By Bob Greene
ON SOME DAYS, MOTIVATION comes easily. You just feel tired of your old life and ready to make a new one for yourself. Bring on the challenge, you say to yourself, I’m ready to go. Then the next day . . . you aren’t. That inspired feeling, that drive to do things differently, has slipped through your fingers like grains of sand. Where did it go? Why do you feel a strong incentive to change one day and so unmotivated the next?
We all have barriers that can get in the way of our success. It’s part of the human condition, where nothing is simple and everything is interconnected. Messy thoughts and emotions, complex relationships, deeply imprinted habits, disquieting memories, the demands of a very complicated world—these things all conspire to set up roadblocks that make it difficult to achieve our goals. And when one of those goals is to achieve a healthier weight, our human physiological wiring also gets thrown into the mix, adding another obstacle to success. Once you get fired up about something and want to change, it should be easy to sustain that drive and enthusiasm. It should be easy, but there are many, many reasons why it’s not.
Those reasons—barriers, as I call them—are at the heart of this book. The following chapters are going to discuss them in detail and, most important, give you direction on how to overcome them. First, though, I’d like to talk about eight of those barriers that I think are particularly significant. Professionals who work in the field of weight loss find that these eight barriers are especially prevalent among people who are on the diet and exercise roller coaster. When someone continually goes on and off weight loss programs, always gaining back the weight that was lost, it’s almost certain that one or more of these obstacles are standing in his or her way. And not only do these obstacles derail healthy eating and exercise, they also erode motivation. So even if you start out gung ho for change, it’s hard to stay motivated when you are constantly hitting the equivalent of a cement wall.
While we’ll be dealing with these eight barriers in considerable depth throughout the book, I want to introduce you to them now to get you thinking about what might be the biggest challenges to your own success, and to prepare you to examine yourself on an even deeper level in the chapters to come. You may find that one or more of these eight barriers apply to you, while some of them do not. At the very least, though, reading through them may help you better grasp the concept of why losing weight isn’t just a matter of finding the right diet and exercise plan. A lot of people are quick to blame failure on the diets or exercise programs they’ve tried, believing that if they could only discover an absolutely spectacular plan, their motivation would never flag and they would achieve long-term weight loss. The truth is, that kind of thinking only distracts you from discovering what’s really preventing you from achieving a healthier weight, and it keeps you from doing the work you need to do to be successful. Taking an honest look at what you want in life and figuring out what you need to do to get there is a much better way to spend your time—and a much greater predictor of success.
Are you aware of any of the barriers that might have prevented you from losing weight in the past? Some people can accurately name the barriers they face; however, many are completely unaware of their existence. Or they’re focusing on the wrong ones. This book is all about helping you find the right ones—the barriers that are affecting you personally. Sometimes you just need someone to hold up a mirror so that you can see yourself better, and that’s our aim here. Becoming aware of what’s standing in your way is the first step toward surmounting those hurdles.
Almost everyone who has achieved something meaningful has overcome some kind of barrier. It’s a powerful experience that changes your life in profound ways. One of the critical differences between people who are successful and those who aren’t is that successful people view obstacles as a challenge. Think of basketball great Michael Jordan, who, if you can believe it, was actually cut from his high school basketball team. Albert Einstein was harshly criticized when he first presented some of his ideas, and one of America’s most beloved poets, Emily Dickinson, published little in her lifetime and was reviewed unfavorably by critics, but she kept writing nonetheless. There are countless examples of people who have not let setbacks stand in their way.
When you take action to improve your situation and overcome whatever is preventing you from losing weight, you won’t end up with just a slimmer body. You will end up with a newfound confidence and drive, an ability to take control of your life and make the things that you want in all areas of your life happen. Losing weight, while important, is the least of it. Identifying and overcoming your barriers helps you become not just a physically healthier person but also a psychologically and emotionally healthier person. That’s when you’re going to be living a much richer and more fulfilling life.
