Maintaining a Healthy Weight - Part 2

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.
So how do you know if your attributional style might be at least partly responsible for your problems with maintaining a desirable weight? More importantly, what do you do about it? Here are three suggestions to get you started:
1. Observe how you talk to yourself when something goes wrong.
If you’re caught up in The Three P’s of Failure…
  • You probably talk to yourself in ways that you’d never dream of talking to a friend, or even someone you don’t like very much. When something goes wrong, you may call yourself names, feel extremely ashamed, agitated, and/or angry with yourself, and become emotionally and verbally abusive towards yourself.
  • You don’t spend much time or effort thinking through what’s happened in an objective way, rather you just jump straight to the conclusion: “This happened because there is something seriously wrong with me that isn’t going to change, and I am doomed to fail forever.”
  • Emotionally, you can go from disappointment to despair and hopelessness in a few seconds, usually over something that’s pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things—a bowl of ice cream or a missed exercise session. The end result is that you rarely learn anything from your own experience, and this pattern just keeps repeating itself, with no progress towards changing the unwanted behavior.
Part of this process is unconscious, and if you’ve been doing this for a while (and gotten pretty good at it), it happens so fast that it doesn’t seem like there are any steps or stages to it. But, in order to intervene and stop this process, you need a rough idea of how it works:
  • Something happens (You gain a pound or two, skip an exercise session, or eat something you wanted to avoid, etc.) and you feel a “normal” level of anxiety, guilt, or disappointment—the feeling that motivates us to try again.
  • You to start thinking about why this happened and unconscious assumption 1 kicks in, causing you leap to the conclusion there is something wrong with you, without benefit of doubt or investigation—you just “know” it’s true.
  • Now you feel a little worse (mild shame, self-blame, etc.), so you start thinking about how to deal with this problem, and assumption 2 kicks in: You “realize” that you’re always going to have this problem, it’s just the way you are.
  • Your feelings escalate to desperation, frustration, and helplessness. This is getting very unpleasant, so you try once more to think your way out of the mess. But now assumption 3 kicks in, and you’re forced to admit that you’re really a pretty poor excuse for a human being, and that’s not going to change.
  • Your feelings are in high gear—self-hatred and hopelessness on top of everything else—and more thinking isn’t going to help. You have to do something to make these feelings go away.
  • If you have learned some basic skills in emotional self-management, maybe you’ll just blow off your diet for the rest of the day (or week), or go on a short-term binge. Some people do much worse to themselves.
  • Once the storm is over, you’ll reconfirm what you concluded about yourself—that there is something wrong with you that you can’t control or manage.
This process will continue until you begin thinking about your unconscious assumptions and the effect they have on you.
2. Interrupt your self-talk process before it turns into a full-blown storm.
The good news is that you can effectively interrupt this cycle at any point along the way—the earlier the better. Unless you are perfect, you’ll occasionally do something you’ll wish you hadn’t. It isn’t good to avoid normal feelings of anxiety, guilt, and disappointment—these feelings motivate us.
So, the first place you can reasonably intervene is when you first start thinking about what has gone wrong. The best possible intervention at this stage is to not think about it at all. Simply acknowledge what you did, how you feel about it, (“I just ate three helpings of lasagna, and I really feel like a jerk right now.”), and move on without letting your assumptions have their way with you.  
If you continue to feel bad, distract yourself. Focus on something else completely unrelated. Practice this until you’re pretty confident that you can successfully intervene whenever you want to. Until you reach that point, don’t waste time or effort trying to challenge your assumptions directly—they’ll win every time until you’ve mastered the art of intervening in your own process.

Intervention will probably feel a little uncomfortable, unnatural, and even scary at first. It’ll be both tempting and easy to “fail” at this, too, because that’s what you expect. But this is do-able, and well worth any temporary discomfort you may feel.
3. Practice positive self-talk and affirmations.
To accomplish the ultimate goal (replacing unhelpful assumptions with ones that help you reach a goal), you need to be comfortable with thinking, saying, and hearing positive statements about yourself. For most people who struggle with The Three P’s of Failure, this is harder and more unpleasant than anyone might expect. We do want to hear good things said about ourselves, don’t we? Not if it contradicts our basic assumptions about ourselves!  So, once again, be forewarned. You may experience some discomfort, like a mix of free-floating anxiety and guilt. Take this as an indication you are on the right track.
Begin with some simple daily affirmations and positive self-talk when things are going well. Acknowledge when you’ve done well, and take appropriate credit for what you’ve accomplished—don’t pass it off as a fluke, or tell yourself you couldn’t have done it without someone else’s help. You may have had help, and it’s fine to thank the people who helped you, but recognize that you are the one who succeeded. Keep a list of these small and large accomplishments; read and update it every day. Recognize the skills and positive characteristics that enabled you to succeed, and write them down. Start with the basics:
  • I am a good person, and I deserve respect.
  • I choose to respect myself today by refusing to engage in verbal or emotional self-abuse.
  • I have been successful at many things I have set out to do, and I can learn to do better at the things that give me problems.
There are dozens of books and lists of affirmations available, which you can draw on if you have trouble thinking up your own, including several threads on the SparkPeople Message Boards.
When it comes to choosing the particular messages you want to include in your positive self-talk and affirmations, there is one simple guideline: If you have an emotional reaction to it (positive or negative), or if you find yourself responding to it with disbelief or scorn, it’s probably just what you need to be telling yourself every day.
If you work on these three steps diligently, they will become an automatic part of your daily routine. From there, it won’t take long to prepare yourself for the next step: replacing The Three P’s of Failure with The Three S’s of Success!