I’ve been working with my client Jeremy for about six months. While it took him a few weeks to learn how to tune into his thinking and get better at identifying his sabotaging thoughts, Jeremy has been doing well recently. He’s feeling very in control, he’s eating and exercising in a reasonable and healthy way, and he’s seeing the scale come down.
In session this week, Jeremy described an experience in which he was tempted to order a big takeout meal after a hard day, but he reminded himself that it ultimately wouldn’t get him to where he wants to be. He said something I’ve heard other clients say in the past: “I’ve really got this figured out. Now, I know I can do this.” While this is not a sabotaging thought in theory, I knew it was important to discuss it with Jeremy because, surprisingly, it could get him into trouble in the future.
The growing understanding of obesity is that it’s a chronic problem that requires lifetime care. And, like most other chronic problems, it’s not under control 100 percent of the time for most people. Other clients I’ve worked with have been in Jeremy’s shoes: they learn the necessary skills to gain control over their eating, and they lose weight. They feel great, and they realize that, finally, they’ve got this problem that has plagued them for years – sometimes decades – figured out.
Then, they get off track. Maybe it’s a stressor at home or work, maybe it’s a vacation, maybe it’s a global pandemic. Regardless of the cause, they find themselves reverting to old, unhealthy habits, which causes panic. They think, “I thought I could do this, but I guess I can’t. I thought I had it figured out, but I actually don’t.” Having these thoughts makes them feel demoralized. They lose hope, get very off track, and often gain back some or all of the weight they had lost.
The heartbreaking thing is that they did have it figured out. They can do it. But what they don’t realize is that just because they finally have it figured out, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to stay on track 24 hours a day, every day. Like most chronic problems, it doesn’t work that way. There will always be flareups from time to time. The mistake that people make is thinking that once they know what to do, they’ll be able to do it flawlessly, forever. When they inevitably stumble, they take it as a sign that they can’t do it.
I explained this to Jeremy and reinforced that he does have it figured out. He knows what to do and how to do it. Even so, he’s going to make mistakes in the future, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s unavoidable because he’s dealing with a chronic problem. As long as he has realistic expectations and knows that flareups are a part of the process, he’ll be much better equipped to deal with them. Instead of thinking, “This is terrible. I thought I could do it, but I guess I can’t,” he’ll be able to think, “I knew this would happen. Flareups are a part of the process, but I need to get refocused, recommitted, and I’ll be just fine.”