EIGHT SIGNIFICANT BARRIERS TO SUCCESS
Barrier 1: An Aversion to Discomfort and Pain
Like all creatures, we are programmed to move toward pleasure and to avoid pain. It’s part of our survival instincts. Let’s forget the pleasure half of the equation for a moment and talk about pain—or, really, its somewhat lesser cousin, discomfort. The most obvious things that cause discomfort and make it hard for people to change their eating and exercise habits are (1) the anxiety and dissatisfaction they feel when they are denied foods that their bodies crave with every inch of their being, and (2) the unpleasant (and slightly panicky) feeling that arises during exercise when their breathing accelerates and their muscles begin to throb. I want the instant gratification of my chocolate muffin. My stomach rumbles if I don’t have something to eat before bed. I don’t want to feel sweaty or my heart beating against my chest. Anyone who hates deprivation and physical exertion—and a large number of people do—is going to find it hard to stick to a plan that requires coping with both things regularly.
Everybody, though, experiences discomfort differently, and many people have a higher threshold for discomfort than others. That’s one thing that may separate those who are eventually able to lose weight and keep it off from those who can’t seem to get it right. But success—or failure—as it relates to discomfort is not quite as simple as that. Eating unhealthfully and avoiding physical activity not only lets people evade unpleasant things like chocolate withdrawal and sweaty gym clothes, it allows them to dodge dealing with uncomfortable emotional pain. For those people, especially if they’re emotional overeaters, the biggest barrier to weight loss is an aversion to the pain or discomfort of confronting personal issues.
And yet here is an odd little twist to the whole idea of how an aversion to discomfort and pain can get in the way of long-term weight loss. Angela Taylor, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles who specializes in eating disorders and weight management, points out that some people also use something they find painful—say, a feeling of self-loathing and embarrassment about being fat—to motivate them to change their eating and exercise habits. That might sound like a good thing, and it can be a good way to jump-start a program, but ultimately it may be impossible to stick with a way of life that is solely driven by such negative feelings. “In most things in life, we use pleasure to motivate us,” observes Taylor. “We reward kids with gold stars to motivate them, we give ourselves vacations for a job well done. But somehow, when it comes to weight loss, people seem to be more motivated in the beginning by things that trigger their pain center. And it’s typically not sustainable. You burn out because the natural inclination is to run away from pain.”
One exception to this viewpoint is the fear of becoming ill—or actually becoming ill. For example, suffering a heart attack (or being told by your doctor that you might if you don’t lose weight) or learning that you are prediabetic can be powerful motivators. I’ve seen many people, roused by illness or a fear of illness, suddenly adopt regular healthy behaviors after years of inconsistency. It can be the most influential motivator there is. Yet in cases where these threats don’t exist, pleasure is often a stronger motivator for changing habits. “If you can find a way to introduce pleasure into the experience, it shifts your mind-set,” says Taylor.
As it is, many people’s minds are closed to the idea that they may find some pleasure in changing old habits, and that’s often due to the “stories” they tell themselves about healthy eating and exercise: They expect it to be unpleasant, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Say, for instance, that you start a new job, and your coworkers gossip to you about Gary in the mailroom. “Oh, Gary is so awful.” “He has a bad temper.” “You’re going to hate Gary.” By the time you do finally meet Gary, you’re going to have him pegged because of all the stories you’ve heard about him. The poor guy isn’t going to have a chance with you.
In the same way, people often tell themselves stories about the gym and nutritious meals, dashing any hope that they’re going to find something to like about either. “The brain likes to take shortcuts. It analyzes, compares, and makes associations so that it doesn’t have to learn something new in every situation,” explains Taylor. “So if you associate the gym with pain, pretty soon just pulling into the parking lot or looking at your gym clothes is going to stir up feelings of dread. Your brain skips the middle part, so that pretty soon you only have to look at your gym clothes, and your mind thinks, Ugh.”
