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The psychology of weight loss.

Lance Armstrong and the Ill-Fated Pursuit of Perfection

Might you have more in common with him than you think?

Although my blog is generally about the psychology of weight loss, I’m always struck by the parallels between the weight loss journey and other life journeys. We all run into the same challenges, regardless of which journey we're on.

I watched the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey and was struck by the parallel between his core struggle and the core struggle of so many people trying to lose weight. It is the struggle of self-worth.

The most interesting part of the Lance Armstrong interview is that in the midst of his confession, he emphasized his desire to get back to racing. This part of the conversation seemed so out of place. Why on earth would this be so important to him in light of all the consequences bearing down on him? With his life falling apart, how could he think about signing up for a race?  Why wouldn’t his focus be entirely on repairing the broken relationships resulting from his lies? Earning back the trust of his children? Paying back his debts?  Repairing any damage to his foundation?  His focus on going back to racing makes you wonder if the apology itself was purely a means to that end. Lance has adopted a "win at any cost" attitude about racing. His core struggle is that his self-worth is entirely wrapped up in his ability to win a race. Therein lies the problem.

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When your self-worth is tied to a single goal in life, your unwavering pursuit of perfection will seem to be the secret to your success, but in fact will be the secret to your demise.

Biking is the thing Lance happened to choose as his pursuit, likely because his early experiences showed it was something he excelled at and enjoyed.  Lance’s journey is ill-fated because he will do anything to accomplish his goal, be it cheating, lying, bullying, betraying friends, and even bearing witness to his son defending his lies. He even put his own health at risk by taking illegal drugs. His pursuit of perfection completely undermined his success. Nothing else seems to matter to him. No other pursuit in his life seems to generate adequate feelings of self-worth. Being a good dad? No. Being a good husband? No. Founding an organization that raised millions of dollars for cancer and helped countless people? No.  In fact he has put all these things on the line, just as a gambling addict would put his house up for a bet, because nothing is more important than the win.

Lance is an extreme case, but I have noticed many people adopt a "win at any cost" attitude about weight loss. Their thinking is, “I have to lose 100 pounds. Less is failure. Less means I’m a fat, lazy, ugly worthless person.”  This thinking can make one vulnerable to the seduction of fad diets (in Lance-terms, “doping”) in an effort to get to the easiest, quickest, most fail-safe way to achieve the goal. Other ways people may put their health at risk is by purging after eating, taking laxatives, fasting, or exercising through injuries. They often neglect other aspects of life to work toward their goal. Many of these people have lost large amounts of weight, while others don’t manage to lose more than 20-30 pounds, but all end up destroying their progress somehow.  This pattern is a sign of a much bigger problem that needs exploring.

Why does our self-worth get focused on a single goal for which we strive for perfection at any cost?  In most cases, this pattern can be drawn back to an early life experience in which somebody important made you feel incapable or disapproved of in some way. You began to wonder if it is true. You feel your only hope is to prove that person’s idea wrong, but that person doesn’t waver in their stance even when you succeed, so you keep trying to do better.  Lance had a talent for biking, so likely got fixated on proving that person wrong by playing his strength. Then over time his pursuit for perfection took on a life of its own. I doubt he is even aware that his love for biking could really be a quest to prove his self-worth.  Imagine what is at stake if you fail in this case!  The pressure to avoid that failure contributes to the "win at any cost" attitude which triggers the cycle of self-destruction. This trap has ultimately kept a very capable Lance from ever achieving his goal. He never will. Even if he had won cleanly, he would have raised the bar and went for another win, then another, then another.  The pursuit of perfection is a disease. There is no winning, by design. The feelings of frustration and failure only mount over time. The risks taken to get the next “win” start backfiring and lead to losses. Losses increase pressure further which leads to ever more desperate, self-destructive means. It is a vicious cycle.

Might you be approaching your weight loss goal in this way? Here are a few questions to help you identify whether your self-worth is too wrapped up in your goal and if you are in danger of self-destruction.

