Saturday, July 24, 2010

Losing it for someone else

What is the number one thing that most people will say is absolutely required for happiness in life? Health. If you don't have good health, you can't be truly happy. All of the money in the world means nothing if you are in physical pain or at risk of becoming debilitated (or dying). After health, a wide variety of other factors contribute to happiness, but clearly the needs and demands of the body come first.

A psychologist named Abraham Maslow created a pyramid which defined the needs of people. His theory was that the needs at the bottom of the pyramid formed the base, and we had to have the base needs met before we could seriously concern ourselves with needs at the next higher level. Unsurprisingly, at the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs - food, water, sleep, etc. The things which contribute to our basic survival as organisms are first and foremost. On the next step up, is health, and on the third step, family and love. This pyramid, which is an imperfect representation of the needs of humans, is nonetheless fairly accurate for most people. We act in accordance with it most of the time, though we don't always realize it.

During one of my many failed attempts to pull my act together and lose weight, I tried to motivate myself to succeed by seeing things as a choice between my husband (who I love so dearly that it's impossible to express in mere words) and food. I visualized the choice to help motivate me by conjuring up the image of a pile of delicious food and him. This worked for a very short time, but ultimately, I was unable to sustain it. In fact, the truth was that this only made things worse as failure felt all the more crushing when I viewed it in light of this type of choice. I was not only failing myself, but him and my "weakness" was seemingly greater than the person I valued more than anything in the universe.

Women who are trying to lose weight often say they want to do it so they're around when their kids grow up. They believe they can blackmail themselves emotionally into losing weight like I once did. If they taste some success, they soon want everyone around them who also may develop or who have already developed health issues due to weight problems to lose weight also. They display varying degrees of franticness about their spouses', parent's, etc. health risks and express frustration that these people, in their estimation, value the comfort of food more than their future as a family or couple together.

They see it as a matter of the value loved ones apply to them. They think that, if this fat person who claims to love me valued me more, they'd do what it takes to lose weight. I will note that generally these sorts of assertions are made by newly minted losers in the weight loss arena. They've been on a diet bandwagon and lost about 10-20 lbs. and now they play the loudest of anyone in the group. This tiny amount of success sets off a lot of judgment of everyone around them, and they generalize the concerns that motivated them to everyone else.

If choosing to lose weight or control your eating could be effectively motivated in this fashion, there would be very few overweight people in the world. In fact, if my love and value of my husband could drive me to eat well and be healthy, I'd be the healthiest person on the planet. I value nothing more than him. My husband once said that if he had to choose between having someone shoot me or him, he's not sure he'd choose himself because he knows I'd rather die than live without him. He knows he wouldn't be doing me any favors by sacrificing himself, though he clearly would want to do so.

So, if I love and value my life with my husband so much, why couldn't I lose weight "for him"? Unfortunately, the situation is more complicated than that. The relationship we have with food is intimate, deeper, and different than the one we have with other people. It is driven internally, by both biological and psychological factors. Both of these factors are not directly affected by our love of others. When my stomach is rumbling or my blood sugar is low, my body isn't going to squelch the desire to eat in response to my love for my husband and my desire to be with him.

You can't put off a "lower need" (food) by pitting it against a "higher need" (love and belonging). The lower need will win every time as Maslow's pyramid theory illustrates. The lower needs need to be attended to first. It's not just human nature that is at play. It is survival. People have to lose weight for themselves, and it's not about a choice of food or a longer life with loved ones, though they may often feel that is so. My relationship with food came long before the one I have had with my husband, and it is integrated with me on a cellular level. Placing one relationship in a competition against the other is not only counterproductive, but potentially destructive.

Mixing up love with food in this manner carries a lot of emotional risks. The primary one is immense guilt when you fail, but there is also the potential for resentment of the person you're hoping to benefit with your weight loss. Since food issues are intensely personal, linking your food and lifestyle choices to other people is placing control and motivation outside of yourself. It's a tenuous motivation. If your spouse makes you angry, are you going to decide it's not worth it and binge only to be filled with regret and remorse later when a level head returns and emotions are quiet? One needs consistent motivation, and looking to others for that is not going to be very effective.

I would encourage anyone who thinks others should lose weight for their sake, or who thinks they should lose weight for the sake of the ones they love to look inside themselves for motivation and not to associate food choices with personal valuation. People can't and shouldn't be blackmailed into losing weight in this manner and attempting to do so will make it all that much more painful when there is failure. Your body and food are an entirely different order than your love for those who are dear to you. The needs and desires of your body and mind cannot be placed aside for the greater interests of others. They need to be dealt with for yourself.


sinn said...