The good thing about the brain, though, is that it’s malleable. You can learn new, more pleasant associations, even if you have to consciously think about what those pleasant associations are: “The gym gives me a break from my family.” “I feel calmer after I’ve gone out for a brisk walk.” “If I don’t eat so much at dinner, my clothes don’t feel so uncomfortable.” And so on. In subsequent chapters, we’ll be dealing a lot with how to zero in on the pleasurable aspects of healthy living. If the barrier that’s stopping you is an aversion to discomfort, that’s going to help you move closer to success.
Barrier 2: Caught Up in the Business of Life
Our culture dictates that the more we do, the more we will get out of life. In response to this, many people work too much, commit to too many activities—and even overschedule their kids. Yet instead of feeling fulfilled and contented, they end up stressed, exhausted, and hungry. Your true hunger for rest, meaning in life, balance, and closeness with others may register as cravings for food and alcohol, and even other things, such as drugs. As the stress of being too busy increases, you can begin to feel out of control.
Being caught up in the business of life can become a huge barrier to success for several reasons. Besides making you hungry in the ways I just mentioned, it gives you the idea that you are too busy to attend to your health. It’s your out: “I can’t exercise, I can’t make healthy meals; my schedule just won’t permit it.” Yet many busy people do eat right and exercise, and one reason they’re able to do it is because they make it a priority. They find balance. But if you’re overcommitting in other areas of your life, you’re not going to achieve that balance.
People who overbook their lives often have trouble saying no, limiting time with people who stress them out, and letting go of perfectionistic standards for both themselves and others. All these things, too, stand in the way of long-term weight loss success because they make it almost impossible to find the time or an acceptable means of nurturing yourself. But nurturing yourself is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. In chapter 4, I’ll specifically address the excuse that people often use to avoid exercise: “I don’t have time.” You’ll see that, despite your busy life, you actually can work physical activity and eating nutritiously into your schedule.
LOSING TO GAIN A CAREER DREAM
The signs were all there: the fact that simply turning over in bed made him out of breath, the alarming reflection of his 375-pound body in the mirror, and then his doctor mentioning the words gastric bypass. But what finally nudged Shaun Tympanick to do something about his weight was the realization that if he didn’t, his career dreams would never come true.
“I’d been a probation officer for years and was sick of it. There were these far more interesting law enforcement jobs I wanted so badly, but at my weight, there was no way I could get through police academy training,” explains Shaun, who, like many of the people you’ll be reading about throughout this book, is a participant in the National Weight Control Registry. To help him out, his brother bought him a gym membership and they went together. He focused on cardio—the treadmill, bicycle, step machine—and he and his brother became hooked on racquetball.
Meanwhile, he overhauled his diet. “I used to eat out every single night,” recalls Shaun. “A lot of it was fast food, which I cut out completely. Somewhere midway through my weight loss, I bit into a chicken nugget and it tasted like bleach. I was relieved; I’d been afraid that even tasting fast food again would make me revert back to my old ways.”
Shaun lost 155 pounds in just fourteen months. The first 100 pounds took nine months to lose; five months later, he lost the last 55. For three years, he has been maintaining at 220, which feels just right for his six-foot-three-inch frame. A year later, Shaun entered the police academy. “More than the badge and the gun, I wanted the Physical Training Award. I was the fastest guy there and could outrun anyone on the obstacle course. When the instructor presented me with the award, he couldn’t believe that I used to be so completely out of shape.”
After graduation, Shaun landed his dream job with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “Just because I’ve met my goals doesn’t mean I’m going to slack off,” he emphasizes. “I run seven miles straight three or four times a week. Once a year, I guest lecture a high school criminal justice class my brother teaches. I tell the students that you don’t just get fit to graduate. God forbid you have to defend yourself on the job— you need to be fit for that.” When his coworkers rib him about being a diet and exercise freak, he asks them, “If there’s a scuffle or a serious incident, who’d you rather be at your side: the fit guy or the unfit one?”
