Sometimes people lose weight, but because they didn’t fix their feedback loop, they regain the weight. Often, they find that it’s more difficult to lose weight the second time around.

There are a number of reasons for this. Many of them are related to the major factors that influence weight loss.

This post discusses two major reasons we regain the weight that are often overlooked. In summary, our expectations go up, and we often dwell on how we let go of our prior success. These negative emotions rarely help. This additional mental burden often makes it a lot harder the second (or third, fourth, etc.) time around.

To help explain why this happens, I’ll share a non-weight loss related example.

A Lesson From the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

I love the Olympics. As a Canadian, I especially loved watching the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, when Canada’s women’s soccer team won gold in a thrilling come from behind victory. This letter, however, isn’t about gold medals. It’s about the lessons we can learn from the experiences of the silver and bronze medalists. 

A picture of all the medalists and their moods.

Take a look at the photos above. Of course, the Swedish Women’s National Team is clearly disappointed after losing gold. Being a silver medal Olympic champion is an incredible accomplishment barely anyone in this world has achieved. Yet, they all look incredibly sad. 

Interestingly enough, however, the USA Women’s Soccer Team, highly regarded as the best women’s soccer team in the world, winners of multiple gold medals in the past, and highly expected to win gold again in Tokyo, look quite happy with the bronze medal.

I suspect every single one of these American players had their goal as gold. If you asked them if they’d be happy with bronze before the Olympics, every single one of them would have said no. Isn’t bronze supposed to be worse than silver? Isn’t not achieving your goals supposed to be a bad thing?

Of course, this is actually a very common experience in the Olympics. Jerry Seinfield had a skit about it years ago:

There are two concepts that explain why people who win bronze often feel better than those who win silver. The concepts are called counterfactual thinking and having different standards of comparison

The concepts don’t just exist in the world of sport. Counterfactual thinking and having different standards of comparison are major reasons for frustration during our weight loss journey. This frustration can also be a major reason why people give up on losing weight.

The good news, however, is that understanding these concepts can help us recognize when they pop up in our own health transformation journeys. Once we understand these concepts, we can then work to prevent them from hijacking our ability to succeed. 

Different Standards of Comparison

don't compare yourself to others - different standards of comparison

So why are the Swedish silver medalists sad, and the American bronze medalists happy? The Swedish National Team was comparing themselves to the gold medal winners, Canada. When comparing themselves to the winners, they felt like losers.

The Americans were comparing themselves to the Australians that they just beat, who left the Olympics in 4th place with no medal at all. That made them feel like the winners.

The interesting thing is that the Americans could have easily compared themselves to the American 2012 team, which won gold. If they dwelled on this, they may have lost the bronze medal game.

This is the concept of different standards of comparison: how you feel is more related to the standard you compare yourself against, rather than your actual capability or ability.

If we judge ourselves to our friend that is naturally thin or to someone else who finds it easier than us to lose weight, we can often feel discouraged. This is why I highly recommend that we recognize that we are all on different areas of the weight control spectrum. We should focus on improving ourselves rather than comparing our progress to others.

But what if who we were yesterday, or in the past, was someone that weighed less? That can make us feel extra disappointed in ourselves for being a higher weight now. This burden then gets added onto us. This is a key reason it can be harder for us to lose weight the second time around.

Counterfactual Thinking

picture of woman dwelling on a thought - counterfactual thinking

Counterfactual thinking is thinking about the “what-ifs” that could have happened instead. What if Caroline Seger, captain of the Swedish National Team put just a little bit less power into her kick? She would have scored the gold-winning goal and won instead of lost. Dwelling on these things can lead to obsession and can be dangerous. Regret can prevent us from moving on and living a good life.

If we have lost weight in the past, we risk having feelings like this. What if we just found a way to keep that weight off? What if we didn’t have that health issue that prevented us from exercising or that period in our lives that caused us stress, making us gain weight again? Feelings of guilt can creep up, which then prevent us from moving forward.

How To Fix It

So how do you prevent these negative emotions from hijacking your weight loss journey? Here are some tips:

Recognize that emotions exist for a reason.

So why do we feel sad when we don’t meet a certain standard? Why do we dwell on “what-ifs?”

The reason is that there’s a lesson to be learned. Emotions exist to help us process solutions. If we encounter the same situation again, we can overcome it and be better.

If we can learn that lesson, the negative emotions will fade away.

Learn the lesson.

If you lost weight and then regained it, you may have not fixed your feedback loop enough to maintain your new weight. The good news is that once you learn these lessons, your feedback loop will be stronger than ever.

Remember that the act of losing weight is independent of the act of learning how to lose weight for good. Weight loss is a skill.

Additionally, fixing your feedback loop can be like fixing your car. You can fix it, and the car works great again, but if you stop maintaining it, it can get damaged again over time, especially if exposed to harsh situations.

