Weight Loss, Weight Maintenance, and IdentitySeptember 12, 2022
“What if I’m different after I lose weight?” “I don’t know how to live life at a healthy weight!” “I worry about how people will treat me after I lose weight!” These are common concerns for people as they contemplate weight loss, whether the weight loss comes from lifestyle changes, with the aid of medications, or with the assistance of bariatric surgery. It’s also normal for people who have lost a significant amount of weight to experience struggles with their own weight maintenance identity.
Self-Identity Is A Critical Factor
Self-identity is a critical factor that can greatly impact a person’s long-term success after weight loss. Your identity is how you see yourself. Your identity is made up of the qualities that describe you, your beliefs, your sense of who you are. Identity is being who you are in whatever situation you’re in.
If your identity has been centered around your weight and weight maintenance, and you have thought of yourself as “the heavy friend;” if your thoughts about yourself are primarily as being “a plus-size person,” then your identity has been focused on your size. It’s difficult to change how you see yourself at any point in time, and especially difficult when your body size may be changing quite rapidly toward your weight maintenance goal.
It takes effort, on a consistent basis, to focus your mind to consider what you want your identity to be. You read that correctly. Who do you want to be? As adults, we have the ability to decide who we want to be. This is, of course, more difficult than it sounds! If you have struggled with your self-esteem, your identity may feel hard-wired to describe yourself, at least when it comes to your weight, as being “a failure,” “hopeless,” or even “helpless.”
Changing your identity to improve your self-esteem requires that you change your self-talk, many times a day. Even if you’re wondering, “What if I don’t believe what I’m saying?” Say the positive things anyway!
Your brain will catch up and eventually you will believe that you are “a person who chooses health in all areas of life.” You will buy into the reality that you “make healthy lifestyle choices every day.” You will live like the person you describe: “I am determined and disciplined,” “I enjoy participating in regular physical activity,” “I respect my body and treat it accordingly,” and “I deserve and enjoy health and happiness.”
The Importance Of Identity Change
In the wildly popular book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear talks about the importance of identity change when making changes in your habits and lifestyle. We know that making healthy habit and lifestyle changes is critical if you’re going to maintain weight loss! James Clear says, “True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are.” In other words, if you want to keep your weight off, but your identity remains, “I’m a plus-size person who fails to maintain healthy habits,” then your behavior will remain in line with your identity. A negative identity leads to negative lifestyle habits. Changing your internal dialogue and identity to, “I make healthy lifestyle choices” results in making food and exercise choices that support your healthy self-identity.
In the book, Atomic Habits, the author shares a great example that demonstrates how a change in personal identity is a powerful tool to use:
“Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become."
Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, ‘No thanks. I’m trying to quit.’ It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs.
The second person declines by saying, ‘No thanks. I’m not a smoker.’ It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes. Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out to improve. They just think, ‘I want to be skinny (outcome) and if I stick to this diet, then I’ll be skinny (process).’ They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions. They never shift the way they look at themselves, and they don’t realize that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change.
Identity change focuses on living today and making healthy choices for today! If you identify yourself as “a person who makes healthy lifestyle choices” and you then make healthy choices just for today (and every day is actually ‘today’ on the day you’re living it), you will get the results you want! Your behaviors will reflect your positive identity.
Creating The Identity You Want To Have
It requires a great deal of effort to follow through with creating the identity you want to have. You need to pay attention to what cognitive behavioral therapy refers to as “ANTs,” or automatic negative thoughts. You’re likely to find yourself slipping into negative self-talk every day. This will reinforce a negative identity and a negative identity leads to unhealthy behaviors, including your weight maintenance. So, sweep the ANTs to the side and regularly (as in several times a day) replace negative thoughts with positive identity statements. The effort will pay off! As S. N. Geonka says, “Work diligently. Diligently. Work patiently and persistently. Patiently and persistently. And you’re bound to be successful. Bound to be successful.” Develop a healthy identity by replacing negative self-talk and you are bound to succeed at maintaining your weight loss.
Healthy weight maintenance for your body and having a better quality of life are, after all, the ultimate reasons for losing weight.
Developing an identity that supports those goals is what will lead you to living the healthy life you desire and deserve. As for what anyone else thinks about you? Well, that’s none of your business and can choose to let it roll off your shoulders! What matters is what you think about yourself. The great news is you have full control over how you think about yourself by changing your self-talk! Decide who you want to be… what you would like your identity to be … then tell yourself that’s who you are. Your behaviors will fall in line with your beliefs, your self-identity.
It's your health! It’s your responsibility. This Day. Every Day. Choose wisely!
ABOUT THE AUTHORConnie Stapleton, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with nearly two decades of experience in the field of bariatric medicine. Dr. Stapleton is the author of three books, is a national and international speaker, and appears as the bariatric psychologist on three national television programs. Read more articles by Connie Stapleton!