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Weight Loss: It’s Not About Will Power, it’s About Personal Power

(Draft excerpt from Hillary Rettig's forthcoming book How to Get Willpower for Weight Loss and Other Important Goals. (c)2014 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved.)

Believe it or not, you already have all the willpower you need to lose weight.

Just think about it: for many of your endeavors you already have plenty of willpower—so much willpower, in fact, that you don't even think about it and just show up and do whatever it is you're supposed to do.

You get up for work on time, and show up on time. (Most of the time; we're not 100% programmable robots.) You get your work done. You take care of your family and household responsibilities. You help others. You do your community work. You brush and floss your teeth. Most people who procrastinate do so in just a couple of areas of their lives—weight loss being a key one. (You'll learn why in a later lesson!)

“Wait!” I hear you say, “Why are we discussing procrastination? I'm here to learn about a different problem!”

No, you're here to learn about procrastination. Because the reason you don't seem to have willpower is because you procrastinate on your weight loss goal. You see the brownie, or the pasta, or the bag of chips, or the beer, and make a decision to postpone following your diet, despite the fact that losing weight is a very important goal for you. That's procrastination, pure and simple.

Procrastination is when you get bumped off the path or plan you had planned to follow for the day.

Take a typical day when you overeat. You might have woken up intending to have cereal and fruit for breakfast, a big salad for lunch, and a light dinner, with just a couple of low calorie snacks. There's nothing obviously wrong with that plan, except that you've tried it many times
before and never been able to stick to it. And, sure enough, that holds true, today, as well:

  • On the way to work, you can't resist getting a big coffee with cream, sugar, and a flavor shot.
  • At lunch, you get a submarine sandwich and chips instead of the salad. The big meal causes you to be drowsy all afternoon, so...
  • You have another “loaded” coffee, plus a donut, “to stay awake.”
  • A small dinner no longer seems sufficient after a long hard day at work, so you get some greasy-but-delicious takeout and eat it all.
  • Plus, most of a pint of ice cream.

Oh, and your plan to get some exercise by walking to and from the train? That also fell by the wayside. You were running late in the morning, so drove in. And that, of course, meant that in the evening you had to drive back.

Let's discuss the phrase I used earlier, “bumped off the path.” It implies something done to you rather than by you. While it's certainly true that you chose to eat the submarine sandwich, chips, etc., there's a deeper truth—and that's that many people who desperately wish to lose weight can't stop themselves from making the wrong choice. They bash themselves brutally afterwards for having done so; and many have also invested countless hours, and a lot of money, in diet plans, gym memberships, therapy, and other assistance, in an effort to be able to choose more wisely.

In fact, at the times you procrastinate on weight loss or other goals, you are not making a free choice. That's because you have temporarily lost access to, or are constrained from using, your strengths, skills, and talents—including your discipline, focus, and willpower. Another word for this condition is “disempowered.”

The idea that procrastination is caused by disempowerment is an important one because people who procrastinate usually assume they're missing willpower, discipline, maturity, or some other important characteristic.

Rest assured, however: you're just suffering from “dieter's block,” a term which, like its better-known cousin “writer's block,” implies that you're not actually missing anything, but simply blocked from using that which you have. So what's causing your dieter's block? In my recent book on writer's block, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, I identified seven major categories of disempowering forces:

1. perfectionism
2. inadequate resources
3. unmanaged time
4. ineffective process
5. ambivalence
6. toxic rejections
7. disempowering careers

They also apply to weight loss and all your other challenging endeavors. This book discusses each in depth, and also discusses the solutions, which include:

1. compassionate objectivity
2. abundant resources
3. managed time
4. effective process
5. proper pride
6. avoidance of toxic rejection and emphasis placed on healing
7. an empowered life (in this case, the challenge is broader than just “career")

Employ these solutions—i.e., substitute compassionate objectivity for perfectionism, abundant resources for inadequate ones, etc.—and you will re-empower yourself, and your willpower, etc., will “automagically” reappear.

It's also vital that you understand that procrastination, including the procrastination that is keeping you from losing weight, is always caused; the causes are always valid (procrastination is just a suboptimal response to them); and the causes are always outside ourselves, either in our present or past contexts. Always. 100%. So, stop pejoratively labeling your legitimate causes “excuses,” “complaints,” or “whines” (more on this in later). The key to losing weight, as you'll see, is to skip all the self-blame, shame, and negative labeling, and go right to problem-solving: only after you've learned to do this will you be able to follow the advice that the diet books give, such as eating smaller portions, foregoing soda and other junk foods, and increasing your exercise level.

The Disempowerment Process Examined More Closely

productivitybarriersThe disempowerment discussed in the previous section actually occurs as a six-step process I call the “Disempowerment Cascade.” Here are the steps:

1) You encounter an obstacle. There are many obstacles that can trigger a derailment from your diet, including stress, boredom, depression, physical discomfort, and peer pressure in social situations. I’ll discuss the various obstacles dieters face in another session.

2) You have a presentiment of failure. Shortly after encountering the obstacle, the thought arises, “Uh oh, I may break my diet.”

3) You panic. “Oh not, I can’t break it! I simply can’t! I’ll be a huge awful loser if I do, and fat for the rest of my life!”

4) You struggle to return to your path. Unfortunately, if you are stuck on your weight or another important goal, it is probable that you only know one technique for returning: a harsh, self-abusive inner monologue that goes something like this:

“What's wrong with you? All you had to do was not eat the [donut / second helping / etc.] and you couldn't even do that! How can you be so weak? And after all that expensive diet food you bought, and that gym membership! What a waste. You're just going to be fat forever, you know that? You're just hopeless.”

