Have you ever found yourself preoccupied with what other people will think or say about your weight loss journey?
Weight loss is an experience in your body that will not affect anyone else. Yet I see my clients worrying all the time about what other people will think of them and their weight loss efforts.
Your concern over what other people will think is affecting your weight loss journey, but it doesn’t have to.
Why do we worry about what other people think?
This behavior is hardwired into us. We want to belong; we want to be accepted.
When we were living in caves, we needed other humans to survive. We relied on one another for help, safety and survival. If we didn’t fit in and were pushed out on our own, we were dead meat.
This helps explain why we often find ourselves comparing our bodies and our lives to others. It explains why we find ourselves replaying conversations in our heads to guess what the other person may have thought about what we said, or trying to interpret meaning from people’s body language.
We want to belong. We want to avoid being rejected. We fight for it as if our lives depended on it.
Our primitive toddler brain has magnified and overlaid this onto all aspects of our lives. Your survival does not depend on whether your friends at lunch noticed that you passed up the bread basket, or if your shirt perfectly camouflages your stomach. Yet, we worry about these things as if they are important concerns.
Who is it actually for?
Worrying about what other people think about how our bodies look comes from culture and socialization. We spend much of our time, energy, and often a good chunk of change on how our bodies look for other people’s benefit.
This really stood out to me during quarantine. When I wasn’t going anywhere and I wasn’t seeing anyone but my family, it was all sweats all the time. It was air-dried hair and clean, moisturized skin. I didn’t wear makeup or curl my hair and I definitely didn’t wear shoes.
I focused on how I felt instead of how I looked, and it really got me thinking. I took a minute to just check in and ask myself, “Am I only ever getting ready when someone else is going to see me?”
Who is it actually for?
It was great re-centering for me to remember why I do what I do and why I show up the way that I do. I like getting my version of “camera ready” a few days a week. I also like wearing clothes I’m comfortable in – not just clothes I look good in. I like playing around with different hairstyles and makeup techniques as a creative outlet, but I don’t have to do it to feel good about myself.
Now as I get ready, I’ve been focusing on what I want to wear for me, what I’m excited about and not just how it looks from the outside.
Here are some questions to ponder:
- How often do you think about your body from the inside instead of the outside?
- Why do you wear what you do?
- What do you think about in the morning when you’re getting yourself ready for the day?
- Are your thoughts focused on how you will be perceived in the world by others, or how you will feel as you walk around in the world?
The opinions of strangers
Let’s talk about the mechanics of what’s happening when we worry about what other people think of us, our bodies, or our weight.
Take the example of getting dressed – I used to wear big flowy shirts most of the time to camouflage my stomach. I thought if I wore a shirt that was fitted and people saw my stomach, they would think things like, “She’s so fat,” or “That’s gross,” and I would feel so embarrassed.
But look a little more closely at this. What people are we talking about?
Most of the time, my concern was about just whoever I happened to encounter in the world. Often our thoughts are centered around a nameless, faceless “they” that we have no connection to or relationship with.
Why are we so concerned with random strangers’ opinions?
Whose thoughts are really the problem?
We like to believe that we know what people are thinking about us, but the truth is we have no idea. It’s impossible to know what people are thinking.
Even if we did know what they are thinking, it isn’t their thoughts that make us feel embarrassed. What makes us feel embarrassed is how we interpret someone’s opinion or thoughts about us.
Neither people nor their thoughts can jump into our bodies and cause us to feel things. They don’t have any control over our minds or our emotions.
The embarrassment we think we would feel if someone saw our stomach and said out loud, “That’s gross,” would not come from those words. It would come from what our brain makes those words mean. We would hear that and think “I knew they were thinking that,” or “They’re right, it is gross.”
99% of the time, it isn’t what people say about us that has us hiding in our clothes, it’s what we think they are thinking.
Other people’s thoughts, or our guesses of their thoughts, are projections of our own thoughts.
We wouldn’t guess that it’s something they might think if we hadn’t entertained the idea already. If we think that someone is going to see our stomach and think “That’s gross,” it’s likely that we are looking in the mirror and thinking that very thing.
If someone were to come up to you on the street and tell you that your blue hair is ugly, but you don’t have blue hair, or you have blue hair and you love it, you would dismiss it immediately. There would be nowhere for it to land.
If someone were to come up to you and tell you your double chin is unattractive and it happens to be the very thing you are most insecure and self-conscious about, you would immediately feel hurt, shamed, embarrassed, or angry because your brain would already believe it to be true.
It lands because your brain already has a perfect receptor site for that sentiment.
What are you choosing to feel?
When we worry about what other people might think and how we will feel if they do, we create a little bit of that for ourselves in the present moment. It’s like we “pre-feel” it.
We change our clothes five times because we’re worried about feeling embarrassed about what people think of how we look AND we feel embarrassed in the process of having to change so we won’t be embarrassed.
