Specializing in weight loss therapy for years, watching people’s stories unfold, and listening to their struggles, I’ve noticed a pattern that emerges all too often. When people are participating in a diet or exercise program that is very strict and rigid, some start rebelling against the program.
This pattern baffles trainers, dieticians and members alike. After all, people seek out a diet or exercise program because they want to lose weight. So why would they rebel against the very program that is meant to help them achieve their goal?
The traditional weight loss equation often leaves us with no other explanation than that the person who rebels must not really want to lose the weight. They aren’t ready. And, clearly they don’t have enough willpower.
Some of these conclusions may be at least partially true, but like most of our surface level conclusions about weight loss, there’s a lot that we miss in these explanations by not taking the mental and emotional side of weight loss into consideration.
When I help people explore their feelings and emotions post rebellion, many people often realize that they rebelled not because they didn’t want to lose the weight and be successful, but because they felt felt trapped and boxed in by the rigid structure of their food program.
When we feel trapped and boxed in we feel powerless. We feel like we have no choices. No voice. No agency. Feeling powerless often is a package deal, and with it comes feelings of panic and anxiety. And, panic and anxiety trigger a fight or flight response.
In the world of weight loss we fight by arguing with trainers and dieticians about the unfairness of the diet program. We take flight by putting forth haphazard attempts to adhere to the program, creating our own versions of the program, or abruptly abandoning the entire program all together.
When we feel panicked, boxed in and trapped we get sucked into problem saturated tunnel vision. It’s hard to see the bigger picture, including your weight loss goals, when you’re lost in a dark tunnel. Rebellion is our lifeline out of the dark tunnel. The opportunity to swiftly regain our sense of power and agency—even if it costs us our goals for our weight loss transformation.
Your History with Feeling Trapped & Rebellion
So, how do people avoid having this reaction to feeling trapped and boxed in? First, let’s travel back to your childhood. (What do you know!? A therapist who wants to take you for a trip back to your childhood!)
Our past does not contain all the answers, but it does often provide the context that explains why we do the things we do–including why we rebel when we feel trapped trapped or boxed.
Many of my clients who rebel at the first sign of rigid structure typically either grew up in households with parents who had excessively strict, or excessively permissive parenting styles. If your parents ran a super tight ship when you were younger (think helicopter parenting) then it’s not uncommon for you to have developed into an adult that would rather avoid too much rigid structure.
You likely rebel at the first sign of feeling confined to rigid standards because you vowed you would “never be controlled” after you left home (This could also be the reason why you swung from one extreme to the other on just about every rule your parents had once you were on your own). Rebellion was a reliable tool you deployed to help you eventually become your own person separate from your parents in adolescence and young adulthood. Yet, it’s also part of the reason you might feel like you know what to do to be healthy but struggle to stay on the right track if too many expectations or rigid structure is involved.
If your parents swung to the other opposite end of the spectrum then you grew up in a household like mine–a much more permissive, or as our French friends call it—laissez faire environment. Completely opposite from their helicopter parent counterparts laissez faire households allowed us the freedom to make a lot of decisions growing up. Our struggle isn’t having bad memories associated with rigid structure, it’s the fact that we have no memory associated with it at all.
Our lack of experience in tight quarters means that when we are confined to tight spaces with people breathing down our neck (even if they mean well) it often feels completely foreign. In our case we rebel against the strict diet parameters because it pushes us out of your comfort zone and contradicts our longstanding belief that we can probably figure out everything on our own, without any help.
The Antidote to Rebellion
Like most things in life the extremes, even if well intended, are often problematic. Somewhere in-between helicopter and laissez faire is probably just right for parenting. Not surprisingly, it’s also the appropriate balance for many people’s longterm eating plans.
