The Devil We Know & The Devil We Don’t: Fear & Weight Loss

When I worked at The Job From Hell, The Boss used to berate me for “not embracing change.” I think she believed I was afraid of it. There’s a difference between fearing change and being annoyed with it.  Frankly, I don’t like change because it interferes with my routine and as The Boss rightly noted, I love my routines!  Change means I have to learn to do things differently, which takes time and can be confusing and so very frustrating! There are some things for which I have a high tolerance (such as traffic) but others things, like learning to access voicemail on a new phone system, not so much! I’m not afraid of learning something new.  Learning is fun for me, but when it gets in my way, not fun.

When it comes to weight loss, there is usually a lot of fear involved.  There’s the obvious Fear of Failure but there’s also Fear of Success.  Most of us have faced Fear of Failure (FOF) before and we’re usually way too familiar with this one!: “What if I can’t lose weight?”; “What if I don’t know what I’m doing wrong?”; “What if it’s too hard to stick with it?”  What we don’t expect is to be afraid of success and a lot of times we don’t recognize it when we experience it.

Fear of Success (FOS) can have its roots in fear of change.  If we are successful in losing weight, that means there will be some changes in our lives, but what kind of changes?  What does that mean for us? What if we lose a lot of weight and then gain it back? Do we know how to keep it off? What happens if we have ugly saggy skin? What if the saggy skin looks worse than being overweight?  What if our spouse/ partner isn’t attracted to us anymore? What if our friends/ family don’t like our new lifestyle? That is the voice of Fear trying to undermine your success and self-confidence!

Fear is like water and once it soaks in, it’s hard to get it out again and it can be devastating. Water erodes and cracks rock; it can wash away entire cities. All we have to do is look at the Grand Canyon to see the power of water: fear can be just as overwhelming if you let it. But if you don’t let it soak in and wash you away, fear has no control over you.

One of my favorite tv shows is Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (roll your eyes- I’m used to it!)  One of the reasons I liked it so much is because the message behind the episodes actually had meaning.  In this particular Halloween episode, Buffy and her friends go to a ‘haunted house party’ in which a fear demon has been unleashed. As she and each of her friends enter the house, they become separated from each other and come face to face with their worst fears. Once they break the spell and actually face the demon, he is only about four inches tall, so Buffy squashes him like the bug he is.

That particular episode is a great metaphor for how fear works, its impact in our lives and how its true nature looks bigger than it really is. Fear makes us feel alone, as if there is no one who can help us, no one who understands and how if others ‘really knew us,’ they wouldn’t love us anymore.  When we give in to fear, we allow it to isolate us and take over our lives. Our fears dominate us and keep us feeling alone and helpless. We can’t go to others for help because ‘no one can help us’ and we feel we have to keep hiding our fears and our true selves to hang on to the lives we have. It isn’t until we bring those fears out into the light of day that we see how tiny and insignificant they really are: they just seemed monstrously huge!

I am not going to make light of facing our fears. (I’ve got a few fear demons locked in my own closet!) But eventually, there comes a point when you either have to give up and give in to fear or you have to face it down and stomp on it.  When it comes to Fear of Failure, we expect that. All we need to do is google and we’ll have a 100,000 answers in 8.4 seconds! Surely, one of those will answer your problem? Maybe and if nothing else, you have about a 100,000 starting points! It’s the Fear of Success that blindsides us and we usually don’t realize what that nagging little voice is.

I know one of my excuses for not losing weight was loose saggy skin.  If I lost weight, then I’d have all this ugly saggy skin and the only way to get rid of it is surgery and since I didn’t want surgery, I didn’t want to lose weight.  I reasoned that I was preventing a problem by ‘choosing’ not to lose weight.  What I was really doing was hiding behind my fears: I was afraid that I couldn’t lose weight.  I was afraid others would find out I was ‘on a diet’ and when I didn’t lose the weight, they’d think I was stupid or lazy or a glutton or [insert negative adjective here].

I was also afraid of what I would do if I actually did lose the weight and did have to deal with that loose saggy skin! Instead of looking like a tick about to pop, I’d be looking like a melted candle or a deflated balloon. Yay! Even more unattractive! What if I l gained it all back?  We’ve all heard the stats on the Rebound Gain: people lose forty pounds and gain back sixty and then it’s even harder to lose it again! Does that mean I can get even bigger than 440 lbs?!

Then there’s the fear of losing weight the ‘wrong way’ and ending up in a worse situation than obesity (though in my case, is there anything much worse than Super Morbid Obesity?)  I ran into a similar situation when I started following a Paleo diet: criticism from others. “It’s not healthy”; “it’s a fad diet”; “you’ll end up vitamin-deficient and malnourished.” My mom, who is a retired Registered Nurse, was one of those critics.  Initially there was so much wrong with eating Paleo according to her.  Even though I was successfully losing weight I was doing it in a way that was sure to make me sicker than before! If I had not been so resolutely obstinate, it would have frightened me away from eventual success.  It can be scary thinking that what looks like success is actually something that ends up hurting you, which is what happened with my aunt whose gastric bypass led to fatal complications.  As a medical professional, my mom is an actual authority figure and her recommendations are usually valid. All you have to do is pick a weight loss plan and google it and there’s another 10,000 horror stories about people who got sick and/ or died from eating Paleo/ keto/ fasting/ having surgery.  It worked for them until XYZ happened  and then they died or nearly died! These kind of anecdotes scare you into thinking “I’m fat but at least I’m alive and otherwise healthy!”

Really? It’s that old joke about the guy who fell off the skyscraper: as he fell past the windows, people heard him saying “so far, so good.”  That’s really what’s going on with obesity: so far, so good.  It’s the punchline from the other version of the skyscraper joke: it’s not the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden stop at the bottom.  Our weight has consequences that take their toll on our health.  Sometimes it’s Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Sometimes it’s Congestive Heart Failure (CHF), and most often it’s Type 2 Diabetes (D2).  The real problem is that these conditions have become so prevalent in our society because of the obesity epidemic that they aren’t seen as the serious conditions they truly are.  We see commercials for drugs to control or minimize the effect of COPD, CHF and D2.  We see happy people with portable oxygen machines and long acting insulin pens and other medications that make it easier to live with the effects of obesity.  The longer we are obese, the more it harms our health.  Like water it wears away at us until the cracks begin to show.  Eventually, we can’t patch them up anymore and the health problem actually becomes a life threatening situation.  Not being able to breathe is a problem. Having a heart that doesn’t pump efficiently is a problem. Having your organs shut down because of toxic blood sugar levels is a problem.

By making these problems seem manageable, we are denying they are actually problems and making it easier to hide behind our fears: “I don’t have to face my fear of being obese because it’s not causing me problems!” Except I can’t breathe sometimes and some days my fingertips are blue and I have to check my blood sugar three times a day and take some pills.  We are more afraid of looking stupid and failing at weight loss or having ugly saggy skin or losing weight the wrong way than we are of the serious long term consequences of our obesity.  We’re looking at the spectre of serious health problems and instead of seeing Freddy Kruger, we see Sully from Monsters, Inc., when our fear is the real blowhard but that D2 really is Freddy. When we break through the paralyzing spell fear has over us, like Buffy and the Scoobies, we see it for what they is: just an annoying little pest. So just step on the little bug before Freddy shows up!

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