Welcome to Dear Melissa, where we answer your questions about transitioning into or or maintaining a healthy Whole9 life, helping you figure out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, we’re talking to a woman who wonders why she self-sabotaged after having so much success with the Whole30 program.

Dear Melissa, 

I have completed two Whole60’s and it was so great! I lost weight, didn’t have those sugar cravings where I thought I would die if I didn’t have something sweet, and received a lot of compliments about how good I looked.  It seemed the more people that complimented me the more I pulled away from my goals. I began to “give” myself permission to eat sugar because I had come so far and then eventually I was back to square one. Looking back I really think psychologically I wasn’t (am not) used to the attention and having people comment on my weight. I think I was feeling self-conscious about the whole thing. 

Now that I have gained that weight back I see those people and know they are probably wondering why I gained it back.  What is the best way to stay on track, just accept a compliment and keep on moving forward without feeling self-conscious (even about my accomplishments)? –F.L., no city/state


First, a disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist. For issues like this, I highly recommend talking to a counselor, or someone more qualified than me. It would probably be helpful to dive beneath the surface and see what historical events or thought processes may be behind your self-sabotage.

That having been said, I think there are a few things at play here. The first thing I’ll say is that often, when we fear a situation will come to pass, we have the tendency to create that situation ourselves. We do this for two reasons: first, to give ourselves a sense of control—if we create the thing we fear the most, we get to choose when and how it happens, and frees us from the sense of forboding (waiting for the situation to occur). Second, we create that situation so we get to be right—”See, I told you XYZ would happen. I just knew it!” Don’t underestimate the importance of feeling right—our brains crave that, and we will take drastic measures to ensure it happens. But what situation could you possibly fear will come to pass if you lose weight?

Fear of being rejected by friends and family. Fear that somehow you’ll change, and not be the same person. Fear that you don’t deserve to lose weight and be happy. And most commonly, fear of regaining that weight.

Losing weight, even though it’s generally viewed as a good thing, comes with its own set of problems. The fact is, many dieters have a fear of success. Yeah, I said success—and most of these probably stem from a fear of eventually putting weight back on. Chances are you’ve tried to lose weight before, and failed to keep it off. Maybe you told people about your new diet, only to feel embarrassed when the plan you’ve been raving about didn’t work for you long-term. You said above that you fear people are looking at you now, wondering why you put weight back on.

Maybe those fears were there all along. Maybe, as soon as you started losing weight, you became afraid that this time would be like those other times. And maybe, all the compliments you started receiving only fed the flames of those fears.

It’s hard for most of us (especially women) to take a compliment. We avoid accepting compliments for a few reasons; we’re worried that accepting praise will make us look arrogant, or (most commonly) we feel undeserving of the compliment. In addition, it can feel unsafe and vulnerable to truly accept a compliment and take it to heart—and it may make us wonder what the person thought of us before. (Feeling unsure of ourselves, we may translate, “Wow—you’ve lost weight, you look amazing!” as, “You were pretty fat before,” even if that was not at all the intention.) These compliments, combined with your fear of success, may have made you so uncomfortable that you unconsciously decided to self-sabotage in an effort to take some of the pressure off.

Finally, to add insult to injury, there a psychological concept called the “extinction burst” at play here. Any time you are trying to create a new habit, this little phenomenon will come in and kick you in the butt just as you’re about to turn a corner. You’ve been there before–you’re doing awesome on your Whole30, but as soon as you start to think, “This is easy,” your next thought is, “I can afford to relax a little.” And before you know it, your brain is back in that comfortable spot, getting the rewards it’s been craving… and you have no idea how you went from doing so well to slipping so far back into old habits.

These factors combine into a perfect storm of self-doubt, fear, and ultimately, self-sabotage. If you lose weight, people will notice, and that creates pressure to keep the weight off. If you lose weight, people may ask you for diet advice, and you’ll probably feel like a fraud, because you’re afraid your new habits aren’t going to “stick.” If you lose weight, does that mean you can never, ever indulge in your favorite foods ever again, for fear of putting weight back on? In the confluence of all of these pressures, you create the very situation you fear the most. You eat the sugar, you regain the weight, and you avoid these negative consequences of succeeding. Sigh.

The good news is that once you’ve identified what’s going on (through counseling, or some serious introspection), you can create a plan to move forward in a way that’s healthy for you, and eliminates your fear of success. First, you know what works for you long-term, for your health and for weight loss. Get back on the Whole30, ditch those sugar cravings once again, and get yourself back on the path to feeling good about your healthy lifestyle. (That part is easy!)

Next, address your fear of success. Ask yourself, “What will happen if I succeed?” Answer this question in detail, and think about how you will handle those situations. If you are getting more attention and more compliments, think about how you can accept them gracefully, without feeling pressure to be anything more than you are in that moment. Practice just saying, “Thank you.” That’s it—no more, no less. Just that. (I’ll expand on this in a future article—it deserves more attention than I can give it here!)

If others ask you for diet advice, think about how you will respond. “All I can tell you is what I’ve found works best for me.” Then give them our website, It Starts With Food, or the details on the Whole30. You aren’t responsible for their success or failure, and you can (and should!) be honest about your own struggles—that only makes you more real in their eyes, and a more credible source of support and inspiration. Being your authentic self will help you feel more confident in sharing your experience with those who ask for help.

If you’re afraid of putting weight back on, know two things. One, the Whole30 and the Whole9 life you’ve been living are not like any other diet you’ve ever tried. This thing is different, and you already know this. You’ve beaten your sugar cravings, created new, healthy habits, and learned to focus on feeling good and being healthy instead of the number on the scale. You’ve succeeded here in a way you never have before, with any other diet plan—and the lessons you’ve learned are still with you, able to be implemented successfully at a moment’s notice. The important thing to believe is that you haven’t failed. You can’t un-learn the new habits you created during your Whole30, and you can go right back to implementing them again… as soon as you feel you are ready, and deserving. (I hope that is today!)

Two, realize that your journey will have ups and downs, good days and bad days, and yes—you may see weight gains and weight losses. But as long as you continue to implement the new, healthy habits you’ve learned during your Whole30 programs, you’ll always be able to move towards better health long-term, even if there are some bumps in the road.

Finally, remember that your weight has nothing to do with your self-worth. You are a good person, a caring person, a good listener, a trusted confidant whether you gain or lose a pound… and those who care for you know this best of all.

Best in health,

With thanks to David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, StevePavlina.com and Christine Eilvig.

Is this good advice? Do you want to add your two cents? We welcome your input! Share your best advice for F.L. in comments.

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Remember, we aren’t answering technical questions via this column, nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.