, beyond getting up to pee a couple of extra times during the day. The only problem is that I have to learn how to get up and pour myself a drink regularly, and actually take the sips to put it in my body. 

It sounds simple, but it doesn’t feel easy. What gets in the way of making this change?

Like many humans, I seek ways to change my behavior, to cultivate a style, to grow into new identities, or to stop doing something that is causing harm to myself or others. I want to drink more water. I want to be kinder to my loved ones when we’re in conflict. I want to plant tomatoes in my garden this year, at a time when they will benefit from the environment. I want to be a better friend who values community building. This feels like a desirable part of my self-accountability practice, a place where I want to “take responsibility for my choices and the consequences of those choices.” This core definition of accountability from Shannon Perez-Darby (via The Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse) offers a practice for tracking how I show up in the world, what impact I have, and how I can keep lining up with my values, interests, and desires.

Yet, I can come up with a long list of things I want to change about myself, and it’s not simple to just snap my fingers and just make those changes happen. Even behaviors with a lot of clear pros and few cons (like increasing the amount of water I drink) – I often start on a good path toward change. It feels energizing to track what I am up to, and interesting to make tweaks in what I am doing to move toward change. 

There are all kinds of ‘reasonable’ suggestions to support my aim to drink more water: Set a goal. Pick a time of day and stick with it. Time it with other easy habits like brushing your teeth. Track your progress. Find a buddy. When it’s hard, be kind but also steady with yourself. Yet after a few days there is a lot of resistance from me around any of these strategies. Tracking feels like surveillance, and I start to wonder if my ‘buddy’ is just around in order to judge me as failing, bad, and liable for punishment. Any goals I’ve set feel suspect, like something that I’ve likely done to harm myself rather than care for myself.

There’s part of me that treasures that resistance, as it’s the resistance that said “FUCK YOU” to forced dieting. I value my resistance to the many habitual pressures of behavior change, because of the harm that’s been heaped on me from forced dieting.

For anyone who has been shamed around behavior change, this reaction might be familiar! These are all landmines that get us tripped up in our internalized self-judgment that we are ultimately bad people who can’t do the work to make ourselves right. Internalized oppression shames us into thinking we can manage the harms of systemic oppression: fat people can diet and exercise our way into a thinner, sexier, ‘better’ body; queers can choose to abstain from ‘sinful’ sexual behavior; choices toward assimilation are desirable for BIPOC, trans folks, and working class/poor folks; sick and disabled people can ‘fix’ our bodies.

When we live in a body that gets regularly shamed toward changing ourselves – toward the promise of being ‘normal,’ included and not outcast – the feelings around behavior change become fraught. We are both regularly shamed into changing our behaviors – and even when we succeed in changing our behaviors, the promise is rarely delivered. Because this promise of ‘normal’ and inclusion is a false promise. For things like dieting and exercise, the behavior changes are a scam to think they even lead to a thin body. And we can be ‘proper’ or assimilated all we want, but we will still be judged.

So then, ugh. We’ve been through the cycles of behavior change around behaviors that are about shaming your personhood. Can we even touch any other kind of behavior change after that?

And yet, when I throw out all my behavior change efforts as toxic, I’m left with stuck versions of myself that feel immature and even harmful. I would still like to drink some more water, dammit. And that’s not the oppressors’ demands, that’s my own body talking. 

Enter the Wellness Check

In 2020, I read a meandering article in the Atlantic about setting some daily check-ins about how you were doing. 

Not your usual checklist, self-help article, but a story about connecting with a researcher who had studied how to change behavior in humbly small but lasting ways.

With my permanent scars from diet culture, I can have such a love / hate relationship with the practices of behavior change. I am always seeking new adaptations that feel good for my body / mind.

I sent the article to a friend, who was also in a period of transition and change, and asked, “Do you have any interest in doing this with me? It’s basically coming up with a daily checklist of questions to see how you are doing. I feel like I start things like this and stop after 3 days, so am looking for a buddy!” 

My buddy said yes, and we’ve been at this daily practice for almost two years. What’s different about this than anything else I’ve tried?

What works here is not about any magical decisions we made. If you copy us directly, you are (probably) doomed to fall into the same patterns of resistance as when you follow any other guidance on behavior change. The magic of Wellness Check is not about what my friend and I decided to do. Instead, it’s about how we learned to approach behavior change at a meta-level, learning what works and doesn’t work, and continuing to adjust accordingly. 

Getting Started

I’m going to share our process, but before I even get started, I want to say that on every decision we’ve made, your mileage may vary. In some places, what worked for us will be a terrible idea for you. The particular harms of shame around behavior change will impact you in different ways. 

My buddy and I already chat on the phone, so we discussed this idea of a Wellness Check on our next call. Do we want to do it? What would we find easy and hard about it? What would help us get started and stay connected? How can it fit into existing communication and relationship, and support it to grow? 

