Discipline, willpower and weight loss

Discipline, willpower and weight loss

Beware there is a couple of swears in this post. When I get passionate about something they slip out!

When it comes to losing weight I have about as much experience as one person could build up. In some regard I am a weight loss expert, I have tried literally everything to try and lose and then maintain my weight over the years. My dieting experience includes but is in no way limited to, Sureslim, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Healthy eating plans, going to the gym and a trainer developed eating plan and all of these needing varying amounts of discipline and willpower.

I read all sorts of articles, blogs and everything in between related to weight loss and I will forever be especially interested in any stories that include weight loss surgery. Two themes that repeatedly come up and are really starting to irritate me to no end are these notions of weight loss being tied to discipline and willpower. When someone has lost weight through diet and exercise alone these are the cornerstones that their success ultimately ends up being tied to.

The words we use to speak about and frame our experiences are very powerful and have many connotations and make implications that may or may not be true or present. The more this is repeated the more we believe it and it comes a point where it’s a given, a fact of sorts and we stop questioning it. We need to think carefully about the language we use to talk about weight, weight loss, our bodies and our experiences because it starts to inform us of how we should think and feel about ourselves and our struggles in life.

Discipline and willpower are two qualities that must be good ones to have. Any coverage of a successful weight loss story mention that the individual had determination and willpower in spades, and well look at them now aren’t they so successful. Conversely if you read the comments (Pro tip: NEVER read the comments) many, many experts (armchair commentators where experience of the thing they are commenting on is totally optional to them being an expert in it) will have commented saying that all you need is discipline and willpower and you can achieve anything, even losing all the weight you had ever dreamed of losing.

Now let’s look at the word discipline. I’m a bit handy with the internet so I googled the meaning of discipline and the Oxford Dictionary told me it means, “The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.” Maybe I’m missing something here but how on earth does that relate to losing weight? When has negative reinforcement ever been conducive in changing behavior to get a successful outcome? The only thing this even starts to show me is why we have such a fucked up relationship with our bodies. The use of language like this is probably a big factor in why we feel we must punish ourselves if we are ‘naughty’ or if we fall off the wagon of whatever plan we are trying to follow at any given point in time.

Then I looked up the definition of willpower and it was, “Control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.” Again I can kind of see how this has been adopted to use in the context of talking about weight loss but eh? So I looked up the definition of impulses and it is, “A sudden strong and unreflective urge or desire to act.” If you have ever struggled with your weight I do not need to tell you that literally everything around losing weight is just not that simple. An impulse in my mind is something sudden but that passes in a short space of time. The struggle I had with weight loss was the longest most excruciating process of torture I have ever endured.

Since I have issues with those words being used in the dialogue around weight and weight loss I have come up with better words to use that are less judgmental and more reflective of what is actually helpful long-term to use when we are talking about this stuff. How I think we need to talk about this and what we need to strive for are honesty instead of discipline and consistency instead of willpower. Discipline carries with it expectation that if you don’t do what you ‘should’ you can and should be punished. If you’re already feeling a bit shitty about not doing what you ‘should’ I fail to see how a punishment is going to help.

Honesty is one of the words we are using because any major lifestyle change requires to be exceptionally honest with yourself and it requires you to make sure you stop, reflect and take stock of where you are at any given point in time. Being honest with yourself, while sometimes not the most fun when you’ve messed up, is extremely valuable because it allows you to learn and grow and keep progressing in a positive way towards your goals. There is no need for discipline because you already feel pretty shit when you don’t make the right choice, we all know this.

Consistency is another word we should use in this context because if we do the right thing most of the time and make those decisions for ourselves that we know make us feel good, we are more likely to keep making that good decision in the future. We do not have to be perfect all the time. We don’t have the perfect circumstances and mental clarity to be able to always take the higher road and say no to chocolate. What matters is that you consistently make good choices so that those good choices become the norm. You could possess all of the willpower in the world and still sometimes you are not going to make the best choice.

The way we frame our bodies, our choices, our failure and successes will largely influence the outcome we get. If we talk to ourselves in a kind and encouraging way it is much more motivating to do the right thing. If you’re constantly telling yourself you suck and you can’t do this then you won’t. We need to start changing the ways we and others talk about weight loss, bodies and weight management. There is no easy way to do it, there is no best way to do it, and we need to remember that it is never as simple as energy in/energy out.

If weight loss and weight management was down to willpower and discipline alone then I would have sorted my excess weight problem years ago and I would not have needed to resort to weight loss surgery. If I had realized years ago that being honest with myself and that consistency, not perfection were key I may not have ended up so big. My relationship with my weight and my body have always been complex but the cycle of trying to be perfect and punishing myself when I failed was one of the worst things I could have done mentally and physically, and I did that to myself for years.

Weight loss, management and acceptance is complex and is hard to sum up in a few words but I have some that give us a good starting place to work from. How about we start talking about it in terms of a journey the requires you to be honest with yourself, being kind to yourself and making the choices you know make you feel good, about how being consistent is going to bring the best and most meaningful change and sometimes how, even though you know all of that, it’s still a really hard road and you will need someone to lean on and let you know you’re doing okay.

Do you roll your eyes like I do when you read a weight loss story and hear it was all down to discipline and willpower? Do you agree with me or do you think I’m reading far too much into the language we use to talk about this stuff? Comment below I’d love to know what your take on this is.

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There are 4 comments for this article
  1. Nigel Pearson at 2:13 pm

    Changing the language we use is a good start towards reframing people’s perceptions and attitudes towards obesity.
    I saw an interesting documentary on TV last night about medical research finding that bacteria in our gut influences the feelings of fullness after eating (or an absence of satiety)….and the promise this holds for the fight against obesity. While we may be appear to be our own enemy when it comes to being overweight, it’s NOT so simple. It’s not right to be blamed by others or to keep on blaming ourselves.

    • Melissa Peaks Author at 6:52 pm

      Hey Nigel! Yes it is so incredibly complex. I really think we don’t even begin to understand many of the biological processes that influence obesity but it’s great that some researchers are starting to make inroads into figuring out why. Nothing in my life has ever been that hard to control and it can’t have simply been down to having no willpower.

  2. Carolyn at 5:29 pm

    Great blog Melissa!!!
    I love these new words!!!! Honesty and consistency 🙂
    I feel very encouraged right now.

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