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A Support System That Speaks The Language

October 28, 2015

Have you ever attempted to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak a language you are fluent in?  If so, you know that the effort required to get across even the most basic information to that person can be difficult and exhausting.  When it comes to communicating abstract concepts like emotion, humor, or stress, a language barrier is almost impossible to overcome.

While those of us who undergo drastic weight loss might not literally speak a language foreign to people who have not gone through that process, sometimes it can certainly feel that way when we are trying to communicate with them about our experience.  That’s why stage seven of the eight stage process of drastic weight loss is all about finding people who speak the language of drastic weight loss, and using those people to create a support system that will increase your odds of long-term success.

Empathy vs Sympathy

In order to understand what I mean when I reference the concept of “speaking the language”, first you must understand the difference between empathy and sympathy.  Although sometimes in our culture those words are used interchangeably, they have distinctly different meanings. 

Empathy is trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes despite having never been there before.  It’s what we do when we try to relate to someone in order to understand their point of view.  Sympathy, on the other hand, is something much different. It’s a much deeper way of emotionally engaging, because it comes from someone who has been through what we’re going through.  As a result they can really relate to your struggles in a way that other people simply can’t. 

When we go through a process of drastic weight loss, it is very important to have people in our network that can give us sympathy, not just empathy.  Those are the people that understand what it’s like to struggle with food and use it in comforting ways, and to be overweight in a weight-shaming society.  They’re the ones that will help us stay on track and put the fuel into our tanks that will sustain us in the weight maintenance phase of the process.  While we may have some people in our network like that organically, it’s probable that we’ll have to intentionally seek out more of them in order to get the type of support we need.

Building a support system

When I did my study of the contestants from NBC’s hit show The Biggest Loser, one of the things that almost all of them had in common was a feeling that they were not getting the support they needed once they left the show.  It wasn’t just the training support that was lacking, but also the support that they had from the fraternal group of contestants they were competing with that spoke the language.  Many of the contestants were really struggling to sustain their progress due to this lack of support.

On their own, without any guidance or prompting from NBC, the contestants began forming their own community.  They connected on social media, formed phone trees, and even mapped out where in the country all the contestants lived so they could occasionally have in-person contact with each other.   They even started forming mentoring relationships, where a person who was just getting into the first few months of reaching their goal weight would pair up with someone that was a few years into the journey.  All of this happened organically, and it has really provided a great blueprint for a support system that can be replicated in local communities. 

Effects of a Support System

Among the contestants I studied, the effect that being plugged into a support system had on those who were able to do it was dramatic.  Those who had access to a group that provided both accountability and support were far more likely to keep off the weight they had lost. 

Of those two things—accountability and support–accountability is the one that a lot of people like to pinpoint, because it has to do with keeping us on track.  However, the support that a community can provide when we get off track is equally important, if not even more important. 

With many people who I watched struggle with weight re-gain, the biggest problem they had was that as soon as they hit a bump in the road, they felt so much shame that they started to isolate themselves and fall out of their support community.  For the people who were less connected to begin with, they would just fall further and further back into old behaviors, further into shame, further into isolation, and further into comfort eating for that shame.  However, when a community was able to step in and support them, they were often able to get back on track. 

Notice I say “support them”, not “scold them for not sticking to the plan”.  People who are struggling to keep the weight off often just need to feel loved and understood.  They don’t need someone saying “shame on you, get off your butt and get with the program”.  The best communities—those comprised of people who speak the language–will provide that kind of love and support.

Working With Dr. Mondo

If you are struggling to find a local community that speaks the language of drastic weight loss, you may want to check out my Road Map to Weight Loss online course.  New classes are starting soon but space is limited and classes tend to fill quickly, so reserve your seat soon and get plugged in to our online community.