Weight loss psychology: the psychological reasons you might gain or struggle to lose weight

“There is no passion to be found in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living” Nelson Mandela.

Weight loss psychology: the psychological reasons you might gain or struggle to lose weightThroughout my long journey of weight gain and loss, and the psychological healing I’ve had to experience along the way, I’ve become intimately aware of my own particular weight loss psychology, that is the deeply held psychological reasons why I gained weight and may yet encounter challenges in losing it or keeping it off.

Weight loss psychology

Following are the five psychological reasons why I gained weight.

Acknowledging these has been critical to my success in losing weight, and will be the key to maintaining my current weight into the future. Some parts of this may also ring true for you!

1. Feeling Undeserving

If you don’t believe you deserve a ‘new’ body, or feel undeserving of your new post-weight loss body, your subconscious will work against you and you’ll likely never lose weight or you’ll gain it back – quickly.

Feeling undeserving or unworthy is a limiting belief. Psychologists believe that almost every limiting belief we hold, including those we are not aware of subscribing to, is ingrained in us from childhood.

Limiting beliefs such as “this is the best I can hope for” or “I don’t deserve happiness” are incredibly powerful in holding us back from achieving goals.

If you don’t believe you ‘deserve’ to have a slimmer body than you currently do, perhaps because you believe prioritising your physical health and appearance is vain or shallow, narcissistic, self-indulgent, etc, then your subconscious will sabotage every effort you make.

A generous amount of self-love is an essential ingredient in the weight loss recipe. Loving yourself enough to believe you deserve this will ensure you can put yourself and your body ahead of, or at least equal first with all the other usual pressing demands of life.

Particularly if there’s NOT an immediate health imperative to lose weight, weight loss/body recomposition can feel a little too close to selfishness and vanity for those of us with long ingrained beliefs that these are ‘bad’ qualities we need to squash.

One of my personal limiting beliefs, only realised through years of reading, introspection and formal counselling, is that I have been ‘too blessed’ in my life, particularly in terms of academic ability, so what ‘right’ did I have to be physically attractive in addition to having a strong intellect?

In a perverse way, gaining weight was a form of penance, an attempt to redress this balance. I know that might sound a little crazy, but it’s ‘my truth’ and yours can be found too with a little digging. Exploring your limiting beliefs is critical to psychological healing.

2. Rebellion

The second psychological reason why we sometimes gain or struggle to lose weight is as a subconscious form of rebellion against people who may have criticised our weight in the past, against ‘society’ and its unrealistic standards of beauty, or any number of other things that made us feel unworthy.

Putting on weight can be our subconscious saying a giant “f*ck you” to the critics. Oh, you think I’m a little too round on the edges? You think I would be more attractive if I were slimmer? You think I’m lazy, undisciplined and greedy? Well watch this, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Jessica Ortner unpacks this in her book The Tapping Solution for Weight Loss and Body Confidence, stating that “when the world doesn’t live up to our expectations, we rebel against its unfairness by turning to food… when we eat we feel like we’re giving a middle finger to a society that is pressuring us into trying to live up to expectations that always seem beyond our reach…and for a brief time, it feels liberating”.

In my early 20s, someone close to me once described me to a third party as “a round ball with a head”. You can imagine how that felt. It cut deep, particularly from someone who should have respected me more than that.

I’ve forgiven this person now, but it lodged itself in my psyche, and I can now acknowledge that a factor in my weight gain was rebellion against anyone who dared reduce me to the sum of my physical parts. I actively (although subconsciously) chose to prioritise academic achievement at the expense of my body.

The ‘logic’, such as it was, was that I may not have been able to wear the lovely clothes slimmer women wore, but I had an awesome book collection! I couldn’t run around the block but I could wordplay with the best of them. And if people in my life couldn’t love me through my fat, well screw them.

3. Self-protection

The third reason why we may gain or struggle to lose weight is as a form of self-protection. This is a big one, and I would lay bets that it is a factor in almost every story of weight gain, although it may be buried deep in your subconscious as it was in mine.

Fat is a very tangible, very literal suit of armour. It’s insulation against the world and its pressures and may even have been acquired in response to trauma or abuse. Over-eating is often emotionally driven, as we seek comfort in food. Being overweight, hiding the ‘real you’ under a layer of insulation, is self-protection 101.

There are myriad things you might be choosing to insulate yourself from, including:

  • A ‘reality check’ about elements of your life that need to change and hiding from this truth.
  • Unwanted attention or disrespect from others.
  • Fear of failure. What if I put myself first by acknowledging my weight, trying to lose it, and then fail?
  • Fear of success. What happens if I lose weight and other things in my life change? What if my friends get jealous of how I look afterwards?
  • What if I’m criticised for being ‘vain’? What if my friends and family are disappointed in me or don’t like the ‘real me’? It’s easier if I just stay this way and then everyone knows where they stand. I can hide under layers of loose clothing and then nothing and no one can hurt me or judge me.

By now I’m sure you’re seeing that these factors are interlinked and all overlap to create a real psychological mess that can take years to unravel. In my case, it was all of the above. I was eating to squash a sense of panic that I wasn’t living life according to my innermost values and desires. In short, I was unhappy, and drowned this knowledge with food.

