It so happens that I’m participating in Weight Watchers these days. So far I have lost about 26 pounds, and intend to lose more. I attend the meetings with my wife every Saturday morning. When we first started attending, I thought I would be bored.
I have been anything but. What I have been fascinated by is the community of people who with such persistence address the matched problems of eating too much and eating the wrong stuff (and also not moving the body sufficiently to burn the calories being consumed). The people who come, about forty or so to the session, are pretty inspiring. Last week a woman reached her “goal weight” after five years (five years!) of effort to lose, count ’em, 105 pounds. Another woman last week talked about facing her past marriage and how it had kept her in a negative cycle of conflicts and reconciliations, with the reconciliation part always associated with being given food by her ex-husband. Talk about control. I’ve found the WW process to be only superficially one of counting points and attending sessions. In reality, it is one of patience and insight. As the leader of the group mentioned, “we didn’t come here because of the food alone.” We came here to address the inner and external factors that led to the poor eating habits as much as to change the habits themselves.
I find myself thinking this is one of the better personal development environments I’ve participated in, and how aligned it is, at least metaphorically, with the disciplines of personal leadership development, as well. People talk about “emotional eating,” meaning eating to avoid dealing with how they feel. They talk about “small wins.” They discuss the need for boundaries, with themselves and with others. They share their strategies for helping one another, build on one another’s stories and examples. Oh sure, there are some hokey elements: awarding “stars” and keychains and so on for different levels of accomplishment and there is always applause for the individuals who speak up. But there is also an underlying thing that is happening that is not hokey at all. It involves identifying with one another, respecting each other’s separate challenges and journeys, accepting inevitable set backs and failures, experiencing equality and humility, and being there to affirm each other in the more or less universal process of learning to lead ourselves.
The other metaphor that has surfaced for me is the notion of fat itself, which like the debilitating shadow of consumption that it is, can also represent every interpersonal bad habit, form of denial, coping mechanism, self-indulgence, and self-permitted escape route under the sun; self-sustenance taken so far it becomes a fantasy and a symbol for our wish to avoid ever confronting ourselves. But either now or later the confrontation does come — and in the harshest of places: in the mirror, on the scales, in our ill-fitting, awkward clothes, in our own faces. The whole process gets at a core leadership question: can we in fact change ourselves?
Well, as it turns out, following the WW model there’s a horde of evidence that says yes we certainly can. A community of like-minded people is certainly helpful, and so is a scorecard, and so is the notion that this is not a temporary hiatus from old ways but a permanent shift in lifestyle. Even more telling is the fact that this is not an overnight process, such as all the ones you might see advertised in supermarket magazines. The real process of “losing fat” and “keeping it off” — code here for gaining awareness, self knowledge and confidence — is a slow and gradual one, a “pound or two” a week, for many weeks, months, years.
In much of the work I’ve done with leaders to help them gather and process feedback, the path is identical. It is one of slow and methodical absorption of data, integration of perspectives, gaining support from others, reducing defensiveness in order to see how their own behaviors affect others; small changes over time. Some have an easier time than others. Some, for all the attention from outside, nevertheless remain addicted.
So what is it that separates those who embrace the shift and those who don’t? What is it that enables some people to persist and eventually to prevail? Is it a quality of inner will? Are they simply able to get past the sense of unfairness — that others “get to eat” what they want but I don’t?
Every week at the meeting people in a way try to answer that question, no matter what the specific topic might be. Here, I guess, would be my own answer: there is new love in the heart for the one who comes, for the creature who weighs in and keeps weighing in over time, even when the pound has been gained rather than lost; new love for the person for whom victory might be as sad and funny as simply being able to button one’s pants before bending over to tie one’s shoes rather than having to do those oh-so-simple tasks in the reverse order. That’s fat for you. It just gets in the way.
Love, acceptance, care for that creature, for ourselves. It seems to me that is what finally makes denial no longer necessary.