Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Weighing in: Four "weighs" to like yourself better now!

New study reveals important facts about weight and health

Mona* was a large woman who wore baggy clothes and pulled her gloriously thick, shiny hair back into a tight ponytail. In our first meeting, she told me, “If I could just lose weight, I’d be happy.” When I asked her to tell me more about that daydream, she looked at me with irritation. “It’s not a daydream. If I was fifty pounds lighter, I could find a job I really love, meet a man who could love me, and start a family.”  When I asked her why she couldn’t do these things now, at her current weight, she practically shouted at me, “Come on! You know I’m right. It really pisses me off that our culture is so prejudiced against heavy women…Just because I’m heavy doesn’t mean I’m an ax murderer, but people think that when you’re overweight it’s because you have more problems than the rest of the world. My problem is that I’m overweight! If I could lose some weight, people would look at me differently, and I’d be more content. I’d feel better about myself.  I’d be healthier. And you know I’m right.”

But did I? After decades of being told that being overweight is both unattractive and unhealthy, we now learn that it may actually be healthier to be a bit overweight! According to a recent study reported in the NY Times (and many other places). The NY Times writer starts her article with a description of  a woman who in 1912, at the age of 24, was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 171 pounds, and “was chosen by the ‘medical examiner of the 400 ‘co-eds’ ‘  at Cornell University as a woman ‘whose very presence bespeaks perfect health.’” Her Body Mass Index (BMI) as well as her weight would have been considered obese by today’s standards; yet this new study suggests that she was, indeed, probably healthier than many people today who are considered to be at a normal weight!

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While doctors are scrambling to make sure no one takes these results as an excuse to pack on more pounds or turn to a high fat, high cholesterol diet, it does lead one to step back for at least a minute, doesn’t it?

Or does it? If I were working with Mona today, I would be willing to bet that this research would not change her ideas at all. And I imagine the same will be true for many men and women with similar beliefs. Nothing at all will change based on this new research. Like Mona, they believe in their daydreams.

Mona was convinced that what she thought was the truth.

Strangely enough, this belief was more of a problem than her weight!

Although Mona denied that her belief that she could not be happy until she lost weight was fact, not fantasy, she agreed to my suggestion that she start to keep a daydream journal. And she discovered some interesting things.

Mona’s most obvious daydream was to lose weight and to have a life that she believed was only available to the thin people in the world. I asked her if she ever daydreamed about finding a job that she would enjoy at her present weight. I also asked if she could imagine daydreaming about a man who might love her just the way she was.

“But if I think that way,” Mona said, “I’ll just get lazy. I’ll never try to lose weight. And I’ll stay stuck just where I am.” Mona was caught in a criticism trap that affects many of us. The idea is that if we are critical of ourselves, we will “behave,” whereas if we’re too easy on ourselves, we’ll continue to do the things we want to stop. In my experience as a therapist, I have seen the opposite more often – the more we understand and accept ourselves as we are, the more likely we are to change!

•             In order to change your eating patterns, you have to have a conversation with the part of yourself that is criticizing you for the way you eat. No one overeats because they are bad. In fact, the amount you struggle with your food is in all likelihood directly related to the level of your personal standards. You probably have set unrealistic expectations for yourself, which means that you feel inadequate or ashamed of whatever you have actually accomplished. You think you should have done better, so what you do, no matter how good it might be, is not good enough. Since those negative thoughts can turn into a binge, switch the conversation.

•             For example, you've probably got many theories about why you eat more than you should. But you probably seldom think that your daydreams about being happy if you lose weight are actually part of the problem. 

•             Neuroscience has shown that putting things into words is one of the most powerful ways to change them. Just talking to another person can actually change how we perceive an experience that we are telling them about! (I talk more about this in my blog on talk therapy).

•             Paying attention to our daydreams is another way of putting our thoughts and feelings into words. It doesn’t mean that we have to live out that fantasy, but as we open up some of the beliefs embedded in daydreams, we may actually find other – more attainable – desires buried underneath.

As Mona paid closer attention to the daydreams beneath her daydreams, she noticed that she sometimes closed herself off from possibilities right in front of her. For example, after a mild flirtation with a man at work, she was furious with herself. “What’s that about?” I asked. “I think I don’t deserve to be liked by anyone unless I lose this weight,” she said. “I can’t imagine anybody I’d like liking me the way I am; so I have to reject them or assume they’re going to reject me.”

Mona is now married to a man who loves her just the way she is. She also has found work that she loves – and where she’s admired and respected – just the way she is. She’s lost a few pounds, but not the fifty she thought she needed to lose in order to be happy. And according to her doctors, she’s in excellent health.

This, then, is the real benefit of the recent report on higher weight and BMI being healthier than we have believed. Maybe it will help us as a culture begin to recognize that some of the beliefs we hold to be unchangeable facts are, really, only daydreams. 

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

 Adapted from my book Daydreaming: Unlock the Creative Power of Your Mind Teaser image source page: http://kathiesfitblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/girl-weighing-self.jpg

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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