10 things I've learned about change
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I've been quite quiet for a while, proof reading my next book, developing a motivational calendar with Millennial Business Blogger Rachel Gordon, my usual Chrissy B work, and getting my backside in gear - literally.
For a psychologist and development coach, one thing has always eluded me…I’m relatively confident in my successes both professionally and personally, and in general I’m happy with who I am, with one singular exception – my weight.
I've always been "body confident" - or just confident in general - but I was slightly overweight as a child, more so as a teenager, and remained so as an adult – not so much that you’d worry about my health – but within the “theatrical” world in which I grew up, I was definitely the one with the “fuller figure”…or more accurately “fuller thighs”. At least by adulthood, I could carry the "hourglass" with flair when I discovered “push up and padded” bras!
Following a session with my own coach, Lesley Taylor, I got onto the subject of weight and admitted to her if there was one thing I would change about myself that would be it. When I say “change” though, I’m pretty sure I meant “magic wand” change. We discussed my failed past attempts – and it seemed like I’d been on a (fad) diet most of my life (when I wasn’t saying “*** this, I’ll have what I want!”) I’d done the Atkins, Slim Fast, the Grapefruit, the Juice detox, 5:2, South Beach – name the book I’ve probably got it, and I’ve even tried personal training – and they did show results (personal training lost me a good 300 pounds – of the £ variety *groan*). They’d all bring me from pushing the “ooh dear” mark back to “ok, we can relax for a little”, and luckily my work (lecturing) and hobby (community theatre) has kept the adrenaline pumping so my age-related weight gain hasn’t been too rapid. Not only that but at 5’2” and quirky with good posture, I could disguise the “fat days” with dressing and standing well!
I'm brutally candid in my sessions (I know myself quite well and you may as well be honest) – I’ve never sustained weight loss in the past because I’ve been too lazy and fell back into the mind-set of “My husband and friends don’t care; weight doesn’t affect my brain which is what my job requires; and I like food.” But Lesley said to me “OK. You’ve achieved a lot in the past, I’m sure if you decided to go for it, you could, you just don’t want to at the moment.”
Shortly following the session I saw an offer for Weight Watchers (WW) and I thought, well, perhaps I’ve got nothing to lose – except weight – and if I don’t like it, I can always stop going. (I said as much to the WW coach when I signed up!!)
That was Tuesday June 26th 2018.
10 weeks later on Tuesday September 4th 2018 – I’m down 11lbs, I've run my first 5k, got my roller skates back on after 27 years and I still love food!
Not only that but in choosing to be open about my weight loss journey at least three more friends (who have been kind enough to tell me) have been inspired to take their first steps seriously. I’m about halfway through – I have another 10-12lbs to go to reach my goal (and then the new road to weight maintenance begins) but I’ve learned a lot about myself which will inform my own practice in the coming academic year.
1. Change starts with validation and acceptance
It is too easy to dismiss someone when what they say seems self-deprecating or doesn’t tally with what you see. My coach did not say “Oh, but you’re tiny” (I’m short) or “You don’t need to lose any weight” as many kind people often said to me. She just said “Ok”. (I appreciate weight loss would not be dangerous for me, but even then if someone was already clearly underweight I am sure she’d have said something like “Oh that surprises me that you think that but why do you?” (something which is not dismissive, although allowed her to probe).) If you dismiss someone’s genuine thoughts, they won’t share them with you, and in a therapeutic situation, how can you even feel you are on the same side? One of the most effective places to begin change is accepting yourself for who you are.
2. Inner voices can help and hinder – choose what to listen to, but try and manage what they say
Most commonly our inner voice is critical and this will not help make any changes. If you are going to put yourself, voluntarily, through something which disrupts your currently (arguably comfortable) lifestyle, your body and mind need to work for you. If you had a manager who constantly criticised you for being “slow” or “ugly” or “useless” would you want to do your best work for them!? You may not like where you are but it was choices that got you there – not something “endemic” to you. In the same way as it helps to work as a team with your coach/therapist if you have one, it is as helpful to work as a team with your own mind!
