- Shame Is Not An Effective Weight Loss Strategy
- Shame and Fear Based Motivations To Lose Weight Don’t Work
- How Shame and Pressure To Lose Weight Can Backfire & Make You Gain Weight
- Exercise Isn’t Always A Healthy Weight Loss Solution If Motivation Is Not Balanced
- Weight Loss Requires A Different Approach To Be Successful Long Term
- The Key to Weight Loss Is Mastery- The Key To Mastery Is A Focus On The Process Not The Results
Shame Is Not An Effective Weight Loss Strategy
Unfortunately, many of us use shame, low self-esteem and disgust with what we perceive as a negative body image as the engine that drives us to lose weight. It’s a weight loss strategy implemented by both the obese and those with rippling abs and ultra-tight bodies, as being in physically great shape does not make you immune to the disease of being propelled to the gym out of a sense of real and tangible revulsion for having a body that you believe should be better. The ranks of the misery driven rise at the beginning of every New Year as millions of us take stock of what we see in the mirror and are so ashamed and uncomfortable with the reflection that it drives us to make resolutions to lose weight, eat better and exercise more. Sadly, we can plot on a graph with unerring precision that most will fail in their attempts after a few weeks or a few months of strict dieting and increased bouts of whatever form of exercise is most popular or convenient at the time. Most will lose some weight, as temporary weight loss is like quitting smoking— people do it every day— but keeping it off is another story altogether as the results are usually fleeting and the lost weight creeps back on over time.1,2 For most of us, weight loss is an exercise in hope followed by misery and abject frustration. A cycle that brings to mind the myth of Sisyphus, who was cursed to labor from dawn to dusk pushing a heavy boulder up a mercilessly steep hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom of the hill at days’ end. There are many physical reasons why people gain and regain weight, excessive energy consumption, erratic sleep patterns, genetics, food timing and perhaps even environmental factors which have been addressed here on the blog on numerous occasions. But what is not often addressed is the role that shame, low self-esteem and guilt can play in making long term weight loss all but impossible, as a weight loss strategy based on being ashamed of what you look like often backfires and makes you more likely to fail. In this article we will look at the roles shame and external pressures from family, friends, co-workers, the media and medical community can make weight loss failure almost inevitable and explore some tried and true methods to break out of its chains.
Shame and Fear Based Motivations To Lose Weight Don’t Work
Think of how you felt the last time you were disgusted or truly ashamed about the way you look. It isn’t hard for most of us who aren’t iconic specimens of robust health to find a recent episode where you felt that way in a world where being overweight is associated with laziness, lack of self-control, increased risk of metabolic disease and is ironically considered to be unattractive even though as many as two out of three adult Americans are overweight or obese.3 We are constantly bombarded by images and messages about the ravages being overweight and it’s links to heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and depression, not to mention the social pressure to be thin, fit and in shape. Some pressure is well meaning as public health and wellness campaigns frequently use gruesome images and shock value type messages with the intention of scaring us into action. The weight loss and fitness industries use similar tactics, albeit with less altruistic intentions, as weight loss and fitness product commercials are filled with the images of svelte, well-muscled bodies strategically placed to make you feel badly about yourself if you are one of the hundreds of millions of Americans who don’t fit such a stellar physical description. While public health campaigns try to motivate us to eat better and exercise more by building fear, the fitness industry works is a bit more insidious as their marketing strategy is designed to make you take action after feeling a sense of shame and realizing how far away from the “dream body” you really are.
Friends, family and colleagues can also add to the pressure by pointing out your need to lose weight, or from snide remarks about how you look. Regardless of whether the comments are well meaning, a genuine expression of concern or a purposefully hurtful statement, it can make you feel ashamed and uncomfortable in your skin. In response internalizing these pressures— either of your own making or from others and your environment, you respond at some point by trying to exercise and eat as best as you can. You might try a new diet or fitness DVD, take some classes, get an activity monitor, join a gym or take up running and quite often lose a few pounds in the process. But as motivating as these pressures may appear on the surface, in the end it can lock you into a structure where regaining the weight is almost inevitable.