Barrier 3: Your Pleasure-Seeking Physiological Wiring
Our bodies are incredibly elegant machines. They have wiring, which was laid down about one hundred thousand years ago, that helps us avoid starvation by influencing our food preferences and appetite. That was useful to our cavemen ancestors, but, of course, most of us have little chance of starvation today. In fact, with today’s overabundance of food, this hardwiring is more of a liability than an asset.
Everyone’s brain is programmed to seek pleasure, a mechanism that encourages us to consume more high-calorie foods. Given the body’s drive to store body fat in anticipation of leaner times, every time you munch on a bag of chips or scarf down a doughnut, pathways in your brain trigger the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins and serotonin, chemical messengers associated with positive emotions. That’s why it feels so good. And if you use foods to self-medicate when you feel lonely or sad or stressed, you reinforce the system. The next time you’re in the same emotional low, your brain will remember what gave you relief the last time and urge you to eat those chips or doughnuts all over again.
The body’s natural propensity for pleasure can be one of the biggest barriers to changing habits. How many times has someone set a piece of cake in front of you and part of your mind tells you “no, no, no” while the other part whispers “yes, yes, yes”? The latter is a tough impulse to fight, especially for some people. Evidence suggests that, while we may all have pleasure-seeking encoding in our brains, overweight people in particular seem to have malfunctions in this system, compelling them to eat more than other people to get the same “buzz” from high-calorie foods.
In chapter 3, Janis is going to sketch out the physiological barriers to weight loss in full, but one thing you should know right off the bat is that the reward centers of the brain—where the pleasure of those high-calorie foods registers—also respond to other substances that bring about pleasure. That’s why alcohol, drugs (including the nicotine in cigarettes), and high-calorie food can be equally addicting and why many people begin overeating when they give up those other vices. But those reward centers also respond to other gratifying things, like watching a beautiful sunset or experiencing a loving touch—or the endorphins produced by exercise. So while you may not be able to change the wiring in your brain, you can “feed” those reward centers other pleasures. That’s the key to overcoming this hurdle. Biology isn’t destiny when you have effective strategies like the ones you’ll find throughout this book firmly in place.
Barrier 4: Feelings of Unworthiness
If you ask someone, “Do you feel worthy of having a good life?” that person will almost always answer, “Of course.” But is that the truth? Often, when you get down to the specifics of what someone feels he or she deserves in life, the answer is no.
Self-worth is having a sense that it’s okay for you to get what you want and to enjoy life. It’s also a sense that your opinions, your priorities, and your needs matter as much as the next person’s. People who have a sense of unworthiness, on the other hand, may chronically apologize for their actions, find it hard to accept a compliment, let other people take advantage of them, be quick to take the blame for things that aren’t even their fault, and sublimate their needs in favor of the needs of others.
Unworthiness interferes with weight loss in a variety of ways. For one thing, adopting healthy habits requires that you put yourself first in many respects. It may mean doing things like choosing to serve lean meats and piles of vegetables instead of the macaroni and cheese that your family prefers; leaving your child with a babysitter or your mom for an hour so that you can go to the gym; or putting the brakes on overtime so that you can get enough sleep even though your coworkers are staying late. People who don’t have a healthy self-worth don’t take these necessary steps. They are doormats, worried that their actions of self-love (or even just self-preservation) will hurt or inconvenience someone else. They find it all too easy to defer to everyone else, which makes it very hard to concentrate on developing healthier habits for themselves.
Unworthiness can also be an obstacle to living up to your full potential if it involves constantly comparing yourself to others and never coming out ahead. If John always gets out and jogs three more days than you, and your colleague Betsy is so strong willed that she never takes even a single bite of cake at office celebrations, you may constantly feel discouraged by your inability to keep up. Again, that’s not exactly a good incentive for someone who wants to make big changes in his or her life.
