Fat to Fit to First Level: The Mental Side of Losing Weight, Part I

On self-observation.

Photo by Esther Roberts

When arctic blasts keep us from riding regularly, it can be challenging to stay motivated. Kaliwohi is munching hay to his heart’s content and dozing in the sunshine. Perhaps I should be riding him every day in all but the most severe weather.

But I have always given my horses an extended break between mid-December and the end of February, with perhaps an occasional trail ride. I like to give them a few weeks to just be, well, horses.

During this annual winter break, I often spend time with Kaliwohi and his stable mates, just interacting with them and enjoying their company. Sometimes I read while sitting in the corner of Kiwi’s stall, listening to him munching hay. Sometimes I observe them together and learn more about herd dynamics.

Kaliwohi is very expressive. His face is an “open book” so it is easy to see how his mind works: when he’s tense, or bored, or sleepy, or annoyed, or feeling playful.

But what about my own mind? Do I know my own thoughts well enough? Do I understand my own feelings and moods as well as I understand my horse?

Losing weight takes a lot of things, including planning and discipline, exercise and eating quality food that’s full of nutrition. Losing weight – especially significant amounts of weight – also takes a great deal of self-observation and analysis.

One skill I had to learn when I began this journey is the art of self-observation. This can feel a bit odd in the beginning, but, with practice, it does become easier.

When I’m feeling a fairly strong emotion of any type – positive, negative, whatever – I strive to pause and focus on the feeling. Step one is to identify the feeling with as much specificity as possible. “Happy” is not the same as “joyful” or “delighted.” “Upset” is not specific enough – am I feeling hurt? Angry? Outraged? Sad?

Step two is to allow myself the time, energy, and focus to actually experience the emotion, without any judgment. “I feel angry” is nonjudgmental. “I feel angry and I shouldn’t because that person was not trying to upset me but they did but they didn’t mean to and I should be a bigger person than to allow it to upset me but it does and I’m feeling angry and unvalidated and like they don’t respect me and like I don’t matter and that makes me angry but they’re a good person and I just need to get over it!” That, friends, is judgmental, and something we who are striving to lose weight often experience.

What should be a simple emotional experience – feeling anger – gets all tangled up in self-condemnation and guilt. And that tsunami of emotion can be overwhelming. And then comes the desperate need for relief.

So I try to literally dam up the emotional tidal wave so it doesn’t make me weep or otherwise express the emotion. How? I eat. I literally stuff food in my physical self to try and stop my emotional experience.

This makes about as much sense as trying to ride a horse in open-toed stilettoes. Yes, it can be done, but is it wise? Is it safe? Is it effective in achieving one’s desired outcome?

I fear my own emotions sometimes. As a “highly sensitive person,” an excess amount of either positive or negative emotions can overwhelm me.

Thank God for horses, because I’m learning to “train” myself to endure emotions the very same way I am training Kaliwohi to overcome his skittishness about new things. For both of us, our flight response (mine to food; his to the safety of his herdmates) is based upon self-preservation.

So, for Kiwi, when I expose him to something new, such as a tarp, I ask him to get in as close proximity to the “stressor” as he will tolerate without taking a step backwards. As he gets comfortable with that distance, I ask him to take a step closer. I speak out loud to him so my voice can help calm him. “It’s just a tarp, Kiwi, and I’d never ask you to get close to something that can truly harm you, so trust me and take another step closer…”

Step by step, we progress beyond his natural inclination towards fear. His trust in me grows while his fear of the obstacle subsides. These days, he will meander over a tarp without a second thought.

For me, I give myself some positive self-talk like I would talk to Kaliwohi. “It’s just anger, Esther. Let yourself feel it. You can handle this without eating. Don’t consider anything else like ‘I shouldn’t feel this way’ or ‘that person didn’t mean to upset me’ or anything else. Just focus on the feeling, and let it subside. You can analyze all the surrounding circumstances later. For now, just be brave, process the feeling and don’t be afraid.”

I would never be harsh with Kiwi, but, rather, I always give him the time he needs for his mind to process new stimuli and “connect the dots” in his brain.

Similarly, I’m learning to be kinder to myself. Bit by bit, I am learning to experience emotions and to observe the experience without adding the excess burden – the literal weight – of self-condemnation. It is a long, slow process, because my natural inclination to condemn myself for feeling anything negative is so deeply ingrained.

But, just like retraining a horse, with time and gentle, consistent effort, I am determined to succeed.

Join me on this journey on Facebook: Fat to Fit at Horse Nation (page and group), and my blog www.appalachianchic.com.


Go riding.

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