People usually assume that if you have a goal that you’re not achieving, even though it should be achievable in theory, then there are only three things stopping you from achieving it:
- You’re lazy;
- You’re procrastinating; and/or,
- It’s not really that important to you.
However, for those who have done some reading on cognitive behaviour therapy, change, addiction, etc., there are often three other things that hold you back:
- Triggers / old patterns of behaviour that cause you to backslide;
- Lack of support / inadequate resources to achieve the goal on your own; and/or,
- Benefits from the old situation that sabotage your commitment and progress.
I’ve said previously that I have wanted to commit to losing weight as a goal but have never felt able to do so realistically — sure, I could have committed, but I didn’t think it would be anything other than a paper commitment. I wasn’t psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, physically, or spiritually ready to make the changes needed. And if I don’t see a probability or even a good possibility of success, I don’t waste my time committing to such a goal as one of my annual goals.
In my previous post (#50by50ish #50 – Lose weight – Part 3, the costs of being fat), I published the first half of my inventory — the costs of being fat throughout my life and hence the underlying motivations to change. But reading Kottler’s book on Change, I realized that the other side of the coin was equally important…what are the benefits of being fat that I would be giving up? It’s a radical concept, isn’t it? That there could be anything good about it.
The example that led me to it was the idea of the guy with anger management issues. Kottler described a guy who frequently was “angry” at work, unreasonable in his reactions, and it caused him grief with coworkers, his boss, HR, etc. Clear costs that should/could motivate change. And yet there was a benefit to him — because he was prone to strong outbursts, and could get angry, people let him have his way. It was a source of power for him, both in being able to express himself stronger than others did, but also to have his views carry the day, just because others wanted to avoid conflict with him. It made him a work-place bully to always win. Which gave him a lot of satisfaction, i.e. to win. And if someone called him on it, he could always blame his temper as the problem, not him.
Alternatively, you can approach it as the fact that losing weight is a multi-billion dollar industry and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions (literally and figuratively). So why not? If it is just food and eating and willpower, why isn’t there a solution and why are people always trying different techniques to bust their belly? Because there are other things going on “besides food and eating” (I’m paraphrasing a Psychology Today article).
But I confess that I don’t find the various headings above from the classic literature on the psychology of being fat very helpful. I think instead that resistance simply comes down to varying forms of the most debilitating counter-energy known to man.
Fear of change. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of intimacy. Fear of loneliness. Fear of conflict.
Fear of change
The biggest fear, and this may be one of the few that is universal for fat people, is a fear of change. Regardless of whether you succeed or fail in your goal, something will change. You try “x” and it doesn’t work; or you try “y” and it does. Now you have to keep doing “y” and not do “x”. But that isn’t very definitive, is it? Let’s be specific about something that I can do while fat that I won’t be able to do later.
How about eat whatever I want? Not everything I want, that’s just stupid, but if I am at a family dinner, and someone has made a nice turkey, with mashed potatoes, carrots, gravy, buns, etc., that’s something I’m going to enjoy because I don’t have it very often. Once or twice a year, we have a big meal like that. So I can indulge myself with seconds of potatoes and turkey, maybe even thirds. Without feeling like, “OMG, how many carbs is that? how many calories?”. I don’t go insane and eat a whole gallon of chocolate ice cream, but I didn’t worry too much if I want a slightly larger helping of something. I enjoyed food the way some people enjoy a new bottle of wine. They might indulge a bit more a few times a year, and I did.
If I go out to a restaurant, I can order almost anything on the menu without worrying about my waistline because I wasn’t worrying about my waistline before I went. Sure, I might worry about heartburn, or avoiding really spicy foods because I like a mouth that isn’t on fire, but I’m not whipping out my phone to check how many calories there are in a Big Mac and what I should eat instead. If I want fries with my dinner, I would have fries. If I was running late for somewhere, and there was a fast food truck, BAM, I’ve got a place to eat. I don’t have to run around and find someone that has salad instead of fries.
