I received this request for advice from a reader in response to one of my earlier posts.
“Jack, I’m writing for your advice related to your recent writings about new year’s resolutions. I’ve been struggling my whole life with my weight. I’ve started diets so many times it’s hard to count. I’ve been on month-long retreats to make lifestyle changes. I do lose weight but eventually gain it all back and more. This time of year is strange for me. Because of my past, as the new year rolls around I start thinking about my next diet or workout routine. I both get excited about it, imagining the new slimmer me, and I get anxious because I can guess how it’s going to end – with another failure. It’s like I have a repetition compulsion. I’m tense and frankly unhappy right now and confused about what to do next. Do you have any advice on what I should do or at least how to think about this? Thanks.” – Anonymous
Hmmm. Would you be surprised to know I do have an opinion about this. Does a leopard have spots? Haha.
But in seriousness, I do have advice. I don’t know anything about you outside of what you wrote me except that you’re a psychiatrist and I can guess your sex by your name, neither of which I will share with readers. This may be a good thing because although this is about you, the issues you raise are universal. So, I will respond in ways that may or may not apply to you, but at least some topics I raise will apply to some people.
This is what I know about you from what you wrote:
- You’ve been “struggling [your] whole life.” This tells me as a kid and teen, you were already overweight and you were already struggling with your weight – those are two separate issues.
- This is an active issue for you. You’re still struggling.
- You’ve tried and failed many times.
- You’re still motivated to resolve this issue. In fact, it feels that your attempts at solutions feels like a repetition compulsion to you.
- You don’t know what else to do. You’ve exhausted your ideas of possible moves.
- You feel tense, unhappy, confused, and you anticipate that future attempts will also result in failure.
This is what I would guess about you based on what you wrote. You’re in a rougher emotional spot than you let on. This is a lifelong struggle you feel you’re losing or have already lost. You probably have some feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, lack of control and agency.
I feel for you. I think I recognize at least some of your pain. So, I will tell you what I really think. It may hurt.
I am convinced there is a path forward. But you have to go big, make changes bigger, deeper, and wider than you’ve ever tried before. And I will tell you how. The path will take time, be hard, but – and here is the beautiful thing – it will be life-altering and fun because it must be those things for it to work. Let me set the scene first.
First, I’m guessing that what you’re facing goes much beyond your weight. Your weight probably affected you deeply as a kid. You may have grown up viewing yourself and having others view you as “the fat kid.” Maybe you were bad at sports or avoided them altogether. Given your continuing struggle with your weight, your motivation over the years to keep trying and trying again to lose weight certainly speaks to how important your perception of your body is. It’s likely it has deeply affected your self-esteem. It may also have affected your love life. You may consider yourself unattractive, perhaps even unlovable. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re chronically self-conscious, that when you walk into a room of people you don’t know, you become highly aware of your body and imagine how they see and judge you. You may feel uncomfortable in and hate how your clothes look on you.
I say this to point out that the shape of your body, your perception of it, and your relationship to it, has probably touched every part of your life. It may be the primary way you define yourself and your life. It may be that if I asked you to tell me what makes you you, your overweight body would be the first thing that would come to your mind. Your body perception IS your self-definition and organizing principle.
So – I hope you’re still with me – here is my advice. Changing your diet (that is, what, how, how much, and when you eat) and changing your lifestyle are not enough. You know that because you tried these things and failed.
Instead, you need to change your way of being in the world. The focus needs to be on using your body differently and moving in the world differently. Your entire experience of your body is affected by your conviction and perception of being overweight. But to change your experience of your body, don’t start with trying to change its shape. You’ve already tried and failed multiple times.
By trying to solve your problem, you’ve gotten yourself into a war. It’s a war between your observing judging self and your body. This is not a war among equals because your mental self you regard as “the real you” while you banish your body into the category of “other,” as if when bodies were being handed out to souls you didn’t get in line soon enough and had to settle for the dud at the end.
It doesn’t need to be this way. This mind-body divide is not wise philosophically nor psychologically. We’re past such Cartesian dualism. Your body isn’t an uncooperative defiant alien that you need to beat into submission. You can’t exchange your body, divorce it, give it the silent treatment as you live together in the same “house,” with “the real you” feeling disgust, dislike, or even hatred towards your body while your body, without words, does as it pleases, placing “the real you” in trance as it reaches for the ice cream in the fridge which it earlier had a hand in placing into your shopping cart while “the real you” was picking out broccoli.
The goal is to move from war to cease-fire to truce to permanent peace to a merging into the unified creature you are and always have been. You don’t have a body; you are a body.
You also only have one life that you can’t replace or exchange. So, live it as it’s meant to be lived … by you.
These are the steps: rather than starting by wanting to change your shape – making it slimmer – start by engaging your bodily self differently.
Start moving. Explore the world. Experience it. Change it as it changes you. Connect with the natural world, with others, with yourself, especially the aspects of yourself you’ve been warring with. You can explore different states of awareness or consciousness, different ways of being with others, different ways of moving.
Take yoga or tai chi or boxing or jujitsu. Learn to dance or swim. It’s all an adventure. Do what is exciting. Pay attention to the feelings in your body. Feel how good the hurt of stretching or holding a posture or pushing your muscles to failure feels.
Go hiking or diving or biking. Notice how beautiful, how inexhaustible, the world is and the people in it.
Learn to paint or draw or make pottery. Notice how the clay feels slipping across your skin. It’s all so sensual.
Learn to make simple, delicious, healthful meals. Invite family and friends, have them help with the cutting and table-setting. Talk. Play music. Maybe dance. Maybe drink. Laugh. Tell stupid jokes. Maybe tell them you invited them over because you want to live differently, more expansively, engaging in more healthful behaviors. Maybe share with them your struggles. When you do, some will take your hand, hug you, tell you they love you and wish they knew how hard it has been for you, and ask how they can help.
Learn to make love. Learn to give your partner pleasure. Kiss them, tease them, pull them toward you, push yourself towards them. Flick your eyelashes against their body and ask them how it feels. Explore them and move their hand to explore you. Get lost in the experience, this special unrepeatable event.
Become ‘it’ so that nothing else is it, nowhere else is it, no one else is it. You. You are it. You are fucking it. And, here you are. You are the happening. You are the center of your world. Others are drawn to you because you’re it. You’re it because you know how to move through the world. You’re unafraid – most people are afraid. You explore. You find talents and passions in yourself you didn’t before discover.
You now move just a little into other people’s personal spaces and they either move a little away or they move a little closer because they want to be closer to you. It’s like there is a world – worlds really – you never knew existed. It’s like you’ve developed x-ray vision or discovered alternate realities.
Now, you understand the path forward. You understand flow, you embrace movement, exertion, talk, encounters, forming relationships. Your focus is on the events of life rather than the objects within the world, including your here-to-for uncooperative and unlovable body. You feel the rush.
And one day you pause and think how you’ve changed. You remember your previously never-ending struggle, the moments of humiliation, the uncountable defeats and dashed hopes. And most, you remember your self-hatred and self-disgust. Tears come into your eyes. You’re overcome. You cry freely for the regret, for the meanness of the world you once inhabited. But as you cry, you forgive yourself, you forgive the others who hurt you, you feel compassion, and you hug yourself. It seems ridiculous to you, but you’re actually hugging yourself, with your arms wrapped around your torso. You stop and laugh. Who hugs themselves?
Until next time,
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
“No amount of self-improvement can make up for any lack of self-acceptance.”
“Consciousness is only possible through change; change is only possible through movement.”
“Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns…We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small.”