This week I'm including Parts 1-3 in this post. If you've already read Part 1 or Part 2 in previous weeks, you may want to proceed directly to Part 3 below.
The research is clear—diet programs don’t work! It’s not only dieters who fail, the diet programs fail as well. We know that less than 10% of all dieters sustain any weight loss, about 50% eventually gain more than they lose, and that the most common result—yo-yo weight loss—can be worse for people’s health than simply being overweight. Further, we are learning more and more about how our culture of “thinness” is destructive to the esteem and health of girls and women.
Through my research and work with clients who have pursued weight loss strategies I have learned seven essential insights about people who pursue a weight loss goal. In this three-part series, I discuss those insights and then offer ideas to begin answering the question on many minds: What to do instead of diet?
#1: People who try to lose weight often suffer from intense inner and outer criticism.
This is crucial because most people diet in order to feel better about themselves which almost always means relieving themselves from such criticism. However, dieting in order to reduce self-criticism often fails because the root of the criticism is often deeper and independent of a person’s body size or eating habits. Even though the criticism they are most aware of is about their bodies, the fundamental critical attitude almost always shows up in different ways and will resurface with a different focus.
For example, many women disavow their power in the world and in their relationships; in essence they have learned to be fearful of or antagonistic towards expressing the full measure of their capacities. When this happens, they not only end up criticizing themselves for getting hurt too easily or expressing themselves too strongly, but they also tend to be more critical of their bodies as well. The power they don’t use in their outer lives turns against them on the inside! As a result, their inner criticism will not go away by trying to lose weight; it will only go away when the power that fuels it gets used as it is meant to—in their relationships and in service of their deepest ambitions.
What to do instead of diet? Carefully take account of all the things you criticize yourself about each day. How long have you had this critical attitude? Where did it come from? Think of the first time you were ever criticized. Imagine that you really didn’t deserve that criticism. How would you have liked to be treated? What would you say to that person if you could have?
Another reason not to “listen to” or heed inner criticism about our bodies is that it is invariably mean-spirited, ignorant, and void of wisdom or spiritual perspectives. Thus, it is often far healthier to reject such criticism than accept it and act upon it. In fact, taking a stand against this criticism is an act of power and self-love that not only helps relieve the inner-criticism but can also make it easier to lose weight.
However, people are rarely aware of the fact that it is this very self-love that leads them to resist following through with the diet programs they put themselves on. This is so counter-intuitive to the dieter who wants to lose weight that they will likely even resist what I am saying here and think, “I diet because I care about myself and fail to follow through because of my inadequacy.”
I worked with a woman recently who suffered long and hard to lose weight. Some months she did better than others; some years she did better than others. One day she said to me, “I just want to like myself regardless of my weight.” Those were some of the sweetest words I ever heard her utter. “What do you like about yourself?” I asked. The time ticked by in silence while we waited. (I am sure some part of her had been waiting far longer.) After a bit I decided to help her by beginning, “I like the purity of your words and desire; I like your simplicity. I like your humanity. I like your spirit. I like how I feel being with you when you talk like this.” We both smiled, teary-eyed.
What to do instead of diet?
What to do instead of diet?Stop criticizing and shaming yourself for not sticking to your diet plan. Have it out with your critic! Make your critic’s words explicit—say them clearly and out loud and then fight back as intelligently, fiercely, and clearly as you can. This exercise will support your self-love by building a more empowered self. Going further, make a list of other plans, activities, and people you would like to say “no” to and begin practicing immediately.
For example, I once worked with a student of mine on her struggles with diet and body image, in front of her classmates in a psychology course. It was a close-knit group and she felt supported by the other women in the class who also struggled with weight loss. Her name was Sandra and she hated her body and had tried to lose weight for years, failing over and over. Like many women she criticized the way she looked (about 97% of women are cruel to themselves about their bodies). She was embarrassed to go out, wear certain clothes, order certain foods, or approach men to whom she felt attracted. I modeled the inner criticism she had expressed to me earlier, by saying, “You are fat; you should stay at home, ought to be embarrassed of yourself, and certainly shouldn’t think you are worthy of having a partner you are attracted to!” At first she looked wounded and deflated, but when I encouraged her to respond, to fight back, she began to stand up straighter and smile. Just thinking about resisting her inner-criticism make her feel better in addition to the other women in the class who felt similar to Sandra. I asked Sandra where else she was going along with a program or person when she really didn’t want to? She said it happened at work and sometimes with her children. Her “homework” was to say “no” to these people more often.
#3: People who are “bigger” or more powerful than they think they are naturally resist programs designed to make them “smaller.”
Many people, especially woman, try to live within a box that is too small for their intelligence, creativity, wisdom, feelings, and spirit. However, while they may be successful at suppressing their personality, their bodies often find a way of manifesting the “bigness” that they suppress. Unfortunately, if they diet in order to make their body smaller, their psyches may experience this as yet another attempt to make it shrink and find creative ways to resist and derail weight-loss efforts. This dynamic reminds me of the words of the big blue genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Aladdin asked the genie what it was like to be so incredibly powerful, and, reminding Aladdin that he had to live inside a little lamp, answered, “Phenomenal cosmic power; itty bitty living space!”
Consider, for example, Sally who was called “stocky,” “hefty,” and a “big girl” ever since she was young. She spent much of her life trying to lose weight so that she could shed those statements and look more like her sister and other girls. She was still being criticized when she entered the military and told that her thighs were too big even though she could meet all the strength, agility, and speed tests. She went so far as to spread Preparation H on her thighs at night and wrapping them in Saran wrap so they would shrink. Some years later she came to me wanting to become an emergency medical technician asking me if I thought she should back off and not push so hard. She was still trying to make herself smaller—she was big woman with big power and big ambitions. She soon achieved her next goal and was happy doing so.
