Is fear keeping you fat? Hidden anxieties could be sabotaging your attempts to lose weight and keep it off. Here’s how to identify your unrecognized emotional roadblocks and get past them
Alice Lesch Kelly
If you’ve repeatedly tried–and failed–to lose weight, you probably blame your penchant for candy bars or your inability to get to the gym often enough. While those weaknesses will hold you back, your real roadblock may be more serious: You might unconsciously be afraid of getting thinner.
“For people who use weight and food to deal with their emotions and feelings, losing weight can be quite frightening,” says Gerard Musante, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of Structure House, a residential weight-loss facility in Durham, N.C. If you depend on food as an emotional coping mechanism, you won’t succeed at losing weight unless you find ways to confront and resolve difficult emotions that don’t involve overeating.
The first step is figuring out what you really fear (see “What Your Fear Looks Like,” page 34). Once you understand yourself better, you can devise strategies that will help you deal with stressful situations without relying on food. Here are some of the more common hidden fears that hold women back from slimming down, along with tips on how to overcome them–and lose weight for good.
Fear No. 1: Unwanted or unaccustomed sexual attention
As you get slimmer, people look at you differently. Women may become jealous and more competitive; men may respond to you in a more sexual way. “It’s the first time in some people’s lives that they experience others being attracted to them,” Musante says.
While that attention can feel good, it can also make you feel vulnerable, says Cynthia Alexander, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Bariatric Institute at Cleveland Clinic Hospital in Weston, Fla. “All of a sudden, you’re relating to others in a whole different way,” she says. “It’s overwhelming for a lot of people.” Unwanted (or unaccustomed) attention makes some newly slim women feel so uneasy that they turn back to food for comfort.
Losing weight can be particularly painful for someone who has been sexually abused in the past. Being overweight allows a woman to become sexually “invisible,” and by losing weight she may feel that she is losing the protection that the extra weight has provided her, Alexander explains. For reasons she’s unaware of, the unwanted pounds stay on.
If you’re in a romantic relationship, you may find that the attention you receive from others annoys or even threatens your partner. His support of your weight-loss efforts may turn, often unconsciously, to sabotage if he fears that the new, slimmer you will leave him for a more attractive rival.
* Hide your weight loss until you feel more at ease with it. Wear loose clothing, high necklines, low heels and dull colors that don’t attract attention. Eventually, you’ll feel ready to dress in more form-fitting outfits.
* Take a self-defense class; it will help you feel more physically confident and emotionally strong. You’ll feel like you can “fight off” unwanted advances, even if you never actually have to.
* Consider undergoing psychotherapy if you’ve been abused or if your sexual anxieties are strong. Therapy can help you build trust, feel safe and become more comfortable with your sexuality.
* If your partner feels threatened, talk openly about his feelings. Assuming it’s true, of course, reassure him that you still love and are committed to him.
Fear No. 2: Losing friends
Shedding weight can have a negative impact on your relationships with other people, particularly those who also have weight issues. “There can be a lot of envy when you lose weight,” says Edi Cooke, Psy.D., a staff psychologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Your friend may be frustrated because you’re succeeding where she has failed. Those feelings of envy and frustration can sometimes drive a wedge between the two of you.”
Relationships can also suffer if your get-togethers with other people have traditionally taken place over rich dinners, fast-food lunches or after-work cocktails. Some friends or co-workers may be upset if you suddenly begin to suggest meeting for a three-mile hike instead of a three-course meal. You may even find that food and eating were all you had in common with certain friends.
* If someone starts to treat you differently as you lose weight, gently tell the person that things feel strange and you are concerned that your weight loss is coming between you.
* Ask friends for help. Explain that you value their friendship and really hope that they will support your weight-loss efforts. “Tell them exactly what you need–praise, encouragement, for them not to eat ice cream near you–whatever,” suggests Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
* Spend more time with friends who support your attempt to lose weight, and take a break from those who don’t. You can always seek to rekindle those relationships later, when old friends are more at ease with the new you.
