Dangerous Myths About Willpower and Weight Loss
(An important post about overeating, willpower, and beliefs that may be sabotaging you)
Melissa McCreery, PhD
Change is not a one-shot-deal, especially as it relates to emotional eating. Are you letting new tools in? Are you struggling to be tougher, have more willpower, or resign yourself to deprivation? Your choices are powerful. You can set yourself up to succeed by making decisions that support your goals.
She called me to schedule a consultation to discuss coaching for emotional eating. Her overeating was causing her to regain weight she had worked extremely hard to loseâand she had lost a lot of weight. Like many of the high-achieving women who seek me out, she is an incredibly determined woman with a lot of willpower. Sheâs known for setting a goal and sticking to it. Sheâs been an example and a mentor in her local weight loss communityâin great part because of her smarts, her get-it-done attitude, and her perseverance. But now, her weight has begun to creep back.
Itâs an all-too-familiar story. The plot has different turns and twists each time I hear it, but essentially, her willpower and determination ran out. Life happened, she hit some extremely gnarly patches, and she relied on her sole strategy of toughing it out and staying the course. We all have our limits, and eventually she hit hers. The willpower and self-control werenât enough to make her do what she didnât really have the resources to do. And she began to falter.
Sheâs a lovely woman. But she has relied on herself for so much that sheâs not very good at asking for help. In fact, sheâs pretty skilled at turning the tables and helping you instead of letting you know whatâs going on. She started to get scared and stressed and worried as she saw herself losing control of the number on the scale and of her eating. Her stress makes her overeating worse and her confidence shaky. Reaching out to me to ask about getting help was a very big deal for her. But she was still fighting a bigger battle about letting the help in in her mind.
âWhen the going gets tough, the tough get goingâ is the kind of thing she tells herself. Sheâs come to see me about coaching for emotional eating, because a part of her knows sheâs really not sure what to do with her feelings and because the weight is steadily coming back. But that voice in her head is still whispering about how she just needs to get tough again. Sheâs focused on that, sheâs following her plan rigidly. Sheâs getting tougher because she is afraid. But she still doesnât have the tools for dealing with reasons that she overeats. She has toughness, but for all of us, toughness has its limits.
We talk about emotional eating and overeating. We talk about coaching. We talk about how uncomfortable this whole conversation and asking for help may be for her. We talk about the investment that coaching for emotional eating isâwhat she hopes it will help her achieve and the costs if she doesnât do something to make a change. Itâs hard for her to think about what weight regain may cost herâbecause she feels too afraid to think about it. We talk about how hard it is without tools to help her with her feelings. âYes,â she says, âThatâs why I eat.â
But that voice in her head keeps whisperingâitâs getting louderâand even I can hear it now. It says she just needs to be stricter. More disciplined. She needs to get on track. Get working out. That will do it. Except, I know that this is not true. Perseverance and discipline are great strengths, but they are not enough.
And then I hear the lie. The lie that so many people tell and so many people believe. As she explains why her self-discipline is so important, she says, âI guess Iâm just not like a thin person who can eat whatever they want without thinking about it.â And, Iâm pretty sure, with that statement, she decided that for now, what she needs, is to just keep focusing on being strong and tough.
I canât be certain, Iâm not her after all, but Iâm pretty darn sure that sheâs missing a piece of the puzzleâand Iâm worried about her. The story she is telling herself is that thin people eat without awareness and without making deliberate choices. And that she is different because she needs to have self-discipline.
Hereâs whatâs dangerous about that. The piece of the puzzle sheâs not acknowledging in this conversation includes the strategies and tools and resources that people use instead of overeating. This includes tools for comforting yourself, strategies for responding to stress, relaxing, dealing with conflict and anger and disappointment, celebrating, treating yourself, coping with boredom or disappointment or a broken heart or any other feeling or situation that may be your personal trigger to overeat. It also includes feeling alright about letting help in.
While I am sure there are exceptions, people who are thin and who donât overeat do not mindlessly eat whatever they want AND they donât all possess ungodly amounts of willpower. People who donât rely on food (or other substances, etc.) to cope with life, usually have a whole extra skill set that many people who struggle with overeating havenât developed or have underused, or maybe donât even know exists.
This is good news. It means that if you struggle with overeating, there is HOPE. It means that you donât have to spend your life struggling harder, getting tougher, and depriving yourself MORE. It means that with help and learning to do it DIFFERENTLY (that means getting more tools for emotional eating), your relationship with food can actually be easier and a whole lot differentâmaybe better than you ever imagined.
I havenât heard from this bright, high-achiever since we spoke. My guess is that she has gone back to try willpower one more time. My hope is that she starts to shift her focus to the reasons that she overeatsâso her life can get better. And that she lets some help in.
Change is not a one-shot-deal and itâs good to assess your progress along the way. Are you letting new tools in? Are you struggling to be tougher, have more willpower, or resign yourself to deprivation? Your choices are powerful.
Are you a smart, busy woman struggling with stress, overeating, or overload? Claim your
free audio set: 5 Simple Steps to Move Beyond Overwhelm With Food and Life at
Melissa McCreery, PhD, ACC, is a Psychologist, ICF Certified Life Coach, Emotional Eating Solutions
specialist, and the founder of www.TooMuchOnHerPlate.com,
a company dedicated to providing smart resources to busy women struggling with food, weight
and stress. She is the author of the Emotional Eating Toolbox(TM) 28 Day Program and the Emotional Eating Toolboxâ¢ Weight Loss Surgery Edition. Bariatric professionals: Customized patient materials and programming are available for bariatric practices.