At the end of my post called “Are you still with me?”, I mentioned some advice my friend Al gave me, and I think his comments bear repeating.
As I explained before, Al is a psychologist, and I know him from St. Andrews College in North Carolina, where we were both members of the faculty before Dave and I moved to Kentucky.
One day Al came by my office and listened to me venting about the fact that I had eaten way too much the night before. I was basically going off on my bad behavior, and Al told me that beating myself up for a mistake I’d already made and couldn’t undo was causing me twice as much harm. He said that, instead, it would be healthier to own up to my bad behavior and move on, focusing on what I could do right in the present rather than what I'd done wrong in the past.
Of course, Al was right, so right that his words have stayed with me since that day nearly four years ago. Not only that, but his advice has helped shape my new and much healthier attitude about the way I see myself and the way I approach weight loss.
Unfortunately, there are still so many people who don’t see it that way.
I was talking with my friend Laura recently about her weight. Laura is really unhappy about her body and completely down about the fact that she hasn’t been able to drop any pounds even though she has wanted to do so for a while now. At one point during our conversation, she told me that she knows that her problem is that she eats too much.
I hate it when Laura is hard on herself, and on top of that, I know she was wrong so I immediately took issue with what she’d said. Since her weight gain occurred before I met her—and I’ve known her for over a year—I know she really doesn’t eat too much anymore. It’s possible that she ate too much in the past—when she picked up the pounds she’s now trying to lose—but I know her well enough to be sure that she is no longer eating more than anyone else. Besides, if she really were overeating, she would be gaining weight rather than maintaining. So the fact that the number on Laura's scale hasn't gone up recently tells me she’s actually doing something right.
But rather than give herself credit for not gaining weight, Laura is only able to see that she’s not as thin as she once was. Because she has to look in the mirror every day and see the extra pounds she’s still carrying with her, she truly believes that she’s still eating too much.
In this way, Laura is equating the size of her body with her current eating habits . . . even though that’s not an accurate equation. In a sense, she is beating herself up every day for something she did years ago, and I wish there was something I could say or do to get her to understand what Al told me back in North Carolina, but my words don't seem to help.
What worries me is that I don’t think Laura is alone. I think many people who are unhappy with their bodies do the same thing. They look in the mirror and see something they don’t like and think, “God, I’m such a pig!” Or “Why do I always have to eat so much?!” even though the reflection they see in the mirror may have nothing to do with their eating habits for a long, long time.
I know that other people do this because I do it too. Yes, I’ve learned to control how hard I am on myself most of the time, but every once in a while I still slip up, go back to my old ways, and see myself through that really harmful lens.
The problem with continuing to beat yourself up for things you did months—sometimes even years—ago is that doing so doesn’t allow you to give yourself credit for what you’re doing in the present. Because if, like Laura, you’re not gaining weight, that means you really deserve praise, not criticism. Unfortunately, it’s one of life’s cruel realties that it usually takes a long time for our hard work to pay off. If life were really fair, we'd all look like Heidi Klum the morning after we spent a whole day sweating it out at Boot Camp and crunching our way through bags full of celery and carrot sticks. Or we’d resemble the Bride of Frankenstein after a long night of downing plate after plate of nachos and spinach dip over half a dozen whipped cream-topped strawberry daquiris and two packs of Kools. Unfortunately, it takes much more time to see the results of our hard work (or the consequences of our mistakes), which is why we have to look for the positive rather than wait for it to be pointed out to us in the mirror.
I’ve been working hard at trying to lose weight for almost five months now, and I’ve really only lost a handful of pounds in all that time. And I’m also not sure that my body looks any better than it did back in March when this whole thing started. It would be really easy for me to get down on myself about this, but what good would it do me? If I had spent the past five months thinking about how little I’ve accomplished, I think it would be very difficult—if not impossible—for me to stay motivated and keep working on being healthy. And that’s the reason it’s crucial that we all take Al’s advice and focus on what we’re doing right in the present rather than what we did wrong in the past.