1.  Do you believe that the only way you'll be happy in life is if you accomplish this goal?

2.  Have you accomplished a good part of your goal but still feel very unsatisfied (e.g., you lost 40 lbs but feel like this is nothing until you lose 100)?

3.  Have you done things to accomplish your goal that have put yourself or others at risk (e.g., taken pills, made yourself vomit, was negligent about caring for a child because you were working on your goal)?

4.  Do you have constant feelings of frustration about your goal?

5.   Would it be impossible to go a whole day without thinking about your goal?

6.   Was one or both of your parents either highly critical or very inconsistent with criticism and praise?

7.  Does your frustration about your goal lead to irritability, stress, and/or depression?

8.  Has your pursuit of your goal negatively impacted your relationships?

9.  Do you feel like you'd consider making small moral compromises to accomplish this goal (e.g., use a very effective but illegal substance if you knew you wouldn’t get caught, lie about the means you are using to accomplish the goal)?

10.  Are you engaging in unhealthy activities to offset the stress caused by the pursuit of your goal?

11. Have people in your life told you that you seem obsessed by your goal?

12.  Do you feel far less excited by victories in life that have nothing to do with your goal?

If you said yes to several of these questions you may be on a self-destructive path and setting yourself up for failure. The person who lost 40 of their 100 lb weight loss goal might say, “No I’m not setting myself up for failure, look how far I’ve come!” This is the key mental trap—when our means are paying off we persist, not realizing where this path is leading. Lance would have said the same in the midst of his victories, but we see where they have led him.

Is the answer to give up on your goal? No. The answer is to get on a new path to it and to expand your scope of what it means to be a worthy person. Here are some steps to consider:

1. Get Help. The self-worth issue is not a small one or one that can easily be tackled alone. I highly recommend seeing a therapist to get a neutral party’s perspective on how self-destructive  your journey may be, to help you understand why your self-worth has gotten so mired in this goal, and to help you find a path to self-acceptance.

2. Look in the Mirror. Sit down and make a list of all the things you have done in your effort to achieve your goal that might be self-destructive or destructive to others. This requires some honest soul-searching. Recognizing dysfunctional means you’ve used in an effort to achieve your goal is essential to getting off the path and onto a new one.  The dysfunctional means will only intensify.

3. Diversify your self-worth portfolio. When self-worth is focused on a single objective in life, the range of activities we engage in shrinks. We become pre-occupied with our goal and lose out on other aspects of life that could very well bring us joy and a sense of accomplishment. Identify other activities you enjoy and devote more time to pursuing them. If your knee jerk reaction is “I don’t have time for a new activity” keep in mind this is because you are imprisoned by your goal. Diversifying is one way to set yourself free.

4. Quit your job. Whether you realize it or not, you have taken over the job of your critic. You are probably your own worst critic now and the original critic doesn’t hold a candle to your self-punishing mind. Whenever you catch yourself saying self-deprecating things, jot it down in your phone or on a notepad.  Look at your thoughts.  The more you recognize it, the more you can begin to change those thoughts to more productive thoughts.  Telling yourself you are a lazy no-good bum because you didn’t exercise is not productive, it’s destructive.  

5. Give the people who love you a voice. Your life has been guided by one loud critical voice, but there are other voices speaking to you, do you hear them?  Who are your cheerleaders? Listen to and honor these people. We tend to discount the supportive voices but their opinions are actually more valid than the critics. I’m not saying that to make you feel good about yourself, I’m saying it because constant criticism comes from people who have an M.O. They need to break you down because you threaten their own sense of self-worth. You make them question their decisions; your successes make them uncomfortable. Supportive people are able to separate their own need for love and praise when it comes to you. Embrace that, it’s real and it’s priceless.

While we often set our sights on that one journey toward that one most important goal in life, remember life is about a thousand journeys, and no single one defines you. They all do. 

Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, Department of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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