As far back as I can remember, I wanted to lose weight. A chubby girl perpetually teased by my classmates, I was put on my first diet at age 9 and grew into the fat teenager who curled up with a tray of brownies on prom night. Eventually, I became an obese adult who spent all her time in one of two ways: burying her pain with covert visits to the nearest drive-thru or trying to solve it all with the latest diet.

Such was my life until the day I stepped on the scale and learned my weight had climbed to 345 pounds. My reaction was equal parts disgust and despair, and I handled the news by retreating to the couch with chips and dip to watch Oprah. On that fateful day, nearly a decade ago now, she was devoting a show to weight-loss success stories. I’d seen plenty of before-and-after prototypes on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the past, but something about the combination of stepping on the scale and watching that particular episode set the wheels of change in motion.

Step by step, I began piecing my life together: I wasn’t looking for speedy results that didn’t last. Instead, I developed lasting changes I could live with long-term. I began listening to my body instead of berating it. I also knew it was time to listen to others—specifically, fitness experts and nutritionists. With some professional guidance coupled with my instincts, I forged a path to wellness, and dropped 180 pounds… and have kept it off for nearly 10 years. I’m living proof that it’s possible!

There’s no one easy, magic answer to keeping weight off; it’s an overall lifestyle change. But here are some of the top strategies I used to make the positive changes permanent:

1. Put any experience as a “failed” dieter to use.

There is no such thing as failure, only learning. With this in mind, I knew it would be useful to take a look backward to assess the things that hindered permanent progress. At the top of the list: diets—especially restrictive ones. All they did was set me up for overeating in the long run. This time around, I knew it would have to be up to me, not a diet, to set guidelines with portion sizes and healthier food choices that I could live with long-term—and enjoy.

2. Learn the value of movement.

My motto around this one is, “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” I used to spend eight hours at a desk, then head home for an evening on the couch with a remote control and a bag of potato chips. Yes, it’s easier to take a seat than go for a walk or participate in a yoga class, but quite frankly, the price is too high: Not only does exercise burn fat and tone muscles, it’s a fantastic stress buster!

And weight aside, keeping active is the best way I know of to hold back the hands of time. I know many seniors who exercise regularly and possess a youthful glow because of it. Regular exercise is crucial for keeping the weight off and feeling energetic—and it’s great insurance for not needing a cane when you’re in your golden years!

3. Negotiate fairly with yourself.

I used to tell myself, Eat whatever, whenever, as long as it tastes good—and after decades of deprivation and yo-yo dieting, this line felt empowering. But at my heaviest, my lack of boundaries with food had landed me in a not-entirely-metaphorical prison: The list of things I couldn’t do because of my size was growing as large as I was, and my energy levels were nonexistent.

But since I knew that being too strict would end in disaster, I began a gentle negotiation process between the part of me who wanted free rein with food and the part of me who wanted her life back. So I chose one simple thing to work on in the beginning: eliminating my most damaging binge foods. Once I felt solid in the change, I began incorporating more whole foods into my day: fruits and vegetables; healthy carbs, like brown rice and quinoa; and clean protein such as eggs, fish, and nuts.

At the same time, it was crucial to have something to look forward to. When I really craved a cheeseburger, I had one—but minus the bun, fries, and sugary drink. The longer I ate this way, the more I enjoyed it. And I learned a major lesson: I didn’t need fat-laden, processed foods to make me happy!

Binge-eating may have temporarily sedated me, but it did nothing to resolve the issues I was running from.

4.Stay aware of your choices.

No one gets to be 100 pounds overweight without some serious emotional baggage. I was the quintessential emotional eater, stuffing my feelings rather than expressing them—or even admitting them to myself. Getting emotionally honest with yourself may seem like a scary prospect, but I promise, it gets easier with practice. And it’s an invaluable tool in keeping the weight off.

During the height of my eating days, I ate to distract myself from stress and other unpleasant emotions. Binge-eating may have temporarily sedated me, but it did nothing to resolve the issues I was running from. The more I faced issues rather than avoid them, the urge to be destructive with food decreased. This process meant becoming less of a people-pleaser and setting boundaries with others.

5. Treat yourself with kindness.

Being my own cheerleader and best friend has been the key to living a balanced, healthy life and maintaining my weight. The way I was treated during my formative years because of my size took a toll on my self-esteem—so much so that I had internalized the negative messages and began berating myself.

But blaming myself didn’t get me anywhere. One day, I just plain got tired of all the verbal spankings, so I turned the tide by inundating myself with messages of kindness and appreciation. I truly believe this laid the groundwork for being ready to make physical changes. It’s a practice I continue and recommend to my clients, most of whom have suffered emotional abuse because of their weight. In my years of experience of struggling since childhood, I can confidently say that where weight loss and maintenance are concerned, kindness is every bit as important as calories.

Stacey Morris is a journalist, cookbook author, public speaker, and health coach. For more essays on her transformation process, as well as healthy recipes, visit her website. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.