We worry about feeling rejected by others based on our appearance, so we instead sit home alone AND feel rejected by ourselves.
Everything we are feeling is well within our control. The thoughts other people have in their heads about us are theirs based on their life experiences. We don’t have any control over what they think and perceive.
The thoughts we have in our heads about us are ours based on our life experiences. We can exercise control over what we think and perceive and that has direct power over how we feel.
Notice when you are imagining what other people are thinking about you and ask yourself:
- What does this tell me about what I’m believing about me?
- Do I want to keep believing this?
- How is this belief impacting how I show up and how I move in the world?
Social situations and food
My clients often worry about social situations where food will be involved. Typically, the concern is about what other people will think of their food choices.
If my clients are trying to limit flour or fried foods, or wanting to eat more veggies and less chips, they worry that other people will notice that they aren’t eating the things they used to eat.
When I inquire as to why this is a problem, the answer is usually, “They’ll notice and then they’ll say something.” Gasp! The horror, right?
What’s important to notice here is what our brains make the words mean.
Our friend says, “You’re not having any _______,” and we feel immediate shame and panic.
This is not because the words are particularly threatening and bothersome, but because of what we infer from the question or what we make the sentence mean about us.
We think that loaded into that question is a whole bunch of judgment about how many times we’ve cut out a food in the name of weight loss in the past, or how many times we’ve tried something new and quit. We think that by asking that question, they are pointing out how big of a failure we are and will surely be again.
It isn’t the question that makes us not want to go out and eat with our friends. It’s what we make the questions mean about us. It’s all our doubts and our fears about our past failures, and what it might mean about our future success.
If we cut out chips or passed on the bread because we found out we were allergic, we would feel fine answering the question. We might be excited that they noticed so we could share that since finding out we were allergic and cutting out the gluten we’ve been feeling so much more energy and peace. Why is it any different when you are trying to lose weight?
So, if this comes up for you, ask yourself: What are you making the question mean? How could you see this in a different way?
Here are some examples:
- Maybe you choose to welcome the question as a way to reaffirm what you are doing to take best care of yourself.
- Maybe you look at them noticing as a sign that they see you and they care about you and the details of your life.
- Maybe you decide that you get to take care of you the way you want to, no matter what anyone else thinks of it or says about it.
- Maybe you choose to focus on being present with your friends instead of on what anyone is eating or not eating or noticing or not noticing.
Another scenario that comes up often is obligation eating. For example, someone brings a dessert into work that they made to share, and they offer you a piece.
Let’s look a little closer at what’s happening here. If a coworker makes dessert and brings it in, this alone does not obligate you to eat it. Obligation is a feeling that comes from us believing we have to.
So, the question you want to ask is: Why do you believe you have to?
Some of the reasons I hear most are, “Well, they worked so hard. It’s rude to say no,” or “They’ll feel bad if I refuse.”
Now is when you need to take a deep breath and remember: We don’t have any control over what other people think in their brains or how they feel!
Your decision to eat, or not eat something, does not create a feeling for someone else in their body.
Here are some ways you could choose to see this differently:
- You could choose to take this opportunity to thank the coworker for their generosity with your words instead of your eating.
- You could decide to prioritize being kind to yourself by honoring your commitment to you, instead of prioritizing not being “rude” and eating something you don’t want to.
Past influences and present consequences
The past influence of other people also shows up in the way we perceive ourselves, our bodies, our relationships with food, and our ideals of beauty, worth and goodness.
We have parents, peers, siblings, or other authority figures from our past who made comments or shared opinions, and as children, we just believed those things to be true.
We take them from the past, through our lives, and into our present. The comments and what we made them mean about us are affecting us now. But they don’t have to!
We can choose to believe whatever we want as adults, no matter what we were told as children.
I think it can be very revealing and fascinating to look at some of those beliefs or borrowed truths and ask where they came from. How much of it was unspoken and how much was said out loud to you?
I have clients who assumed their parents had a certain opinion of them or of their weight and have lived their lives in the shadow of that opinion, without it ever actually being expressed. It has colored the way they see themselves, and subsequently how they show up in their lives. It was something that developed in their imagination, not something that was spoken aloud.
If this is true for you, how would it feel to let it go? How differently would you feel and who would you be without that adopted belief?
Honor others by honoring yourself
You don’t have any control over other people’s brains and how they perceive you. But it’s a two-way street. They also don’t have any control over your brain and how you perceive you.
If you notice you’re doing things or not doing things on your weight loss journey based on what other people might think here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How is it affecting you?
- How do you want to show up for you, regardless of what other people think, say, or feel?
- If you chose to believe that you are in control what would you do differently?
When we show up for us, as the highest version of ourselves, we treat other people even better because we aren’t trying to manipulate them into being, doing or feeling different so we can feel better about ourselves.
We can more fully allow people to be who they are as we honor who we are.
And if you want to learn more from me about how to lose weight for the last time, watch my free video about how to lose the first five pounds — and keep going.