Food, in short, is simpler when you’re fat and not trying to change it. If you’re at a friend’s place and he asks if you want something to drink, you don’t have to worry that they don’t have any diet soda. You have what’s available and you’re not asking for a menu of choices. You take what’s there, and say thank you. And do so without looking like a high-maintenance diva.
Food is a source of enjoyment, not a chore. Yeah, yeah, you can say, “Oh, no, eating like a bird is fun, you just have to choose tasty birdseed” (or whatever food metaphor you prefer), but the reality is that it is not as much fun or enjoyable as eating whatever you want. On the other hand, death isn’t fun either, but we’re talking things that hold you back, not the balancing act, that comes later.
Fear of failure
Every fat person has said, in some form or another, “Oh, I’ll do that when I’ve lost weight.” More subconsciously, less obviously, what they’re saying is that “I don’t have to do that because I’m fat, and you can’t blame me for not doing it because I’m fat”. Being fat excuses you from a lot of responsibilities. But you always have the “potential” to lose weight and change, as long as you never try. I’ve always believed I *could* do it, eventually, just “not right now”.
But if you try, and fail, then you’ve got a REAL psychological problem. You CAN’T change in that scenario. This is it, this is your life, and you ate your way into this mess. Sure, lots of other things might be going on, including mental health, physical disability, whatever, but you did it, you gained the weight. And you will feel trapped with no light at the end of the tunnel because you always told yourself you could undo it, but now you’ve tried and you’ve failed. You’re stuck.
Fear of success
Equally, you’re afraid of success. That sounds whacked, doesn’t it? You commit to losing weight, you lose the weight, but you’re afraid of the result? Absolutely.
Because it means, by definition, the only thing making you fat was personal choice. After all, you changed your choices and lost the weight. Ergo, it was all your fault to begin with. That is a huge fear. You can’t blame your parents. You can’t blame your metabolism. You can’t blame your partner who bakes every week. You can’t blame the soft drink company. Or the potato chip company. Or the delicious look of a Dairy Queen cone, dipped in chocolate, frosting mist coming off it as it cools, with the proper swirl on top. Sigh.
It’s. Just. You.
And more importantly, or perhaps just more whacked, post loss, you would then have no excuse not to do stuff. I mentioned previously that I feel intimidated in groups when they start doing sports, and I frequently vote with my feet to not participate. And people will nod, and say to themselves, “I get it, no problem, I understand your reluctance”. But if I lose the weight, and I still don’t want to do the socially physical stuff, then I’ll just be an introverted jerk who apparently just doesn’t like people.
But the excuse of being fat is an all powerful internal voice. “Paul, you don’t have to go hiking, it’s too hard for you, do something smaller. Paul, you don’t have to go kayaking, you’re over the weight limit and it will just capsize. Paul, you don’t have to give up your snowblower and just use a shovel, that’s a heart attack waiting to happen.”
If I lose the weight, I lose my excuses to avoid doing things I don’t want to do. I don’t want to shovel the snow, I just want to use my snowblower for the really small driveway that I have. And when it dies, I’ll buy another one. Because fat me would need it. Thin me will likely still buy it, but feel like a lazy ass when I do.
While this sounds like a cop-out, I don’t mean it that way. This is one of the biggest elements of a change, i.e. what are you giving up? And your brain isn’t itemizing this type of thing in a long list of “pros and cons”, it just niggles at you in the background, a small internal voice that stops you from changing because change might be bad. You lose your buffer zone.
There is nothing more scary though for fat people than losing the weight excuse when it comes to unsuccessful dating. It is a huge “saviour” of your ego to think other people are just shallow and can’t see the “real you”. That if you lost the weight, they’d all come flocking to your door. But what if you lose the weight and they don’t? If you’re single, and getting older, being fat is a great excuse for why you don’t have someone in your life. But if you lose that excuse, at some point, you’d kind of have to accept that it might be you. I’m not saying that is true, I’m saying it is the lessons learned from people who lost the weight, and expected their whole life would change for the better. Instead, they found out that weight was only part of who they were, and they are then just starting the journey of change … they had changed their body, but not their mind and soul.
