Health & Wellness Articles

Maintaining a Healthy Weight - Part 2

Psychological Challenges: The 3 P's of Failure

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Why is weight loss—especially keeping it off—so hard? Like other areas of human endeavor, we know what we need to do, and we certainly want to be successful. So what’s the problem? Why don’t we just do what we know we should?
This troubling little quirk of human nature has attracted the attention of scientists, philosophers, theologians, and artists for thousands of years, and there is little reason to think we’ll have an answer anytime soon. But what we do have right now is quite a bit of information on how those who fail often become their own worst enemies, and what successful people (in weight loss and other goals) seem to do differently. From a psychological perspective, The Three P’s of Failure and The Three S’s of Success can help summarize this. 
This article (the second in the three-part series about the challenges of weight maintenance) will focus on the Three P’s of Failure. The third will discuss The Three S’s of Success. (Click here to read “Keeping the Weight Off – Part 1: Biological Challenges of Weight Maintenance”)
The Three P’s of Failure
Looking at the word you wouldn’t notice, but there are actually three P’s in “failure”: Personalized, Permanent, and Pervasive. These terms refer to three elements of what psychologists call your “attributional style”—the basic, often unconscious assumptions you use when explaining to yourself why you do what you do and why you get the results you get.
In a nutshell, people who repeatedly fail at permanent weight loss tend to make three basic assumptions about the problems they encounter:
  1. They assume a personal flaw or characteristic (weakness, incompetence, lack of will power, self-indulgence, etc.) is responsible for the problem. Often, this goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that, when they are in fact successful, it must be due to something external to them—luck, assistance, or force. In other words, they personalize failure and externalize success.

    Not surprisingly, people who are usually successful tend to follow the opposite pattern: they externalize failure and internalize success.
  2. They assume that this personal flaw is permanent, some unchangeable trait they will always have to contend with, rather than something that can be rectified through education, practice, planning, support, or personal growth.

    Again, the most successful people tend to do the opposite. They assume that a personal shortcoming can be changed or worked around—if they put in the appropriate effort.
  3. They assume that the personal, permanent flaw is also pervasive—that it affects all areas of their lives, not just the problem at hand. Thus, everything that goes wrong in one’s life becomes an opportunity to confirm their pessimistic assumptions about themselves. Even when things go well, these basic self-assumptions do not change (because again, success is externalized). This makes it very difficult to learn from negative experiences to make appropriate changes in behavior. Continued ›
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About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

Member Comments

  • It's true, people find it hard to accept compliments. Learning to feel worthy is very important. - 5/3/2016 9:40:01 AM
  • I've always known that I was an emotional eater. That's why telling someone to just eat less and exercise more doesn't work in the long run. I like sparkpeople, because they get that what goes in my mouth is always dependent on what's going on in my mind. - 1/21/2016 10:50:44 PM
  • Great article. If I let things stress me out I will eat alot. So I just put those things behind me now and do me. - 9/12/2013 6:03:19 PM
  • I liked this article. It reinforces that your MINDSET is the 1st step to a positive healthy lifestyle. Get healthy, happy habits in place & the body will naturally follow....I know, its workin for me!!!! - 9/3/2012 12:29:45 PM
  • This is a good article! I have a tendency to make myself crazy when I haven't exercised enough during the day. I am so hard on myself--I wouldn't be that hard on anyone else. Sometimes it bothers me, but last night I was feeling anxious because I should've exercised in the morning like I usually do. Anyway, I thought, well, I guess I messed up today. Oh, well, I guess I'll make sure that I make up for it tomorrow, and then I went to sleep. :) Boy, that was a good feeling. I just let the feeling pass--that was hard--and I moved on. I call it a "do-over"!

    Banan87, you're right, people tend to shut others out during this time--I do this too, but then I realize, hey, don't take it out on them! Of course, sometimes it takes a little longer to figure that out.