Harsh situations like stressful times in life, or external factors like addictive foods can redamage the loop.

So before continuing on your journey, reflect on the reason why you regained the weight. This can be a difficult question to answer. Because weight loss is so multi-faceted, one person’s reason can be completely different than the other, or completely the opposite of someone else. Maybe it’s your fault, but maybe it’s not, so it’s important to reflect both honestly, but with grace to yourself. Here are some ideas:

Environmental Reasons: I remember starting a new job that had constant free food in its kitchen: I gained 15 pounds. COVID-19 and working from home have made millions of people gain weight because their environment has changed. Have there been any environmental changes in your life that may have made it more difficult to lose weight? Even small micro-changes in the environment can shift the scales.

Mental Reasons: Has there been increased stress in your life (due to environmental reasons, or anything else)? Have you been investing less positive mental energy into weight loss, or more negative energy into weight loss? If so, how can you remove the source of stress, or mitigate its impacts if it cannot be removed?

Physiological Reasons: Usually metabolisms don’t change drastically over a short period of time, but hormones can change dramatically, which in turn impacts weight tests. If none of the reasons above make sense for you, it may be worth having a blood test and getting your thyroid checked.

Another reason that weight regain could happen was that the weight loss process you chose wasn’t sustainable in the first place. The bottom line is that if you can discover the reason for weight gain, that can often then lead to a solution.

I want to be clear that learning the lesson can be a difficult process and it may take a few tries to get it right.

Once you recognize the reason you regained the weight, the TRUE reason, ensure that knowledge supports you for the next stage of your journey.

Switch your standard of comparison.

Having a standard of comparison is important. Without standards, we would not strive to achieve what is best for us. The Olympics is often wonderful because we get to see humanity strive for greatness, and if there weren’t medals to be had, there would be no Olympics. Without a standard of comparison, our progress may simply be imaginary, or may not even exist at all.

The challenge is when we compare ourselves to a standard that is unreasonable for ourselves at our current time.

It’s super important in a weight loss journey to not compare yourself to others if doing so discourages you. Others may have an unfair advantage or naturally were on the right side of the weight management spectrum.

It’s even wrong sometimes to compare your current situation to your past self. Your past self existed in a different time, with different responsibilities, freedoms, temptations, metabolisms, and situations.

Switch your standard of comparison to one that is fair.

I find it useful to have the standard of comparison be one’s recent self. This comparison is a lot fairer than others. Still, because the scale lies, it’s important to be conscientious that even this comparison can be challenging. That’s why I created Luuze to help people get a more accurate, yet positive method for tracking their progress.

Give yourself grace.

Working with many people on their weight loss journeys, regaining weight often comes with feelings of disappointment and shame. We may not feel like we’re up to snuff.

Even Olympians can feel like this. Seger, the Captain of the Swedish National Team didn’t feel good enough. These Chinese Olympians, for example, feel like they failed their nation even though they’re some of the best table tennis players in the world.

Related to the tip of learning the lesson above, If you think the reason is that it’s because it’s impossible, or that it’s because you suck, that is wrong. You were able to lose it before and that was a big accomplishment. You were able to lose it before so it’s not impossible. It’s important to believe. Believing can be hard sometimes especially if multiple failures have occurred in the past, but it’s important.

I failed with losing weight multiple times too before I finally repaired my feedback loop, and even after repairing, I approached a point where I regained weight after my father passed away. Managing one’s health is a continuous journey with steps forward and steps back. Once you give yourself grace for those inevitable steps back, you can then focus on moving forward.

Look at the big picture and recognize your past accomplishments.

As disappointing as the loss to Canada was for Caroline Seger, she’s going to be alright. She completely changed women’s soccer in Sweden and her reputation will remain as one of the best in the sport.

We may not be Olympians, but we have our own past successes as well.

One of the reasons why I started to succeed with weight loss was I finally connected my success in other areas of my life and used the same techniques that I used there for my weight loss journey. Looking at my success in other areas of my life also helped me believe that I could succeed. You know what? I’m awesome! And you are too.

I found it very useful to zoom out on my weight loss chart as well throughout my journey, seeing that I was able to lose 10, 20, 50, 80 pounds in the past. I still zoom out on my chart now to remind myself what I accomplished.

Whether it be in weight loss or another aspect of your life, if you succeeded in it, reflect on it. Leverage your past successes to succeed with your next ones.

Address the Emotions If It Feels Harder To Lose Weight

Emotions are a huge part of the weight loss journey. Different standards of comparison and counterfactual thinking can often bring about negative emotions.

If we can recognize why these emotions exist, reflect on the lessons, make our standards reasonable, give ourselves grace, and remember our past accomplishments, we can then move on from these emotions. This will reduce the emotional burden on our shoulders that makes it harder to lose weight the second time, increasing our odds to succeed.

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