How Shame and Pressure To Lose Weight Can Backfire & Make You Gain Weight
When you feel uncomfortable it is human nature for to us to try to remove or lessen the intensity of the discomfort. If you are outside and it starts raining heavily, you will tend to look for a spot where you can be as dry as possible, or open an umbrella if you have one. If it’s cold outside you will tend to spend more time indoors where it is warm as it is natural for all of us to find a way where discomfort is minimized or removed completely. This inherent inclination to seek the path towards the least discomfort is one that comes in play in almost all the everyday decisions of our lives whether we are aware of it or not. When I was younger, I remember during one of my wilderness tracking classes that my teacher seemed to have the seemingly superhuman ability to find people in the rainforest without even having to look for tracks. As time went on I learned that it wasn’t anything supernatural but a keen observation of the geography in front of you, as people always take the path of least resistance and by simply scouting the terrain you can tell where people (and animals) are most likely to be. It’s a skill that all good hunters possess as they can quickly determine exactly where game is most likely to be and most likely to travel as all animals (humans included) without always being fully conscious of it, make a series of small decisions to avoid or minimize discomfort while moving based on the terrain. Taking routes that present the least physical challenge by gravitating towards paths that go down over those that go up and choosing well-worn routes rather than going through the effort of creating new ones.
There is nothing novel or revolutionary about our everyday choices and we all to some degree can understand and see them enacted throughout the course of our daily lives. What is not self-evident is how this system plays out on an emotional level, and how it can create situations that lead to long term failure. Here is a clear weight loss related example: If you are overweight, you might not be very happy about how you look and how you feel. That unhappiness and sense of shame is often a sad fact of life that over time you just learned to live with— until one day the inner pain and turmoil reaches a point that becomes unbearable and you decide that you need to make a change. The proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back” can be of either an internal or external nature. A day where you simply woke up feeling especially disgusted with yourself. A snide comment or situation where you were especially embarrassed about how you look. An “obesity-equals-early-death” doom and gloom message you may have heard or seen. A physician’s warning that you need to lose weight or else. An inspiring photo of someone with the body you would like to have. Or perhaps it was a product, fitness related ad, article or infomercial that made you look inward and decide that you could not continue to live as you have and that it was time to make a change. Regardless of the origin of the stimulus- you feel compelled to take some steps towards changing your life as the shame and discomfort of not being where you would like to be has become intolerable. Thus resolved and resolute, you begin the work to make that change a reality.
Sounds good so far, and it is the experience of most people who have tried to lose weight at some point in their lives— but as effective as it may seem, it can be a proven formula for failure. Think about it for a minute— if this approach actually worked then why do we see dismal long term weight loss success figures in studies ranging from 2-5%?1,2 It’s the driving force behind almost all initial weight loss endeavors, but if such a path was indeed the road to success we would not have a population struggling to lose weight. The reason why this approach fails isn’t readily obvious— but a careful analysis of this way of thinking does reveal some potential problems. You see, when you start your program to lose weight by exercising, eating better or both, you are with every healthy bite and trip to the gym, lessening the feeling of discomfort that came from the shame that compelled you to start the process in the first place. As time goes on and you see the numbers on the scale go down, and are fitting into clothes you haven’t fit into in a long time, you no longer have as intense a drive motivating you to make the almost insurmountable sacrifices needed to keep you going forward. The more weight you lose and the better you feel about yourself, the harder it gets to keep eating well, as you now start thinking that you can slack off a bit here and there and give yourself a reward from time to time for your achievements. This, unfortunately, is precisely the point where you will naturally begin to relax and fall back into your old habits. Habits which alleviate the other discomfort of exercise, being hungry and/or still having a craving for foods that you should not be eating. How this relapse is justified is of little consequence— what is significant is that it usually happens— switching your focus from trying to alleviate the discomfort and shame of not being in shape to the increasing discomfort of not being able to eat what you used to enjoy and the incredible peer and social pressures that come with not eating the way everyone else does. Thus, the path of least resistance is to return to old eating and lifestyle habits, which slowly and stealthily undo all the hard work and dedication you did in the first place. That is until tension builds up again to the point where the shame and discomfort of being out of shape outweighs the discomfort of not eating as you wish and the yo-yo cycle of weight loss and weight gain begins anew.
