Understanding and Overcoming Emotional Barriers to Weight Loss

Hands make a heart against sunset in sky by fieldHow many of us struggle with weight loss, frustrated when we achieve less than our desired results? Assuming you have ruled out possible medical causes contributing to difficulty with weight loss, some of the most powerful forces that can inhibit weight loss are the barriers that exist in our heads.

That being said, many of the emotional barriers to weight loss are not initially obvious, so it is important to identify common emotional barriers and be honest with yourself about how they might be affecting you. Once you better understand any psychological factors that may be holding you back, you may be better able to tackle them.

Several common emotional barriers are described below.

How We Think About Weight Loss

If we think we’re going to fail, we are more likely to fail. Less-than-successful weight loss attempts in the past can contribute to self-defeating thoughts and/or the belief that we lack willpower. This may create the (false) belief that our destiny is to be stuck where we are now.

If you don’t believe you can lose the weight you want to lose, it will be extremely hard to do so. Skepticism and self-doubt can easily stand in the way of making lasting, positive lifestyle change.

All-or-nothing thinking

Many people attempting to lose weight focus solely on results, look for immediate progress, and tend to view any setbacks as failures (disproportionate to how others may view the setback in question). Sometimes setbacks experienced may lead people to abandon the healthy changes they are trying to implement. The pattern of thinking often becomes, “If I can’t do this exactly the way I want to do it, what’s the point of doing it at all?”

Not prioritizing the changes we want to make

Many of us are busy and have many things demanding our attention and time. We may be regularly spread in multiple directions. But people who want to lose weight may, as a result of lacking the time or resources to plan nutritious meals, exercise, get enough sleep, and so on end up making choices that do not further this goal.

By sending ourselves the message, however unconscious it may be, that we don’t have time to address weight loss and other health goals, we are making it more challenging to find or set aside time to achieve these things. If we move this item up on our to-do list, we are more likely to remain aware of our desires and goals and less likely to make choices that will sabotage them.

How We Think About Ourselves

Negative body image

Adopting a positive body image is a challenge for many people. Though some may recognize they harbor a negative body image, they may not recognize how this is holding back their weight-loss attempts. Some may attempt to shame themselves into losing weight by repeating negative messages about how they look, but these internalized messages are generally more likely to frustrate a person and disrupt weight-loss attempts even more. Consequently, people then struggle to overcome these negative messages while also attempting to lose weight.

Ourselves vs. others.

You are you. Your body is yours. Someone else’s body or weight-loss journey is their own. It may seem motivating to compare ourselves with others, but all too often this can lead to feelings of failure when we fall short in comparison. What works for one person might not work for another. Recognize that your weight-loss journey is yours alone. Your plan of action is yours alone.

It can also help to keep in mind that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and some desired sizes and shapes may simply be unattainable for certain body types.

Stress and Emotional Health

Life (or daily) stress

It may come as no surprise that, when we are going through a challenging time, the associated stress can affect both our appetite and how we typically respond to stress. Through past experiences, we have learned eating can often  bring comfort. While “emotional eating” and “comfort foods” often do make us feel good, eating in response to emotional cues or even simply out of habit can have the effect of reinforcing the patterns we are trying to overcome. Breaking these patterns can be much harder than we realize.

The goals that are most conducive to success are those that are realistic, specific, and attainable. If we want to see results, it is far better to adapt our ideal goals to fit these parameters than to wish for something that is abstract or unrealistic. By doing so, we are more likely to succeed. 

Mental health status

Similarly, many mental health conditions, depression among them, can affect both appetite and subsequent eating behavior. Depression is also often associated with decreased motivation, decreased self-efficacy, and lack of interest, all of which can negatively impact the ability to achieve goals. While depression (or stress, for that matter) may be associated with weight loss in some individuals, these changes may not be sustained, since they have not been achieved mindfully.

Overcoming Barriers to Weight Loss

Learn how to set goals that work for you.

The goals that are most conducive to success are those that are realistic, specific, and attainable. If we want to see results, it is far better to adapt our ideal goals to fit these parameters than to wish for something that is abstract or unrealistic. By doing so, we are more likely to succeed.

Make yourself accountable.

After you make a commitment to yourself, share your plan with someone else. Articulating a plan to others can reinforce the level of commitment to the plan while also introducing social motivators. Setting reminders with digital technology or hanging up a motivating sign at home or in the office can also help us keep our goals in mind.

Modify your thinking.

Pay attention to the messages you’re telling yourself, honing in on any negative or unproductive thoughts. Then consciously challenge these thoughts, replacing them with messages that reflect greater self-compassion. This is important to do in so any realm of personal thought, but particularly around weight management and body image. Our behaviors play a large role in weight loss, and our thinking really does help drive our behavior.

Learn to regularly manage stress.

Ideally, stress management techniques will be a part of your daily routine. Developing healthy coping responses to stress can be helpful for many reasons, reducing emotional eating among them. Prioritizing regular self-care can be one way to help manage stress.

Educate yourself about weight loss.

Many of us want to lose weight. When we struggle, when our attempts fail, or when we gain back weight we have lost, we may wonder what we are doing wrong. But knowledge is power, and making a plan based on misleading information is likely to inhibit progress.

Weight loss does not have to cost a lot of money, nor does it require a gym membership. There is a lot of data that supports the type of approaches that can be effective—and those that are often less effective. Trending diets, expensive meal plans, and other fads may seem to yield results for others, and they may indeed yield results for anyone at first, but they are less likely to lead to lasting behavioral change.

Seek outside support.

There is help out there. An entire industry, in fact. A variety of professionals can help you meet your weight-loss goals, not just for the immediate future, but for the long term. Many of these professionals also have a solid understanding of the role that emotions can play in weight management and/ or obesity. Finding a professional you enjoy working with, and/or a program or group you enjoy participating in, can make all the difference to your goals.

Talk it out.

If you struggle to lose weight, consider speaking to a therapist about any emotional causes that may be contributing to these challenges. Many therapists or other trained professionals can help provide support and education to help identify and explore barriers that may be holding you back.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marni Amsellem, PhD, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Anonymous

    March 23rd, 2018 at 7:24 PM

    When I was thin, I was just as unhappy as when I wasn’t.
    And exercise doesn’t help me relieve stress; if anything, exercise is stressful.

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