Earlier this week, I had a session with my dieter, Mark. Mark had had a hard week and was struggling to get himself to do the things he knew he needed to do in order to reach his goals. Mark said that he was plagued by [sabotaging] thoughts this week such as, “This is so much work, is it worth it?” and, “I just wish I could eat whatever I want, whenever I want it.”

One of the first things I did with Mark was bring out his Advantages List – the list of all the reasons why he wants to lose weight. Mark and I went through the list, item by item, and I asked him how important each one was on a scale of 0 to 10. Some of the things Mark rated as a “10” in importance were:

  • Reduce many health risks, especially for diabetes and heart disease
  • Set a good example for his children
  • Improve his chances exponentially of being able to watch his children grow up
  • Have a good quality of life

When faced with these things, Mark admitted that he wanted to keep trying and keep working because the advantages of doing so were indisputably worth it. This was a very important exercise to do with Mark in session because if he doesn’t retain a of sense of exactly why it’s worth it to him to continue working hard, why wouldn’t he give up?

Next we tackled Mark’s second sabotaging thought: I wish I could eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I asked Mark how he felt when he ate that way, which for him means overeating (especially unhealthy foods), constantly giving in to cravings, and doing things like eating a whole pizza instead of just one or two slices. After thinking about it, Mark replied that this makes him feel “terrible, guilty, and sick.” Mark and I discussed this further, and Mark came to the realization that what he was essentially trying to hold on to was a fantasy: he always thinks that he’ll be happy when he eats whatever he wants, whenever he wants, but in fact this makes him feel just the opposite. The “eating whatever I want = happiness” idea is truly a fantasy and not grounded in reality because, in reality, that feels bad and being in control of his eating feels good.

Mark was able grasp this idea intellectually, but it still wasn’t quite hitting home for him yet. In order to help him further assimilate this idea, we discussed other ways in which Mark has given up fantasies for realities – and has been happier for doing so. Mark said that when he was younger, one of his dreams was to become a basketball star and play in the NBA. Although Mark played basketball in high school, he eventually gave up that particular fantasy when he realized his skills would never enable him to play professionally. Now a high school math teacher, Mark says that his career is extremely rewarding and important to him and he gets fulfillment from it in a way he never did from basketball.

Mark also said that he used to have a fantasy of marrying his favorite actress – but let that fantasy go completely when he met the woman who is now his wife. Mark has a healthy, happy, and stable relationship with his wife (while his fantasy woman has gone on to numerous divorces) and he knows 100% that his fantasy would never have turned into a happy reality.

Through discussing all of this, Mark was able to see that in many other areas of his life he has been able to give up impracticable fantasies in favor of realities that make him very happy and fulfilled – and his fantasy about food is no different. Mark realized that once he gave up the fantasy of being able to eat in an uncontrolled way (which never left him feeling good anyway) he would be happier because he would get very real satisfaction from being in control of his eating, struggling much less, and achieving the enormously important goals on his Advantages List.