RAISING SELF-WORTH, LOWERING
“When I was growing up, there weren’t many overweight kids,” recalls Cindy Heiss, PhD, RD, a registered dietitian and professor of nutrition at Metropolitan State College of Denver. “I was a little chubby, and I remember getting teased about it on the school bus at age eleven. That’s when I went on my first diet.” Going from one popular diet to the next, Cindy’s weight yo-yoed throughout high school, college, and grad school. At age twenty-five, she lost over 100 pounds on a liquid diet, only to gain it all back, peaking at 258 pounds by age thirty-nine. “I had a PhD in nutrition; I knew people were baffled and extra judgmental about my weight,” she reflects. “I felt tremendous shame, which led to a desperation to lose weight quickly and going on weight loss regimens I knew weren’t healthy.”
Cindy’s turning point came a few years later when she caught one of my appearances on Oprah’s show in January 2003. “Years before, I’d read Bob and Oprah’s book, Make the Connection, and realized I was an emotional eater, but I didn’t like myself enough then to do anything about it. It wasn’t until I heard Bob talk about it on the show that I really internalized it. It hit me that as an emotional eater, dieting wasn’t going to work for me; that I was going to have to change the way I lived my life. I realized that I needed to have enough self-worth to take care of myself and that the weight wasn’t the primary issue. So on that day, at 258 pounds, I stopped being the ‘fat girl’ and starting feeling like an inherently worthy person,” she says.
Eventually, with the help of a nutrition counselor whom she saw not for the nutrition advice but for the support in giving her permission to make herself a priority, Cindy started changing the way she lived. Her first step, literally, was to do something she loved: walking on the beach. On one of those walks, a young man called out, “Look at the beached whale!” Her response: “Instead of thinking I was a defective person, like I did that day at age eleven on the school bus, my first thought was, What a jerk.” She also left her exceedingly stressful professorship at a California university for a saner position at a midwestern school. Better eating habits followed, along with a 115-pound weight loss. Now forty-seven years old, Cindy has maintained her weight at around 145 pounds—a comfortable size 8—for more than five years.
How did she stop using food to cope? “I’ve had to learn to take better care of myself, which involved learning to say no,” she explains. “That was tough. I had to overcome a victim-martyr mentality and realize that I had a choice in how to live my life. Putting myself first was—and still is—hard. I’m a perfectionist who tries too hard to be liked by everyone, which is impossible, and I have to force myself not to work too hard.”
Cindy still gets the urge to overeat when she’s very stressed, but she reminds herself that “my problems won’t be solved by a bowl of ice cream.” Instead she now copes by exercising, going to the gym, or taking a walk in the park, and by contacting friends. “My best friend is my sister; we talk at least every other day. I also joined a women’s support group in Denver that meets once a week—that helps me develop further insight and provides tremendous support—and I rely on other friends as well,” says Cindy. “Before, it was hard for me to ask for help; now it’s getting easier.”
Our sense of self-worth is generally developed when we are children. As Angela Taylor explains, “Watch a small child and you will hear him repeatedly say, ‘look at me, Mommy!’ or ‘Watch this, Daddy.’ In essence, he is saying, ‘Am I okay?’ When a child receives the message ‘yes, I think you are great,’ they feel validated. When they don’t, they often develop the habit of thinking of themselves as ‘not okay,’ and believing they always must ‘do better’ in order to be ‘okay.’ This leads to a chronic feeling of unworthiness.”
Other things can also lead to low feelings of self-worth. People who get caught up in the media images surrounding us—the perfect bodies, the airbrushed faces—may feel insignificant by comparison because they can’t match those images. (Who can?) People who feel guilty for something, real or imagined, that they did may also feel they don’t deserve a better life. Often, children of physical or sexual abuse grow up believing that they did something wrong and therefore brought on the abuse. And the abuse itself reinforces the fact that they’re unworthy of love and respect; why else would someone treat them that way? Those feelings of guilt and/or low self-worth can get carried into adulthood, making a person feel undeserving of any of the good things in life.
Unworthiness can be a deeply held belief, and getting past it involves a lot of self-examination. But just identifying the problem can be liberating. Once people with low self-worth begin looking at their real value to others, it becomes easier for them to appreciate themselves. “They also see that you don’t have to be like the people at the other end of the spectrum—people who value themselves so much that they are selfish and literally railroad others to get what they want—to have a healthy sense of self-worth,” says Taylor. “There is a middle ground where you feel as though you are allowed to have what you need and know that you can get it without hurting other people.”