We both like a good spreadsheet, so we started a Google Spreadsheet, each with our own tab where we can keep simple notes on how we are doing each day across goals. On our individual tab, we have a column for each day to check in. And for each row, we have a question to check in on.

Especially at the beginning, I set a reasonable goal, and then made it even easier. This helped me put the bulk of my attention on working through my sticky relationship with behavior change. I sometimes start by tracking something where I know I will already score some points. Instead of failing, I can start by noticing how I am already on the right track, and my focus is on the adjustments I can make to improve. To get started, I have found it less important to make any actual changes in my behaviors. What’s most important is getting to know how I am relating to this particular goal. What do I need to stay curious, interested, and engaged? Once I have made some adjustments, I can increase the stretch on my goals.

When I first started, I dithered about whether to take daily notes with a numeric assessment. While it would keep things simple, I worried that scoring myself between 0 and 100 on goals like ‘Did I have lunch today?’ or ‘Did I engage in morning healing practices?’ would only trigger the weird patterns of judgment and surveillance that are burned into my brain from a childhood of dieting. Even after two decades of not dieting, my brain still grabs on to  opportunities to judge ‘Am I bad?’ While I have found numbers to work for some goals, for anything consumption related I have found it helpful to include word-based categories as my focus. For instance, I loosely keep track of my current goal of ‘Did I hydrate today?’ through the ounces of liquid that I drink. Then I have 5 categories that help me feel accomplished to certain levels: Dry, Damp, Moist, Lush, and Juicy. If I make it to Moist, I know I’m doing okay, though Lush and Juicy are goals I’m stretching to! This is definitely a place where your mileage may vary on what will work best for you on different questions.

To keep us excited about the daily entries, we have tied this to something we really enjoy, which is a daily tarot card reading. We see what the other’s cards are for the day, and often comment more about that than anything else. It helps us connect our daily reflection on habit change with pleasure and joy, learning and fun. 

The Buddy System: Coaches Not Cops

I found a buddy to be essential to cutting through the narratives in my head. When something in the process isn’t working, even in a small way, I could name and process it with my buddy, and make an adjustment toward behavior change that felt more possible and alive. Sometimes this meant scrapping whole goals for something more workable and meaningful, and it was helpful to have a buddy cheering me on.

While finding new ways to track my self-assessment has been important for interrupting my auto-judging mind, finding a buddy who was interested to help interrupt my inner judgment was essential. For me, having this as a peer coaching relationship, rather than a professional therapist or coach, is an important part of retraining how my brain wants to show up around friends and family, not just people who I am ‘paying’ to get it with me. My friend is seeking behavior change around his own five goals, and he has his own hang ups around what it means to be tracking his progress, mistakes, and learning in front of another person. As we set up our Wellness Checks, we had several conversations about what we did and did not want in terms of ‘checking in’ with each other. For us (and your mileage may vary), we did want the other person to be regularly looking at our tab to see how we were doing, to read the notes we were writing to ourselves. We did want to talk periodically about how we felt about Wellness Check – was it working for us as individuals and as a duo? What did we want to adapt? 

We were both sensitive to being judged by the other for making mistakes or doing a bad job on our goals or on the project overall. Thus, we really set ourselves as ‘coaches’ for each other in this work, with our coach role set at this meta-level of supporting the other person to use the Wellness Check in a way that worked for them — including ending if it was no longer working. It was useful to put aside any sense of attachment to any of the outcomes of goals set by the other person. This was sometimes hard around goals we really wanted to see our friend succeed in to see each other do well in our lives! But our focus was on being a listening ear to just ask ‘How are you responding to the Wellness Check? How could you improve it so it supports you better in your goals? Are your goals even the right goals anymore?’ This coaching role was key in retraining my mind out of ‘Am I doing this right or wrong? Am I bad or good here?’ into ‘How can I strengthen my capacity to make choices toward my own values and goals?’ This retraining in self-accountability practice is necessary for abolition and transformative justice work that asks us to shift out of judgment toward building our capacity for our own choices.

This collaborative coaching helped shift us out of a ‘willpower’ mindset toward behavior change, where success is about sticking to goals and strategies no matter what. Instead, our first approach was kindness and compassion, with interest, excitement, curiosity, and openness. What is it like to move toward change, not in an effort to ‘be good’ but for my own pleasure, satisfaction, and freedom? What is it like to shift my relationship to my own resistance, letting it serve as information that a small adjustment would likely improve things, rather pushing through with the bad boundaries of willpower? The intent here is not to avoid steadiness as I work toward goals, but to dismantle and rebuild what that steadiness is driven by. Ultimately, what if it is all driven by kindness and alignment with what I need?


Photo by Yasuo Takeuchi on Unsplash

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