Since Christmas I’ve made a project of losing weight. I say “project” because I’ve been following Martha Beck’s book on the subject, The Four-Day Win, and it’s not a traditional diet book that tells you how to eat. Instead, it’s full of exercises and practices that are designed to teach you how to “think like a thin person,” so that weight loss will be easier and maintenance peaceful and effortless. I’m also doing this with a group of amazing women, which makes it more of an event.
We’re learning self-care, really: how to take care of ourselves so that food doesn’t have to. I’m loving it. I feel good about myself, am eating well, exercising daily, and my stress management has never been better.
Only, I haven’t lost any weight. I thought it would just slide off when I got the other stuff in order. But so far, no.
In the context of The Four-Day Win, where you learn to cultivate peace and self-love right now, no matter what size you are, this isn’t necessarily a problem. But it did present me with a choice. If I accept my body as it is now, I do not have to change the way I eat. If would rather be thinner, I will have to change the way I eat – i.e., go on a diet.
The answer comes immediately: I do want to be thinner. It is followed by fear.
Identifying the Problem and Self-Coaching
As soon as I notice the fear – in this case, it presented as a hollow feeling in my stomach – I start to investigate it.
What am I afraid of? Not dieting. Dieting I actually enjoy – for me there’s mental rest to following someone else’s food program and a thrill in seeing results on the scale and feeling them in my body. No, what I fear is what may come after the diet ends: regaining the lost weight. It has happened after every diet I’ve ever done, and it’s demoralizing.
Demoralizing. A strong word like that pinpoints a source of pain, so I look there. Demoralizing is derived from the Latin, meaning “to corrupt the morals of.” When I regain weight, some part of me believes it’s a moral failure.
Ugh. Such high stakes! No wonder I feel fear. Is it true, though? No. Not at all. One thing I’ve learned on this project is that weight loss is undermined when it’s framed as a moral issue and supported when framed as a practical one and offered abundant compassion. The hollow feeling in my stomach dissolves, and my body relaxes.
Okay, then: what have been the actual practical challenges I have encountered post-diet? In my mind’s eye I see myself saying no to a homemade chocolate chip cookie that I very much want and doing that for the rest of my life. It feels hard, boring, and sad.
More pain! Look closer again: I can’t have the cookie. Is it true? Yes! Is it absolutely true? Well, no, not absolutely. I start to feel looser, lighter.
How do I react when I believe it? I feel sad. I pout. I obsess about the cookie. I envision a cold, gray, featureless landscape, devoid of joy, into eternity.
That sounds dreadful, indeed! Who would I be without the thought? (The cookie is still in front of me, and the urge to eat it is still there, but the thought “I can’t have the cookie” is gone.) The cookie immediately shrinks as it is put into a larger perspective. It becomes just one in an array of joys available to me. Color and warmth return to an interesting landscape, and I feel empowered and light in my body.
Insights and Action Steps
In this space of freedom, two new insights arise: Peaceful does not mean freedom from urges or the immediate gratification of urges, and self-love is not the same thing as self-indulgence. Peaceful means sympathetic non-attachment to urges, and self-love is a commitment to what is good for me.
I will have urges (of course; they happen). But I do not judge them (“Bad desire!”). Or judge myself (“You should not want this! Shame on you!”) for having them. And I do not necessarily believe them (“If you don’t eat this cookie, you will starve. Is that true?”). To be loving to myself is to act in accordance with my bigger desires (to be in a body I love), rather than attaching myself to this small desire (the cookie).
How does “effortless” maintenance of weight loss fit in with this? First, I’ve believed that my current way of eating (which led to overweight) was “effortless.” Is that true? Doesn’t the angst I’ve felt over this issue, the hours of suffering, count as effort? No, my current relationship with food is not “effortless.” It’s “unconscious.”
Second, what does effortless actually mean? Every habit takes effort to establish. Once it is established, it feels automatic. The automaticity of habit is what feels like effortlessness. If I invest in cultivating a new habit of sympathetic non-attachment to urges now, acting in alignment with my bigger desires will eventually feel easier, and I will experience less suffering. If not effortless, that sounds at least less effortful! This is my action step.
I finally see how peace, self-love, and dieting fit together. A diet pushes you to confront your urges regularly and methodically and is thus an opportunity to learn how to detach from them, kindly. That’s the work. Losing weight can be done outside of a diet, yes. But it cannot be done and maintained without changing your relationship to urges.