Life coaching expert Tal Fagin gives advice to a woman who struggles to lose weight by offering a 7 part plan that will help her achieve greater peace of mind and lightness of spirit.
I am a woman at war with my body. Google “Battle of the Bulge” and you just might find a slew of images of yours truly—sweating it out at the gym, guzzling protein shakes in lieu of breakfast or sitting at dinner sadly resisting the bread basket. I have tried every diet from Atkins to Weight Watchers to the Zone. I have been a devotee of every fitness trend since The Jane Fonda Workout. I have been struggling to lose weight (and keep it off) for as long as I can remember, but nothing has worked.
In every other area of my life, I am beyond blessed. I am grateful every day for my family, my career, my health and my friendships. At the same time, I feel a constant undercurrent of discontent and failure. I live with a sense of looming challenge, an invisible-but-ever-present pre-requisite that I get my weight in order, or nothing else counts. Intellectually, I know this is ridiculous. Still, the feeling persists.
Part of me wants to give up the whole endeavor, to raise the white flag and accept that I will never have the body of my dreams and move on with life. But I have tried that, too. To no avail. I am tired of feeling disgusted with myself, and also completely ashamed that I have allowed this superficial issue to cast such a cloud over an otherwise lucky life.
What can I do?
Dear Pound Foolish,
I hear you. I feel your pain. So do millions of other women around the world. All too often, it feels like simply being a woman in our culture requires us to be “at war” with our bodies, and our psyches.
Mixed messages abound. You don’t need me to highlight all the ways society tells us we are not good enough. I will refrain from pointing out all the messages—both blatant and subtle—constantly reminding us to slim down and tone up, to move more, eat less, spend more, try harder and no matter what we do, never ever be satisfied with our bodies exactly as they are.
On the other hand, we are modern women! We must be confident. We must rise above the barrage of images reminding us at every turn of our imperfections, and learn to love ourselves and our bodies—lest we be branded vain or shallow or silly. We must aim for health and wellness, not slimmer thighs. There are major problems in the world, we cannot afford to waste our time or energy on petty matters like how we look.
Translation: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Go on pining for perfection — just never admit to yourself or others (or heaven forbid, your daughters!) that any of this is remotely important to you.
I believe there is a better way.
You want to lose weight, but beyond that you crave something deeper. Something more akin to acceptance and ease, a feeling of comfort in your own skin. I don’t know if the heaviness you need to shed is physical or emotional, if you are actually over-weight or whether your struggle has more to do with a poor body image. I would encourage you to examine that, and perhaps discuss it with your doctor.
Information about diet and exercise is ubiquitous. The scientific realities of intake and output, genetics, metabolism and body-type are well explored. There is plenty of advice out there about how to lose weight, and as you say, you have tried it all.
Today, I would like to take a different approach.
Whether your ultimate goal involves the number on the scale or achieving greater peace of mind and lightness of spirit, I would invite you to try the following 7 part plan:
Try Nothing. You say you have tried everything. You use words like “war” and “struggle,” “sweating” and “resisting.” Have you ever tried letting that all go and just doing nothing? Have you ever given yourself a solid reprieve, allowed yourself to truly relax or even indulge? I am not suggesting you give up exercise forever or binge endlessly on cake, but perhaps a meaningful break is in order.
Both over-exercising and over-worrying (about weight or anything else) can trigger spikes in cortisol, which causes the body to hold onto fat. Rest, on the other hand, can pay dividends. Our instinct is to try to control every situation, to apply effort (and even force) when we see a problem we want to solve. The best solutions, however, often come when we simply walk away for a little while.
Establish a Motive. You say you have been struggling with your weight for as long as you can remember. Why? The world tells us we should be fit and gorgeous and we believe it, often without question. Start questioning. What would losing the weight do for you? How would it help you be happier? Go beyond the obvious, and keep asking “why” until you drill down to something that feels like an AHA!
