The psychology of being overweight

“Worthless, unlovable, unattractive, disgusting, a failure”.

No, I wasn’t describing Donald Trump; these were just five of a list of ten words that I was asked to write down by my psychiatrist to describe how I felt about myself, not long after I was diagnosed with a panic disorder in April 2015. At that time, I had totally lost control; I was unable to sleep, unable to work, unable to engage with my surroundings or feel any sense of joy at all. My life was, at that stage, totally dominated by a crippling sense of dread and an intense, stomach-churning, skin-prickling, vision-distorting anxiety, which led me to believe that I would never feel normal again.

I was, as it turns out, wrong. But writing down those words, and seeing the letters inked on the page in front of me was a turning point.

Being overweight is something that I have been for as long as I can remember. As a child, I remember other kids at school calling me “fat”, which led me to start my first Weight Watchers diet at the age of 11. Many think that fat people don’t know about diets. Well let me tell you something: that couldn’t be further from the truth. Take me for instance, I have tried (and failed) at dieting more times than I could even count; I’ve tried the Atkins diet, the GI, Slimming World, Slimfast, Weightloss Resources, My Fitness Pal and even hypnotherapy. You name it, I’ve tried it, but my head was never really in the right place. And with every failed attempt, my confidence sank ever-lower, and my sense of self-contempt swelled.

It’s not easy being overweight, particularly these days. Although research shows that levels of obesity are rising in many countries at an exponential rate, we still view fat people as failures, and they are still a class of people that is by and large misunderstood by the general population. We are often seen as lazy gluttons by our naturally thin peers, and looked down upon in all areas of popular culture. Growing up as an overweight person, I was taught to hate my body, to feel like a failure, to think I was unlovable and believe that thinner people were naturally somehow better than me. How had I failed? I didn’t know; no one had explained to me what I was doing wrong or why, despite eating a relatively healthy diet and exercising fairly regularly, I continued to pile on the pounds, while friends following similar strategies remained slim. I blamed the unattainable expectations of modern society, I blamed every person who had ever rejected me, but most of all I blamed myself. As you can imagine, this never really created the sort of benign climate in which progress could flourish.

It wasn’t until I began cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that I understood that the greatest impediment to my progress in this area was psychological. My experience thus far with medical professionals had been limited to judgmental encounters with doctors who would tell me “when you feel hungry, just eat a carrot” (I’m really not joking, that actually happened). I had let being overweight dictate every area of my life. Didn’t get a job? It was because of my weight. Got rejected by someone I liked? It was because of my weight. Somebody looked at me on a train? It was because of my weight. No one sat in the empty seat next to me on the bus? It was because of my weight. This constant reinforcement of blame and self-resentment led me to believe that being overweight was part of my identity, it was who I was. Just as my eyes would always be blue and I would always be 5ft 6 (at least until the ageing process took its toll), being fat was my destiny, and how could I ever change that?

With the help of an incredibly supportive therapist, I started to unpick these thoughts and ideas. I noticed that whenever we spoke about my weight, I would cry uncontrollably or completely shut down emotionally, such was the extent of my despair and powerlessness. Over the weeks and months that I spent working with my therapist, I discovered how unhelpful my thinking processes were, and I was taught to challenge these thoughts, in much the same way as I would if a friend ever said something awful about themself. Little by little, I started to regain a sense of control and power, and  I realised that losing weight (or the failure to do so) had become my greatest fear. And with the help of a really useful book called Feel the Fear and do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers, I learnt that the only way to overcome anxiety is to face it head on.

So in January this year that is exactly what I did. I began calorie counting with Weight Watchers and started exercising more vigorously and regularly. I was surprised by how quickly I felt better in myself, even before the pounds started to drop off, because I was at last in control. People could say or think what they wanted about me, but I knew who was steering this boat, and that was incredibly confidence-building. And of course, as the weight began to start shifting, this confidence grew and grew.

Five months on, I won’t lie and tell you that I never feel anxious or that I’m totally comfortable with my weight, but I will say that I sleep better, exhausted from exercise and safe in the knowledge that I am doing all that I can to change my situation. What’s more, I’ve faced my greatest fear head on, so now I am certain that I can withstand any challenges that life throws at me.

I hope that any overweight people reading this can connect in some way with what I’m saying, and perhaps that they can find some strength in these words. But for those among you who have ever said (or even thought) that someone is a failure for being overweight, I want you to know that we hear you loud and clear. Everything you’ve ever said or thought about us, we’ve said to ourselves with greater frequency and volume. And maybe that’s why we’ve found it so hard to succeed. The obesity epidemic is everyone’s responsibility, and we can all play a crucial role in helping to fight it. So please be patient and please be compassionate, because that’s what’s in shortest supply. We all have our own demons, weight or otherwise, so be kind to yourself and to others and we just might get there. And to anyone that’s struggling with the psychological burden of being overweight, please believe me when I say that you can and will take control of it—I promise you that the view from the other side is so much brighter!

Illustration courtesy of the wonderful Jessie Cave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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