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:
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…
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:
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:
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.