Today we begin an eight-part series on the stages of drastic weight loss, which is based on the research I’ve done with contestants from NBC’s The Biggest Loser as well as my personal experience working with clients. Our topic for today is the five personality characteristics that people tend to have who have been overweight since childhood, and how they can transform those personality characteristics as they strive to make a transformation of their mind and body during their weight loss journey. The characteristics are, for the most part, characteristics you would expect to find in someone who has battled obesity their entire life, but being aware of them and working to address them will dramatically increase the chances of success in not just losing weight, but keeping it off for good.
The Five Characteristics
Not surprisingly, the first characteristic of those of us who have been overweight since childhood is that we tend to have low self-esteem and low self-confidence—think of the stereotypical “fat kid” who gets teased on the playground. It’s a part of the culture of shame that surrounds obesity in our society, which has persisted for the past 30-40 years even as the percentage of the population that is overweight has steadily increased.
The second characteristic is that people who have struggled with weight their entire life tend not to be differentiated from other people. This is a term used in psychology when someone has a very hard time not feeling other people’s emotions or feeling responsible for other people’s feelings. When this occurs, it can make it difficult for us to advocate for ourselves and set healthy boundaries in relationships. We easily become over-extenders, the good listeners, and do a lot more giving than receiving in these often unbalanced relationships.
The third characteristic is a history of anxiety and depression. This is something of a “chicken before the egg” problem. Are we anxious in social settings, depressed, and isolating ourselves solely because we’re overweight? Or, is that our over-eating is a result of perpetually being anxious and depressed, and having biochemistry that predisposes us to that? The answer is somewhat complicated and is a good subject for a future post, but I just want to emphasize that anxiety and depression are characteristics of someone who has experienced a life-long struggle with weight.
The fourth characteristic I’ve noticed in my research is that people who have been overweight since childhood tend to experience intense feelings of shame. This is very common after using food as comfort for uncomfortable stuffed emotions, and is amplified by our weight-shaming society.
The fifth and final characteristic is related to the fourth characteristic—it’s the tendency of people to use food to numb, escape, or comfort bad feelings, which, as I just referenced, causes shame. Shame, of course, is a bad feeling, which leads to more eating…thus continuing the cycle.
The Weight Saturated Narrative
When people have the five characteristics mentioned above, it creates a weight-saturated personal narrative that ties their identities directly to the scale. This is true whether they are losing weight or gaining weight.
For example, on a day when they lose weight, they feel like they have permission to be more confident, or have greater self-esteem, or be more differentiated in their relationships. On days where they gain weight or fail to lose weight, that’s where the anxiety and depression kicks in. In both cases, their personal identity is tied to their weight.
Characteristics vs Traits
One thing that is important to point out is that characteristics, unlike traits, can be changed. In psychology, characteristics are defined as learned responses as a result of specific context, which in many cases is a survival context. If people can understand the context where these characteristics were created, they can begin to shift and change them. Changing these characteristics is a major focus of what I do in my practice.
Weight loss does NOT cure all ills
A common misconception among people who become aware of the five characteristics that are contributing to their weight problems is that if they lose weight, the characteristics will also go away. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
While there may be a temporary “honeymoon” phase that occurs after drastic weight loss, where people are noticing and complimenting you on your appearance, this will not last. If you don’t spend time learning how to permanently validate yourself, or create that self-love within yourself during your weight loss journey, weight loss alone won’t be able to give you these things. However, if you do work on making the journey more about self-love and about addressing the five characteristics mentioned above, that’s when the true transformation of your body and mind takes place. It is a transformation that can come regardless of the number you see today on the scale and based solely on the fact that you are indeed worth it. Once you start believing that this journey is no longer about weight loss and about a much bigger shift in your life.