The Trap (or double bind) of Weight Loss
Usually when clients share that their goal is to lose weight, I ask them why that goal is really important to them. The answer is often that when they finally lose the weight and have the body they’ve always wanted they will feel better about themselves or more confident. What I hear that worries me is the idea that beneath the goal for weight loss and more confidence is the underlying self-message of “When I lose the weight I will like myself or love myself”. Lately as I’ve met with clients and I’ve heard the I wonder is it a good idea (or is it a healthy mindset?) that confidence and good feelings about oneself are being projected 6 months or a year from now?
Borrowing from something I’ve learned as a family therapist, I realized that this type of condition (“I will feel better about myself when I lose the weight”) a person creates with themselves is often times a losing game and sets up what is called a double bind or the Trap of weight loss.
Let me explain what a double bind is. The term comes from communication theorists Gregory Bateson, in which an individual or group receives two or more conflicting messages, in which one message negates the other. For example, when an anxious lover commands her partner with “You must love me!” The overt message is the direct command of the partner needing to love her, but the unspoken and contradicting idea that love is spontaneous and must occur of the partner’s free will.
Another example is sarcasm which we all can recognize when someone’s words do not match their tone. “Oh, that’s a nice shirt you got there!” said in a sarcastic tone is very different than what the words alone would suggest. The words and tone in the case of sarcasm are moving in opposite directions. The words are a compliment and the tone is an insult. Handling a person’s sarcasm can be difficult because they can easily backtrack and say, “C’mon I was only kidding!”
Similarly, when an individual sets themselves up with the goal of “I will feel confident when I lose the weight “ or as I have suggested “If I lose the weight I will love myself more” they are also giving themselves a second underlying message of “I don’t love myself as I am today.”
The conditionality of self-love, as in the above example, creates a toxic mental environment; one where a person can get caught up in a pattern of berating themselves for failing to make the changes in diet or exercise they had expected of themselves. For example, when an individual who is having a busy week at work can’t bring themselves to the gym and they start to feel guilty and think to themselves, “What’s wrong with me? I keep eating like crap! I guess I don’t have enough willpower to get myself to the gym. I’m never going to reach my goal!”
What I am suggesting is how you talk or coach or nurture yourself, especially during any change process, but especially in trying to live a healthier lifestyle, matters!
Having a healthy balanced mindset, one which includes self-love and self-compassion, lays the foundation for long term changes towards a healthier lifestyle.
Every healthy action or conscious thought you do/think today can be seen as an expression of self-love and that can be an empowering thing. Rather than waiting to love yourself or liking yourself or feeling more confident someday down the line when you lose X pounds, why not empower yourself with those feelings today in the present moment?
“I’m going to make healthy food choices because my health matters to me.” (self-love)
“Sometimes I’ll slip and make unhealthy food choices, but that’s ok because we all make mistakes sometimes. I can keep going.”
Compare these examples where the individual is practicing loving self-talk to the more punitive stance of, “Why can’t you get yourself together?”, “You’re never going to lose this weight eating like that you know?!”, “Why did you eat that? Now you’re really going to pay for it! Might as well give up now because there’s no hope!”
I’ll tell you from my own experience that confidence (or self-love) doesn’t exist in the future. Reserving self-love for some time in the future is akin to dangling a carrot on a stick in front of your face for the rest of your life and expecting to eat. Rather I have found that the feeling of confidence and self-love can exist in the present moment. Practicing feeling confident and thinking positively about myself and my health in the present moment is what helped me build confidence in myself and my ability to take care of my body.
When I first started to change my eating habits, I had to get over the self-consciousness of being teased for all the dietary changes I was making. When I could really take ownership of my health and say “This is my body and I need to take care of it! When my body’s old and breaking down from high blood pressure or heart disease where are these fries going to be? Where will these friends be?”
The double bind of weight loss helps us understand why individuals who embark on a path of trying to live healthier and weight loss end up facing a great deal of resistance. When we are not clear about our motivation for change or for weight loss and when we don’t have a healthy mindset to support ourselves, we can end up creating an oppressive feeling of shame that makes it impossible to achieve a state of health. For many of us this may be the result of constantly being bombarded with media instilled ideas of how a person should look and this endless consumption of idealized body images contributes to that sense of shame or feeling of “I am not good enough as I am today.”
