Is Psychology Making Us Sick?

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Zen and the Art of Dieting, Part 6

Three reasons why dieters' discipline fails

This is the last post in this series “Zen and the Art of Dieting.” It contains a modified transcript of a conversation I had with a client about her diet strategy. In it the client learns something about the answer to her diet koan—that even the simple logic of needing to apply more discipline to lose weight may be limited and faulty.

If we listen to the words of authors, therapists, coaches, and even ourselves we come to believe that dieting takes discipline. Without discipline, we are told, we won’t be able to stick to our weight loss strategy; we will fail.  However, this advice is only half true and can easily betray our best efforts, goals, and intentions. There are three reasons for this:

1. Discipline is often used in a punitive manner.  Actually, the way people “discipline” themselves is often counterproductive, leading to a cycle of seeming success and failure, over and over. While the word discipline has the same root as the word disciple, suggesting the relationship between a loving student and teacher, the actual practice of being disciplined is often accompanied by an attitude of self-correction and chastisement. As a result, many of us rightfully resist and even rebel against the way we apply discipline and, as a result, don’t follow through on our diet strategy.  

2. We apply this discipline to a weight loss strategy that fails to take into account the deeper motivations for our current eating patterns. Far too much “psychological advice” is not psychological enough—it doesn’t account for a psyche with powerful and meaningful unconscious motives for behaving/eating the way we do!  Fighting or trying to overcome these motives is often a recipe for failure resulting in enormous inner-criticism. Plainly stated, much of the psychological advice about dieting is a bit banal and ignores psychology’s very roots—psyche and soul.  

3. Applying discipline properly, in a way that is effective and non-punitive, is often not intuitively obvious or apparent to the naked (un-psychological) eye. While most people readily give reasons for why they eat the way they do, the reasons they give are almost always wrong or superficial. It is actually incredibly rare that people are aware of the far more powerful motivations behind their eating patterns.

Consider, for example, Fanny (names and other details are edited to protect her privacy). Fanny was in her mid 50’s and had tried one diet after another for most of her life but had never been successful. When I met her she said, “I never really got it.” She explained further,  “I was too passive. I had become a couch potato. I needed more discipline.” We explored the meaning of discipline and whether that really was the answer to her dilemma.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Fanny: “I finally got it; time to stop. Time to fight the passivity of watching TV and staying in the house. That’s it; time to be disciplined. I now walk twice in the morning and don’t sit on the couch so much.” (Fanny’s voice was fierce, sounding like a drill sergeant.)

Me: “Tell me more about the discipline you speak of. Show me what you mean. Talk to me as if I were you needing this discipline you speak of.”

Fanny: Fanny grabbed me as if she was going to shake me.  “You need to do something about your weight. You can’t afford to waste any more years of passivity. You need to take control over it. You have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a whole range of stuff. You have been on anti-depressants…it’s enough already!”

David: (pretending to be Fanny)  “Keep grabbing me. Give it to me; I’m dense! Shake me up! Go ahead and shake up my whole life. How about the direction of my life? What is the next thing in my life to take on?”  (The force of her grab and shake made me think that this force wanted to do more than change her exercise and eating habits. I wanted to see if she had more wisdom, formerly unconscious, about changes she needed to make.)

Fanny:  “Interesting…when you asked me to shake you up, you mentioned life changes. I have found that whenever I have traveled abroad, lived in different places, I immediately drop 40 pounds. It just happens by itself.”

David: “Tell me more as if I was Fanny. Are you saying that walking two times a day is not the only answer? Are there other ways of addressing my weight issues?” (Because Fanny had suggested a totally different way she has lost weight, a way that didn’t rely on forced discipline, I wanted to pursue her deeper intelligence about this.)

Fanny: “You’ve got to free yourself to do more things. You should break out of prison.”

David:  (still acting like Fanny) “How am I in prison?”

Fanny: “You can be in prison in many ways. Sometimes in your relationship, sometimes in your job… anywhere.  In fact, you often find yourself feeling in prison in your job.”

David: “What should I do; how should I break out of the prison of my job?”

Fanny: “Join the Peace Corps. Live in a different culture. You’ve been thinking of this for a long, long time.”

David: “You mean I don’t only have to go outside my house and walk twice in the morning, I need to change the entire culture I live in, get outside the whole box, the whole prison?”

Fanny: “Exactly, all those cultural forces that bombard people about who they are supposed to be, how they’re supposed to live—when you are outside the culture, you don’t have to buy into those.” (This culture may not only be a literal one requiring a move to a different country, it could be the psychological “culture” she lives in—her beliefs, attitudes, values, that she needs to break free from.)

Fanny went on to tell me that she lost large amounts of weight several times in her life—a couple of times when she broke out of bad relationships and other times when she left her job or went overseas. While Fanny thinks she needs to be more disciplined, she was applying this discipline to a life she didn’t want, to a way of living that was not “feeding” her, making it likely that her strategy would ultimately fail. She thinks she knows why she can’t lose weight, but her story tells us that it has more to do with the life and culture (both inside of her as well as outside in the world around her) that she is living within and less to do with discipline. In fact, the logic of the discipline Fanny applies is more consistent with the culture she wants to leave making it likely that, at some point, she will resist her efforts at discipline. It is this twist in logic and the failure of her more conventional logic that made her diet problem like a Zen Koan.

Good luck to all. Stay tuned for future posts on dieting and body image.

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David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW is the author of the book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @lovebasedpsych for regular updates on dieting, dreams, relationships, sex, addictions, and more. Feel free to join his Facebook page and post your comments and questions.

David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW, graduated from Lewis and Clark’s Northwestern School of Law. He is the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. more...

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