Self-Discipline versus Self-Care for Weight Loss

There was an interesting discussion in the forum this week about whether – even after you stop emotional eating – you need self-discipline to lose weight. Here is the argument in favor, from a Normal Eating Support Group member:

I think the issue of discipline is important in Stage 4. Health and fitness does not come naturally in most adults, and requires a lot of work and restriction. The real work is transforming restriction into self-love, and befriending the mechanisms of self-discipline can be useful. At least that’s how I see it, and how I observe many adults around me with no eating issues, who are very strict with their food intake and their exercise routines. Within a solid stage 4, those mental push-ups can bring enormous benefits.

This is diet-think, turning Normal Eating into the “eat when hungry” diet. It sounds reasonable only because this is the attitude of the culture at large – that if we follow our natural instincts, we will not do the right thing.

This is not my personal experience, nor the experience of many others I’ve worked with over the years. Intuitively eating to fuel our bodies – without particular stress or effort – is our natural state. Once emotional eating is resolved and we are reconnected with body wisdom, we don’t have to fight ourselves anymore – there is nothing to curb or discipline.

Normal Eating is about getting you to the point where you want to act in your own behalf, so it doesn’t take willpower. That’s what worked for me, and I’ve watched it work for many, many others. It’s the main premise of my book.

When I lost weight through Normal Eating, what allowed me to take the action was the desire and enthusiasm to act in my own behalf because I wanted to give myself a gift. My experience was one of self-love and choice, not self-discipline and willpower. I’ve never been able to do this by sheer willpower. In fact, I don’t have much willpower! To do something, I have to want to do it.

Another Normal Eating Support Group member posted a comment that I think holds the key to the difference:

the subtle difference between a choice for self-care and self-discipline is an amazing distinction that is starting to make a world of difference for me, and most importantly for me anyway, choosing is a mostly ‘in the moment’ decision of being present with myself and deciding what i think is best for me during my present, which doesn’t mean i didn’t learn anything in advance or don’t use past experience or future goals in mind, but that i don’t develop a plan and then expect to hold myself to it when the moment of ‘choosing’ arrives. that is what willpower is to me, and when i think self-discipline, i conceive of consequences for not adhering to a plan i developed in advance, regardless of what circumstances may arrive for that future event.

I think this is exactly right. When you’re acting out of willpower, you’re making a plan in advance and sticking to it regardless of what’s happening in the present moment. You are disregarding your present-moment experience. That is very different from what Normal Eating teaches.

When you’re acting out of self-care, you learn to be present in the moment, aware of your feelings and needs in real time. This allows you to cope with triggers in productive ways so you don’t need to self-soothe with food.

It’s the difference between saying to your kid, “Do it because I said so!” versus “Do it because xxx (real explanation).” When you’re approaching triggers in the present moment through willpower, you are saying to yourself, “Do it because you said you’d do it.” When you approach it though self-care, you’re saying to yourself, “What’s going on? What do you need?”

How you think about something matters enormously. When you think in terms of self-disclipline and willpower, you can fail. It’s diet-think. When you think in terms of freedom, self-love, and choice, it’s all good and it feels effortless.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them

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11 Responses to Self-Discipline versus Self-Care for Weight Loss

  1. avatar Lisa (Xanadu) says:

    For me, the OA diet represented the pre-planning and rigidity of “self-discipline.” I stopped eating because there was no more food left, not because I was satisfied (or had been satisfied 3 bites ago). If I was going through a hard time or having a bad day, I’d “use” my OA meals compulsively, licking the plate when I was done. I still was technically abstinent, but that’s about it.

    I am amazed at how attuned I’ve gotten to my body and my feelings, now that I am in charge! I can think of so many recent examples where good self-care has naturally stepped in, totally effortless. I know that if it feels like a power struggle inside me, I’d better take a look at the “rules” I’ve imposed on myself and how they mask a different need.

    I also know my body so well that I just “feel” at the right weight, and can tell if I’m undereating or overeating by my energy level and sense of physical grace.

  2. avatar Sundara says:

    Reading this, I just wanted to yell “YES, YES, YES!!!!”

    Sheryl (and the posters of those quotes) you really hit the nail on the head.

    This to me is perhaps the biggest reward of this program, and makes it all so worthwhile, despite the tough times.

    thanks as always, Sun

  3. avatar Fee says:

    Great subject, once again. What struck me most powerfully was my own reaction to the words ‘self discipline.’ I actually physically recoiled from the screen and felt fearful! Those words represent, to me: control issues, deprivation, not listening to or validating feelings, rigid inflexibility, lack of nurturing. In other words, all the ways I’ve felt when following and ‘failing’ with diets before.

    Thanks to NE, I’m finally listening to myself and working through the real reasons for my emotional eating – and it’s nothing to do with the dreaded ‘self-discipline’!