Don’t get me wrong. While I am not convinced it’s the right approach for everyone, I do think that strict eating programs have their place. Many of us have had our health journeys re-invigorated from weight loss challenges and “resets.” However, there is no such thing as being a lifelong dieter. Lifelong dieters are just lifelong yo-yo’ers. Not even the most determined and rigid folks can do a lifetime of chicken, broccoli and brown rice. In fact if that’s what you think long term wellness is all about then you are almost SURELY going to feel anxious, panicked, trapped, and then eventually rebel, at the thought of having to eat “diet food” the rest of your life.
At some point, whether it’s at your goal weight, or on the road to it, we all have to figure out how to move away from black & white (all or nothing) approaches to food and learn to live in the gray. Surely, for some of you reading this blog, it might be time to ask yourself if the current approach you are using is the right fit. The point at which you decide to transition to a more longterm eating approach will depend on your current place in your weight loss journey, and your history with the feelings mentioned in this post.
If you still have a ways to go on your weight loss journey, and have a history of rebelling against strict programs, you have a couple options to chose from.
You could of course switch now to a less black and white approach in favor of an eating plan that looks much more gray. That seems like the obvious choice of course. But, is it?
The other option is that you could of course just do nothing, and stay. Stay firmly planted in the feelings of being trapped and powerless. This option might seem strange, at first glance. Afterall, why would you choose to allow yourself to feel powerlessness (isn’t the point to avoid that feeling!?)
Well, hear me out for a minute. While staying in the powerless feelings might be incredibly uncomfortable it also provides a huge opportunity to do the work we refer to in Stage 3 of The Road Map to Weight Loss online program, Gaining Insight & Healing Old Wounds. If you acknowledge feeling powerless, anxious and trapped, yet also decide to explore these feelings with support, you will find that you can re-write your story of how you respond to feelings.
Both in therapy and in The Road Map program we learn that while our first instinct is to fight or flee when anxious, sometimes we learn and grow from doing the opposite–staying put. We learn the backstory with our response to these emotions. New skills to implement in the moments they visit us, and empowerment techniques to remind us that we DO in fact, ALWAYS, have choices. In the end, you may decide that a program that’s in the gray is what’s best for you, but in this case you’d be the one making that choice–not anxiety and its fight or flight response set.
I can personally speak to an experience with the benefits of staying at a time when fleeing the strict diet program seemed like the only option. As painful as it was, I learned the most about myself when I stayed long enough in those feelings to understand my relationship to them. In the process I learned that, to an extent, more parameters and having someone else hold me accountable to my goals really can make me more successful long term. What’s more, it was this decision to stay put with the strict eating plan and embrace the feelings that came with it that eventually led me to have the courage to do that in other areas of my life–relationships, jobs, my spiritual walk, etc. The things I have learned about myself in those areas of my life have afforded me so many opportunities to grow in my life.
Eventually I learned that a more moderate gray area approach suits me best for where I am at, personally, at this stage in my journey. But, I also no longer have the fear of doing a reset or strict program if I felt that was best. From sitting in those feelings I rewrote my story with them, and now know that I can work through them in order to meet any goal I put in front of myself (this experience has also has helped me immensely with my goals to rewrite my story as a runner, especially in the training leading up to the 6 half marathons I’ve recently completed).
My story is not your story, but maybe it’s similar? Only you know the answer of whether or not you could gain something from shifting eating programs, or from staying put. Either way, the one thing I would caution you from doing is making any decision when you are under the influence of the panic, anxiety and powerless feelings we mentioned throughout this article.
If you feel trapped, and are thinking of switching it up talk to your trainer, dietician, coach or anyone that is on your support team to help you achieve your goals. Many gyms and weight loss centers are beginning to recognize the need to offer more eating plans that operate more in the gray. Don’t leave your gym or weight loss center overnight only to lose all the support you’ve established. Instead dialogue with them about your experience, and see if they have an option that allows you to stick with their support but implements a more moderate approach. Remember, it’s a journey, not a destination. Embrace the journey, and all the feelings you encounter along the way. They will always tell you something, and always present an opportunity to learn, grow and even rewrite your story.