I’m going to offer a radical perspective. It’s an alternate perspective from how most people are wired. I’m not saying it’s the ultimate truth. It’s not the truth, but it can be a really useful and effective perspective in your weight loss journey.
The radical, alternate perspective: Losing weight won’t make you happier. Losing weight won’t make you feel better about yourself.
I was listening to a podcast with Joanne Dahl, PhD, talking about how looking at neurology, we know humans have 5 times more negative thoughts than they do positive thoughts. That means you’re probably going to have some negative thoughts about yourself, from time to time, for the rest of your life.
Most of the really good personal trainers I know really doubt their abilities a lot of the time. I’ve met people who’ve gotten PhDs try to escape feeling like they aren’t good enough, and still feel like they aren’t good enough. For those curious, it’s called “imposter syndrome,” and most people who aren’t sociopaths feel it at least part of the time.
I’ve had clients who got down to 16% (amazingly lean) or 14% body fat (which is pretty much as lean as a woman can get), with other gym members asking if they were cover models for fitness magazines, and who still didn’t feel good about themselves. I hate to even use numbers in this discussion, but I wanted to illustrate that someone can get to as lean as a person can get, and still not feel good about her body most of the time.
So, if a trainer can get as much education as is possible, and still not feel educated enough, and a human can get as lean as possible, and not feel lean enough, what are we left with?
That humans are wired to have negative thoughts sometimes.
And that’s ok.
I like to get my clients results, because that’s what they are paying me for. That being said, I’d also like them to feel proud of what they are doing.
And that’s the closest thing I can find to a secret: What they are doing.
I don’t want people to pursue feeling better, or happier, or have more self-esteem, or any of that crap.
I want to help my clients take actions that they can be proud of. I want them to take actions that are in line with their personal values, and what matters to them. I want them to take actions that they feel like are good for them in the long term. I want to focus on what they do.
Happiness is like the weather, sometimes it comes and sometimes it goes. But no good comes of chasing it. Likewise, sometimes people feel good about themselves, other times they feel bad about themselves, we aren’t going to chase that either. Instead, we’re going to work on taking actions they can be proud of.
(Sorry, couldn’t stop the Mariah Carey reference!)
Said another way, I’m not going to go to work on your emotions. And, being a personal trainer, that makes my life a lot simpler.
People get caught up in emotional eating because they eat to avoid feeling bad. I recommend just feeling bad. People drink to avoid feeling bad. Again, I recommend just feeling bad. “Bad” is something humans feel sometimes.
If you look at nature, there is always a mixture of both sides:
feeling good/feeling bad
blue sky/rain storm
But most people try to avoid feeling bad. As if feeling bad is soemthing that should never happen. Most people do this cycle: Feel bad -> emotional eat -> feel bad -> emotional eat -> feel bad -> emotional eat -> feel bad -> emotional eat. It’s a downward spiral.
I’m not concerned with what’s going on inside, because I know that inside feelings and thoughts are like the weather. In personal training we aren’t going to “fix” your internal weather (if anyone anywhere can). Instead, we’re concerned with if you are taking actions that are in line with your personal values. I’m concerned if you are taking actions you’re proud of.
I recommend: Feel bad -> Take an action that you will be proud of -> feel bad -> take an action you will be proud of -> feel bad -> take an action you will be proud of.
Not even all of the time. Heck, if we do that part of the time or most of the time, that’s usually enough for most people to hit their goals.
Now, a person might think, “Hey, if I take actions I’m proud of, I’ll probably feel good!” And you might. But we don’t actually care about that. We just care about you taking actions that you could be proud of. Then you feel however you feel.
Again, we’re just going to assume that part of the human condition is going to include feeling bad.
Another acceptance and commitment therapy researcher, Russ Harris, PhD, wrote a book called “Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong.” He’s said that the truth of human life is that there is no “might,” that the title really should have been “Things WILL Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong.” Bad stuff happens, even to good people.
We’re looking at not trying to control what happens to us (we can’t) and not trying to control how we feel (we mostly can’t), but instead control what we actually can control: The actions we take.
What’s cool about this perspective, is that we just accept that it’s normal for humans to feel bad sometimes.
That’s ok. We just work on the actions (those are your food habits) that you’ll be proud of doing. We work on actions that are connected to things that are important to you.
For people who are concerned about producing results, don’t worry, taking action is the only path to results anyway. Taking actions. Taking actions. Taking actions.
So we’re just going to work on you taking actions that you can be proud of. And, we’re going to work on taking actions with a consistency you can be proud of.
And that’s where it comes full circle: They people who’ve lost weight who say it “changed their lives” are missing the point — what changed their lives was taking actions they could be proud of, and being consistent in a way they could be proud of.
It was a day in, day out, taking actions
in alignment with their values
that changed their lives.
