Health & Wellness Articles

Maintaining a Healthy Weight - Part 2

Psychological Challenges: The 3 P's of Failure

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Why is weight loss—especially keeping it off—so hard? Like other areas of human endeavor, we know what we need to do, and we certainly want to be successful. So what’s the problem? Why don’t we just do what we know we should?
 
This troubling little quirk of human nature has attracted the attention of scientists, philosophers, theologians, and artists for thousands of years, and there is little reason to think we’ll have an answer anytime soon. But what we do have right now is quite a bit of information on how those who fail often become their own worst enemies, and what successful people (in weight loss and other goals) seem to do differently. From a psychological perspective, The Three P’s of Failure and The Three S’s of Success can help summarize this. 
 
This article (the second in the three-part series about the challenges of weight maintenance) will focus on the Three P’s of Failure. The third will discuss The Three S’s of Success. (Click here to read “Keeping the Weight Off – Part 1: Biological Challenges of Weight Maintenance”)
 
The Three P’s of Failure
 
Looking at the word you wouldn’t notice, but there are actually three P’s in “failure”: Personalized, Permanent, and Pervasive. These terms refer to three elements of what psychologists call your “attributional style”—the basic, often unconscious assumptions you use when explaining to yourself why you do what you do and why you get the results you get.
 
In a nutshell, people who repeatedly fail at permanent weight loss tend to make three basic assumptions about the problems they encounter:
 
  1. They assume a personal flaw or characteristic (weakness, incompetence, lack of will power, self-indulgence, etc.) is responsible for the problem. Often, this goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that, when they are in fact successful, it must be due to something external to them—luck, assistance, or force. In other words, they personalize failure and externalize success.

    Not surprisingly, people who are usually successful tend to follow the opposite pattern: they externalize failure and internalize success.
     
  2. They assume that this personal flaw is permanent, some unchangeable trait they will always have to contend with, rather than something that can be rectified through education, practice, planning, support, or personal growth.

    Again, the most successful people tend to do the opposite. They assume that a personal shortcoming can be changed or worked around—if they put in the appropriate effort.
     
  3. They assume that the personal, permanent flaw is also pervasive—that it affects all areas of their lives, not just the problem at hand. Thus, everything that goes wrong in one’s life becomes an opportunity to confirm their pessimistic assumptions about themselves. Even when things go well, these basic self-assumptions do not change (because again, success is externalized). This makes it very difficult to learn from negative experiences to make appropriate changes in behavior.
So how do you know if your attributional style might be at least partly responsible for your problems with maintaining a desirable weight? More importantly, what do you do about it? Here are three suggestions to get you started:
 
1. Observe how you talk to yourself when something goes wrong.
 
If you’re caught up in The Three P’s of Failure…
 
  • You probably talk to yourself in ways that you’d never dream of talking to a friend, or even someone you don’t like very much. When something goes wrong, you may call yourself names, feel extremely ashamed, agitated, and/or angry with yourself, and become emotionally and verbally abusive towards yourself.
  • You don’t spend much time or effort thinking through what’s happened in an objective way, rather you just jump straight to the conclusion: “This happened because there is something seriously wrong with me that isn’t going to change, and I am doomed to fail forever.”
  • Emotionally, you can go from disappointment to despair and hopelessness in a few seconds, usually over something that’s pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things—a bowl of ice cream or a missed exercise session. The end result is that you rarely learn anything from your own experience, and this pattern just keeps repeating itself, with no progress towards changing the unwanted behavior.
Part of this process is unconscious, and if you’ve been doing this for a while (and gotten pretty good at it), it happens so fast that it doesn’t seem like there are any steps or stages to it. But, in order to intervene and stop this process, you need a rough idea of how it works:
 
