Thursday, June 17, 2010


Psychology isn't all about emotions or psychoses. There are aspects of it that have nothing to do with sadness, gladness, or distorted versions of reality. The current model of dealing with psychological problems is largely pharmacological, so it focuses excessively on seeing problems as something that can be solved with the right pill that can balance the chemicals in your body. Those chemical changes, in theory, should push your body's biological balance such that you are more likely to do, feel, and think the way that society (and you) think would be best.

One of the things which is increasingly being left behind in the rush to see the body as a biological machine is that psychology isn't shaped entirely by chemicals, and not every problem can be solved with a medical procedure or prescription. Of course, we like to believe that is so because it is a lot easier to go under the knife, get an injection, or take a pill then to do other types of behavioral change. I'm no stranger to wanting an easy answer. Frankly, there have been many occasions on which I wish science would simply invent a pill that'd kill my appetite or make me understand a foreign language without having to study it.

That being said, I think that one of the reasons we are so bad at food management in our lives is that we aren't pursuing the right potential solutions for our particular problems. Yes, people eat for emotional reasons. Yes, people are driven by biological forces to have difficulty losing weight. However, understanding and dealing with these issues is only a part of the process. I can understand that I eat when stressed, when bored, or because it is my habit and I feel anxiety when I have to change my habits, but that doesn't necessary fix the problem.

I have come to believe that the next stage after understanding, is conditioning behavior. In old-fashioned terms, this would be learning discipline or moderation. I have talked before about learning moderation, and I think it's something that Americans in particular are poor at it. We live in a culture which encourages indulgence and glorifies those who live lives of ostentatious excess. We mock those who practice sensible habits and sound lifestyles as being boring or joyless. One of the reasons many dieters go to extremes is that being "perfect" and being a person of pure virtue is an extreme.

I think that "the other side" of psychology is fading into the background, because people who are adults in particular are poor at conditioning their own behavior. They aren't necessarily all that great at doing so with their children either, as is evidenced by the British T.V. show "Supernanny". Real behavioral change, whether it applies to yourself or to those in your charge, requires constancy. If you've ever seen "Supernanny", you'll see how the titular star's actions start to turn things around and then the parents' inability to consistently apply the same techniques cause things to fall apart.

Conditioning adult behavior, and in particular conditioning your own behavior is quite an order of magnitude harder. Part of the problem is that being your own therapist (like being your own doctor or lawyer) is not very effective. None of us can see ourselves as we really are, nor can those around us. There are too many vested interests to get an accurate picture of ones own problems and needs. Generally speaking, the only effective way to understand your problems deeply is to get outside opinions, and unfortunately most therapists these days are more than likely to give you a bottle of pills then a prescription for behavioral changes.

That doesn't mean there is no hope. I think that successful long-term weight management can be acquired through a mixture of disciplines and considerations. First, you have to understand yourself mentally and your body. Then, you have to deal with any medical issues. Finally, you have to deal with conditioning your behavior.

The most critical manner in which I can put this is that we have to learn discipline. In no way do I mean to imply that fat people lack discipline. That being said, I think that we're fooling ourselves if we believe we are capable of exercising sufficient discipline to manage a healthy weight for our particular bodies. Someone else may be able to exercise far less discipline and not gain weight, but that is actually irrelevant to our choices. It may not be fair, but some of us have to work harder than others and apply greater discipline than they do to gain the same effect. This isn't uncommon in many areas of life but it is trickier when it comes to food.

Sometimes I wonder if one of the many reasons that we have more overweight people in the world today is that we emphasize discipline less now than at any other time in our cultural history. In a highly individualized culture in particular, discipline is often scoffed at and actively rebelled against. We cram for tests instead of studying gradually as we go. We join health clubs as part of New Year's resolutions and then stop attending by the end of May. We know we should regularly clean the toilet but let it go until it gets bad enough to notice. We don't prepare for dinner and end up eating whatever is fastest and easiest rather than what is healthy and nutritious.

I'm not holding myself up as a paragon of discipline. I'm not. However, I do feel that part of the key to maintaining my losses and (likely) future healthy weight will be rooted in discipline and conditioning. Once I get through all of the psychological crap that got me fat and helped keep me there, it's the discipline that will move me from a state of understanding why I overate to actually stopping me from overeating. I think that we're fooling ourselves if we think understanding the psychology or even the biology of our weight issues will magically make the desire to overeat disappear just as much as we'd be fooling ourselves to think that discipline alone without psychological understanding is enough to keep us at a healthy weight in the long run.


