Denial Ain’t a River in Egypt!

In her groundbreaking book “On Death and Dying”, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross outlined a process for Grief, after working with many terminally ill patients. Her argument was that there were five discreet stages, as follows:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

She argued that these didn’t necessarily appear in the order written above, and that a person could move between stages, jump stages, and also get stuck in certain stages.

I’m being overly simplistic here, but I mention these things because I believe that Grief plays a significant part in weight loss, and whether or not someone works through this process can determine whether or not they succeed or fail in their project. Proper grieving has to do with how we process our feelings, which requires that we be thinking rightly about what it is we are doing, what our limits are, and what honestly needs to be done in order to achieve the goals we want to achieve.

Before a person makes the decision to come to see me to help them with their weight loss, they need to come out of denial. Denial says “I don’t have a problem.” Denial was my ability to look at myself in the mirror at 85 lbs overweight and think that I looked just fine, that there wasn’t a problem. My picture, which I’m including with this post, said otherwise, and when I saw it I could “kind of” see the truth. But for some reason I still wasn’t ready to take action to change how things were. As the old expression goes “Denial (i.e. De Nile) ain’t a river in Egypt!”, and yet I kept acting as if it were.

There’s an acrostic I like that explains perfectly what denial is:


In Denial I am completely unaware of what’s really happening, the real truth. For some reason my mind is shutting out reality and is keeping me blind to the truth. “You don’t know what you don’t know” is an expression that comes to mind here: I’m genuinely not in touch with the truth.

I remember someone close to me who once shared that she used to believe that, if she were in denial, she’d be aware of it. She had believed that denial was when we knew we should be doing something different than we were, but just weren’t willing. The truth dawned on her one day: that denial is a complete “shutting out,” if you will, of the truth, the reality of the situation. This is why I need mentors in my life who are further down the road than I. Who are in touch with their own reality, and care enough to speak the truth to me about mine when I’m not willing to face what it is I need to be doing.

So what might you be in denial about today? Oftentimes in the game of weight loss it looks something like this:

1. “Ok so I know I have a few pounds to lose, I’ll just go back on “X” diet to lose them”; or
2. “I’ll just increase my exercise to lose the weight”; or
3. “I’ve always been a bigger girl/guy: I don’t really expect to be able to lose it all”; or
4. “It’s genetic: my family is all overweight”; or
5. “My metabolism is really slow: I can’t lose weight that easily”; or
6. “I don’t understand why I’m overweight: I eat healthy!”

There are a ton more of these that I’ve heard. These are just a few. Each of them has the same problem, however. They all are a form of denial, because in each, the person is not facing the real truth. In 1., the real truth is that “X” diet didn’t work, so why go back on it again? Slim people don’t have to go on diets over and over again. They just don’t gain weight. So if you want to lose your weight, pick a plan that’s designed to shed the weight forever. Anything else is just a waste, in my estimation: a waste of your time, energy, and possibly money if you’re paying for it.

The problem with 2. is simple: you can’t out-exercise bad eating. I have heard it again and again in my office, the same story. The person tells me they tried to chase the weight off with exercise, and they just got bigger. That was my story, FYI.

The problem with 3. is that it’s not true: 99% of people can get their body to look any way they want it to, if they’re willing to do what’s necessary. It’s just that simple.

The problem with 4. is that it’s much more likely your family is overweight due to poor eating habits that were learned, and are being passed on. That was the case with my mother and I.

The problem with 5. is that it’s usually not true, but when it is, it can be corrected with the right protocols.

Finally, 6. is one of the biggest ones I come across. It’s the most frequent, and to those who say this, I simply have this response: you’re probably not eating as healthily as you think you are, because if you were, you most likely wouldn’t be overweight. It’s really that simple.

To overcome denial, you need a coach. A coach who is willing to tell you the truth, and is knowledgeable enough to give you the plan and support you need to keep you moving through the stages of Grief. Only then is it most likely that you will continue to stay on track and lose your weight.

I personally believe that one of the biggest barriers to weight loss today is that we don’t focus on the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of it. We don’t do this because, unfortunately, most trainers haven’t had an issue with their weight, and therefore they simply don’t understand the complexities underlying weight loss. They don’t realize what a struggle it can be – in all these areas – for those of us who have treated food as our best friend, comfort, and yes, even lover. Unless these issues are addressed, there really is little hope for permanent weight loss.

So if you want to lose the weight, find a coach who can help you through these complex issues, who is also knowledgeable in the proper way to eat to get you there. This coach shouldn’t be afraid to confront your denial when it raises its head, either, and you should give him/her permission to do so. We need to be challenged sometimes in order to stay on track. But most importantly, unless you’re taught how to grieve the loss of an old way of life – being able to eat what you want, when you want – you’ll become stuck, and will return to the food, and the weight gain cycle will continue.

Next week we’ll look at the “Anger” stage of grief, and how it relates to a successful weight loss program. Until then, I encourage you to ask yourself “What might I be in denial about?” Ask this not just around issues concerning weight loss, but around your life in general. You may be surprised what you uncover.