What to do instead of diet? Get to know how you are more powerful, beautiful, intelligent, and incredible than people—including yourself—think you are. Name your qualities and identify the boxes you live in that are simply too small.
#4: It takes power and courage to NOT stick with a diet program when it is truly not right for you.
People exert massive amounts of resources—financial, emotional, intellectual and psychic—to losing weight. They amass a fierce campaign to change themselves. However, the question they rarely ask themselves is this: What part of me doesn’t go along with this agenda? That part—the part that resists—is often standing up against a massive assault of effort and criticism and still prevails. This takes great power and great courage. The problem is this: most people have no relationship with this part of themselves other than treating it as their enemy. When people access that power, they can move mountains; when they fight it, they usually lose.
What to do instead of diet? Instead of thinking and feeling that you are a failure, imagine what it would take to stand up to all the efforts you make to lose weight, including all the opinions you and others hold that reinforce your efforts to lose weight. Who do you know who could have enough power to defy or resist those efforts and opinions? What does it take for them to do so—self-love, courage, power, belief, faith, good friends, family support? Imagine you are a person who has that kind of power. Where do you most need it? What would you resist in your life—other people, rules about how to behave, etc.?
#5: Our eating preferences and patterns contain subtle yet profound indicators about our beliefs and life paths.
Counselors, therapists, diet program developers, and the rest of us need to get this through our heads—people are not stupid, lazy, ugly, ignorant, undisciplined, or otherwise pathological. People act in certain ways—including in their eating patterns and preferences—for reasons that are meaningful and worthy of our deepest compassion and most profound understanding. If eating, dieting, and body image are the issues that you perpetually wrestle with, then the details of what and how you eat are the best place to find the source of your wisdom, spirit, and authentic nature.
I am reminded of a woman who loved rum raisin ice cream. She was a spiritual seeker and diligent meditator. I asked her what it was like to eat the rum raisin ice cream. I said, “Listen deeply to yourself as you imagine tasting the ice cream.” She heard an “OM” in her heart that helped her connect with her most profound spiritual experiences. In fact, in many ways her “ice cream” experience was closer to what she sought than the experiences she achieved in her meditation. She learned that her meditation needed to feel a bit more like rum raisin ice cream—it needed a settling resonance and less of the harsh discipline she was accustomed to creating.
What to do instead of diet? Think of one of your favorite foods. Slowly, carefully, and mindfully become aware of what it is like when you enjoy it. You must not criticize yourself; simply pay full attention to your experience by noting your feelings (euphoric, relaxed, dreamy, excited, childlike, etc.), looking for inner images (Do you imagine children, elders, clouds, birds, gorillas, etc.?), and listening for tunes and songs (Do you hear a specific song or tune?). Focus on those feelings, images, and tunes. Express your feelings by making a dance; express the images by drawing them and playfully exaggerating aspects of them that attract you; express the tunes by humming and singing them. Let yourself imagine that this is a way of living; how is that different than the way you live? What would be wonderful about living that way?
#6: When people become more attuned to their authentic selves, changing their eating preferences and patterns is easier and more sustainable.
Despite the fact that weight loss agendas are almost always focused on food and exercise, the psychological truth is this: there is no substitute for living fuller, more ‘out-loud’, and authentic lives in our quest to resolve the weight-loss battle. While many argue that we need a life plan for our weight, the truth is that we need a life plan for our life. Or, as my teacher Dr. Max Schupbach once said, “Instead of asking what you want to eat, ask yourself what you want for life!” I have spoken to so many people who “mysteriously” lost weight when they changed relationships, changed careers, went back to school, became more creative, and addressed social biases that hurt them. Notice that none of these have to do with food or exercise!
What to do instead of diet? Ask yourself, “What do I want for life?” What changes would you make to your life if you were entirely free to make those changes? Would you go back to school or simply take some classes to learn a new skill or craft? Would you look for a new job or approach your boss for a promotion to a position you would prefer? Would you plant a garden, paint a room a new color, read more books? Take stock of the fantasies that come up in your mind and consider seriously how you might begin to initiate these changes in your life.
#7: When people change the way they perceive their bodies, their relationships with people are likely to change as well.
Our bodies have enormous intelligence. While we spend much of our time trying to get our bodies to conform to our desired sense of self, we actually need to spend more time having our desired sense of self conform to the wisdom of our bodies. Beginning to “listen” to our body’s wisdom in this way means considering that our body’s desires (in terms of food) as well as our body size and shape contain seeds of intelligence. One message our bodies often have for us concerns how we relate to people or are related to by people. For many folks I have worked with, building a loving relationship with their bodies led to breaking out of forms of relationship that just no longer fit.
For example, one woman I worked with felt that her husband was an ally in her weight loss efforts. He helped her remember her goals and praised her successes. However, upon developing a more loving relationship with her body she began to wonder if he was critical of the way she looked and whether that was part of his “support.” She had grown so accustomed to no liking her body that she didn’t notice the offense she took when people “agreed” with her dislike. Further, she noticed that her husband was not only critical of her body, but other ways she expressed herself with others.
What to do instead of diet? Consider the possibility that you feel put down, disrespected, misunderstood, or not listened to in one or more of your relationships. For a moment, fully trust your feelings (don’t analyze them or try to determine if they are ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’). Now imagine you were your own best friend, one that would fully advocate for your feelings. What would that friend say to the person who offends you?
Thanks for joining me on this journey into the 7 “Truths” about diets and weight loss!
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I am the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Signed copies of the book are for sale on my website: www.talkingbacktodrphil.com.
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