My inner voice is very different – it is incredibly laid back. Mine says “I really don’t give a ****”. I had to look back at the times I achieved something and the times I decided to take a different path and the same trigger occurred at both junctures – things got difficult. Sometimes I just cut my losses and gave up, but the times I really count (which I couldn’t put down to luck or being in the right place at the right time) – writing (and re-writing) my PhD and writing my first book I had to be strict with myself. I said to myself every time I wanted to stop “If you don’t want it enough to work you don’t deserve it.” I’d not necessarily use that with clients – unless I knew it would work – but for me, it’s what I need to hear to keep going.
3. You need to surrender to the programme of change
This is hard for people like myself who are relatively strong willed in a hedonistic direction and are good at “self-justification”. Phrases such as “I don’t do X” aren’t always helpful because you narrow your choices. The WW programme (it’s not an advert – all my friends are on Slimming World and loving it!) has been good for me because not only do I have to track everything I eat but I can see my food budget (called “smart points”) reduce. This teaches me to make good choices – a low sugar cookie would take off 3 points, but a piece of fruit (which I also love) or a sugar-free jelly would be 0. It’s not that I cannot have exactly what I want, but it makes me think about how much I want it.
On previous diets I’ve ended up “doing my own thing” ie. If I only had 500 calories, I'd eat nothing all day until consuming a family bag of crisps in one go for 513 calories! …“doing my own thing” has not worked in the past…ever!
Of course it means that you need to be adaptable, I live off eggs some days (I happen to love them), but if you don’t then you’ll need to find your own variations. In most programmes the barriers are psychological not physical.
4. Humour is the worst defence – to make change you need to get real and it is likely that humour will be the one thing to trip you up
People like happy people. They are fun to be around. Laughter is contagious. I am the first person to laugh at myself – it’s easier than having someone laugh at you. But along with that when something gets hard all my defences kick in. I’ve talked my way through a whole personal training session once, and more often than not spent more time laughing at myself and how “I can’t do it” rather than getting down and having a go. I’ll post the memes about “Calories being the little monsters that actually sew your clothes tighter” or the “I don’t run and if you see me running you’d better run too because there’s probably a bomb” , and my favourite was this year’s “What did you get for Christmas – I got fat.” In laughing I somehow wasn’t believing. I could kid myself that if I still found it funny I was ok – I didn’t need to do anything about it. Funny people are always ok aren’t they? But the reality was, I didn’t actually find it funny. Now I’ve admitted that I’ve tried to stop using humour, except as a dramatic device, and taken myself – or at least my health – more seriously.
5. Set specific goals – but you may find that more open up to you along the way
As this is related to weight loss, I of course turned to exercise to supplement my efforts. After starting
(and stopping) the “Couch 2 5k” app at least twice before after two weeks (when jogging for 2 minutes was way too hard for me) I was determined to see it through this time…and it was (is) hard. I forced myself to re-do week 3 twice because I couldn’t complete it (which explains why I’m at the end of 10 weeks at WW and in my final and 9th week on C25k…I jogged for 30 minutes yesterday…almost killed me, and I’ve 2 more jogs to go). But I also got into watching all the “Fat The Fight of My Life” and “My 600lb life” or “Fat Families” because I began to connect with the struggles I saw on screen. I noticed that in these programmes and in a wonderful book “Memoirs of a Former Fatty” (Gemma Dale) at the end of the programme a goal would be set. I realised that finishing the C25k app was not enough – I needed to test myself. Not having the self-belief (the body often gets fitter before the mind breaks through) to do it alone, I enrolled myself, my husband – and my dog, into the Milton Keynes 5k “Dog Jog” an untimed jog but I wanted to come in under an hour – I made it in under 45mins.