  4. avatar Laura says:

    I wonder when these ideas, which make so much sense to me in my head, really start kicking in physically. I am new to the non-dieting approach. I know I eat for emotional reasons. This all makes so much sense, but it hasn’t gone just from head to actually doing it hardly at all. I am not impatient for quick results, but I do wonder if it takes time to really start implementing as I hope it to?

  5. avatar emily says:

    just wanted to drop in some ideas that were explored more in the forum than here, but might add something to the conversation (hopefully it still makes sense out of context):

    “I studied martial arts for several years, and the view my school took on self-discipline was not that it’s something you “have” like willpower. Self-discipline was seen as something you do. It’s a very active, “choosing” type of behavior. For example, I have the self-discipline to keep practicing this kick or this form over and over again. Even if the first 50 or 100 or 500 times were a mockery, I have the self-discipline to keep doing it because I know I have the ability to learn it and to improve. Perhaps because of this experience, if we aren’t talking about diet/eating/exercise, self-discipline is something I see in a very positive light, as a way of choosing for and having faith in oneself. Maybe this is the sense in which ____ wanted to examine self-discipline. For example, even if I haven’t paused the last 10 times I ate, I have the self-discipline to keep trying to pause. In other words, I will keep “doing” normal eating even if I feel like my attempts haven’t worked and it might be easier to throw in the towel completely. Just my thoughts — I hope I haven’t confused anyone.”

    what an awesome response. very subtle look into how the concept of self-discipline CAN be a positive choice, when placed in a different context than simply establishing a choice and holding yourself to it with/without consequences.

    i guess for me the really subtle distinction (food wise) about self discipline is that in “diet talk” self-discipline, you set up a “plan” in regards to food and try to use willpower to stick with it, whether you really want to or not, in normal eating you might use self-discipline as a resource when you are in the moment of choosing…. as in, i’m looking around the cafe to decide what’s for lunch and i, emotionally, want some junk cuz i’m having an anxious day, but i pause and sift through my knowledge…how will i feel later, what is the emotional pay off (i LOVE what you said about this too, btw), etc…. and then i come up with a decision that is best for me in that moment, taking into account what i have learned in the past and how my current decision will affect my future. and it does feel loving and like choosing, but by the strict definition, this could totally be considered an act of “self-discipline”.

    i guess i just see that the overall characterization of NE is one of acting out of self-care and learning how to make loving choices for oneself as opposed to our old disordered eating habits (which often involved very strict ideas about self-discipline and willpower). it’s not that self-discipline plays no role, but mostly that it isn’t necessary to our vision of what happens in “choosing” in NE.

    it seems to me that language like “discipline” in regards to food for many ex-dieters would be totally loaded guns. if we can conceive of choosing health and self-care without it, wouldn’t that be a more healing path? the example of pausing as an act of self-discipline is great. i agree that it can be, because often times i struggle to pause when in a strong emotional moment, but in the end i think this could also be framed as a moment of early “choosing” for the normal eater. knowing that we are working towards a goal of being less compulsive with food, we choose an act of self-love and care to develop our skills with emotional eating.

    of course, every individual will find their own language to talk about their process. and i think the word discipline can have really positive meanings in many areas of life for different people.

    just me, personally, i hate the very idea of self-discipline because of all the negative experiences i’ve had with people using it in regards to exercise and eating disorders. i think it can easily be abused by people who have compulsive tendencies or want to use it as a way to talk down about themselves (or others). i find choosing to be a much more freeing and effortless task when i don’t have an idea of what a “self-disciplined” me, should or should not be doing.

    man, i don’t know if that made ANY sense. LOL. much rambling, but i think i feel in the end, that if we don’t NEED the concept of self-discipline in order to learn to choose loving and caring things for ourselves, why would we choose to use the language? but that is purely from my perspective that the word “discipline” is too easily a negative term. it is, after all, just a word that i have layered many emotional meanings on.

    “““
    and i just want to drop a comment about how much i love this comment (from the forum) as well:

    “From personal experience I can say this is so absolutely, hands-down true. I got to a point with NE where I knew exactly which foods made me feel sick but I chose to eat them anyway. It’s not because I didn’t have willpower or self-discipline, but because the emotional payoff of eating those foods was greater than feeling good. Once I was able to meet my emotional needs in other ways, it was like a switch flipped and now I rarely choose to have foods I know will make me feel sick. It’s not worth it anymore because I’m not getting that emotional payoff from food.”

    you articulated PERFECTLY my experience when my “choices” aren’t the greatest surrounding food.

    the other day i was feeling SO wound up before therapy and i had to eat before hand, i ordered something that i normally wouldn’t have and it sat really heavy. but darn it! there was no way i wasn’t going to have that! it was exactly as you said, the emotional pay off of the food was more important to me. when i could analyze the choice in this fashion it felt so much more healing than “i just couldn’t handle those emotions on my own at that time”. i chose the emotional payoff of the food, i deemed it more important than eating something more nutritious and trying to BE in my moment of emotional struggle.

    every choice is a learning opportunity these days!

