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Weight loss and the fear of failure: tips to try again

So much more than just a physical journey, weight loss has a deep psychological element. Fear of failing, such as ‘falling off the waggon’, not losing enough weight, or putting weight back on, is a common barrier to starting a health journey—especially if you’ve tried multiple times before. The first step is to acknowledge your fears. Then, you can make a plan that helps you navigate your fears and reach your health goals.
Annabel Nicholson
4/12/2022
17
min read
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Quick summary

  • Weight loss is as much psychological journey as it is physical, especially if you’ve lost weight before but put it back on
  • Fear of failure is completely normal—79% of people tell us its their biggest fear about starting a new health journey
  • In its most extreme form, fear of failure is known as atychiphobia, an irrational and persistent fear of failing
  • There are other barriers to starting a weight loss journey such as fear of change, fear of embarrassment, and fear of attention
  • Recognising your fears is the first step in overcoming them—once you’re aware of them, you can make a plan to manage them and reach your health goals
  • While ‘quick fixes’ can be tempting, take time with your journey and work on building sustainable habits that will help you maintain your health in the long-run

Weight loss is a complicated journey with highs, lows, and everything in between. While it can be easy to assume it's a purely physical journey, there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s a mental journey, too. If you’ve lost weight before and put it back on further down the line, you’re likely familiar with this cycle and the emotions that come with it. It’s disheartening and can make you feel fearful of trying again—for so many reasons.

Well, first up—you’re not alone. Fear of failure is completely normal. In fact, 79% of people tell us it’s their biggest fear… and when it’s linked to the emotions of weight loss, that fear can be all-encompassing. A lot of our patients arrive at Habitual having tried multiple other attempts to lose weight. Some arrive ready and raring to go, while others are held back by negative experiences from previous attempts. 

So, what does this mean for your health journey? Well as the saying goes, knowledge is power, which is why we want this article to act as a (re)starting point for your weight loss journey. The journey to better health can be long and complicated— understanding and normalising the fear of failure, as well as other fears around losing weight, is the first step to gradually overcome them. You’ll also find a few tips to help you navigate back to a weight loss journey and feel confident once you’re underway.

What is fear of failure?

Pretty much everyone has experienced the fear of failure at the start of or during a new endeavour. Fear and exhilaration tend to go hand in hand but for some people, the fear of failure is so overwhelming that it makes them stop dead in their tracks—or not start at all. 

In its most extreme form, fear of failure is known as atychiphobia, an irrational and persistent fear of failing, and ranges from the mild to extreme—severe atcyiphobia can make it almost impossible to carry on with your daily activities at home, work, or out and about.[1] Arising in response to a particular situation, atcyhiphobia can also be associated with anxiety, depression, and perfectionism. 

79% of people tell us that fear of failure is their biggest fear about starting a new health journey

Thought to develop as a result of a critical upbringing, your personal definition of failure, and trauma, atychiphobia may present with physical and emotional symptoms, including sweating, a rapid heartbeat, a feeling of intense panic, feeling powerless, and feeling like you’re not in control.[2] Everyone will experience their fears differently—it's entirely personal—but the resulting outcome remains the same: potential missed opportunities and the inability to set goals. This mental block can feel like a big one and is the reason why many of us revert back to our comfort zone after a slip-up. 

“It would be better to start without trying than try and fail”

If this sounds familiar, this could be your fear of failure talking. Self-handicap is an act of sabotage fuelled by a fear of failing in which the individual intentionally fails from the outset.[3] This avoidance of trying can be viewed as a way to protect yourself from difficult emotions such as disappointment, regret, and sadness. 

In a weight loss journey, where you’re changing the way you eat, moving more, and maybe generally trying to rebuild some of your habits, the anxiety of potential failure is very real. It's important to remember that while giving up can act as an escape route that gives relief at first, it can lead to more unhappiness—that is, until you reframe your thinking and separate mistakes from failures. Absolutely everyone makes mistakes or slips up, whether that’s eating something you’re trying to avoid, choosing to watch TV rather than go for a walk, or staying up late instead of going to bed. And that’s good! We’re all human after all and we deserve to give your bodies and minds the care they need. More important than ‘not slipping up’ is how you get back on track. It’s this act of recovery that will lead you to success because with every try, you’re learning something new about yourself, helping you create new behaviours for a lifetime of better health.