Barrier 5: Fear of Success (or Failure)
In some ways, it doesn’t seem to make sense: If you want to lose weight, how could you possibly be afraid of losing weight? Yet many people are afraid of successfully slimming down, even if they don’t realize it. Sometimes this fear harks back to barrier 4: feelings of unworthiness. “I call it the Swiss cheese phenomenon,” says Ann Kearney-Cooke. “If your core belief is that you are not worthy of success, everything positive that happens to you falls through the holes of the cheese, while everything negative sticks. You get used to the core belief that you shouldn’t succeed; it’s where you feel safe.”
People who are afraid of losing weight may fantasize about changing their bodies, but the reality of that change can be unsettling. Weight loss is a very visible way to take control of your well-being. If you’re depressed and get better, very few people are going to notice and comment on your improved health. But, let’s face it, friends, family, and even acquaintances love to commend weight loss. Even if their observations are complimentary—“You look fabulous!”—the attention can be embarrassing and make you feel as though your privacy has been invaded.
Some people also fear that weight loss will shake up the status quo in ways they may not be able to handle. If, for instance, you use food to cope, knowing that you can no longer turn to a pint of ice cream after, say, a bad day at work can provoke anxiety about how you’re going to deal with stressful or chaotic episodes in your life. Weight loss can change the dynamics of a marriage, too: not only because the other spouse may feel threatened now that his or her partner is more attractive to outsiders but also because it requires a new, healthier way of living that he or she finds unacceptable. Anyone at all apprehensive about upsetting the apple cart in a relationship is a perfect candidate for feeling afraid of change. The fear may be unconscious, yet if it’s there, quietly nibbling at your brain, it’s going to be a barrier to achieving your goals.
Fear of success is often common in people who have had a history of sexual abuse. For them, the kind of attention I mentioned earlier can be embarrassing and, worse, feel threatening. Ann had a client (see page 61) who had been abused as a child and struggled with her weight as an adult. The woman was eventually able to drop a significant number of pounds, getting down to a size 10. “One day, she went to the mall, and she had a paranoid, uneasy feeling as she was getting out of her car,” recalls Ann. “Then a man opened the mall’s door for her, and she could feel him noticing her body. It made her feel unsafe.” There’s no doubt that a bigger body is easier to hide behind, and many people sabotage their own weight loss efforts for that very reason. For them, fear of successful weight loss is really fear of sexual vulnerability. “When my client was little, she wasn’t safe,” observes Ann, “but as a grown woman, she now had the skills to handle unwanted attention. I had to remind her that she wasn’t vulnerable anymore.”
The flip side to fear of success is fear of failure. To be honest, there is some logic to this fear. The data indicate that most people do fail at long-term weight loss. And if you’re like most people, maybe you’ve already been through several cycles of successfully shedding pounds only to regain them all (and sometimes even more). But I think it can also be said that you shouldn’t let past failures or the failures of the population at large worry you. For one thing, most people don’t keep off the weight the first time; it can take a few rounds before you learn from your mistakes and figure out what will and won’t work for you personally. For another thing, this book is going to help you take a holistic approach to weight loss. In the past, you may have addressed weight loss from only one angle—just as many of the people who end up as failure statistics do. As I outlined in the introduction, we’re going to help you deal with the emotional-psychological side of weight loss in combination with the practical eating and exercise issues. That kind of integrated approach is going to greatly increase your odds of success.
Barrier 6: A Poor Body Image
Body image is best described as the picture that someone has of his or her body and the thoughts and feelings associated with it. How you feel about your body influences every aspect of your life: your self-esteem, your mood, and, by extension, your overall health. In a way that is similar to feelings of unworthiness, a negative body image can make you feel unworthy of achieving the “good life”—complete with healthy relationships, a great job, a loving family, and fun hobbies—and rob you of the motivation to change your lifestyle.
