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Weight Loss: Harnessing the Positive Power of Negative Thinking

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I am an accidental expert on what doesn't work when it comes to losing weight. For forty years, I wandered around in a desert of despair looking for the promised land of weight loss and fitness.

Like many of my 200 million American sisters and brothers, I added a pound or two a year until I was significantly overweight: my 5-foot 2-inch frame carried 183 pounds.

Each time the number on the bathroom scale rose, I resolved to get fit and lose weight.

The ritual was always the same; I was a hope fiend. I set a weight-loss goal and committed to keeping a daily journal where I would faithfully record my weight and food intake. I promised myself that unless I was in a coma, I would exercise 60 minutes each day. I would eliminate sugar and fast foods, and I would empty my cupboard and refrigerator of everything but the healthiest food. I would drink eight glasses of water. Despite a closet filled with size 18 clothes, I would plan my new (size 6 to 8) aspirational wardrobe.

Like a not-too-bright rat, I headed down the same tunnel in a frenzy of positive thinking, certain that this time I would get it right. How ironic that my plans were sabotaged by an inability to get beyond my unwavering optimism.

Not only did I fail to reach my goals, but at the end of the effort, the scale had moved up a pound or two.

Why did I fail? Because I never took the next step. I never sat down and identified the inevitable roadblocks. I was so focused on the positive vision I was moving toward -- seeing a lower number on the bathroom scale, looking trim and fit in the mirror, improving my health and increasing my energy -- that I ignored what I would have to leave behind.

Did I really think that the going would never get tough? Without an awareness of the obstacles I would surely face, I had no strategy for dealing with them. I was like a football coach who has elaborate offensive plays but no plan for defense. And because I had no planned response to counter the inevitable hurdles, I repeatedly failed.

Dr. Julie Norem, in The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, coined the expression "defensive pessimism" to describe the usefulness of the mechanism I lacked. She asserts that by anticipating the potential problems we may face and readying a well-thought-through strategy for coping, we have a better chance of achieving our goals.

One fateful morning, I stepped on the bathroom scale (naked, of course, so that my underwear wouldn't add a few ounces), and the scale broke. But that wasn't only the thing that broke. The sunny optimism that had led me astray broke as well. I no longer believed I could change my weight without addressing the hard choices I needed to make.

In that instant, I adopted a "no matter what" commitment to getting fit, an approach that quickly forced me to add negative thinking to my mental toolkit. So that I would no longer be blindsided, I identified the specific habits that had to be jettisoned from my routine.

In the following six months, I lost 62 pounds and in the process recovered my health, stamina and self-esteem. Changing old habits -- some of whom were dear friends -- constituted a real loss. I had to give up:
  • Magical Thinking: I could no longer pretend that a pill, product or procedure would magically reduce my girth. The money I contributed to the35 billion dollar-a-year diet industry was wasted.
  • Excuses: I couldn't hide behind excuses when I didn't live up to my own expectations. Either I did what I said, or I didn't. Excuses had to been replaced with results, however perfect or inadequate.
  • Overeating: I had to give up eating whatever I wanted and as much as I wanted. I could no longer obey that alien voice urging me to eat junk food. I had to replace undisciplined eating with deliberate eating, and I had to stop eating for recreation and entertainment instead of hunger.
  • Mistaken Priorities: I had to give up starting my day seated in front of a computer monitor. This longstanding ritual had to be replaced with an hour of exercise to guarantee that exercise wasn't forgotten during the course of a busy day.
I gave up the luxury of excuses, the indulgence of stuffing myself and the sedentary start to my day once they were clearly identified as obstacles. Instead of sugar-coating reality, I took a hard look at it; otherwise, I would not have been able to change my behavior.

Take Ruth, for example. As part of her ongoing effort to lose weight, she carefully keeps track of her eating and she exercises at a gym five days a week. Yet she is gaining weight. When she came to me for help, she volunteered that she and her husband enjoy nightly cocktails and appetizers. They also have a standing date with Ben and Jerry at ten o'clock.

When I suggested she might want to come up with a defense to counter the temptations that were sabotaging her goals, she refused to entertain the thought. She was determined to maintain a positive vision of her fitness future, and she was equally disinclined to engage in defensive pessimism. That is, she was unwilling to admit that she would have to confront these two major obstacles to achieve her weight-loss goals. The last time I saw Ruth, she was more frustrated than ever by the number on the scale.

After seven years of keeping the weight off, I still find it useful to go through my plans for the day and anticipate the booby traps. At what time will I be tempted to overeat? At what point will I be distracted from exercising? Will anyone try to derail my efforts today? How will I cope with each of these situations? Of course I still stray, but far less often, and I get back on my fitness path more quickly.

If, like me, you have wandered through the desert of discouragement seeking weight loss, here's a way to renew your commitment and start afresh. First, write your list of goals. Make them specific, measurable and anchored in time. Feel free to make them as ambitious as you like. This is, after all, your life.

But don't stop there. Engage in negative thinking. List the obstacles you will face, such as the candy dish in the office. Look at the habits and rituals you will have to give up and replace to achieve your fitness goals. In doing so, you'll quickly find out whether you are willing to make the trade-offs. If you are unwilling to develop defensive strategies, stop where you are. Spare yourself the frustration of another cycle of failing to lose weight.

But if you are willing to make the trade-offs, begin with confidence. Track your progress and record the wonderful benefits of your new lifestyle -- better sleep, more energy, improved health, a more positive outlook and increased self-esteem. But give equal attention to your setbacks. While frustrating, the setbacks will teach you about the obstacles you still need to confront. Continue to add to your "give up" list so that you don't find yourself giving in to your old ways.

Anticipating the negative influences that inevitably thwart our intentions to lose weight and having a plan to deal with them are essential tactics in the battle of the bulge. If you harness the power of negative thinking, you can make the rest of your life the best of your life.

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