  • Something happens (You gain a pound or two, skip an exercise session, or eat something you wanted to avoid, etc.) and you feel a “normal” level of anxiety, guilt, or disappointment—the feeling that motivates us to try again.
  • You to start thinking about why this happened and unconscious assumption 1 kicks in, causing you leap to the conclusion there is something wrong with you, without benefit of doubt or investigation—you just “know” it’s true.
  • Now you feel a little worse (mild shame, self-blame, etc.), so you start thinking about how to deal with this problem, and assumption 2 kicks in: You “realize” that you’re always going to have this problem, it’s just the way you are.
  • Your feelings escalate to desperation, frustration, and helplessness. This is getting very unpleasant, so you try once more to think your way out of the mess. But now assumption 3 kicks in, and you’re forced to admit that you’re really a pretty poor excuse for a human being, and that’s not going to change.
  • Your feelings are in high gear—self-hatred and hopelessness on top of everything else—and more thinking isn’t going to help. You have to do something to make these feelings go away.
  • If you have learned some basic skills in emotional self-management, maybe you’ll just blow off your diet for the rest of the day (or week), or go on a short-term binge. Some people do much worse to themselves.
  • Once the storm is over, you’ll reconfirm what you concluded about yourself—that there is something wrong with you that you can’t control or manage.
This process will continue until you begin thinking about your unconscious assumptions and the effect they have on you.
 
2. Interrupt your self-talk process before it turns into a full-blown storm.
 
The good news is that you can effectively interrupt this cycle at any point along the way—the earlier the better. Unless you are perfect, you’ll occasionally do something you’ll wish you hadn’t. It isn’t good to avoid normal feelings of anxiety, guilt, and disappointment—these feelings motivate us.
 
So, the first place you can reasonably intervene is when you first start thinking about what has gone wrong. The best possible intervention at this stage is to not think about it at all. Simply acknowledge what you did, how you feel about it, (“I just ate three helpings of lasagna, and I really feel like a jerk right now.”), and move on without letting your assumptions have their way with you.  
 
If you continue to feel bad, distract yourself. Focus on something else completely unrelated. Practice this until you’re pretty confident that you can successfully intervene whenever you want to. Until you reach that point, don’t waste time or effort trying to challenge your assumptions directly—they’ll win every time until you’ve mastered the art of intervening in your own process.

Intervention will probably feel a little uncomfortable, unnatural, and even scary at first. It’ll be both tempting and easy to “fail” at this, too, because that’s what you expect. But this is do-able, and well worth any temporary discomfort you may feel.
 
3. Practice positive self-talk and affirmations.
 
To accomplish the ultimate goal (replacing unhelpful assumptions with ones that help you reach a goal), you need to be comfortable with thinking, saying, and hearing positive statements about yourself. For most people who struggle with The Three P’s of Failure, this is harder and more unpleasant than anyone might expect. We do want to hear good things said about ourselves, don’t we? Not if it contradicts our basic assumptions about ourselves!  So, once again, be forewarned. You may experience some discomfort, like a mix of free-floating anxiety and guilt. Take this as an indication you are on the right track.
 
Begin with some simple daily affirmations and positive self-talk when things are going well. Acknowledge when you’ve done well, and take appropriate credit for what you’ve accomplished—don’t pass it off as a fluke, or tell yourself you couldn’t have done it without someone else’s help. You may have had help, and it’s fine to thank the people who helped you, but recognize that you are the one who succeeded. Keep a list of these small and large accomplishments; read and update it every day. Recognize the skills and positive characteristics that enabled you to succeed, and write them down. Start with the basics:
 
  • I am a good person, and I deserve respect.
  • I choose to respect myself today by refusing to engage in verbal or emotional self-abuse.
  • I have been successful at many things I have set out to do, and I can learn to do better at the things that give me problems.
There are dozens of books and lists of affirmations available, which you can draw on if you have trouble thinking up your own, including several threads on the SparkPeople Message Boards.
 
When it comes to choosing the particular messages you want to include in your positive self-talk and affirmations, there is one simple guideline: If you have an emotional reaction to it (positive or negative), or if you find yourself responding to it with disbelief or scorn, it’s probably just what you need to be telling yourself every day.
 
If you work on these three steps diligently, they will become an automatic part of your daily routine. From there, it won’t take long to prepare yourself for the next step: replacing The Three P’s of Failure with The Three S’s of Success!