And it’s the same for you — It’s the actions that make a difference for your life.
If we can’t control being happy or sad, we instead pursue a life lived in actions that have meaning for us, doing things that matter to us, and doing things that fit with our personal values.
Let’s say you choose that your health and fitness matter to you, and that consistency and longevity matter to you. You can take actions that align with that today.
You can do a workout that builds your fitness, that’s a workout you know you can do consistently, and working on things that matter to you long term. You could do that immediately, today.
And then, what that workout looks like 10 years from will be different. But that workout today and that workout 10 years from now are both in alignment with your values.
A huge mistake people make is thinking that they have to do the workout for 10 years from now, today. And they try and force it. They try to cram, and cheat, and skip ahead. And that always sucks. Maybe they even get hurt. Or maybe it’s miserable and they feel like a failure.
The lie people tell themselves is that skipping ahead is in line with their values. But it isn’t. No ones values include forcing it, cheating, and trying to skip ahead. Your values are what’s important to you and healthy for you in the long term.
People’s values usually have things like doing the work, being consistent, being someone they can be proud of. But you can’t skip ahead. You just have to take an action that you can be proud of taking today. And you can be smart about taking that action, and be proud of being smart about it. Be proud of taking an action that aligns with your values, whatever that looks like today.
Wait, figuring out my values is hard!
I know right?!?!
If I just gave you a meal plan, or some ridiculous rules about foods that are evil, it would be a lot simpler.
I know it takes work to think about what matters to you (your values) and what’s good for you in the long run (your values) and the kind of person you want to be (also, your values). But that’s the kind of work that matters.
Take some time, go for a walk, do some journaling. Brainstorm. Write down a million things, then rank them. Edit. Narrow it down to what’s most important. Work on this a little bit every week or every month.
Then, you have a filter to look at which actions to take. You either have actions that move towards what matters to you…
…or you have actions that take you away from thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable.
And you can sort those actions.
You can notice which ones are which: Which actions are aligned with your values… and which actions are about avoiding thoughts and emotions.
And you can take the actions that connect to what matters to you. You can live a life based on what you say is important.
It’s just a perspective.
It’s a perspective that’s heavily influenced by looking into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Georgie found a randomized controlled trial with ACT where the people got really solid weight loss results, so I started looking in to ACT and the research associated with it. Some of the basic tenants of ACT inspired this post.
What’s great about everything I found is that it’s actually really accessible: Figure out your values, and go to work on actions that align with those. It’s a great framework for working on food and weight loss. It’s a great framework for any kind of habit coaching.
Positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, PhD, and Martin Seligman, PhD, have both talked about worrying and negativity being the brains default position, but that you can take actions that are positive, engaging, and bring meaning to your life.
I hope, in reading this article, you get some flexibility in how you relate to negative thoughts about yourself and your body.
Just know that you’re having thoughts, and that human beings have negative thoughts.
You can have negative thoughts sometimes, just like all the other humans, and still take actions that are good for you in the long run, aligned with your values, and are the actions you can be proud of taking.
P.S. For the personal trainers who read this blog, this is another cool example of how we actually don’t have to sort out people’s psychological issues. All we have to do is ask them about what matters to them, (their values) and then develop a plan together where the actions align with their values. And the actions can ramp up over time. All we need to do is be really interested in what matters to them, and coach actions. You might want to check out:
P.P.S. For normal folks reading this who might want to dig deeper, a couple books you might check out are:
I just started reading both of them, so I’m recommending them on the strength of hearing Russ Harris talk about diffusion, and JoAnne Dahl talk about values. Hearing them talk about this stuff was mind-blowing, so I’m sure their respective books are awesome.
P.P.P.S If you’re into research on weight loss and acceptance and commitment therapy, here some randomized controlled trials:
Forman, E. M., Butryn, M. L., Manasse, S. M., Crosby, R. D., Goldstein, S. P., Wyckoff, E. P. & Thomas, J. G. (2016). Acceptance-based versus standard behavioral treatment for obesity: Results from the mind your health randomized controlled trial. Obesity, 24, 2050–2056. doi:10.1002/oby.21601
Nourian, L., & Aghaei, A. (2015). Effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy on the body mass index in women afflicted with obesity. Iranian Journal of Psychiatric Nursing, 3, 11-20.
Katterman, S. N., Goldstein, S. P., Butryn, M. L., Forman, E. M., & Lowe, M. R. (2014). Efficacy of an acceptance-based behavioral intervention for weight gain prevention in young adult women. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 3, 45-50.
P.P.P.P.S. There’s way more to this, but we’re at 2000 words already. Other pieces definitely coming down the pike include mindfulness and food, and some tools to approach those thoughts and feelings that get in the way of taking actions that are aligned with your stated values.