I call that monologue the “self-abusive litany,” and if you’re thinking, “Ugh, what an awful way to talk to yourself,” I agree. And yet many people resort to equally bad or even worse language in an effort to coerce themselves back onto the path of disciplined eating.

Many people, sadly, live with the litany running more-or-less constantly through their heads. It may adjust itself to the circumstances at hand—as in, “Wow, you're a slob,” or, ”Wow, you're a lousy parent.”—but it's always there, perpetually disempowering them, and making them far more likely to procrastinate on their diet and other important endeavors. Of course, the harshness doesn’t work. (If it did, many more people would succeed at their diets.)

That’s because:

5) The litany terrorizes you even further. (Remember, you’re being harsh to yourself when you're already in a panic and terrified of failure.) This leads you to:

6) Escape, via procrastination. When we’re scared, we get reduced to a single motive: to get back to safety. And in a typical weight-loss scenario procrastination is the way to do it. We head straight for the chips or cookies.

Needless to say, all these steps can happen in a flash—and probably do, if you've got an engrained habit of overeating. That speed is one reason the Disempowerment Cascade is so hard to intercept and replace with a more productive behavior. Another is that when you're
procrastinating you're actually escaping at least four strong fears simultaneously:

  • The fear you'll fail in this particular moment (by overeating).
  • The fear you'll fail at this particular diet.
  • The fear you'll fail at your overall weight-loss goal.
  • Additionally, the Cascade can become a strong habit, and even an addiction. In this book I don't address the question of when overeating becomes an addiction, which is best left to specialists. However, a generally agreed upon description of an addiction is that it's a self-reinforcing activity with negative consequences—and for some people overeating clearly qualifies.

The Disempowerment Cascade's Three Personae

Whenever you are experiencing a Disempowerment Cascade, there are usually three internal “personae” present.

The first is the Fragile Dieter, fragile not because she is weak but because dieting is hard; also, because her context (discussed in the future sessions) is hostile to the goal.

The next is the Terrorized and Terrorizing Perfectionist. If you read up on perfectionism, you'll learn why this person is so mean and bullying, but let's just say for now that she has a terror of failure and will use any means necessary to prevent it.

As the Perfectionist continues to bully and abuse the Fragile Dieter, a third persona is evoked: the Procrastinator. As her name denotes, she is the one who causes you to procrastinate, but, believe it or not, she is NOT your enemy. What she is, is a solution to the intolerable abuse the Perfectionist is inflicting on the Dieter. But here's the thing: because the Procrastinator is invoked in fear, she is regressed. (When we're scared, we tend to lose capacity.) I picture her as a fifteen-year-old who, like many teenagers, has a strong sense of fairness and justice. She's outraged when she sees the Perfectionist bullying the Dieter, and steps in to intervene—however, because she lacks adult coping skills, her two main strategies—rebellion and learned helplessness—are ineffective:

Rebellion: “Why should I be deprived of that piece of cake, when everyone else can eat what they want? Besides, I'm having a lousy day; nothing's going right. Screw it! I'm eating the cake.”


Learned Helplessness / Fatilism: “It's hopeless, so why should I even bother dieting?” (Fatalism and futility are probably the most disempowering feeling of all!)

Both are a form of abdication, a condition where you give up your personal power. In Thin for Life, Anne Fletcher says of dieter Cindy P., “The more people tried to take control for her and nag her about her weight, the less she did about it.” This is a typical rebellious response; and people who binge after following deprivational diets are also often rebelling.

Typically, rebellion precedes helplessness, in an arc that many dieters will find familiar: you begin your new diet feeling all hopeful and motivated, but then gradually start rebelling. At first, you might think, “Well, this isn't fun any more,” and then you might move on to “cheating” with some potato chips or a candy bar. Then you ignore your diet for entire days or weeks, until, eventually, you give it up entirely.

The cycle may repeat when you optimistically begin new diets and then gradually rebel against them. But eventually many people slide into a state of such profound helplessness they no longer even try to diet. This was certainly my situation for many years, and is the arc described in an xoJane article, “It Happened to Me: I Left Overeaters Anonymous”:

When I tried to go back to my original plan of eating, I became filled with rage. I felt split. One part of me was trying to control, to prevent the weight gain. The other part was rebelling. She was saying, “Fuck that noise! Eat some candy!”... OA no longer feels like a safe place for me...Today, I have no tolerance for any weight loss messages. I fight everyday to love this body I'm in. When I was thin, there was a rebellious fat girl trying to get out. And she has truly taken over. She says, “Fuck that noise! Eat some candy, beautiful!” Like many dieters, Anonymous apparently perceives her choices to be either deprivation or abdication. (As we will discuss later, such dichotomizing is a key characteristic of perfectionism.) While she obviously wasn't happy in deprivation, she's also obviously not happy in abdication, since she must “fight everyday” to accept herself. Link, and please see below note.

Fortunately, there's a third option. Nonperfectionist dieting and the other techniques I describe in this class can help you lose weight in a non-deprivational (and, hence, sustainable) way.

Note 1: The key to overcoming procrastination on your diet and anything else is to introduce a fourth persona into your thought process: the Compassionate Adult, and that's exactly what How to Get Willpower for Weight Loss will help you do! You can find preliminary instructions for doing that in a non-weight-loss context in my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific or, in somewhat abridged form, here.

Note 2: In contrast to Anonymous quoted above, I think Overeater's Anonymous is a terrific and effective organization, and recommend it to everyone. If a Twelve Step program isn't your thing, try some of the commercial groups out there, but please give OA a chance.

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