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Right and Wrong Motivations

Often my understanding of the complicated dynamics of eating and weight grows out of my work with clients. I’m usually a step ahead of them, but not always. Sometimes I’m stumped until together we come up with answers that explain a client’s chronic self-harming behavior. This happened recently when I realized why certain unhealthy motivations for losing weight don’t work in the long run and, in fact, hinder progress.

As a disregulated eater, you may put on weight until you’re disgusted with yourself and vow to slim down and start doing the “right” things—making nutritious food choices, exercising regularly, following the rules of “normal” eating, and staying conscious about food without obsessing about it. Using disgust as a motivator, you’re on a roll for a few weeks or months, even years until slowly, gradually, you stop engaging in healthy behaviors—you eat past full a few times, skip the gym for a week, have a binge or two, resume mindless grazing. Soon you’re back to self-disgust and the cycle starts again.

What’s missing is an understanding of the dynamics that catapult you back to square one. Self-disgust is a poor motivator over the long term, but it’s often what disregulated eaters use to change their eating. It may work to jump start your finest intentions, but once you begin doing the right things, you stop feeling it. Instead, you replace self-disgust with the belief that you must do the right thing in order to lose weight, and doing what you should becomes the motivator—but not for long. Sooner or later, you start to resent what you believe you should do and rebel against it. That’s when you become lax and start slipping backward, undoing all your hard work. An additional unhelpful motivator is looking to others for approval, which you get a lot of when you begin to take off pounds, but less of as time goes on. Because you’re not internally motivated, when the praise and attention drop off, so does incentive.

In order not to boomerang back after losing weight, you need sustained motivation and incentives that keep on ticking. The idea isn’t to win someone’s approval or to reach goals so that you can then relax. You need to keep at it because you’re worth it, want to be healthy, don’t want to die prematurely, feel better when you act in self-nurturing ways, and prefer the results of taking care of yourself to the results of acting self-destructively. If you’re stuck in this self-disgust/rebellion cycle, break it by refusing to feel disgust about your weight, then find a healthier reason to lose it and keep it off. Eliminate shoulds from your thinking and begin framing moving forward as what you want, prefer or desire. Self-disgust and berating yourself simply won’t do the trick.