It works similarly for friendship. Some people tell themselves that their friends are TRUE friends because they are friends with them even when they’re fat. They’ve seen other people who have dropped them as friends, only hanging out with attractive thin people. If they lose the weight, they worry that they won’t know if someone likes them for them or how they look (don’t get me started on just how messed up this is as an excuse, I’m just saying it happens).
Usually, the solution is to focus on what being fat means to someone…a source / tool to help with safety, anger, withdrawal? And then substitute other things in place of being fat / eating unhealthy foods / living unhealthy that still meets that need. Not unlike there being different sources of carbs or proteins, there are different tools to allow you to withdraw if need be that are not likely to kill you in 20 years.
Fear of conflict
Make no mistake, my commitment to change represents huge conflict. I have declared war on my body. Not just the physical side, the emotional and psychological side too. Over the last few weeks, as I’ve started blogging, my whole psyche is in active revolt. Every self-sabotaging behaviour is popping up to try and defeat me. There are some days, or perhaps times within a day rather than whole days, where I’m barely keeping it together. I picked up a drink the one day downstairs at work and was back at my desk, sipping away, and suddenly realized that the person had given me a Coke, not a diet Coke. And I just about lost my sh**. I felt so demoralized, I crashed. Angry, afraid, ashamed, and it was all about some stupid f***ing drink. Except, of course, it’s not. I’m unravelling 40 years of bad body health, and as I do, some of the psych stuff comes up. I’m not freaking out at the bottle of Coke, I’m freaking out about the last 40 years of eating and letting myself do it. Because food was a source of comfort to me. And a way to insulate myself from the world, literally an extra layer of protection. Something I didn’t worry about, and now I have to in order to accomplish my goal.
Emotionally, I’m a wreck. I’ve watched a few shows on TV in the last 2 months, and emotional scenes — weddings, funerals, hugging kids — are wiping me out every time. I’ve got tears running every damn time. You know the phrase, “I’m not crying. You’re crying.”? Nope, it’s me.
I’ve mentioned before that I have a big scary post coming up. Next week I talk about what changed to overcome this balancing act between the forces propelling me forward and the resistors holding me back. That post will be fine, actually a fun one to contemplate. But the one after that is scary as hell for me. Bigger than just blogging about stuff. And the other day, I found myself thinking of other topics I could write about in the future related to my journey, and I was like, “oh, oh, oh, there’s a GOOD one, I should do that before the scary one”. Not because I need to do it then, but just because I was trying to delay things. I’ve already delayed it enough. I could have gone with it when I started, but I wasn’t ready. So my inner voice said, “No, bore them with the rabbit hole full of your stupid-ass brain farts first because then they’ll already know you’re crazy, and it will postpone it for several weeks in the meantime”.
And I’m going through this battle even though I’m not doing this alone. I have professional support, both on the physical and mental side, plus emotional resources to draw upon. And I’m still at war.
It is a war between two sides of my life. The forward looking, do what’s good for me, rational side vs. the side that is now saying “leave me the f*** alone, you douchebag, we had a deal…you eat what you want, and I don’t mess with your head.” Well, the deal’s off, and it is definitely messing with my head. Even with all my forces marshaled against it.
It’s one of the reasons I’m blogging about the journey. Fear hides in the shadows, it can’t stand the harsh light of day. And while it is fighting back, I am hoping it will lose its power long enough for me to break the chains that are holding me in place.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself
I may have nothing else to fear but fear itself, but it has consistently kicked my ass over the last 40 years. If you read through the above list, it doesn’t sound like equal weight to the costs that should motivate me to change. Yet for 40 years, it has held me in its grip, unable to reliably commit to a new way of life.
Will alone wasn’t enough. Combatting dysfunctional beliefs and excuses wasn’t enough.
I needed something new to tip the balance. I found it in a very unlikely source.