Many factors determine body image. It can have to do with whether you were teased about your body as a child and whether your parents either praised or criticized your shape and weight. It can also be determined by how your parents talked and felt about their own bodies. Traumatic events such as sexual or physical abuse can also influence body image, as can the culture we live in. Living in a culture obsessed with thinness makes it difficult to navigate life as an overweight person and hard to cope with weight-related stigma and discrimination. Many overweight people internalize these prejudices and negative stereotypes, which can further contribute to a negative body image and low self-esteem.
Part of the mission of this book is to help you develop a different type of relationship with your body. It’s crucial to not only accept your body but also make taking care of it a priority, no matter what else is happening in your life. “You might worry, ‘If I accept my body, then I will become complacent and just gain more weight,’” says Ann. “However, I have found that the opposite is true: Beating yourself up about your appearance and putting yourself down is the last thing that motivates healthy lifestyle change.” In fact, once you are able to improve your body image, you will choose to actively take care of your body (by, say, increasing your physical activity, and giving up fried foods and overeating at night). What’s more, you’ll insist that those around you treat your body with respect, removing another barrier to long-term weight loss. It’s challenging to lose weight without the understanding and sometimes even the help of family, friends, and coworkers. When you let them know that you are serious about treating your body right, chances are they’ll fall in line too.
Check out the body image chapter in this book. It’s filled with strategies that’ll help you let go of a negative body image and develop a positive, healthy one instead.
Barrier 7: Unsupportive Relationships with Adults
When You Were Young
I’m not a psychologist, but sometimes when I’m working with clients, trying to probe a little bit about why sticking to a fitness program has been difficult for them, they talk to me as though I am. And I’ve been surprised at how many of those clients end up talking to me about their early lives and the expectations placed on them by their mothers or some other authority figure. It’s not uncommon for people to still harbor hurt feelings and fears well into adulthood, and for those feelings and fears to have a profound impact on their motivation to exercise and ability to control their eating.
It’s a topic of fascination to me, and I asked Angela Taylor about it. She, too, has many clients who eventually bring the conversation around to Mom or Dad, an older sibling, or a teacher when trying to understand their reasons for not being able to lose weight. As Taylor explains it, a lot of that has to do with how our brains form connections when we’re young.
“When we’re kids, every experience creates neuroconnections—sort of like grooves—in our brains and impacts the level of safety we feel, if our needs are being met, if we’re stimulated. At the same time, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs are getting tied into these neuroconnections. Now fast-forward to when we’re adults, and if anything happens to us that is related to our experience as a child, it fires up the old neural pathways as though we were that age all over again.”
Say, for instance, that your mother told you to stop eating so much or you would get fat. Or your older sister once said you were fat and nobody was going to like you. Or you loved dance and thought you were beautiful until your dance teacher poked your belly and said you were never going to make it in dance. With your adult brain, you could probably handle these discouraging but not necessarily devastating verbal jabs. “But to your eight-year-old brain, they’re traumatizing,” says Taylor, “and when something brings you back to those experiences, you operate with your eight-year-old brain, not your adult brain.”
In theory, we should have all separated from these early experiences, but as Taylor points out, our brains have long memories. Many adults are still rebelling against the parent, sibling, or teacher who was unsupportive, or have feelings of anger or fear that get triggered every time they try to change their eating and exercise habits. Yet these same people often aren’t aware that their current struggles are related to psychological injuries they received in their youth.
Recognizing that you may be acting with your eight-year-old brain can help you make sense of behavior that your logical adult brain has never quite been able to comprehend. “Many people don’t understand why they feel so out of control with food; they say, ‘It doesn’t make sense,’” says Taylor. “But when they realize that it’s rooted in early experiences with caregivers, it starts to become clearer.”