Identify a meaningful goal—strength, longevity, health, more energy—anything that feels big and worthy and less “superficial” to you. This is your new motive, and should be something you can actually feel. Now, close your eyes and feel it. Imagine yourself lighter, stronger, more energized. Relish it. Try replacing “lose weight” with whatever delicious feeling you’ve just discovered. Write it down, make it a mantra and make it your new goal. That feeling is what you are seeking, and it is the best motivation there is.
Befriend Your Body. Our bodies are much wiser than we give them credit for. Rather than fighting it, heed it. This is where practices like gratitude, meditation and yoga can help with sustaining a healthy weight. Get acquainted with your body and its true needs. Keep it properly nourished, rested and cared for. When you find yourself reaching for seconds or thirds, or sneaking to the pantry well after dinner, pause. Breathe. Ask yourself what you truly want or need in that moment. Odds are, it isn’t more food. Are you bored? Lonely? Exhausted? What, other than food, might satisfy you? If you do feel truly hungry, then feed yourself, but mindfully and in moderation. Learn to identify your patterns and weaknesses, and replace the cycle of deprivation and collapse with attention and care.
Get Judgy. Ordinarily I try to encourage people to confront their struggles with compassion, not judgment. In your case, Pound Foolish, I want you to go buck wild! What is it about your body you dislike? How do you need your appearance to change in order for you to feel happy or satisfied? Be your harshest, most critical self. What demands would you make of your body? Now…
Make Note. Hold the answers in your mind. Boil them down to their essence and believe them to be true. Close your eyes and dwell among your most painful thoughts. When you are in the grips of believing that you are fat/ugly/lazy/hideous or that you should be thinner/lighter/more toned/more perfect, how do you react? Allow the whole wave of sensations to wash over you.
Notice what this does to you.
Most clients report feeling stressed or tense, as well as tired and dejected. In my case, the thought I should be thinner—which was the theme song of my 30s—made me feel burdened, impatient and distracted. It caused me to over-exercise and under-eat, which always lead to exhaustion and frustration and eventually seeking solace in a bag of chips or a pint of ice cream.
What about you?
When you are thinking self-critical thoughts, what do they cause you to do? How do you treat yourself or the people around you? Would you say your I am fat story serves you well? If not, why hold onto it?
Confront the Fear. What’s that you say? If you were to stop berating yourself and simply love and accept yourself everything would get worse? You would eat everything in sight, never see the inside of another gym and expand in size beyond the point of no return?
Is that true? How do you know? What evidence do you have to support that fear? Might you be willing to trust me? How about trusting your body?
Heed Your Own Wisdom. The struggle you allude to—those warring factions of your personality pushing you to lose weight and tugging at you to just love yourself as you are—they live in all of us. You have a socialized self that has grown up in your culture and digested its messages. You also have a wiser self who knows truly and profoundly what is best for you, who guides you gently but persistently to maintain your integrity and values. We all need both selves to survive and thrive, but all too often, we over-identify with one over the other and find ourselves feeling burdened, off-kilter and confused.
Maybe raising that white flag is the best idea you’ve had. Just reading that part of your query made me bounce a little in my seat. It sounds like a whisper from your wiser self. What else has she been trying to tell you? If you were to access that voice now, what would it say? How does it feel to embrace surrender? Not giving up, not settling for less, but simply surrendering.
The difference is subtle, but staggering.
It may seem like I have posed more questions than I have provided answers here, but that is the bulk of my job as a coach. I listen, I inquire, I try to guide clients toward their own personal answers.
Also, I have been where you are, Pound Foolish.
Answering the questions laid out above is how I conquered my own battle with weight and body image. I came to realize—not just intellectually but viscerally—the toll my attitude was taking. I came to see and feel all the ways in which I was tormenting and limiting myself, cheating myself from fully enjoying my own very lucky life.
Ultimately, everything shifted when someone asked me one question, which I invite you to consider now:
If you could eliminate all weight-loss or body-related negative thoughts from your mind, if you were exactly the same person minus the ability to think this way… who would you be?
In my case, it was as if a massive, ever-present, tightly tangled knot finally unraveled. A whoosh of air escaped my mouth and one word floated out with it…