Thursday, June 19, 2008

Learned helplessness


Isn't it strange how you can grow accustomed to almost anything if it goes on long enough? I believe psychologists refer to this phenomenon as "learned helplessness." It's like the old story where a baby elephant is held in place by a rope around his ankle. He quickly learns that he cannot break the rope and gives up even trying. And because he learned this lesson early, the rope still holds him in place even when he is grown and would be well able to break the rope and free himself.

A while back I ran across a diary which I wrote in beginning during the summer before my freshman year of college. (Mind you, this would have been about 20 years ago now. . . . ) Several of the entries in the diary focused on my feelings that I was a big fat cow and that I hated myself for being so overweight.

How much did I weigh then, you might ask? I weighed between 165 and 170. Yeah. Interesting how my perspective has changed: I would be OVERJOYED to weigh between 165 and 170 now!

I'm not sure quite when it became "OK" with me that I weigh over 200 lbs. Not that I am REALLY OK with it, but I no longer cry or pen diary entries of self-loathing over it. I think perhaps this is more a function of loving and accepting myself more at 37 than I did at 17, rather than truly being OK with my weight.

I would love to be slimmer and more energetic, but I feel like I just don't have the "oomph" I need to do the things that would get me there. Each day, I begin with good intentions: I eat a healthy breakfast most days, and I bring my (healthy) lunch to work more than half the time. Yet I often "break down" and eat candy or other treats that people bring to work, especially in the afternoons when my energy level is lower, and I eat out a lot and don't always make the healthiest choices.

I go to the gym with MM on Tuesdays and Thursdays every week (barring travel or competing evening commitments) and often talk about going 1-2 more times in a week on my own. . . . but it rarely happens. To be honest, there are many Tuesdays and Thursdays that I would skip the gym if it weren't for MM waiting there for me.

Occasionally I feel a twinge of inspiration or a frisson of motivation, but it's never sustained. And just as I have found it difficult-to-impossible to establish routines that would keep my home neat and organized, I have similar difficulty establishing routines that would put me on the path to a healthier weight.

A few weeks ago, MM saw a full-length body picture of me from December 2003, when I weighed around 180. His immediate response was "wow, you looked hot!" (I will agree with him that I looked much better then than I do today, but I don't know about "hot".) Actually, here is the photo he saw, so you can judge for yourself:

In a non-judging and loving way, he said "you could look like this again." Yes, I *could*, theoretically, look like this again. HOWEVER. . . . when he said this, I immediately thought of all the effort it took to get my body looking like that in the first place. (AND I was still at least 30-35 lbs above the upper end of an appropriate weight range for my height & build. . . . still had a BMI well into the "overweight" category.)

Just to get down to 180, I had done Weight Watchers diligently for 4 months. During that time, I planned every meal, wrote down everything I ate, and worked out on the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes or walked 4 miles at least 4-5 days a week. Everything Weight Watchers suggests you do, I had done. It was a near-obsession with me, and every choice I made--whether to go out to dinner with a friend, whether to have a drink at happy hour, whether to study or exercise--was focused on moving me toward the goal of weight loss. I sacrificed a lot during that time, but felt that it was worth it.

Even so, at the time this photo was taken, I had been stuck between 175 and 180 for about 8 months. . . . despite continuing--half-heartedly--to do Weight Watchers, after the initial 4 months and ~35 lbs lost, the weight stopped "falling off" as it had in the beginning. I had just started jogging for exercise (was training for my 1st 5K) and was running 3-4 days a week, 4 miles per session. Aside from the fact that I was becoming a better runner, I was stalled and on a plateau.

I have to admit that I prefer the way I looked in that picture to the way I look now. (In fact, I thought then--and still think--that I should weigh even less. The girl in that photo clearly still has some excess weight she could afford to lose.) But I'm not so sure I want to put forth the effort required to achieve it.

Not only did I look better then, I felt better: I can walk farther, climb higher, and just generally DO more physically, and my energy level was way higher than it is these days. My mind was clearer, too.

But even knowing all this, I am unmotivated to take the steps I know are necessary to get back to where I was. It just seems like more than I can do now, and I know that daily effort for the rest of my life would be required in order to not only achieve but maintain a smaller, fitter body. I don't feel I am up for the challenge.

And so I sit. Not quite sure what it would take to move me out of my complacency. . . .


Emily Canady said...

Wow, I am not even sure where to begin, what to say, what to respond to, or how most appropriately to get there. And of course, what do you want to hear, the you can do it part, um... I'm thinking not, the secret to motivation, yeah, I don't have that one either, or the reality that we all become complacient, which is how we wake up one day looking nothing like the girl we once were and we don't even seem to muster up enough strenght to be upset about it. I've been thru every single emotion you've discussed. I have the various mutliple and sickening journals from every stage of my life that have heart felt, tear filled pages of self loathe in connection to a perfectly healthy body size. I have complacency with my 215 pound self and being single forever. I have hatred for my shrinking size, as my obsesison took over. And yes, I did become obsessed with weight watchers more than once, and yes, sometimes I think that in order to truly live this program you do have to give up so much. I don't think you need to, should want to, or have to, but somehow you always end up doing it. You looked great in that photo, that is true, and who cares if you had extra weight to lose or whatever, you looked good, but what most struck me was everything you said about how you felt then vs. now. No one can give you the motivation you need to stick with it. It sounds like fear of having to give up your life is stopping you to an extent from even trying. The unfortuante sad truth, cycle of it all is that what you really need to break out of complacency is some progress, is feeling a little better, but unfortuantely it isn't an instant easy fix. It is incredibly scary to be starring down a path that in order for you to find yourself successful on you feel like you have to give up all the things you love, exercise and sweat and do things you don't want to do. Not fun, and thus, easier to not do it.

No one can make you, and I have no idea what it will take for you to decide that you want to try again, but I have discovered that going near the obsession land is really what makes this journey horrible and not worth it. Its a fine line isn't it.

All I can say is hang in there, what is meant to be will be, and it will either happen or it won't, and it won't be the end of the world either way.

Cindy said...

I'm catching up on old posts and ths one spoke so truly to me. I'm completely with you. My "hot" photo is from 2002 when I made lifetime at weightwatchers. I was 169. I can't believe I got there and can't remember how I stayed motivated. I really can't. I've tried to find that motivation so many time since, but have only regained the weight and them some (such a common storyline). I can get motivated for a week or sometimes a month but then it's gone. I can't find the balance of just enough to keep making progress.

I have no solutions, just empathy. I don't hate myself currently but know I could be so much happier if I dedicated myself. Why is this so hard?

Hellafied said...

First of all, I think you look great as is! I felt compelled to share a story with you about my recent weight loss: If you have time, click through the link in the middle of the post for the full story. Anyways, I fully sympathize with what you're going through. The best advice I can give you is that it takes time. Right when you are about to give up and the scale won't seem to budge, right after that, you'll lose big. Trust me. Just don't give up!