The connection between self-esteem and weight loss. 5 tips to maximize your chances to lose weight

Published on May 23, 2022 by Cori Grămescu

What’s the connection between self-esteem and weight loss? People with low self-esteem speak negatively of themselves. Poor self-esteem leads to disconnection from your body to the development of unhealthy eating behaviors, and also affects your thoughts and emotions.  

That’s the reason that before embarking on yet another diet, we need to deeply reconnect with our bodies and to work on how we feel about ourselves regardless of our shape.

This is not an easy journey, as anyone struggling with self-perception will tell you.

It took me more than a decade in therapy before I started to feel a little bit better about myself. I somehow managed to push myself into a fitness career after a massive 80 pounds weight loss process, in a desperate attempt to make sure I would not relapse into obesity.  It was a painful and exhausting process and, until I did manage to feel connected to my body and to feel that I am deeply, completely worthy of love, I struggled to keep balance.

Here are the 5 things that have helped me shift my perspective and truly change my life, to heal and regain not only my meaning, but also self-love.

Focus on self-care, not dieting.

The problem with feeling disconnected from your body is that you don’t show yourself much care, you don’t treat your body with the respect it deserves.  I was always trying to change something about myself, looking for endless reasons to criticize myself.

When you have low self-esteem, that’s a slippery slope to never ending unhappiness. I was chasing new diet angles and workouts (as a fitness professional you have access to unlimited resources when it comes to new diets, supplements, or workout progressions, if your goal is to build your ideal body) and it seemed like with every new progress, 10 more reasons to be unhappy with myself emerged. I read all the articles and self-help books and, despite clearly understanding the mechanism, I never felt like it resonates with me. I couldn’t feel like I was worthy of appreciation, I was ignoring my body signals and I was deeply unhappy.

It all changed one day when I was watching cartoons on TV, a reminiscence from my childhood years that I still enjoy. And in that moment, when I was feeling tired after a brutal week of workouts, I was hungry and unhappy, this saving thought emerged – “Would I do this to my daughter?”.

 I started crying, because I then felt all the pain that I was covering up on sore muscles, mentally yelling at myself through every workout, pushing myself to ignore all the signals and weaknesses my body was signaling.

 That was the saving thought for me – would I treat a person I love the way I treat myself? And whenever I had doubts about my actions, this filter helped me decide.

With this simple question I started my journey. Of course, there were daily moments when my trained mind was pushing me to just push myself harder. There were moments when I was petrified that, by being more relaxed with myself, I would lose everything I had worked for, because I knew nothing else but constant pressure.

Focusing on self-care meant improving my food choices not only in terms of nutrients and energy intake, but mostly in terms of taste, aspect, and the experience of eating, itself. After years of counting calories, avoiding sauces and spices, I was petrified on the idea of enjoying food, for fear of losing control.

Self-care also meant cutting down on caffeine and energy drinks, and simply resting when I was tired. It took me 5 years before I could function normally without excessive coffee, pre-workout shots, energy drinks or supplements.

Self-care meant for me going to massage therapy not for muscle pain, but for relaxation and enjoyment. It meant focusing on treating my hands with care, after years of being proud of my palm calluses and pushing through the pain of weightlifting regardless of how painful it was.

I still have moments when I go back to a dieting mentality and I feel, especially now that I am aging, that my body is getting old and ugly. At almost 40, I look back to my pictures from 10-15 years ago and I finally see myself as beautiful, despite all the years of hunting a never-ending list of flaws.

Learn what moderation looks and feels like.

As I was healing, I often felt incapable of managing the middle ground. I could easily manage strict restrictions and I could definitely manage overeating and all the guilt and unhappiness that came along with it. I was terrified by eating a slice of pizza but had absolutely no concern eating a bag of peanut butter cookies. Regaining “control” after a binge almost felt liberating, and I lived in a split-vision of myself – The good one, that was in control, was powerful and disciplined, and the week, disgusting me, that needed an hour in the morning and 4-6 espresso cups  just to be able to function, that was craving foods and eating mindlessly.

After the first day of actually weighing my food and eating ALL the calories I needed for my bodyweight and activity levels, I felt full, like never before. There was so much food. The more I focused on eating as much as I needed, the less I experienced craves. And when I did crave food, because I was not hungry anymore, I noticed I was eating way less than before and also my choices got better.

I swapped for really tasty foods of the best quality, instead of trying to fool myself with “low calorie alternatives” that would eventually leave me eating even more. If I craved chocolate, I would go buy the best possible luxury chocolate I could find and enjoy it, taste it, smell it and completely connect my senses to that experience. The same went with pasta – I chose my favorite recipe (I love truffle pasta) and I would go to my favorite restaurant, wearing nice clothes and completely allow myself to enjoy the experience.

I also observed what my body felt like and that helped me understand how I function. I realized that drinking alcohol completely changes how I feel, then I discovered which of my favorite foods make me feel bloated, and after mapping what I knew about food, I started to really enjoy everything in moderation, a concept that was completely alien to me, until that point.

Learn to set healthier objectives and better boundaries, at the same time.