4. Fear of being desired

The fourth psychological reason you might gain or struggle to lose weight, is through a fear of being desirable. Oh boy – this is a really significant one (yes I know I said that last time).

If you’re raised to believe that your body, particularly the female body is something to be hidden away, not acknowledged, or dare I say it – a source of sin – then those feelings of shame and discomfort may stick in your subconscious and influence your behaviour well into your adult life.

And, has been reported in research, particularly if you’re a victim-survivor of sexual abuse, it’s entirely logical that you’ll blame your body for drawing attention, and do everything in your power to avoid future abuse by becoming ‘undesirable’.

Society is great at sending us mixed messages on this one. A sexually desirable female body is something to be admired and aspired to, at the same time as being a definite source of danger. A sexy, slim body draws attention on the street in a way that an overweight body does not. In western culture in particular, fat women are invisible. And if being invisible makes you feel safe, then it makes sense to get, and stay, fat, doesn’t it?

In my case, I wasn’t raised in a particularly prudish household or a victim of sexual abuse, but I was in a relationship with a jealous, possessive, insecure man for most of my 20s. In those days, even a conversation with another man would cause an argument at home.

I was frequently told “you know he just wants to sleep with you, don’t you?”. To avoid the accusations and drama, I gained weight – 20kg in the first 2 years of that relationship, in fact. I did it, subconsciously, in the hope that attention from other men would stop, and the problem would go away. This weight gain was clearly enabled by my now ex-husband.

With the benefit of hindsight I realise of course that it was no solution, but at the time that was the coping strategy I chose to run with.

5. Lack of emotional connection

The fifth psychological reason you might gain or struggle to lose weight is through a lack of emotional connection or intimacy in your life. This might stem from childhood, and frequently does. The maternal relationship in particular has been linked in psychological literature to weight problems in adulthood.

It doesn’t have to stem from childhood, however. It could well be more clearly focused on the present. Relationships that don’t provide us with the degree of emotional intimacy or connection that we need can easily be the reason why we’re nose-deep in a bag of potato chips or sweets in front of the TV every evening.

The Institute for the Psychology of Eating explores this further. Food can also be something couples bond over, an activity (perhaps the only one?) they enjoy together, and gaining weight together is not uncommon.

Connection and comfort is a fundamental human need, and when it’s absent, we find other ways to compensate. Self-love – connection with the self – is every bit as important here as our relationships with others. In addition, don’t underestimate the importance of physical intimacy. Eating can be a very sensual, endorphin-producing activity.

The saying that ‘chocolate is better than sex’ can literally be true in some cases. And when life is missing either sex or other sensual pleasures, food is an easy, convenient, socially-sanctioned, risk-free ‘go to’.

Clearly, the relationship during which I gained most of my weight was a dysfunctional one, devoid of any healthy, genuine emotional connection. I was out of my depth, and trying to replace that missing connection with food.
Weight loss psychology: what's your story?

Weight loss psychology: In conclusion

The above are the five main psychological reasons why I gained weight in the first place, and I fully believe I would not be able to maintain my ‘new’ body if I hadn’t allowed myself to explore and then exorcise these psychological demons. I still grieve for my younger, chubbier self. I wish I could wind the clock back 10 years and impart the following wisdom to her:

  1. You are worthy and deserving. Choosing to care about your body is not wrong or vain, self-indulgent or immoral. Your body is a temple and it houses the most important part of you, so where’s the shame in wanting that temple to be beautiful and strong?
  2. Don’t take what others say to heart. Their opinions on your body are irrelevant. Don’t let them win by sabotaging your health and happiness through a perverse attempt at rebellion. As the saying goes, the best revenge is success, right?
  3. The best way to insulate yourself from life’s pressures is to be mentally strong and emotionally resilient. Those extra kilos are a false comfort and self-sabotage is never a winning strategy.
  4. No relationship that is fueled by jealousy, paranoia or fear is healthy or worth your time. There is no need to fear attention from men. In fact, there’s a smaller correlation between your physical appearance and the nature of this attention than you might think. Good men will be kind and respectful regardless of your size, and pigs will always be pigs. Concentrate on building your self-esteem and these pigs will be so much easier to deal with.
  5. You won’t find intimacy or connection inside a chocolate wrapper. There’s no golden ticket to wonka land. There are many many sources of emotional connection and intimacy to be found in this world. Create a physical environment that satisfies all the other senses, and invest in healthy friendships and the rest will take care of itself.

My post on mindset and positive thinking may also be useful for you.

Having said that I regret those lost years, I don’t regret the personal growth and the self-development that’s occurred as a result.

I have no doubt that I’m stronger and more resilient now as a result of this, and that I can maintain my weight and physical health from a firmer foundation than I otherwise might have. I’ve got this, and so can you, if you’re willing to go into the ‘discomfort’ of exploring your own particular psychological labyrinth. It’s painful, yes, but so so so worth it.

This is my own particular weight loss psychology cocktail. I’d love to hear about yours!

G.I. Gen - weight loss psychology - on the beach
Me, chilling on the beach in Cambodia!

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