KyokoCake said...

I totally get this - sometimes I feel like I'd rather have a therapist than a nutritionist help me with my weight loss. I just have those days when I think, why did I eat that, or why did I crave that? That was a really great read :)

ps, check out my blog today...I gave you an award

Anonymous said...

I wish it was as simple as discipline. I'm sure "simple" isn't the right word, either, yet discipline may be such a small part of this transformation process for me as to be almost an aside. I have no trouble sticking to less than 1400 calories a day. Being stubborn probably helps. But I have noticed a lot more PTSD symptoms lately...something that was pretty much faded into the background of my life for many years. I wonder if this is common for very many obese people who lose weight. It's a painful reminder to me that my body's defenses and regulatory mechanisms are far more complex than I can ever hope to understand. I'm beginning to suspect that this long plateau (actually up down up down up down stuff) is related to PTSD, although I never had this kind of long stall when I lost weight in the past. There is so much I do not understand.

I think it might be time to put away the scale for a few months. :) Now THAT will require discipline.


screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Kyokocake, and thank you for the award and for commenting. I'll try to make a post with 7 things soon, but things are rather busy right now!

Rebecca: I think people tend to be okay with short term discipline (during the duration of a "diet"), but long term discipline becomes more difficult for them. I have always been a very disciplined person in my life except when it comes to food. I think it was a level of rigidity that I couldn't manage for lots of reasons I've discussed in this blog.

Like you, I also have PTSD problems (perhaps you've read those old posts). I think it is common among very overweight people, but it's not recognized as such. We're rarely seen as victims. We're only seen as blights on society. :-p

And yes, I'd recommend putting away that scale if it's making you unhappy!

Fat Grump said...

I found your blog and am reading old posts, so forgive me for butting in here...but that is a really interesting thought, regarding discipline.

I am reminded of the advertisement for hair products and the slogan "Because I am worth it" and realise that so many people (me included) also see indulgences long term, regularly can be justified under the 'because I am worth it' banner. 'I don't deserve any pain at all, life should be smooth and easy and I shouldn't have to restrain or discipline myself, because I am worth this, that or the other indulgence' is the sort of thinking that many have taken on board. We also have to practice self-control, moderation, restraint etc, if we are to lose weight, and not see it as a bad, painful thing which is nasty, restrictive and unfair. (I am guilty of that thinking too!)

My own self-discipline/control is rather sloppy, but I also dislike the 'dieting' mentality which is so prevalent. I will never, ever be a 'go for the burn' woman, but I do realise that I have to be conscious of my eating and movement throughout the day. I have to be my own task-master, ironically, out of love for myself 'because I am worth it.'

Getting the balance right can be difficult :)

screaming fatgirl said...

It occurs to me at this point that one of the reasons our discipline may be harder to come by now than ever is that our lives are far more disciplined in many ways than is "natural" for humans. We didn't exactly evolve in a manner which would equip us to follow the rules of civilization or punch a clock. The only discipline we spent our formative time as a species following was that of our innate drives (survival, sleeping, eating, sex). Perhaps part of the problem is that discipline isn't something we're supposed to come by easily, and it's something that we have to construct artificially. It's no small wonder most of us are relatively bad at applying it in all areas of our lives, we already apply it in many areas.

My discipline in life in general has always been pretty good, except for food. And, like you, I'm not going to go nuts with restrictions or exercise. That sort of absolutism didn't work for me for long when I lost weight in college because neither abstinence (from "bad" foods) nor endurance (for exercise) really meant I had any sort of control. I never learned moderation or delayed gratification, I just abstained and worked my ass off.

The thing is, we are worth quite a lot, and we do deserve pleasure in our lives. The problem is that we get some pretty distorted views of what is "good" and "pleasurable". We're fed the idea that we need to buy things and do things that cost money to improve quality of life up until the point that we over consume and such things destroy quality of life... then we need to consume more to fix the problems over-consumption created.

Sometimes, I think it'd be easier if we could disconnect from it all, but here we are. :-)