6. Doing something “alone” isn’t always a bad thing
I “broke” the dog during the “Dog Jog” – she’s only a little thing, and my husband, who was kindly pacing me (he’s done a triathalon) had to carry her for the last kilometre. I’m going to have a go at “Park Run” next week, but I’ll be letting my husband go at his own (much faster) pace, and leaving the dog at home.
I needed to know someone would urge me on, but sometimes it’s about doing what you’re doing at your pace – just for you...knowing you got this!
7. It helps to have moral support
My husband has never asked me to lose weight, and now I’ve taken to it seriously, his support as my personal cheerleader is second to none (except perhaps my poor little pup!). He bothered to go out and buy me a WW cupcake for my birthday, and he’s interested in my progress rather than my “looks” (or rather, there’s no change in his compliments!). He’s booked the first holiday we’ve had in a very trying year and specifically budgeted for a hotel with a jogging course, gym and pool so I can keep up my training, and even said that he’ll keep to “my” pace when we jog together when we get there. I said he’s done a triathalon – he did it because I thought it would be funny to sign him up, and managed it in a very respectable time with only one practice of each (cycle, swim, run). My husband is good at most things, it’s like he has the Midas touch even with new skills, but he’s even better at offering help if you need it. I’m sad when I see people whose friends or loved ones drop away as they change because the roles of the relationship change – and it happens. Worse still, sometimes “friends” even sabotage your efforts – as if you need any help! I’ve been lucky I guess, I know who my friends are and it’s always an active choice.
8. “I don’t” is more effective than “I can’t” – but it can work for and against you…
I’m a real foodie – with Malaysian (specifically Peranakan/Baba-Nyonya) heritage my family’s kitchen was so full of aromas and tastes. But cooking isn’t in my genes and so my freezer used to consist of ready meals. Since starting the programme “can’t cook won’t cook” has become “better cook so you know what’s going in there.” I now cook, I even grow vegetables in the garden (I “didn’t” garden before either). It’ll be a long while (never) before I call myself a “cook” or a “gardener” – but I’ve moved into “I can.”
But how about the other way? They say if you say “I don’t eat chocolate” it’s more effective than “I can’t” because in the latter context there’s a psychological feeling of deprivation. I find saying “I don’t” makes something part of my identity and that helps make it easier to behave in that way. (But similarly if you “don’t eat veg” that can take some mind shifting.)
9. If you want it enough, you also need to put time and effort into it
It doesn’t “just happen”. Be optimistic, but know it's going to be hard. One of my biggest realisations was that my relationship with (junk) food and a sedentary lifestyle was like an addiction, I always had an excuse to engage in it: “I’ve worked hard I can afford to do nothing now”, “I’ve had a long day I deserve a treat”. The problem is, those “treats” and “doing nothing” wasn’t occasional – it was my life. I may as well have said “I’ve worked today, and now I’m watching TV” and “Honey I’m home – what’s for dinner?” I have to make good choices every day, but I’ve learned now that a treat is actually a treat, and a “day off” (training) is just that. Long (10 weeks) gone are the days of my 7 minute YouTube video work outs and kidding myself I’ve done some exercise just because I’ve done 100 squats really (really) fast! My “minimum” has become a 30 minute jog or exercise video or a 50 minute walk. Not only that but I don’t try and eat my activity gains – if I’m a bit hungrier that’s one thing, and I have sensible food (which I like – Ryvita, Jelly, Yoghurt, Fruit) to hand, but I no longer justify a brownie because I turned up at the gym for 20 minutes reading on the exercise bike.
10. Finally you may need to move your goalposts
Change is dynamic. Once you have achieved a goal, while of course it’s important to celebrate, it’s good to keep moving forward. …and whilst you’re doing that it can be helpful to see it as “X left to do”. Research showed that when people spent too long celebrating the small goals their mindsets led their behaviours to act as if they’d already got there. This won’t necessarily be a major hindrance, but it can slow you down if you rest too long in one place. Acknowledge and shout about it by all means, but look at where you are, where you want to be next, and keep going.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt