Q&A: Weight loss and self-esteem


The Question: 

There’s a lot in your book that I already have and will continue to find extremely useful. However, I think I see a chink in the amour for me. Although I like the idea of making self-esteem independent of my body image, I don’t think I could do that. I have suffered (and I do mean suffered) from low self-esteem all my life and those times when I felt I looked most attractive (i.e. when I had lost enough weight) were always the times I felt best about myself, more confident, relaxed and, especially, happy.

My Answer: 

Here are a few things I’ve discovered and found useful about self-esteem:

1.     Some level of self-esteem is a given; it’s impossible to have no opinions or beliefs about yourself. Some people like to refer to this as self-compassion, but one of the things I find helpful about Nathaniel Branden’s work on this is that he includes, alongside the sense of worth and compassion for oneself, the notion of some degree of competence in life. (1)

2.     Higher or lower self-esteem tends to be within a range, which will be different for each individual. You may well be someone who tends to have lower self-esteem, but within that range, your esteem will fluctuate, from day to day or even from hour to hour. In the same way, someone may typically experience a stronger sense of self-worth, but will still notice it diminish – perhaps very dramatically – from time to time.

3.     There’s a circular relationship between the attitudes you have about yourself and what you do. The circle is that your level of self-esteem influences your behaviour, and your behaviour – the actions you take in the world – influences your level of self-esteem. So let’s say you believe yourself to be fairly worthy and competent, but one day you make a huge mistake about something. Your self-esteem plummets as you decide you’re “a useless waste of space”. This circular relationship means that it’s highly likely this period of lower self-esteem will encourage behaviour that both reflects and reinforces it, leading to a downward spiral of self-loathing. This is very common, and very often acted out around addictive behaviours such as overeating.

4.     Mistakes large and small can of course occur in any arena in life, including work and relationships, and of course in terms of what and how much you eat. Mistakes are inevitable; you cannot possibly avoid doing anything in life that you might later regret. What you can do is to change the way you react to having made mistakes; to develop the ability to restore some degree of self-esteem, rather than continue to undermine it by overeating.

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  1. Maria

    Thank you for another very useful article. I find it very motivating to get deeper into the essence of self-esteem and the relationship with food. Dealing with mistakes is really crucial. I’ve made huge improvement in this area and articles like this really help. Further insight into coping with failure would definitely be of interest for me.

  2. Reenee

    Dear Gillian

    My issue is a common one. I have read too many books on how to transform my relationship with food and feel utterly confused. I am also a senior psychiatrist and there are different held opinions regarding whether to view overeating and binge eating as an addiction. The book that seems to have come closest to my observations of myself is yours. And yet I resist to make plans and times, the word ‘should’ stubbornly sits in my mind and my life is so busy that my dopamine system is screaming for an extra helping of food at 8pm when I finally sit down after a 6am start.

  3. Marilyn

    I DO appreciate your articles every month – this one in particular, Gillian. Prior to the summer I was 14, although I had questionable dietary habits and overate to soothe myself on occasion, I didn’t have a weight problem. But once I’d been fired for no apparent reason from my first job, I gained 20 pounds in very short order. Rampant hormones? Perhaps partially, but mostly SHAME for having been fired, FEAR that life was unfair and made no sense, ANGER at my own powerlessness and FRUSTRATION over my failure to understand why. I’ve buried these emotions under varying degrees of excess weight for almost 50 years now. Your advice to appreciate the immediate benefits of better eating behavior BESIDES ultimately losing weight makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you for continuing to expand on the ideas in your excellent book DITCHING DIETS.

  4. Robynne

    I love your articles. They bring me new insights and remind me of old ones. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into researching and writing them. In this article this point really resonated with me and is something I’m working on: “When it comes to connecting with your motivation to control overeating, it’s considerably more effective for you to appreciate that more immediate feedback. This happens when you value any benefit you get from “being in control” at least as much as “losing weight” – and preferably considerably more.” I’m working on “losing weight” not being the ultimate goal, but a side effect of a healthier lifestyle where *I’m* in control, not my addictive urges. Thanks again for your insights!

  5. Debs

    I really appreciate the regular newsletter. The articles are thought provoking and challenge me to think deeper about the ways in which I can face my addictive desire to overeat. The articles help me get back on track each time I give into the desire and each time I can sustain it for longer. After many years of being obsessed about my appearance I am finally seeing the benefits and the motivating power of using health and wellbeing as my immediate goals. Basically when I eat well I feel better psychologically and physically…..who doesn’t want more of that?

  6. sandy

    For me, this week, the benefit of being “in control” equals peace. I’ve had a rough weekend, feeling low and disappointed in myself and I realised on Sunday that above all else I need to feel peace inside. So when faced with the urge to overeat rather than it being about losing weight, or avoiding bloating, or having more energy, it’s definitely all about the feeling of peace inside when I’ve chosen not to give in; for this week, anyway.

  7. Sharon

    Your article couldn’t have come at a better time for me! I read it this morning having been dipping in and out of ‘binge’ mode all morning. My self-esteem is something I’ve been working on for a couple of years and I’ve made huge strides in that area following one of your seminars. This morning I received an email which made me lose confidence in my personal life – I didn’t even realise where the urge to binge had come from, until I read your article!

    Thanks so much, Gillian. Please don’t ever feel we aren’t listening. You do an amazing job and you have changed my life HUGELY!

  8. Clare

    I would like to echo all the positive comments that other people have written: your articles are really helpful and thought-provoking and all the research you clearly do and share with us is brilliant- thank you.

    Thanks again for all your help.

  9. zoe

    I would also like to add my Thanks for these Monthly articles Gillian. I appreciate them enormously, not just for the information and advice contained, but for being a gentle Monthly reminder of your brilliant eating method.

    It took me a long time to really absorb your teaching and learn to apply it, but now I have its there in my head, and in my actions as second nature (not to say I eat perfectly all the time – I still do binge occassionally – but I manage it better).
    So the Newsletters serve as just a little hint to re-evaluate how I’m eating and to adjust accordingly.

    With huge thanks

  10. Jane

    I bought your book Eating Less the other day and read it in one sitting, so gripped was I! I will now read it again more slowly to really absorb what you say, but already my thinking has changed a lot. I feel like I’m in the process of “making peace” with the elements of my hungers that are rooted in my lifelong compulsive eating.

    This blog post about self-esteem is really helpful in underlining one of the key messages in your book. My BMI is around 28.5 and I’d dearly love to get it down to 25 for my health and comfort (appearance has never been a huge deal for me, but not being a healthy weight has been a huge deal). I’m on my third day of sitting with my compulsive eating desires rather than eating/distracting myself so I don;t have to sit with them, and on my third day of eating more healthily rather than trying to stick to a certain calorie intake… and already my skin looks better, the whites of my eyes are whiter, and I feel calmer about food, and more energetic. I doubt my weight has changed in 3 days but lots of other things have, including my self-esteem!

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