Other fear barriers to weight loss

It’s not just failure that can make starting (or returning to) a weight loss journey difficult. You might be nervous of changing your identity or losing motivation along the way (and the feelings of guilt that tend to follow). Perhaps food is a central social and emotional part of your life—losing this comfort and distraction can understandably feel daunting. Or maybe you’re fearful of feeling embarrassed? Exercising in public, joining a gym for the first time, turning down food offered to you by family and friends, inviting comments from people (even if complimentary!)—these are all common feelings brought on by trying new things.

Self-handicap is an act of sabotage fuelled by a fear of failing in which the individual intentionally fails

Science Direct

The aim of this section isn’t to add to your concerns–instead, we want you to realise that the fears and emotions you may have about weight loss are all completely normal. Each and every one of these fears can act as a mental roadblock preventing you from making healthy lifestyle changes. The first step to moving past them is to become aware of them. By acknowledging our fears, we can start making a plan to work through them rather than allowing them to bring us to a stop.

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Weight loss: tips for trying again

Changing our habits is challenging and it can be easy to feel discouraged. Well, we’re here to tell you that you absolutely can do it. Just because it didn’t work before, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again, so here’s some advice to help you get started. We’ve broken this section into two parts: the time before starting a new weight loss journey and the journey itself. These points are by no means exhaustive but we hope they serve as a useful starting point if you’re struggling to overcome your fear of failure.

Before starting a new weight loss journey

1. Identify your barriers

It’s all very well wanting to lose weight but before you get going, have a think about why you may have gained weight in the first place. The reasons why can range from illness and medication to genetics, income, and lifestyle. Granted, some are easier to overcome than others but understanding what you can change may bring clarity and control to your thoughts.

2. Reflect on your motivations

Similarly, think about your reasons for change—why do you want to lose weight? Is it for health concerns? Family? Confidence? Your motivations for change are personal to you and nothing is too small. Some people find it helpful to write these down so that on challenging days you have a written reminder of why you started the journey.  

3. Consider the outcomes 

Look fear in the eyes and think of the different outcomes of your journey. What does success look like? And importantly, what will happen if you ‘fail’? By acknowledging the ‘worst-case scenario’ you’re already taking control of your fear. Take it one step further and start planning for these possible outcomes—good and bad! How will you celebrate your successes? And how will you navigate the situations that you fear? Laying out a step-by-step action plan will help you feel fully in control of your journey, making even the ‘worst that can happen’ feel manageable. 

4. Accept that there isn’t a ‘best diet for weight loss’

If you’re starting a new way of eating with weight loss as your goal, try and find acceptance in the fact that there truly is no one ‘best diet’.[4,5] Each and every one of us is different, meaning we all respond to food in our own way. Starting a new approach to eating only to find you’re not seeing the results you were expecting is understandably disheartening but rather than think of it as a failure, consider it a lesson. You’ve just learned that following that particular eating style doesn’t suit you. Remember, the most effective ‘diet for weight loss’ isn’t the most popular one on the internet—its the one that suits your body, lifestyle, health goals, budget… you. 

5. Take your time

As much as we’d love it to, weight loss doesn’t happen overnight. Building healthier habits and maintaining a healthier weight all takes time. It is however, time well spent, and we’d encourage you to embrace it. While a ‘quick fix’ can be tempting, be prepared to commit a good 6 months to your journey—we know it sounds like a long time now, but when you’re living a healthier, happier life years down the line, you’ll be so grateful that you invested your time wisely. 

6. Redefine failure

How we define failure can have a huge effect on how we perceive our actions. A health journey, especially once that involves weight, is full of highs and lows, and having a day off, a treat at lunchtime, or an extended break is all part of the process. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it means you’ve listened to your body and found flexibility in your lifestyle. Enjoy the break without feeling guilty and then make a plan to help you get back on track afterwards.

During a weight loss journey

1. Start a food diary

Document your food intake, note down how food makes you feel, calculate calories—a food diary has a lot of uses. As well as helping you (honestly) visualise your daily eating habits, it can help you spot patterns in your food choices, see the areas that you struggle with, and highlight your successes. Journaling is a known tool used to help people achieve their goals and manage their mental health, and a food diary is just one example of how to add journaling to your weight loss journey.

