Having helped hundreds of people go through fitness and weight-loss transformations, I can say with absolute certainty that most people do not automatically arrive at a place of self-love and body confidence when they reach their goals. In fact, fairly often, the exact opposite is true. Many of my clients actually feel worse after reaching their goals—either right away or later down the line.
How are we getting this so wrong?
The biggest reason is that the $60 billion-per-year weight-loss industry floods you with advertising designed to manipulate you into thinking the only thing standing between you and your dream life is the shape of your body. It’s effective marketing, because it’s what people want to believe: Your problem isn’t hard to solve! Self-love is just on the other side of losing a few pounds.
After all, when you see a person who exudes confidence and and is physically fit, you might (incorrectly) assume which quality caused which outcome. “She’s happy and confident because she has that rockin’ bod! If I had her body, I would be happy and confident too!” But more often than not, we get it backward. Maybe joy and self-acceptance made it possible for her to achieve the body she has.
This isn’t to say that nobody feels confident when they change their body. It’s just that the way we think the transformation works is wrong. Figuring out how to take better care of your body and learning to set and reach goals can be an extremely empowering experience. But the confidence that arises throughout that process doesn’t come from the changes to your body. It comes from your ability to shift and improve your self-concept along the way. Without making those deep, internal adjustments, no amount of transforming your body will give you what you’re looking for.
Here are some of the most common reasons people feel insecure, even after reaching their fitness goals.
1. Your expectations were unrealistic.
There is something kind of wonderfully hopeful about believing that if you work hard enough, someday you will look “perfect.” Sure, you don’t look perfect now, but if you find the right workout, diet plan, or supplement, you'll finally look exactly the way you want to.
This already-unrealistic goal is usually compounded by another unfair expectation. Once you achieve that physical goal, you'll feel how you've always wanted to feel: whole, connected, happy, alive.
I once had a client who was convinced that when she finally got into shape, she would also become an extrovert. It’s pretty humbling to realize that even though you worked hard to succeed, you’re still just… you. Expecting that you’ll suddenly become a different person upon reaching your physical goals sets you up for disappointment and self-criticism.
2. Your self-talk didn’t change.
Plenty of people believe that when they achieve their physical goals, they’ll finally stop being negative and self-critical. They assume their body is the cause of their negative self-talk, so changing their body will automatically change that behavior. But negative self-talk is a well-practiced mental habit.
If you’ve spent a lifetime focusing on your flaws, comparing yourself to others, and criticizing yourself, then you’re going to be very skilled at doing so. You’ll also probably be unskilled at positive self-talk or self-acceptance. It takes time and conscious practice to break negative mental habits, and even more time and conscious practice to get better at positive ones. If you change your body without changing your mind, your brain will simply find new flaws to focus on, new people to compare yourself against, and new things to criticize.
3. Your new habits weren’t sustainable.
See if this sounds familiar: You get into "the best shape of your life" during a focused time period—a wedding, high-school reunion, spring-break beach vacation.
But whatever you do to achieve your body transformation, you must continue doing it forever to maintain it. If you work out six days per week, stop boozing, and eat Paleo for six months, you’ll probably need to continue working out six days per week, going booze free, and eating Paleo to maintain that shape. It’s a simple concept, but it's often overlooked. If those habits aren’t sustainable for life, then neither is your shape.
That being said, you’re not necessarily supposed to maintain that shape. People often think there will be an “end point” to their goal, and that when they arrive at their destination, they get to stay there forever. There is no end point though; it’s just one long journey.
Sometimes health and fitness will be your top priority, and sometimes it won’t. That’s OK.
Fluctuations happen. Life happens. We're constantly aging and changing, and we’re meant to ebb and flow accordingly. Sometimes health and fitness will be your top priority, and sometimes it won’t. That’s OK. You might gain a little weight when you’re focusing on your career and lose a little weight when you fall in love. You might have a six-pack on a day you wake up dehydrated, but then a round belly later that day after you hydrate and eat something. Fluctuations are normal, and comparing yourself to one exact vision is a recipe for endless self-criticism and insecurity.
4. You focused exclusively on looks.
People who focus on strength or performance gains—like deadlifting a certain weight or running a half-marathon—often experience a much bigger correlation between goal achievement and genuine self-confidence. This is because making yourself “look better” is loaded with heavy emotional baggage. For anyone who has spent years dealing with this insecurity, it’s difficult to focus on changing how your body looks without going down a slippery slope—like thinking your body must be a certain size in order to be loved, or attaching moral labels to certain foods.
On the other hand, when you focus on what your body can do, it’s much easier to celebrate successes! Track your increasing sprint speed or celebrate the fact that you can squat 80 pounds this week when you could only squat 65 last week. Over time, focusing on performance instead of looks tends to shift your self-talk from “I suck” to “Wow, I’m pretty impressive.”
5. You hyper-monitored your own life.
When you begin making changes, the effort is conscious—you’re paying close attention to each behavioral choice. This is normal, but eventually your new behaviors should become second nature, and the focused effort should relax.
When it comes to the body, however, people often become hyper-vigilant about staying on top of the behaviors that brought them success instead. Aware of how much effort it took to get this far, they become very afraid that if they don’t obsessively continue to pay attention to every little detail (think: daily weigh-ins, 45 minutes of cardio, counting calories), they will ruin everything.
In some ways, they might be right. Remember what we said about natural fluctuations? Your body might change a bit if you allow yourself to move from conscious effort to unconscious effort. But if you reject all fluctuations, you’ll end up living in constant fear. For example, if you desperately want visible abs, after losing some body fat and gaining muscle, you might experience more body anxiety than you used to every time you eat a meal and notice your belly puff up.
Focusing on how you look all the time—even in a positive way—strengthens the attachment between appearance and self-worth. Compliments like “Wow, you look so skinny!” are tricky, because while they're intended to be kind, they seem to subconsciously say, “You're so much better/more valuable now than you were before!”
It's easy to ride the high of positive feedback about how you look as you’re losing weight and getting into shape, but what happens when everyone gets used to your new body and the compliments slow down? Who else are you? What else do you have to offer people? What else is your confidence tied to? Your sense of self-worth must be tied to something that can’t be taken away—not to something that is naturally meant to change.