* Accept that you may lose a few friends. Only you can decide which you value more–the friendship or a slimmer, healthier you.
Fear No. 3: Being considered selfish
Losing weight requires intensive self-focus, time and energy. For example, you should exercise for at least 30-45 minutes a day, five times a week. Smart eating demands careful planning, shopping and preparation. You actually may fear that others, such as your spouse, kids, parents, friends or co-workers, will resent you for the time you invest. “Women feel guilty taking care of themselves,” Cooke says. “They are used to caring for others, but feel uncomfortable focusing on their own needs.”
* Accept that exercise and smart eating are not frivolous luxuries, but something you owe yourself in order to be healthy.
* Explain to your family and friends that devoting more time to yourself will lead to more energy, improved health, better moods and, quite possibly, a longer life. Help them understand that even if they may have to make some short-term sacrifices–for example, you will be cooking fewer of their favorite high-fat meals–they too will benefit in the long run.
* If family support is lacking, create an outside “cheerleading” squad. This can consist of friends, an exercise instructor, your doctor, a dietitian, an in-person or online weight-loss support group–anyone who genuinely wants to see you succeed.
Fear No. 4: Greater expectations
People often blame all their troubles on their weight. When you shed pounds, you may expect everything else in your life to get better–your love life, friendships, career, perhaps even your finances. If those areas don’t improve, you no longer have your weight to blame, and you must face the fact that your abilities or behavior, rather than your weight, may be the true cause of your troubles.
“As you lose weight, your expectations change,” Musante says. “If you have doubts about your own abilities, this can become very frightening. Sometimes it’s easier to hang your problems on the extra weight.” You may also assume that if you succeed at weight loss, others will expect more from you too.
* Be realistic about what problems your weight does and does not cause. If you fail to get a job offer, be frank with yourself: Was it because of those extra 20 pounds or because your resume needs work?
* Question whether people actually will expect more of you if you slim down. You may be projecting your own perceptions on others and overestimating their expectations.
* Respond firmly if someone happens to voice higher expectations of you. If your mother says, “I’m so glad you’re losing weight; now you’ll finally be able to catch a man,” tell her that you are no more or less lovable now than when you were heavy.
* Learn to “reframe” your thoughts. For example, when you find yourself thinking, “Everything would be so much better if I could just lose a few pounds,” tell yourself, “If I lose weight I will feel better and be healthier, but weight loss is not a cure-all.”
RELATED ARTICLE: What your fear looks like
If your fear is hidden, how can you tell if it is what’s sabotaging your weight loss? “When you have repeatedly attempted to lose weight but failed, and if you find you’re sabotaging yourself, there’s probably fear involved,” says Edi Cooke, Psy.D., a psychologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Another possible clue (though medical causes might be at work here): You lose some weight but then level off and don’t know why you can’t make it to your (realistic) goal.
Pinpointing exactly what you’re afraid of is a little tougher. Start by asking yourself what you think you might fear. “When thoughts start to come, don’t dismiss them,” says Linda Spangle, R.N., M.A., a Denver-based weight-loss coach and author of Life Is Hard, Food Is Easy (LifeLine Press, 2004). List everything you might be afraid of, even if it seems irrelevant. “Give your brain permission to go deeper into the subconscious,” Spangle says. When you’re finished, look for patterns and surprises. “This technique really brings to the surface things you don’t want to think about,” Spangle says.
Next, record everything you eat for one week, as well as your feelings before, during and after eating. Does any one emotion come up over and over? Which ones are present when you overeat? Do the same thing with exercise, looking for clues as to why you don’t stick with it.
Last, examine your fears during a safe, relaxing moment–doing yoga, having a massage, taking a walk. When you’re relaxed, defenses often melt away.
If self-analysis strategies don’t work, seek help from a weight-loss counselor or support group, registered dietitian or therapist.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a writer in Newton, Mass., who often writes about the interplay between mind and body.
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