    I’m amazed at how much i’m learning lately. i used to think stage 4 was all about having it figured out. now i know that life always changes and i’ll never have it all figured out, it is just a matter of learning to be with me as i am and choosing what works best for me.

    and just to address your observation, Laura: getting to the point where choosing felt good and not diety all the time did take time. all healing takes time and experience to develop this trust. i used to think i could never ever get to this place i’m just discovering, but i am getting there. this process and strategy to finding healing with food and weight really does work with time. 🙂

  6. I’m trying very hard to move discussion of this topic from the forum to the blog, with mixed success. 🙂

    Here is a comment posted in the forum that makes a great point:

    …if we aren’t talking about diet/eating/exercise, self-discipline is something I see in a very positive light, as a way of choosing for and having faith in oneself.? Maybe this is the sense in which animani wanted to examine self-discipline. For example, even if I haven’t paused the last 10 times I ate, I have the self-discipline to keep trying to pause. In other words, I will keep “doing” normal eating even if I feel like my attempts haven’t worked and it might be easier to throw in the towel completely.

    Excellent point. Self-discipline makes is very useful in some contexts – like applying it to the pause. But in other contexts, like deciding what to eat in the moment, it does not.

    Certainly I wasn’t trying to say that self-discipline has no place or is never a good thing!

    (I posted this simultaneously with the comment above, which also responded to the forum post I quoted.)

  7. avatar S0journer says:

    I really appreciate the turn this conversation has taken. When I posed my questions about “self-discipline” I was indeed asking in the sense Sheryl (and the poster) describes above. One truth about love is that sometimes the most loving thing one can do is not the most fun.

  8. avatar Octopus says:

    Thanks for moving my quote & I’m sorry for reopening the forum posts! 🙂 OK, I hope I do these HTML tags right…

    Emily, what you said:

    just me, personally, i hate the very idea of self-discipline because of all the negative experiences i’ve had with people using it in regards to exercise and eating disorders. i think it can easily be abused by people who have compulsive tendencies or want to use it as a way to talk down about themselves (or others). i find choosing to be a much more freeing and effortless task when i don’t have an idea of what a “self-disciplined” me, should or should not be doing.

    totally make sense. It’s true, I feel like I can hear so many people’s voices talk about how they weren’t self-disciplined enough or just need to show some self-discipline. I consider it a gross misunderstanding of the concept, but unfortunately, that’s the way most people see it when they talk about diet, exercise, etc.

    And this as well:

    but i think i feel in the end, that if we don’t NEED the concept of self-discipline in order to learn to choose loving and caring things for ourselves, why would we choose to use the language? but that is purely from my perspective that the word “discipline” is too easily a negative term. it is, after all, just a word that i have layered many emotional meanings on.

    I couldn’t agree more. I would just as soon leave the term self-discipline out of my work surrounding normal eating. It’s too triggering and weird and I think can lead toward a harsh voice rather than a nurturing voice. I think I’d prefer a term like “self-supportive” to describe the kind of persistence needed to keep trying something that I haven’t been successful with thus far.

  9. avatar emily says:

    oooo…. self-supportive! i like that! 🙂

  10. Laura wrote:

    I wonder when these ideas, which make so much sense to me in my head, really start kicking in physically. I am new to the non-dieting approach. I know I eat for emotional reasons. This all makes so much sense, but it hasn’t gone just from head to actually doing it hardly at all. I am not impatient for quick results, but I do wonder if it takes time to really start implementing as I hope it to?

    It does take time, but you will get there. Everybody starts where you are. You just need to have patience and take the stages one at a time. Don’t try to rush things because this is a big change you’re making. You didn’t develop the problem overnight, and it won’t be fixed overnight. But you can fix it!! If you haven’t read the book yet, that’s the place to start.

  11. avatar Katy says:

    To me self-discipline is the opposite of self-indulgence and it’s a positive thing. It’s about having an orderly, constuctive life, not about ignoring the present moment.

    It’s like having a meditatio practice. IT does take me at lest a lot of self-discipline to for example keep an eating chart or to pause.

    If I thought of discipline as rigid or iron-handed or as punsihment then I’d probably want to avoid the term too.

    But for me it connotes taking resonsiblity for following through on choices. I guess it’s a symantic issue. I’d hate to lose the valuable aspect of seeing it as self-discipline to not ignore body wisdom when your gut is speaking to you.

    Katy

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