We talk a lot about all the good things that come with weight loss. There's the lower risk of heart disease, improved cholesterol, increased mobility, renewed confidence, reduced chance of diabetes—the list goes on (and on and on). But parting with pounds can also come with some not-so-positive side effects, many of which go unspoken, disguised or overlooked.
Like weight loss guilt.
Sounds crazy, right? After all, guilt is typically associated with midnight refrigerator raids, fast food drive-thru trips and skipped workouts. Why, then, would anyone feel guilty about successfully losing weight and embracing a healthier lifestyle?
SparkPeople member Mary Anne (SUNNYBEACHGIRL) never expected to feel that way. During her weight-loss program, she and a longtime friend became walking partners, clocking two to three miles most days. But Mary Anne's friend didn't share her new commitment to healthy eating. While Mary Anne focused on tracking her foods on SparkPeople, preparing nutritious meals at home and steering clear of eating out, her friend continued to choose processed foods and high-calorie restaurants. As her health improved and their walks grew less challenging for Mary Anne, she started exploring other fitness options and the two no longer exercise together.
"It's hard to watch her get heavier and less agile," Mary Anne says. "It's difficult to be around someone who eats unhealthy food. You cannot help people accept the truth about their food choices, but it's harder to have them criticize your healthy choices. I feel badly that our friendship is not as strong, but I want to maintain my health and physical ability."
Why Does Weight Loss Make Us Feel Guilty?
Achieving your weight-loss goals can be one of the most exciting and liberating feelings you'll ever experience—and in an ideal situation, everyone in your circle will be just as thrilled with your accomplishment. But as weight-loss therapist Dr. Candice Seti points out, it is common for others to feel jealousy, which can then trigger feelings of guilt in the one who has lost the weight.
"The reality is that most of us have weight-loss goals and most of us don't achieve them, which sets us up for feelings of envy and frustration when we see others achieve them," she explains. "But feeling guilty for achieving your goals does nothing to help you or them."
The guilt is often amplified when multiple people are trying to lose weight together, such as within a couple or alongside a group of friends or co-workers. Even when everyone sticks to the same exercise or nutrition program, other factors—such as metabolism, age and body type—can cause some to lose significantly more or faster than others.
In addition, Dr. Seti says, sharing your weight loss successes with others can sometimes feel like boasting or bragging. "For many, that much self-focus doesn’t feel natural, and can set them up for feelings of guilt."
And positive feedback, even when it's delivered with full support and encouragement, can also trigger misguided shame. "Many people become self-conscious and uncomfortable with comments from others about how great they look," notes Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed. Particularly for those who have never felt confident or comfortable with their own bodies, shifting their mindset to accept compliments can be a struggle.
Finally, many people who have changed their lifestyles might feel guilty about the time they have taken away from their families, households, jobs or other personal interests in the pursuit of weight loss.
How to Overcome Weight Loss Guilt
While weight loss might not be the boundless bliss you imagined, you don't have to let nagging feelings of misguided guilt suck all the joy out of your success. With a little mindfulness, you can learn how to squash that shame and embrace your newfound health and confidence.
Be mindful of your audience.
While it's absolutely okay—and even healthy—for you to take immense pride in your weight loss achievement, Dr. Seti recommends keeping your audience in mind when discussing it. "If there are people in your life who are super supportive and prideful for you, by all means, share your joy with them on a regular basis," she says. "But if you find there are others who may have difficulty seeing past their own setbacks in order to feel joy for you, you might not share as much with these individuals."
For those folks, instead of waxing eloquent about how many pants sizes you've dropped, take the opportunity to lead by example, serving as a quiet motivator and inspiration. For example, Dr. Seti suggests offering to go for a walk together or making dinner together so you can show how you cook and portion your food. Share tips and ideas that you think might be helpful, without focusing on your individual results.
"Always keep encouraging and supporting, even if they are having a hard time showing their support for you," Dr. Seti says. "You know you have done well and their issues are their own—they are just having trouble seeing past them."
Take control of how you are feeling.
People may be envious of your weight loss, which can trigger guilt for having something they want. If you tend toward guilt—as many dysregulated eaters do, notes Koenig—this is a time to pay strict attention to how you are feeling.
"Remember that no one can 'make' you feel anything, even though we use the expression, 'they made me feel…' often," she says. "People can try to make you feeling something, but only you can choose what to feel."
Don't make it a competition.
Before engaging in a weight-loss program together with a friend, family member, co-worker or loved one, clinical psychologist Aviva Gaskill, Ph.D, says it's best to set some ground rules—specifically, that there is no "race to success."
While many tend to engage in "friendly competitions" that include regular weigh-ins and incentives for those who lose the most weight the fastest, Dr. Gaskill says this can be a destructive practice and should be avoided.
"Talk with your weight-loss partner about the idea of having a 'personal best' and competing with yourself, rather than competing with each other," she advises.
Have an honest conversation.
If a friend, family member or loved one hasn't lost as much weight as you, your first instinct may be to feign blissful ignorance of the contrast. Sidestepping the topic can lead to the proverbial weight-loss white elephant in the room, though, which could end up putting a strain on the rest of the relationship and perhaps cause irreparable damage.
According to Dr. Gaskill, one of the most significant ways to cope with a sense of guilt is to have an honest conversation with your friend, family member or weight-loss partner. Share how you are feeling, and reiterate your support and encouragement of their goals.
"Always continue to encourage each other's hard work, and really stop to listen to the person if they're complaining about how hard it is for them to lose weight instead of writing off their complaint because of your own sense of guilt," she suggests. "Be honest with yourself that you have this sense of guilt and remember that everybody is different."
Give your health the attention it deserves.
It's easy to feel guilty for missing family game night to make a yoga class, for leaving the dirty dishes in the sink in order to squeeze in half an hour on the treadmill or for neglecting your to-do list in order to spend a Sunday afternoon prepping healthy meals. The key is to recognize that by putting your own health, fitness and wellness first, you are setting a positive example.
Talk to your family about why that morning run or hour spent perusing recipes is so important to you, and how taking that time for yourself is helping you to be a happier, healthier version of yourself. Of course, balance is key, as it’s also not healthy to completely neglect your other obligations.
"Your best bet is to stick with feeling proud of taking caring of your health and compassion for others who aren’t doing it as well," Koenig says. "Moreover, rather than being proud of weight loss, feel proud that you value yourself enough to want to be healthy and have acquired the skills and focus to meet your health goals."
Above all, recognize that what you've done for yourself, your family and your future is extraordinary, and try to be graceful if you sense that others want what you have achieved. The best way to maintain your weight loss might just be staying accountable, staying humble and helping others along the way.
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