Because my self-esteem was so low when I started this journey, I often felt the imposter syndrome crippling me. I felt that I absolutely must be the best, I must be perfect and impeccable and nothing below that level would be acceptable, all to prevent others seeing me as the failure that I felt.  

My objectives were always huge, and I always met them with great personal costs. I always thought that all my accomplishments would increase my self-esteem. My fitness career was doing great, my personal life looked picture perfect, but I was struggling with crippling depression and chronic fatigue. However, I was in the gym for more than 10 hours daily, before going on with my demanding social life.

I started setting my own objectives as if I was a new client of mine. After all, I was always so kind and understanding of their context, why would I not treat myself like that? 

I stopped answering phone calls, I started writing emails and texts instead. I stopped working for more than 8 hours daily and took Sundays off. I took a holiday, a real holiday, for the first time in 7 years.

I stopped wishing to look like a fitness competitor, because I was not competing in fitness contests. I was a Pilates Trainer, so I might as well look like a Pilates Trainer.

I started viewing my goals as systems – what resources do I have, what external resources do I need to attract, who can help me better than I can do it myself, is there a way to make work with less effort. I was allocating resources according to the importance of my goals, not by the perceived feeling of emergency.

Then, I started breaking down each goal into smaller objectives. Plan for the smaller steps and assess the overall direction of my project periodically. During this time, I was still having days of self-doubt, but I was simply talking myself nicely through the doubt.


Stop letting yourself down.

At one point in my process, I realized that I was always going the extra mile to please or serve others. It gave me so much satisfaction to do that because I felt so valuable when I was doing it.

At the same time, I could notice that on my side, there were constantly things I was doing for myself that didn’t feel quite right. 

The momentary validation of those around me didn’t help me to earn my self-respect. So, I started asking myself what my values really were, what was my true core? And whenever I felt like leaving myself down, or procrastinating on something, or simply numbing myself with TV or social media or movie-binge, I knew something was off.

So, I started interrogating those situations from my values’ perspective. Is it something that I avoid doing because it somehow contradicts my values, or is it something that I’m afraid I’ll fail at, so I avoid it out of fear?  This changed so much of my energy! Because I started refusing the behaviors that were contradicting my core values, and I started feeling more confident in saying no.

As a result, I stopped letting myself down because I started having a clear map of why I was saying yes or no, why I was accepting a certain objective or situation and why I was refusing to engage and that’s also boosted my self-esteem. I had more energy for what I felt was valuable to achieve and I started feeling more centered in my value system.

Keep a ”feelings journal”

This was helpful because I wanted to express my feelings, my emotions, and process my thoughts. Allowing myself to feel my emotions in an unfiltered way was challenging at first, to say the least. When I began writing what I felt, I was surprised at how difficult it felt to express my feelings. I was angry, that I could feel, but other than that, it took some good amount of work to identify other feelings. I remember at first, I googled “list of emotions”, because I really didn’t know what else could one feel except anger and occasional moments of joy.

At first, I would mostly cry and feel sorry for myself, but after that initial wave of pain and sorrow began to ease up, I began to feel better and to start identifying more and more layers of feelings.

Tracking down my emotions helped me connect with myself more. I made a habit of starting my day by writing in my journal. It was my morning ritual with my coffee, my music, and my feelings. At first, I needed to write everything down, but after about 6 months I was doing an emotional scan in the morning and just wrote down the big events that were happening in my emotional universe.

This was the piece that tied all my efforts together. I started feeling as an entire person and not fragments or compartments, as before.

Don’t get me wrong, I still functioned without feeling whole, or good about myself, or confident. Some might say that my best career years were those when I struggled the most, because I was so desperate to prove myself worthy that nothing else mattered.

But after having recovered from that, I am still amazed at how much energy I could waste on self-doubt, criticizing myself endlessly and continuously rebelling against the world or feeling like a miserable universal victim of my life. I pay more attention to myself and, even though I still work long hours, I never exhaust myself.

The final victory came with my darkest moments, surprisingly enough. I thought that I had finally made myself into a whole person, I felt whole, and I often felt optimistic about life in general and almost proud of myself.

 Before the pandemic hit Europe, I was preparing to expand my business, and everything was feeling great in my life. I found out I was pregnant the day we went into a lockdown and the world as I knew it ceased to exist. The next two years meant for me a series of miscarriages and finally a double hit that would knock me down. I was struggling with infertility, my business was shutting down and my relationship ended under the pressure of pain and loss.

I literally found myself at my lowest ever, with very little hope and hurt in ways I could have never imagined could exist. And in those moments, when I thought that life was really not worth living, I remember I was crying on the living room floor. My face was touching the floor, my tears were falling on my cheeks, and I could taste the floor, as I was babbling in a cry. And in that moment, I remembered all the pain I forced myself to endure in the years I had spent training. My body found some long-lost force and I could remember all the moments when I was too exhausted to breathe, but I kept pushing myself through yet another exercise.

