Monday, 3 October 2005
Perfectionism and Weight Loss
Note: This talks about Weight Watchers, because that’s the program I follow and know best, but the concepts apply equally to any sensible, healthy weight loss program.
A lot of people who are on Weight Watchers feel guilty because they went off program for a day or two, or even because they ate a cookie. There are others who never go off program, who are absolutely diligent about staying on program. I find both types troubling, because they indicate a desire to do this “perfectly.”
One thing that almost all who are overweight have in common is a fervent (perhaps secret) desire for a magic bullet that will fix it. That’s why those weight loss pills with their extravagant claims are such a huge industry. Those of us who join Weight Watchers flatter ourselves that we know better, because we know weight loss will only come through our own efforts. And yet many of us begin to treat Weight Watchers as that magic answer: if we follow the program PERFECTLY, it will end our weight problems forever.
I’m sorry, but that’s not how it works. Weight Watchers isn’t a magic formula for weight loss. Some people behave as though if they follow the program to the letter it will work, but if they deviate, the spell will be broken and all their weight will, poof, reappear. Some people approach their weigh-in day as if the scale were some kind of primitive god who was going to judge their performance of the past week: they approach with trepidation, performing rituals to appease the god, and are relieved when they aren’t punished for transgressions, downcast or even outraged when they aren’t rewarded for their efforts, elated when their “reward” exceeds expectations. The belief that Weight Watchers is magic is what makes us want to do it perfectly, to think we’ve failed when we don’t, and to feel guilty when we go off program.
But Weight Watchers isn’t a magic weight loss formula. It isn’t a formula at all, it’s a teaching guide. It’s a method for learning new behavior patterns for eating, exercising, and thinking about food. And learning is a process. When you are learning something, you don’t do it perfectly. Think about a skill you’ve learned, like swimming or playing the piano or riding a bicycle. Did you do it perfectly the first time out? You did not! You flailed around. You made mistakes, and those mistakes were a necessary part of the learning process; you learned from them. Now think about even harder lessons, the kind that you have to keep learning over and over, like being thoughtful of other people, behaving like a responsible adult, being flexible instead of stubborn, or whichever of life’s lessons is difficult for you. You never do it perfectly, but each time you make a mistake, you learn a little from it. If you keep working at it, you get better over time. Learning good eating and exercise habits is more like that. You don’t learn it by doing it perfectly.
If you think about this as a learning process, there’s no reason to feel guilty about going off program. When you were learning to ride a bike, did you feel guilty when you fell off? No. You just tried to figure out what caused you to fall off, got back on the bike, and tried again. That’s how we learn.
The lessons we are trying to learn from Weight Watchers are more difficult than riding a bike, because we are trying to change habits that we already have. We started learning the behaviors that made us fat --the attitudes toward food, exercise, and ourselves-- the day we were born. So however old you are, that’s how engrained those patterns are. We aren’t going to create new patterns overnight, magically. We need to be even more forgiving of ourselves when we make mistakes.
And we don’t learn new habits by following the Weight Watchers plan perfectly. We learn from our mistakes. We go off program, try to figure out why, and get back on program. By our “failures,” we discover old patterns we never even noticed we had, such as eating when we are hurt or lonely. Only when we’ve identified the old patterns can we start to change them, so our failures are crucial to our learning process. We have to experiment to find out what works for us and what doesn’t, and that’s different for each person.
This can be a wonderful journey of self-discovery and learning, if we are willing to give up treating Weight Watchers like a magic formula. That in itself can be difficult, because we want so badly to believe in the magic.
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