Lately, I’ve come to think of health as a lifelong practice or a path rather than a set destination I am trying to reach. As I’ve gotten older I find that my definition of health is needing constant updates (not unlike my iPhone!). I no longer define my health by how much weight I can lift but instead by how I feel: my mood and energy, making healthy food choices, having fun and enjoying movement. How do you define health?
I truly believe that health begins in your mindset and your approach to your body. This is in contrast to a mindset that is punitive and conditional like the common phrase “whipping yourself into shape!” as if you were a slave to yourself. By mindset I am referring to the way a person talks, feels and relates to their physical health, which may include the idea of maintaining a healthy weight.
As much as I am advocating self love and compassion as important to a healthy mindset, a conditional punitive mindset is not benign. When your mindset causes you stress with thoughts such as “I can’t lose this weight ” or “I’m not good enough” or “I’m fat” this ignites a physiological stress response inside of you (specifically, the fight or flight response) which research shows diminishes willpower and makes the need for comfort and often times an unhealthy coping strategy such as food or alcohol all the more necessary! It seems that a negative mindset is not only unhelpful but harmful to your goals.
One way to think of this is: when you feel like shit you eat like shit. So how can you untangle yourself from the double bind of weight loss? It begins in the way you speak and feel about yourself today. Are you able to love and appreciate yourself as you are today? Can you accept yourself just as you are with love and kindness right now? Can you offer yourself the support, coaching, and encouragement that you would give to your friend that was struggling with their own self-critic?
The idea that you get to feel good if and when you have managed to make yourself look a certain way is exactly the type of emotional blackmailing that results in unhealthy relationships that I sometimes see in families and marriages. Rather than objectifying the body and what it should become in the future and planning to feel good some time (who knows when?!) down the line; a healthy mindset is the foundation to a healthy body and the path of creating a healthy mindset can begin today in this very moment.
I admit it is not easy to develop a healthy mindset. It takes a long time. For some even years. But not prioritizing or doing the work of creating a healthy mindset can have dire consequences. The most extreme cases are those who appear to be incredibly fit and healthy on the outside and who seem to do all the right things on the outside but who struggle inwardly and tragically with an eating disorder.
Kelly Mcgonigal has written an excellent book titled ‘The Willpower Instinct’ which reviews the psychological research that demonstrates the power of using a self-compassionate stance in the process of changing a behavior such as trying to lose weight. In her book she outlines three simple steps anyone can use when they have slipped up on their diet and exercise program.
1. Notice your thoughts and feelings. How are you speaking to yourself about your body today? How are you thinking about these perceived failures? Are you telling yourself to just ‘give up?’ Notice the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that arise when you reflect on your body and your relationship to it.
2. Connect to your common humanity. Kelly suggests, and cites research, that reminding ourselves that everyone messes up sometimes along the process of change and growth is comforting and normalizing since we often feel that we are alone in our struggles. Everyone makes mistakes and no one is perfect so try to keep this fact in mind.
3. Self-compassion. Try to speak gently and encouragingly to yourself. What would you say to a friend in your situation? What words would help encourage them? Use these words with yourself and you may find yourself more at ease and confident in your ability to do the things you want to do to be healthy.
If you find yourself speaking to yourself in a kinder more passionate way then you will know you are on the path of creating a healthier mindset.
By now I hope that it is clear that an unhealthy mindset , one that shames, cajols or criticizes creates exactly the context that leads people to fail and quit their healthy eating and exercise programs. A balanced mindset, one that combines the desire for change and growth with self-love and compassion lays the foundation that will support you through the process of change and help you sustain healthy habits for the rest of your life. Being ‘healthy’ is not simply a matter of the body, but the mind and that is something you can change right now.
What are the thoughts or ways you speak to yourself regarding your body that are not helpful?
Have you set up conditions for yourself that you’ll ‘like’ yourself more or feel more ‘confident’ if and when you lose the weight?
Take a moment to reflect on how these thought patterns make you feel? Are you empowered or disempowered? When you (as we all do) inevitably slip up and eat something that is not so healthy, how do you speak to yourself then? How could you speak to yourself (taking some of the ideas from above) that would encourage you to try again and not give up?
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