The first 12 months after my surgery, my WLS honeymoon was magical. I felt like a child, discovering everything for the first time again and loving it! It was like getting a second chance at life. I was very fortunate because my obsessive thoughts about food completely lifted for a period of time. I was given this gift of ease around eating that I had never experienced before.
The Weight Loss Surgery Honeymoon
My cravings and head-hunger left, and my body began to move more easily as the weight began to melt away. My mobility and stamina steadily increased, and I began experiencing a level of joy, contentment, and excitement about life that far surpassed anything I could have ever hoped for.
I was on top of the world! I thought that WLS finally solved my life-long struggle with obesity once and for all. But then, out of nowhere, my obsessive thoughts began to sneak back in. Head-hunger returned, and the urge to see what I could get away with eating crept back into my experience. My WLS honeymoon had ended.
What I didn’t realize at the time, and what I now know to be true for anyone looking to sustain long-term success, is that WLS is a temporary solution to a chronic and often recurring problem. Here’s the big secret that no one tells you: WLS can help you get thin, but it will not keep you thin. You need to keep you thin because everything that got you fat before can get you fat again. Without a secondary intervention that targets and transforms the mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns that led to obesity in the first place, you are at significant risk to regain the weight or substitute another (equally dangerous) addiction in place of eating.
It doesn’t really matter what triggers the return of the obsessive chatter and constant negotiation in our heads about what we can and can’t eat (or buy, or drink, etc.). It could be stress at work or in our relationships, it could be financial pressures or the loss of a job or a loved one. It could be anything. What matters is what we do when the obsessive thoughts return.
Three Critical Skills For Success After the WLS Honeymoon
1. Listen to the Wisdom and Truth Your Body Offers
What’s the most fattening thing that someone struggling with obesity can do? Exist on a steady diet of distraction. Although our bodies are a constant source of information, most of us learned long ago to tune our bodies out. Why? Because distraction takes us out of a present (potentially painful) experience, and it allows us to focus elsewhere so we can feel safer and less vulnerable in the moment. The tradeoff is that by allowing ourselves to be distracted, we deny ourselves access to the vital information our body tried to give us in the first place. Information that could have helped us move healthfully and productively through the problem, instead of side-stepping it.
We most likely learned to distract ourselves or check out of our bodies, in order to cope with something traumatic. Maybe it was a family tragedy, or abuse of some kind, or medical or psychological pain (like feelings of depression or loneliness), or maybe we felt isolated like we didn’t belong anywhere. Whatever the reasons, and there are many good ones, we learned that we could manage physical and emotional pain by tuning in to something else, something less stimulating, and less scary. This was a valid and sometimes life-saving strategy when we were young. But as adults, this same strategy can kill us.
So it’s not the chocolate or the pizza that is our ultimate downfall. It’s maintaining habits and behaviors that support this lack of tuning in and listening to our bodies.
We can’t afford to be asleep at the wheel anymore. We need to be conscious of the choices we make from moment to moment. Our choices will either move us closer to sustaining the new found health and weight loss we worked so hard to achieve, or further away from it.
2. Learn to Identify and Express Your Feelings and Needs
Once you understand that your body is giving you valuable information, and acquire the tools to tune into that information, you need to develop the skills to identify and express your feelings in order to ferret out your needs. Your feelings are clues, or real-time indicators, of how close your choices and actions are in meeting your underlying needs. If you don’t learn to identify your feelings, flesh out your underlying needs, and develop healthy strategies to meet those needs, you may reflexively resort back to meeting your needs through addictive or compulsive behaviors.
For example, when a client of mine had a recurring lunch date with a particular friend, she often came away upset from overeating. She had no idea why she would stuff herself whenever she saw this particular friend. Through our work together, she learned that her need was for connection and companionship, but because her friend frequently received cell phone calls during lunch, or brought her young daughter with her to their lunch date, my client didn’t end up getting what she wanted: connection. So instead, she settled for what was familiar: comfort in the form of food.
Once she got clarity on the need she was trying to meet, she was able to tell her friend how much she missed their time alone together (creating more connection), and directly asked her friend how she would feel about not taking calls when they meet. She also asked what time might work better than lunch for them to get together alone. In other words, she found a way to get her need for connection met in a direct, respectful way for both parties. She no longer had to resort to indirect strategies that met secondary needs (like comfort) by continuing to show up for their weekly lunch and ordering something that made her feel better in the moment, but regretful later.
Whenever we feel regret, rather than fulfillment, we are usually doing something that doesn’t give us what we really wanted in the first place, which in the above example was the connection. Learning how to meet our needs directly is both critical and particularly challenging for those of us who’ve had WLS. We’ve often trained ourselves to stuff our primary needs and settle for secondary needs like comfort and protection. The solution is not to disown or hate ourselves for having needs; it is to access healthier ways or strategies to meet our needs directly.
3. Develop a Compassionate, Respectful Stance Toward Yourself
Most of us have been conditioned from birth to compare ourselves to others. We often bounce between criticizing and judging ourselves and blaming others. We are encouraged to think in terms of false dichotomies, such as right and wrong or winner and loser. This way of thinking about the world becomes our reality, the norm. And yet this norm often creates internal and external conflict, hinders communication, and tends to create misunderstanding and frustration in ourselves and others. It also makes the heart-felt connection more difficult, and true self- expression feels like a heroic act instead of a normal, healthy choice.
The biggest acts of bravery that you can perform are learning how to stop judging and comparing yourself to others and developing that part of yourself that acts in your own best interest. You can learn to advocate in a caring and loving way for yourself and others, and live in alignment with your core values and beliefs. This is not selfish and does not require you to ignore anyone’s needs. In fact, once you learn to do this properly, you will be amazed at how doing so makes you more grounded and actually brings you closer to the people in your life.
The Weigh to Optimal Success
WLS is a temporary window of opportunity to help you shed the physical weight. To sustain weight loss long-term, you need to take just as much action, with just as much personal conviction, to shed the emotional weight. If you wait for the return of cravings or food obsession to develop the health-based strategies you need to respond to yourself and others in a compassionate way, you may have waited too long.
You have so many choices now; don’t let regaining the weight or developing a substitute addiction be one of them! Be prepared, so you can keep the weight off after the honeymoon ends. Do what it takes to act in your own best interest and reestablish trust in your body. If you listen to what your body is saying, and learn how to be your body’s best advocate, you will become the person inside that can support your new and changing body for the duration!
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