I stopped crying. I remembered the economical crisis from 2009, when, in order to pay the rent for my fitness club, I was teaching 8 hours of group fitness daily. I had been poor before, I knew how to handle the economic uncertainty that I am facing now. I felt so discouraged because I knew I would never be a mother, but I somehow found a way to soothe myself through the pain, to learn to accept it. To cry whenever I think about it and I feel overwhelmed, to go back to finding another meaning in my childless life. That little voice that started asking me, years ago, if I would talk to my daughter the way I talked to myself was the same voice that was now soothing my pain, holding me while I navigate this loss. I knew I could make it, because life had already forged me through the biggest pain I could think of, and I was still breathing.

How to reconnect with yourself and maximize your weight loss journey.

Reconnecting with our bodies and improving self-esteem is often a long journey.

Millions of people are starting on yet another new diet just as you start reading this article. However, long term weight loss maintenance is a challenging journey for most and, unfortunately, most of them will fail to achieve desired results. Though one person’s knowledge of healthy nutrition and exercise basics is important, the truth is that the vast majority of those people are surprisingly well informed in those fields, and it does not necessarily improve their long-term results.

What studies have shown is that lower self-esteem levels are associated with a desire or need to lose weight. For mildly overweight women to those facing obesity alike, this association appears regardless of age and skin color. [1]

What is the connection between low self-esteem and feeling disconnected from your body?

Self-esteem refers to the way we feel about ourselves. It’s highly subjective and relies heavily on what we feel about ourselves, rather than what we know about ourselves. Essentially it tends to escape our rational filter and is deeply rooted in our emotional pattern. Low self-esteem appears when we feel we are inadequate, or less worthy than others. Our self-esteem is determined by many factors, including how well we view our own performance and appearance, and how satisfied we are with our relationships with other people [2]

Rather than being a fixed scale, our self-esteem varies in accordance with our perceived results, interactions with others and expectations regarding our world. It also varies greatly among different cultures and men generally tend to have higher levels of self-esteem. With women, self-esteem is more related to physical appearance.

Weight-related self-esteem offers an interesting view on women’s relationship with their bodies. While the process of actively losing weight improves self-esteem levels, reaching a desired weight rarely improves self-esteem levels. This might happen because many dieters have a very sound plan on how to restrict until reaching the desired target weight, but rarely prepare for the long-term maintenance of those results.

It is essential to get rid of the concept of diet and move to a self-care approach.

Long term maintenance of weight loss relies heavily on perpetual, yet flexible control over food choices and food portions, but on an emotional level, it is essential to shift from a weight loss or dieting concept to a self-care vision.

People who are constantly focusing on transforming their body short term often feel disconnected from their body, they tend to see themselves as an entity living in a body, rather than experiencing themselves as a whole human being. They can easily restrict calories or the foods they like completely for short intervals of time, but experience difficulty in moderately enjoying those same foods.

Experiencing their body through an array of restrictions, shape alterations or intervals of food abuse also means that the way they feel their body manifests as intense cravings, poor sleep routine, feeling let down by the body’s ability to pursue their goals and a general feeling of discontent.

People disconnect from their bodies for many reasons, starting with over-exposure to screens, overworking, ignoring the circadian rhythm and continuing with deeper emotional wounds, low self-esteem, and a negative self-perception.

As we gain weight, feelings of inadequacy, shame, disappointment pile up into our hearts and we often return to the idea that, yet another diet will make us feel better. It is just a trap, a fantasy that we can fix ourselves if we simply become a different version of ourselves.

Creating a healthy lifestyle and habits takes time, but you can start by understanding why diet culture is a modern damaging trend and how you can improve your way of life.

Reconnecting to our bodies requires daily practice.

The process itself has many faces. It can look like mindfulness practice, or signing up for a gym, learning nutrition basics or starting a bespoke nutrition program designed for our metabolic needs. It may also look like going to therapy, finding a support circle, or discovering a new hobby.

 Reconnecting to our body feels weird at first, because so much of our society tells us we should ignore our intuition and focus on doing what’s right. Signing up for health challenges, joining health-driven communities and exploring embodiment techniques, all deliver great results along the way.

 Learning to trust our bodies and to respect our bodies is truly the pivotal point in improving our self-image. Knowing and feeling that we take care of ourselves, that we can take care of our needs, that we put in the effort we need ourselves, that we don’t let ourselves down creates the foundation of positive self-esteem.

We feel good about ourselves because we are good with ourselves.

Sources:

  1. Cochrane, Gordon. “Role for a sense of self-worth in weight-loss treatments: helping patients develop self-efficacy.” Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien vol. 54(4): 543-547. PMID: 18411382
  2. Tafarodi, R. W., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (1995). Self-liking and self-competence as dimensions of global self-esteem: Initial validation of a measure. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(2), 322–342. doi.org/10.1207/s15327752jpa6502_8
  3. Elran-Barak, Roni. “Self-Esteem, Weight Status, and Trying to Lose Weight During Young Adulthood: The Roles of Sex and Ethnicity/Race.” Ethnicity & disease vol. 29,3 485-495. 18 Jul. 2019, doi:10.18865/ed.29.3.485
  4. Egger, Garry. “Helping patients lose weight–what works?.” Australian family physician vol. 37,1-2 (2008): 20-3. PMID: 18239747
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