Psychological barriers are the biggest cause of failed attempts at losing and managing weight. I'm not talking about deep-seated psychological problems, such as those rooted in sexual abuse or abandonment (although these can be at the core of repeated and unsuccessful weight-loss attempts). No, I'm talking about challenges that most of us share when trying to follow through with our intentions for better health and fitness (and other things in life).
Three of the most hurtful psychological barriers to weight management are blame, guilt and shame, which are closely related to each other. One leads to the other in an insidious manner, gradually demolishing all of the hard work you've done — the hard work you started with the best of intentions.
To fully understand how blame, guilt and shame work against you, let's discuss each separately.
Blame is when people find fault with themselves or hold themselves responsible for what they think they have done that is "bad." Pat came into my office for the first time saying, "I was really bad this week. I should have never gone to the party. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have binged. I can never do anything right!" Pat, like many people struggling with eating problems, doesn't consider that she's a fallible human being, that she doesn't know everything and that she's usually just trying to do the best she can to solve a problem (although it might be the wrong way). While blaming herself, Pat is inclined to judge herself harshly, call herself names and predict negative things to come. The feelings that come from Pat's self-blame include anger, frustration and anxiety.
Guilt is essentially a useless emotion. Pat, like many people, thinks that feeling guilty about something will somehow motivate her to do better. In reality, her guilt is paralyzing, not motivating. "I feel horrible," Pat continues. "How could I have done it again? Once I binged, it all snowballed. I figured, 'What's the use?' " The guilt Pat felt after losing control of her eating resulted in her losing more control and giving up. It didn't make her feel like trying to solve the problem by seeing where she went wrong or considering what she might be able to do to achieve the natural control with food that she wanted. The guilt came directly from the blame. By faulting herself excessively, there was no other direction in which she could go. The guilt then caused her to stew in her own juices.
Once you've unjustly blamed yourself for your mistakes in life and find yourself trapped in a thick vat of guilt, you experience shame, a feeling of humiliating disgrace. When you feel shame, you feel worthless, and when you feel worthless, you can't go much deeper. As you might imagine, shame is usually accompanied by depression and hopelessness.
So how can people who are experiencing these psychological barriers possibly succeed when it comes to achieving goals regarding weight loss or weight management or more healthful eating? They can't.
But with work, they can break down those psychological barriers. Here are some tips:
Try understanding instead of blaming: Objectively seek understanding of how and why things didn't go as hoped so that you can get insight into what needs to change. Skip the blame, which will only get in the way.
Practice compassion rather than inducing guilt: Treat yourself the way you would treat another person you care about when he or she has made a mistake or is going through a tough time. Feel for yourself and be kind. Don't beat yourself up.
Try encouragement to find motivation: Just as a child needs encouragement after a failed attempt at something, adults need encouragement, too, especially from themselves.
Going from a lifestyle of blame, guilt and shame to one that's compassionate and understanding may not happen overnight. But once you acknowledge that the negative, rejecting approach to solving problems doesn't get you what you want, you'll find a purpose in working to change your way of thinking.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.