Too often, people hold on to the belief that they can't think or act like a thin person until they reach their goal weight, says Linda Spangle, RN, MA, owner of Weight Loss for Life in Denver and author of Life is Hard, Food is Easy: The 5-Step Plan to Overcome Emotional Eating and Lose Weight on Any Diet. But staying trapped in your old, unhealthy mindset can sabotage the very behaviors you're trying so hard to change.
"I encourage people who are trying to lose weight to build an image of how they would not only look, but also how they would act and feel when they are thin," says Spangle.
If you are a visual person, for example, hang a favorite outfit where you can see it every day, then picture how well the outfit is going to fit you. If you're a movement-oriented person, picture how it would "feel" to slide easily past the empty seats in the theater row, or imagine the ease of fastening a seat belt in an airplane.
Pretend You're Thin
Spangle teaches her clients to "pretend" they are thin and live as if that's true. When we pretend something is true, a new pattern of behavior will eventually evolve, says Spangle.
"Acting as if you have a skill or a feeling eventually contributes to it coming true," she says. "Public speakers are taught to address their audience as if they feel totally confident and have no stage fright whatsoever. Most speakers discover that after doing this even a few times, it becomes true."
In the same way, Spangle says, you don't have to wait until "someday" to have self-esteem. You can build your confidence and self-image by acting as if you already feel good about yourself (even if you don't). When you get dressed each day, look in the mirror and say, "I look great!" Then walk and talk as if you do.
"It doesn't matter if you're wearing a baggy dress and worn shoes," says Spangle. "Pretend! Imagine how you would talk to others, do your work projects, and raise your children if you truly felt great about yourself. Then live out of that internal picture, acting as if those things were true."
That doesn't mean you should pretend yourself right out of your need to develop more healthy habits, she adds.
"Taking this approach doesn't mean you can put your head in the sand or ignore the realities of life," Spangle says. "It just helps you develop a new attitude about what's already there. At the same time, it also gives you hope that things can get better. After a month or so of living as if you are confident and strong about yourself, you will be amazed at how well you match this image."
Change Your Thinking
Another key to thinking and living like a thin person is to change your negative thought patterns.
"If you're struggling with your weight, it's important to examine your thinking" says Marsha Hudnall, MS, RD, program director of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a woman's retreat for healthy living in Ludlow, Vt.
Remember the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, says Hudnall. "The first feeds the second; the second, the third," she says. "If our thinking is awry, so go our emotions, and our behaviors reflect how we're feeling."
Be alert to these common thinking errors, says Hudnall:
- All-or-nothing thinking -- the tendency to go to extremes and judge yourself and your body as extremely good or extremely bad. Change this thinking by recognizing that few things are truly black and white.
- "Should" statements -- trying to motivate yourself with "shoulds," including comparing yourself to "perfect" images on television, the movies, or magazines. Remember that you have choices, and look for them.
- Magnification/minimization -- over-focusing on things you dislike about yourself while minimizing your positive attributes. Thank someone who compliments you and skip the "but ... ."
- Scapegoating -- assuming that a physical characteristic you dislike about yourself is responsible for certain difficulties you encounter. Making assumptions and taking things personally can be a big mistake; fat prejudice does exist, but it's probably not responsible for all your troubles.
- Emotional reasoning -- thinking something must be true, if you feel or believe it. Identify what you are feeling, and remind yourself that it's just a thought -- which doesn't necessarily make it true.
Living like a thin person also means thinking about food and eating in a different way, says Hudnall. "Are you hungry or satisfied? Do you like a particular food or not?" she asks. "Those questions often don't come into play with people who struggle with food issues.
"Be in the moment," Hudnall advises. "Think about whether you're really hungry. Think about the taste of what you're eating. Don't be caught up in preconceived ideas of what you should or should not do."
That means you don't necessarily have to forgo ice cream. But really pay attention to what you're eating. If you do, one scoop should satisfy you as much as an entire pint. "It's really about being mindful," says Hudnall.
Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher, PhD, professor of clinical psychology and founder/director of the Eating Disorders Clinic at the University of Illinois Medical Center, wants people to focus not so much on being thin, but on being healthy and fit.
"My main goal is to help people think about food in terms of nutrition and energy ... the reasons we need food in our lives," she says.
Focus on Health and Fitness
People with weight issues too often see food as more meaningful than it really is, Astrachan-Fletcher adds: "Food is not comfort, it's not a method of coping. Changing how you think about food and its role in your life will help you think, and live, like a healthy person."
A healthy person, for example, doesn't use food as a substitute for personal relationships. If you're feeling lonely, says Astrachan-Fletcher, explore social options and make new friends.
A healthy person also incorporates exercise into his or her life, Astrachan-Fletcher adds. "Exercise is not only part of a successful weight loss or weight management program, but it also helps you alleviate, or even avoid, depression, stress, and anxiety."
Develop Your Skills
To reach your weight loss goal (or any goal, for that matter), you must develop a set of skills that will help you become successful, says Howard Rankin, PhD, psychologist for the international support group TOPS (Taking Off Pounds Sensibly), and author of The TOPS Way to Weight Loss: Beyond Calories and Exercise.
Some of the skills that will help you live your way to a thinner, healthier body, says Rankin, are:
- Patience. Take things one step at a time. Give up one of your "downfall" foods at a time, for example, not all of them at once.
- Visualization. Think about a specific situation you're going to encounter and how you will deal with it. "See" yourself going out to dinner and eating a healthy meal.
- Accountability. Rely on a support group, friends, or even a therapist to whom you have to report.
- Self-control. Realize that every time you resist successfully, you're developing self-control. Congratulate yourself each time you do this.
- Goal-setting. Think in terms of small goals. You don't need to lose 60 pounds; all you need to lose is one pound next week. Each small goal you achieve will reinforce your motivation and set you up for success.
- Journaling. Keep a written account of your actions, your thoughts, and your feelings, as well as what you eat. This not only increases your self-awareness, but also helps you let out feelings you may try to "stuff" back in with food.
- Assertiveness. Learn to say no. Ask yourself, "Is this going to get me closer to my goal or further away?"
Remember the Rest of You
Finally, remember that you are more than someone who is trying to lose weight. This is especially true if you're a woman.
"Women tie too much of their self-esteem on their body image, which is likely to be distorted in a negative way, and not enough on other factors of their life," says Salvatore Cullari, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.
The more "possible selves" a woman has, says Cullari, the less likely she is to be overwhelmed by body image issues, which can lead to self-consciousness, depression, vulnerability, and crash dieting.
"Avoid even thinking about the aspect of yourself that makes you feel inferior, like your body, and focus on another aspect of your life in which you are very successful," says Cullari. "For example, you may be a businessperson, a mother, a wife, a doctor, a gardener, a skier, etc. Allow yourself to concentrate on those other aspects of your life where you feel more satisfied."