Wow, that is really thought provoking. I knew that losing weight for someone else was ultimately setting yourself up for failure, but I never made those connections to base/lower needs vs. higher needs. Since food is on the survival level, it makes since that the higher needs cannot be compared to the lower needs. According to his chart, our relationship with food is essential for survival. While we need human interaction, it alone cannot keep us alive.

Very interesting! Thanks for the thoughts!

NewMe said...

Once again, you've discussed a very important topic.

Although my actual weight loss has been negligeable, through my discovery of intuitive eating, I have made some significant changes to the way I eat and the way I view food .

Unfortunately, these discoveries have been accompanied by a certain amount of resentment towards my husband--someone I love and treasure--who has been steadily gaining weight over our 20+ years together.

Your analysis, using Maslow's hierarchy of needs, sheds light on this topic for me.

screaming fatgirl said...

Greetings, and thanks to both of you for taking the time to read and comment.

Sinn: I noticed by your blog that you are a philosophy major. I also see that you're a student and probably don't have much time to write posts (very likely). A lot of my thoughts are inspired by both philosophy and psychology, so I'm guessing you have some unique insights of your own to offer as you are definitely more well-versed in philosophy than me. I'm following your blog via RSS and look forward to your future posts.

NewMe: I'll be honest. In the past, it was crushing to me that I couldn't do this for my husband; it wasn't because he asked me to or pressured me (he has never done that), but because I love him so much and knew he would suffer if I died at an early age due to my weight. I also simply want all of this life that I can have with him. How could I want that so badly, but not lose weight?

It was only after I found some success that I realized that the connection isn't a direct one. The Maslow pyramid link just came to me when I was pondering this issue. I think it may have struck me earlier had I not been so clouded with guilt and despair.

I would essentially be a person who was in your husband's shoes. I steadily gained weight throughout the 20+ years my husband and I have been together (barring the past year or so when I've been losing). So, I know where your husband is at, and I'm sure he's not happy, but perhaps feels powerless at a deep level to do anything about it. People in this situation, including myself, get so tired of the inner battle to motivate and change that they may say they give up and accept themselves, but deep down, I think they really don't. They just lose the ability to try in repeated small failures. Those failures may be invisible to others as they may be silent promises that are often broken.

I hope you can forgive your husband, as I know my husband forgives me, and know that he almost certainly loves and values you regardless of his food choices.

Rhiannon Bowman said...

Great post.

I managed to lose a lot of weight at one point when I was in a relationship with a man who placed undo emphasis on the numbers on the scale. As soon as he was out of the picture, I gained the weight back.

Now I'm married to a known enabler. We've done our rounds on this issue, but ultimately I've had to take my independence back.

Me being healthy is about ME, and the choices I make. The people in my life get that now.

Beyond that, though, I've finally -- FINALLY -- learned that the number on the scale has little to do with how successful I am. Long gone are the days when I cry over only losing three pounds. Today I rejoice at our decision to plant a garden -- a much more proactive way to encourage healthy habits.

Sarah@LowStressWeightLoss said...

For many years I've operated from a perspective that 'people don't change'. It's actually a simplification of what I believe, which is that people don't change FOR YOU or because you WANT THEM TO. People do change, of course, all the time. But we change for ourselves. We change when the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change, because change is HARD.

Human in Progress said...

As someone who has experienced similar thought processes/attempts/realizations in relation to a beloved husband, I enjoyed reading this. It's spot on.

And I liked it because I now know there are others out there who can spot bullshit when they see it! I often feel alienated by what I read in the weight loss blogging community. Relevant example:
There is a popular weight loss blogger (won't name names) who often talks about "doing this for her kids." I don't buy it for a minute. When one looks at her blog as a whole, the kids thing smacks of falseness, but it's also clear she doesn't have much of an identity outside of weight loss "leadership" (via blogging) and parenting. But by saying the kids line and sharing her tales of motherhood martyrdom, she gains the admiration of others. The longer I read her blog--I admit I'm hooked--the more I sense an undercurrent of resentment towards her children (as well as a big defensive streak and unhappiness with her life in general). I wonder if anyone else sees it the same way I do.

Then again, maybe I'm crazy. This person is a stranger, giving a partial view of her life through a blog, and I'm analyzing it and feeling agitated. So, ummm...yeah.

screaming fatgirl said...

Human: I'm pretty sure I know who you are talking about and I agree. If it is the same person, I absolutely see what you're saying about weight loss being the core of her identity. In fact, again, if it is the same individual (someone who is currently shilling for Medifast), I believe at least part of the reason she will never stop the loss/regain cycle is that it has become a part of her core identity to have this struggle. Without it, I don't think she knows who she is and will have little with which to present herself to the world as an authority. I don't "blame" her for this, but it is hard at times not to want to "shake" her and say something.

Thank you for your kind words, and for reading. I really appreciate it.