2. Set small, achievable goals

If you’re dreaming of losing significant weight or reversing type 2 diabetes, that’s amazing news! But if you’re fearful of failure, focusing on this end goal can be too overwhelming. While it's great to keep the bigger picture in mind, consider breaking it down into smaller goals that you can achieve along the way. As well as boosting your confidence and keeping you motivated, you’ll have an amazing record of everything you’ve accomplished. Consider keeping your goals positive rather than negative or restrictive, and focus on taking one small step at a time—so, rather than aiming to ‘not have a packet of crisps with lunches this week’ you could set a goal to ‘have a piece of fruit with lunch every day this week’.

3. Track your habits 

Scientific evidence tells us that tracking is one of the best ways to cultivate new habits and support behaviour change.[6] By tracking your habits each day, you’ll be bringing your awareness back to your choices. As each day passes, you’ll take back intentional control of your habits to refocus your brainpower on new intentions that create healthy behaviours. Not to mention that with each day, week, and month, you’ll get to visually see your progress—whether that’s seeing your weight fall, sleep improve, or physical activity increase, there’s nothing quite like watching your hard work pay off.

4. Set yourself up for success

While there will be inevitable bumps in the road, there are things you can do to give yourself the best chance of success. If you know that come 4pm you can’t resist a snack, prepare healthy ones in advance to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Change your route to work to bypass the bakery you struggle to avoid, delete meal ordering apps from your phone, or go for a walk (or just change location) if a craving hits. Small changes can go a long way to helping you feel in control of the changes you’re trying to make.

5. Start with the right information

A lot of people wrongly estimate how many calories they burn during exercise and overeat to compensate, while many of us don’t know what a portion size really looks like.[7,8] Make sure you have the right information to hand—for example, if you have an activity tracker make a note of how many calories you’ve burned during your exercise, or weigh out your meals for a few days so that you know what a portion really looks like. 

6. Take steps to avoid cravings

Cravings happen to all of us and they can be one of the hardest things to navigate when you’re trying to lose weight. First of all, accept that sometimes you will ‘give in’ to them—that’s okay. We all deserve a treat so enjoy it and confidently return to your plan afterwards. For people with type 2 diabetes, cravings are often the result of a spike in blood sugar levels, so take steps to keep your blood sugar stable. This doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding all sugary foods—there’s evidence to suggest that simply changing the order in which we eat our meals can reduce glucose spikes, while 15 minutes of brisk walking has also been shown to be an effective method of reducing cravings.[9,10]

Weight loss can be an emotional journey—take your time and remember, you can control the situation. By committing the time to achieve your goal weight sustainably, you’ll set yourself up for long-term success, whether that’s reversing type 2 diabetes, keeping the weight off for good, stopping medication, or simply feeling better every day.

References

[1] What Is Atychiphobia and How Can You Manage Fear of Failure? Healthline. Retrieved 12 April 2022. Accessible here.

[2] Phobias. NHS. Retrieved 12 April 2022. Accessible here

[3] Self-Handicapping. Science Direct. Retrieved 12 April 2022. Accessible here.

[4] Atallah, R., Filion, K.B., Wakil, S.M., et al. (2014). Long-Term Effects of 4 Popular Diets on Weight Loss and Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes 7:815–827. Accessible here.

[5] Gardner, C.D., Kiazand, A., Alhassan S., et al. (2007). Related Risk Factors Among Overweight Premenopausal Women: The A TO Z Weight Loss Study: A Randomized Trial. JAMA 297(9):969-977. Accessible here

[6] Nilsen, P., Roback, K., Broström, A., Ellström, P-E. (2012). Creatures of habit: accounting for the role of habit in implementation research on clinical behaviour change. Implementation Sci 7(53). Accessible here.

[7] Lightman, S.W., Pisarska, K., Berman, E.R., et al. (1992). Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. N Engl J Med 327(27). Accessible here.

[8] Portion sizes: Food fact sheet. British Diatetic Association. Retrieved 12 April 2022. Accessible here

[9] Chang, C.R., Francois, M, E., Little, J.P. (2019). Restricting carbohydrates at breakfast is sufficient to reduce 24-hour exposure to postprandial hyperglycemia and improve glycemic variability. Am J Clin Nutr 109(5):1302-1309. Accessible here.

[10] Ledochowski, L., Ruedl, G., Taylor, A.H., Kopp, M. (2015). Acute Effects of Brisk Walking on Sugary Snack Cravings in Overweight People, Affect and Responses to a Manipulated Stress Situation and to a Sugary Snack Cue: A Crossover Study. PLoS One 10(3): e0119278. Accessible here.

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