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Member Comments

  • More of a pleasant problem than having to start over.
  • ELRIDDICK
    Thanks for sharing
  • Great article. It's as if you were talking directly to me. Apparently I am not alone.
  • Nice series of article.
  • It's true, people find it hard to accept compliments. Learning to feel worthy is very important.
  • I've always known that I was an emotional eater. That's why telling someone to just eat less and exercise more doesn't work in the long run. I like sparkpeople, because they get that what goes in my mouth is always dependent on what's going on in my mind.
  • Great article. If I let things stress me out I will eat alot. So I just put those things behind me now and do me.
  • I liked this article. It reinforces that your MINDSET is the 1st step to a positive healthy lifestyle. Get healthy, happy habits in place & the body will naturally follow....I know, its workin for me!!!!
  • This is a good article! I have a tendency to make myself crazy when I haven't exercised enough during the day. I am so hard on myself--I wouldn't be that hard on anyone else. Sometimes it bothers me, but last night I was feeling anxious because I should've exercised in the morning like I usually do. Anyway, I thought, well, I guess I messed up today. Oh, well, I guess I'll make sure that I make up for it tomorrow, and then I went to sleep. :) Boy, that was a good feeling. I just let the feeling pass--that was hard--and I moved on. I call it a "do-over"!

    Banan87, you're right, people tend to shut others out during this time--I do this too, but then I realize, hey, don't take it out on them! Of course, sometimes it takes a little longer to figure that out.

    Today, I woke up and worked out, and I felt better overall. It's a process, and I'm still learning. :)
  • This article seems to really apply to me, bc forgiving myself is hard. Usually it's not that one bowl of ice cream or one cupcake that will cause me a lot of anxiety and feelings of failure. If I'm feeling guilty for eating something I thought would taste satisfying, but since it caused me to feel bad the treat eally wasen't a treat. I realize that I'm on the right track to eating healthier and next time I am faced with a temting treat I can think twice about how I'm going to feel afterwards. It's when I've made other mistakes in my life, have other feelings of guilt and failure that lead me to overindulge in such things as eating a whole pint of ice cream and pizza. When I'm worrying and feeling that negative it's harder for me to get back on track and reverse the negative thought patterns. It is all in how each of us think of things.
  • I attribute all of my success to a change in mental attitude. Moving from the 3 P's to optimism, gratitude and acceptance has been a long process for me and is probably more important to me than the weight loss. It's also why I do not fear weight regain. A healthy lifestyle is not just healthy diet and exercise, it's a healthy mental state as well.

    Thanks for this article. I agree with other posters that it should be a subject more discussed in the weight loss space - most people believe they are unhappy because they are fat. I finally figured out that I was fat because I was unhappy.
  • Guess the point of the article ties into the notion that if you beat yourself up and blame yourself -- and you don't lose weight doing that -- perhaps it isn't helpful.

    And honest, there are worse things we can do than blowing our diet. Killing someone out of frustration. Hurting children. Hurting ourselves mentally or physically.

    No, I don't think he means it's good to overeat, especially as a compensation. But if something we think keeps us on track (like blaming ourselves) isn't doing the trick, maybe we need a different trick.

    And... a bowl of ice cream is not the end of the world. If it feels that way - and it doesn't stop the behavior - maybe something other than blaming self or character will help.

    I sometimes see people say "I had a cupcake, I was soo bad." Nah. Ya had a cupcake. The next step is not another cupcake to punish yourself though that's something I used to understand. It's... do something else. And for heaven's sake, LOVE YOU. You're all worth it, you truly are.
  • i know im leaving a lot of comments but whats worse than blowing your diet for a week or binging)) i mean im curious what else could be the result of self-hatred)) i tend to shut people out when im in that place of mind.. is that connected
  • you make it sound so easy and you make it sound like its ok to eat a whole bowl of ice cream!! at the moment, its the end of the world, its doing the deadly sin that you promised yourself over and over that you will never do again but you keep doing over and over and you say this is the last time but deep down you know its not.. you know that its something bigger than you and neither your money, your friends nor your will power is going to help you stop (a moment inside a guilty perfectionist mind)

    FORGIVE AND FORGET its not the end of the world, guilt is toxic, dont punish yourself by eating until you're numb.. forgive yourself before that happens
  • first of all i agree with mainrocks this article should not only be for ppl who are trying to maintain their weight, it should be out in the open for every1 who was on a diet, is dieting now, or thinking about following a diet in the future.. DIETS ARE MEANT TO fail.
    i failed to lose weight permanently and i think of my self as a SUCCESS and im not giving up but its stupid to follow the same pattern as last time because if nothing changes and i dont add anything (like education, personal growth) the outcome will be the same.. gain back the weight.
    why not teach how to maintain our weight at school especially the young who are pressured to be super thin

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.