Practically every day in my practice as a weight-loss psychologist, I hear a patient lament, “I know so much about losing weight that I could write my own book about diet and exercise. So, why can’t I follow through and do what I know I should?” You may have wondered this about yourself. It should be easy – just eat less and move more, right?
Wrong. For the vast majority of those wanting to lose weight, a “knowledge deficit” is not the culprit for failed attempts. Instead, there is an underlying fear that can stall even the most well-crafted eating and exercise program, and these fears create subconscious motives to continue engaging in unhealthy behaviors. These are the fears I see most commonly:
Fear of Heightened Expectations
Joe long considered himself the “black sheep” in his family because his siblings always outshined him. Since childhood, his parents had very low expectations for him because he never took much initiative – in his career, in relationships, or in his self-care. Joe’s most common response to their nagging was typically, “Well, I’m too heavy to do that," or “That’s not possible for a fat guy like me.”
Sadly, many overweight individuals manage to convince themselves (and convince people around them) that their weight “disqualifies” them from pursuing certain goals. They may hesitate to advance their careers, to seek out romantic relationships, or to engage in physically-demanding activities. Folks may lack the confidence that they could be successful in these endeavors. Thus, losing their excess weight creates a sense of fear and hesitancy and becomes a justification for not even trying.
Fear of Attractiveness
Heather was sexually abused as a teenager and the experience left her feeling uneasy in situations where she received even playful sexual attention from men. Although she did not consciously harbor a desire to make herself unattractive, she did notice that she was approached much less frequently as she gained weight. Over time, she grew accustomed to this “protection” that her weight afforded her.
Although cultural ideals about body types are constantly shifting, our society today tends to equate a trim figure with sexuality. Obese individuals may be viewed as lacking in sexual appeal, and this prejudice may actually be adaptive for overweight people who would rather not be viewed as sexual beings. Thus, there is often significant anxiety around losing weight and subsequently attracting more sexual attention. People may lack confidence that they could successfully ward off unwanted advances.
Fear of Losing One’s Identity
Tony, or “Tubby T” as his friends called him, was known for his big personality. He always made jokes about his weight before others could, and Tony defined himself – in large part – by the decadent, food-laden events that he hosted. However, he was beginning to develop some weight-related health concerns and struggled with adopting a healthier lifestyle. He couldn’t imagine not being the “big guy” or changing the way he socialized.
When one’s identity has been shaped by having a literally large presence, the prospect of becoming smaller through weight loss can feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Similarly, when an individual’s social environment centers around overeating, there is potential for a great loss if more moderate and structured eating behaviors are adopted. For Tony, losing weight implies that he might lose a piece of what makes him uniquely “Tony.” Even with the threat of weight-related health problems, losing weight might feel like losing his identity.
For some, the desire to lose weight is simple and uncomplicated. For others, losing weight carries inherent risk – risks some might not be willing to take. However, oftentimes, the perception of these risks is simply a lack of confidence. At any weight, Joe could make whatever lifestyle choices he deems best for him; Heather could be as selective as she wishes about getting into romantic relationships; and Tony could remain a social butterfly. The work lies in disentangling the role weight actually plays from the power that we so easily give it.