Exercise Isn’t Always A Healthy Weight Loss Solution If Motivation Is Not Balanced
In an interesting twist, some maintain some form of exercise as a bleed valve that serves to continually reduce tension caused by not being shape or from indulging in behaviors that are not conducive to health or their weight loss goals. In some people, exercise actually increases the likelihood of unhealthy lifestyle choices— a factor that is quite apparent given the number of individuals who manifest symptoms of exercise addiction. (Read my article on exercise addiction here.) Sadly, as good as exercise may be, in some instances it only locks the individual into a structure where long term success and freedom from the torture of a negative self-image is unlikely. This structure, in addition to the physiological and emotional obstacles to losing weight, goes a long way in crippling your long term success. It’s a structure that shapes the lives of not only regular people trying to get into better shape by losing some extra pounds, but elite athletes, bodybuilders, bikini and figure competitors as well. For example, most physique competitors have no problem getting into shape for a show as the pressure and potential shame and embarrassment of not being in shape onstage wearing as little clothing as possible can be a powerful motivating factor to make someone stick to an ultra-strict diet and intense training program. However, having relieved the tension of not being in great shape for the show by achieving their goal of a lowered body fat percentage, it sets the stage for movement in the polar opposite direction. Without the driving force to be your best onstage pushing you to stay on your diet and train above and beyond anything that you would ordinarily do, other motivations come to the foreground. Dieting is extremely difficult and restraint theory says that the harder you push yourself to avoid a particular food, the more you will desire it. Add to that the inevitable cravings for high calorie foods as the body does its best to avoid fat loss as much as possible and you have a very extreme discomfort to overcome. One that doesn’t quite go away from eating skinless chicken breasts and doing hours of cardio, but is simply overpowered temporarily by the stronger drive to do well in competition. When that drive is removed at the end of the contest season for most competitors the unhealthy eating habits return in force. This structural movement towards tension relief explains the near food disorder level eating commonly seen after physique competitions among both male and female competitors along with the inability for many of them to stay in great shape all year round. When competition no longer becomes a driving force in their lives, over time training lags behind and several years later most competitors are hard to physically distinguish as being different from the rest of the general population. A fact that became very apparent to me over the past twenty seven years of watching competitors come and go.
Weight Loss Requires A Different Approach To Be Successful Long Term
The universality of this experience can makes you question the possibility of long term weight loss and sets the stage for a rather bleak outlook all round. However, we must instead look at what it is that motivates the minority who ARE able to lose weight and keep it off. The small percentage of successful individuals alluded to in long term weight loss studies and the people we know personally who have been able to lose weight and keep it off must have some formula for not falling under the influence of this structure of diminishing returns and in my years of helping hundreds of people lose weight and keep it off, I can say with conviction that there is indeed a common thread that separates the successful from the unsuccessful. A key difference that isn’t genetic can be easily replicated.
Most people who are successful at losing weight long term or getting into ridiculous shape and staying there tend to start off very much in the same way that everyone else does. They were most likely unhappy with how they looked or how they felt and the inner and outer pressures of this discomfort reached an unbearable point where they felt that some form of action was needed. To reduce the discomfort, they began watching what they ate and incorporating exercise into their regular routine just like everyone else— but somewhere along the line, something different happened. Instead of being focused on the numbers on the scale, the better fitting clothes, the new body reflected in the mirror or the compliments from friends and family, they simply kept on going. In essence, they did not focus on losing weight, exercising and eating better as a way of alleviating their discomfort regarding their health or appearance. Instead they somehow learned to reduce their tension by regularly performing the healthy actions required to lose weight instead relying on the actual weight loss itself.