Barrier 8: Abuse
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 770,000 confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect occur each year. That’s an astounding number. Abuse permeates our society, occurring in millions of homes across the country, regardless of class, race, socioeconomic status, religion, or profession. The effects of abuse may not be immediately visible, but they can affect a person for the rest of his or her life. The magnitude of this effect depends on the nature and circumstances of the abuse, the personal temperament of the child, the child’s home environment, and the support received after the abuse has taken place.
When an adult—whether it be a parent, caretaker, teacher, relative, or religious figure—who is supposed to love and protect children instead betrays and uses them, their young victims may ask themselves, “What’s wrong with me that they did this?” or “How can I ever trust anyone if those closest to me took advantage of me?” Abuse typically can cause self-esteem to plummet and feelings of shame and fear to take root.
In one long-term study, researchers found that, by age twenty-one, as many as 80 percent of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or suicidal behavior.
I’ve already mentioned a few times how abuse is linked to some of the barriers to weight loss (for example, feelings of unworthiness and fear of success), but there are also other ways that abuse can present an obstacle to attaining a healthier body and body image. In Ann’s work, she has observed a link between childhood abuse and eating disorders. “About one-third of the patients I treat for eating disorders have a history of sexual abuse,” she says. “Victims of abuse often feel as though they can’t control their bodies and lives. This may lead to lifelong attempts to regain control of their bodies by controlling their weight—either through restriction, obsessive monitoring, and various weight loss strategies or through overeating and chronic obesity. Victims may engage in extreme dieting, starving, bingeing and purging, crash dieting, and detoxes in an attempt to get rid of fat.”
But severe restriction never works for long, and many people with abuse in their past end up bingeing: eating large amounts of food, sometimes to the point that they are physically in pain, perpetuating the cycle. They often end up losing and regaining hundreds of pounds during their lifetimes, unable to ease the discomfort of feeling out of control.
SHEDDING THE WEIGHT TO
COME OUT OF HIDING
At age thirty-two, Mary Jo Schneider carried 300 pounds on her five-foot-four frame. She’d been gaining weight since age nineteen, when, pregnant and alone, she fended off an attempted rape. “I think I was subconsciously using the fat as padding to protect myself and feel safe after that incident,” says Mary Jo, now an adult education teacher living in California, and a member of the NWCR. “Plus, I used food to cope with the trauma and with the stress of being a single mother. Food was so soothing.”
Mary Jo’s scale went up and down for nearly two decades; she hit her lowest weight, 130 pounds, at thirty-five, then packed on 125 pounds by age forty-four. Now sixty years old, she has maintained her weight at 155 pounds for eight years. “There are still days when I use food to cope with emotions,” she reflects. “However, now I recognize this as a barometer that something’s up that needs my attention, and I address it right away.” Her biggest source of support: Overeaters Anonymous peer support groups. “I love OA because it’s a spiritual program; it’s the root of joy and peace in my life.”
Some victims of abuse cope in other ways; they may be more comfortable carrying extra weight as a means to keep others at a distance. They learned that people are toxic, dangerous, and could take advantage of them at any time. As a result, they layer themselves in extra weight, which mimics a space suit or coat of armor around the body, signaling others to stay away. Although they feel unattractive and often wish they could lose weight, they are frequently unaware of the strong connection between their past childhood trauma and their current destructive behavior patterns.
The body is where child abuse often occurs, whether the violence is sexual or physical. Sometimes, though, child abuse can also be emotional—for instance, being chronically yelled at by an alcoholic parent or forced to live a life of severe deprivation out of sheer cruelty. “Either way,” says Ann, “children who live through abuse have their souls injured, violated, and compromised.”
Ann will talk more about the link between abuse and overeating in chapter 2, but if what you’ve read so far resonates with you, even if it happened years and years ago, it’s important to know that this might not be something you can or should handle alone. Because the problem is so widespread, there are therapists all over the country who are well trained to handle the ramifications of abuse. Your number one priority shouldn’t be your weight; it should be to deal with any issues that linger from any mistreatment you’ve suffered, whether it happened when you were a child or as an adult. Once you do that, a healthy weight will likely follow.
© 2010 Bestlife Corporation