    Today, I woke up and worked out, and I felt better overall. It's a process, and I'm still learning. :) - 12/23/2009 10:46:27 PM
  • This article seems to really apply to me, bc forgiving myself is hard. Usually it's not that one bowl of ice cream or one cupcake that will cause me a lot of anxiety and feelings of failure. If I'm feeling guilty for eating something I thought would taste satisfying, but since it caused me to feel bad the treat eally wasen't a treat. I realize that I'm on the right track to eating healthier and next time I am faced with a temting treat I can think twice about how I'm going to feel afterwards. It's when I've made other mistakes in my life, have other feelings of guilt and failure that lead me to overindulge in such things as eating a whole pint of ice cream and pizza. When I'm worrying and feeling that negative it's harder for me to get back on track and reverse the negative thought patterns. It is all in how each of us think of things. - 11/14/2009 5:51:56 PM
  • I attribute all of my success to a change in mental attitude. Moving from the 3 P's to optimism, gratitude and acceptance has been a long process for me and is probably more important to me than the weight loss. It's also why I do not fear weight regain. A healthy lifestyle is not just healthy diet and exercise, it's a healthy mental state as well.

    Thanks for this article. I agree with other posters that it should be a subject more discussed in the weight loss space - most people believe they are unhappy because they are fat. I finally figured out that I was fat because I was unhappy. - 7/27/2009 6:54:20 AM
  • Guess the point of the article ties into the notion that if you beat yourself up and blame yourself -- and you don't lose weight doing that -- perhaps it isn't helpful.

    And honest, there are worse things we can do than blowing our diet. Killing someone out of frustration. Hurting children. Hurting ourselves mentally or physically.

    No, I don't think he means it's good to overeat, especially as a compensation. But if something we think keeps us on track (like blaming ourselves) isn't doing the trick, maybe we need a different trick.

    And... a bowl of ice cream is not the end of the world. If it feels that way - and it doesn't stop the behavior - maybe something other than blaming self or character will help.

    I sometimes see people say "I had a cupcake, I was soo bad." Nah. Ya had a cupcake. The next step is not another cupcake to punish yourself though that's something I used to understand. It's... do something else. And for heaven's sake, LOVE YOU. You're all worth it, you truly are. - 1/27/2009 10:24:57 PM
  • i know im leaving a lot of comments but whats worse than blowing your diet for a week or binging)) i mean im curious what else could be the result of self-hatred)) i tend to shut people out when im in that place of mind.. is that connected - 12/8/2008 5:36:35 PM
  • you make it sound so easy and you make it sound like its ok to eat a whole bowl of ice cream!! at the moment, its the end of the world, its doing the deadly sin that you promised yourself over and over that you will never do again but you keep doing over and over and you say this is the last time but deep down you know its not.. you know that its something bigger than you and neither your money, your friends nor your will power is going to help you stop (a moment inside a guilty perfectionist mind)

    FORGIVE AND FORGET its not the end of the world, guilt is toxic, dont punish yourself by eating until you're numb.. forgive yourself before that happens - 12/8/2008 5:31:38 PM
  • first of all i agree with mainrocks this article should not only be for ppl who are trying to maintain their weight, it should be out in the open for every1 who was on a diet, is dieting now, or thinking about following a diet in the future.. DIETS ARE MEANT TO fail.
    i failed to lose weight permanently and i think of my self as a SUCCESS and im not giving up but its stupid to follow the same pattern as last time because if nothing changes and i dont add anything (like education, personal growth) the outcome will be the same.. gain back the weight.
    why not teach how to maintain our weight at school especially the young who are pressured to be super thin

    - 12/8/2008 5:01:40 PM
  • I wish this article wasn't under Maintaining a Healthy Weight because I think it would be really beneficial for a lot of people to read during the weight loss journey, not just at the goal line. It's really an excellent article and an interesting perspective on why people sometimes fail. - 10/9/2008 9:27:54 AM
  • Fantastic article - possibly the best I've read on SP! Have you been looking in my windows and reading my mind? (Just kidding!) What I like best about this article is that it relates to sooooo many aspects of life...way more than just the weight loss journey. What I'll take away from this article will help me most in the area of personal relationships. Thank you for the life-changing epiphany! - 9/16/2008 9:45:17 AM
  • Great article. We should all resolve that we WILL get to our goal and stay there. - 5/3/2008 11:07:51 PM
    It's as if this article is written specifically about me... It's an eye opener! I've learnt about appraisals before but this article really put it into a context that I could relate to. Thank you SOOOO much Coach Dean!! - 2/12/2008 3:00:03 PM

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