Weight Loss Comes From An Evolution Not From Solving A Problem
The difference is significant and it yields an invaluable lesson: Instead of focusing on the results, individuals who are successful at losing weight, eating well and staying in shape focus on the process. It’s a philosophy that is completely alien to today’s marketing of fast fixes, rapid weight loss, quick results and a mountain of products and services promising to give you just that. But the promise is not just an empty one, but a counterproductive one. Reliance on results always leads to reduced adherence over time as reward oriented focus diminishes the drive you need to overcome the incredible pressures required to lose weight and keep it off. On the other end of the spectrum, those who focus on the process are relieved of their tension only by habitually doing what they should be doing. Thus, when they stop eating well and training regularly, discomfort kicks in and pushes them to keep on going in a positive and self-sustaining loop. The fact of the matter is that ads and scare tactics— (well-meaning or not)— make you perceive weight loss as a problem that needs to be solved. You don’t feel good about how you look so by using this product, joining this gym or eating this food you will have a solution. Except the structure of problem/solution does not apply to weight loss- as the only true solution is not to try to solve the problem- but to outgrow it through the creation of new habits and new ways of thinking. A process that happens over years and is contrary to the notion of ‘quick’ and ‘fast’.
Lifestyle change is the word often used to describe what needs to happen for long term weight loss but I would add that there must also be an evolution. A completely new set of habits that form a completely new you. Such a change is best described as a path towards mastery. In this case mastery of the most difficult challenge of all- yourself. You need to master the impatient part of you that craves reward and reassurance to keep on going. You need to master the defeatist perspective that you don’t have what it takes to achieve what you want- a nagging voice that limits so many of us. You need to master the cravings that come with restricting yourself from eating the foods you used to eat and the formidable social pressure from friends and family that can derail such a commitment. You need to master your training. Not just take a class here and there or go on the treadmill when you feel like it- if you truly want to change your body permanently you have to master your training. Which is exceptionally difficult to do without the guidance of one who has already mastered such a path. Mastery of training does not come from enthusiasm or willpower as such initiatives fade in time without the fuel of some continued reward but rather from the development of good habits.
The Key to Weight Loss Is Mastery- The Key To Mastery Is A Focus On The Process Not The Results
Mastery is all about developing good habits. Habits that will allow you to perform a relatively difficult task over and over for years on end— which is the harsh reality of what is required if you truly wish to change your body. It’s not weeks, not months but years- decades even. Like the martial artist who slaves away practicing the same techniques day after day, or the athlete training day in and day out, there will be periods of abject frustration. Plateaus where your actions seem to amount to nothing. Yet this is precisely the time when you make the most progress for if you persist there will come a day where there is an almost magical realization that you have achieved precisely what you set out to do, if not more so! As great as the realization may be, if strong habits have been formed, this will not affect your continued practice and you will go on to even greater things and let yourself go from the grip of shame and low self-esteem as a powerful force in your life. This is how we achieve the seemingly impossible— with persistence and a work ethic of consistency in a structure where the work itself is the reward and a destination in and of itself.
Many in this part of the world would consider such an approach as being Zen-like in nature, but there is nothing mystical or foreign about it. It’s the same structure that allows surgeons to persevere through the arduous task of becoming a surgeon and what drives great athletes to go above and beyond what most would even think possible as a result of years of strenuous and often painful practice. A methodology one based on years of consistent practice and sacrifice where the act itself becomes the habit that is hard to not perform on a regular basis, creating a drive and passion that keeps them going through decades of hard work without being blown off course by the many failures and frustrations along the way.
You won’t ever see a sign for fast neurosurgery certification or ads for courses where you can obtain your commercial pilot’s license in 90 days or less- such disciplines do not fall within the realm of the quick fix and weight loss is no different. In the end all significant accomplishments come from developing a structure of good habits and being in a state of mind where you continue to do what you need to do regardless of your immediate successes. It’s an intimate and personal journey that frees you from the need for constant short term success that can set the stage for long term failure. Losing weight is not a problem to be solved. It’s about the creation and mastery of a whole new way of life, a whole new way of thinking and the cultivation of a different set of habits- ones that lead to a whole new you.
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Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to network TV, Kevin Richardson is the international fitness consultant for UNICEF, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. Learn more about his award winning personal training services here!
1. Wadden TA, Butryn ML, Byrne KJ. Efficacy of lifestyle modification for long-term weight control. Obes Res. 2004
2. Perri MG. The maintenance of treatment effects in the long-term management of obesity. Clin Psychol: Sci Pract. 1998