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Think Your Diet Needs More Discipline? Think Again

Critically thinking about discipline

If we listen to the words of authors, therapists, and coaches we come to believe that in order to lose weight we need to be disciplined. 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 two 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, especially for those who were raised in a more punitive culture or family environment. As a result, many of us rightfully resist and even rebel against being “disciplined” by not following through on our weight loss strategy. Essentially, what looks like rebelling or derailing our efforts may actually be a self-loving reaction to a punitive atmosphere that really needs to change.

2. Discipline often fails to take into account the deeper motivations for our current eating patterns

We eat for real reasons—we are ‘hungry’ for something and that hunger is real and needs to be fed. I am well aware that food is not the best way to feed it, but simply fighting our hungers or trying to overcome them is often a recipe for failure resulting in enormous inner-criticism. Our real hungers need to be identified and addressed.

Further, while most people readily give reasons for their eating patterns, these reasons almost never turn out to be the deeper reasons that compel them to eat. For example, I can’t tell you the number of times people have told me that they eat to comfort themselves or as a result of stress. While these reasons are appealing, they are almost always more superficial and less nuanced than the real underlying needs and, as such, are almost never helpful. Uncovering the real needs takes more than a quick armchair diagnosis or bumper sticker answer; instead it requires a clear and loving awareness of the “good” feelings we get when we eat and supporting ourselves to reach out for those feelings in our lives.

Plainly stated, being more disciplined without regard for our true underlying hungers will rarely be sustainable.

Case Study: Fanny’s Story

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 she had finally figured it out. “I never really got it,” she explained,  “I was too passive. I had become a couch potato. I needed more discipline.” We explored the meaning of discipline and whether it really was the answer to her dilemma.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Fanny: “I finally got it. 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; she spoke to me as if she were speaking to herself. “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!”

Me: (Speaking as Fanny) “Keep grabbing me. Go ahead and shake me up. Shake me out of my passivity; shake up my whole life.” (The force of her grab and shake made me think that this force wanted to do more than change her exercise and eating habits and that her passivity was about life changes beyond those related to her weight.)

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.”
(Fanny is now making an important insight—that she has lost weight, almost naturally, without trying to make herself eat differently or exercise more.)

Me: (Still speaking as Fanny so that she can talk to herself) “Are you saying that walking two times a day is not the only answer? Are there other ways of addressing my weight issues, other life changes like traveling or living in another culture?

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

Me: “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: “How can 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.” (The culture Fanny refers to 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.)

In Summary

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. She lost weight when she “broke out of prison.” Her passivity wasn’t about eating and exercising it was about her life.  

Fanny thought “discipline” was the answer to her weight problem, but our work together revealed another story—that losing weight has more to do with the life and culture she was living within and less to do with diet and exercise. As a result, while Fanny was applying greater discipline, 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, at some point, she would resist her efforts at discipline.



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