Professionals: How to help your clients change their self-image

Professionals: How to help your clients change their self-image

We’re still in a state of lockdown, though that is starting to change. The short-term future remains really uncertain, and we’re in a state of limbo. I’ve been thinking a lot about change, and adjustment recently and decided that I’d write something for you about one aspect of our clients’ efforts to change – how they see themselves now and how they see themselves becoming. It can be hard to think ahead, obviously, but when you are working hard to achieve change, it pays off.

Wanting to change

When you begin working with a new client who’s keen to change how they eat, they may spontaneously talk about how life will be different (and better) when they get to their goal weight. Or they may simply focus on how badly they don’t want to be how they are right now.

The focus of the work, quite rightly, is how to help the person achieve the change they desire. Whether through nutritional guidance or through focusing on behaviour change, your client looks to you for expert advice. Some clients are able to implement ideas and suggestions quite simply and effectively, but the people who really need us to go deeper with them are those for whom change is not that easy.

As I developed Appetite Retraining I looked carefully at the reasons people were telling me they had failed to lose weight previously. It hadn’t been for want of trying. Over and over again I heard stories of highly competent people, successful in other areas of their lives, who were bemused and embarrassed at their failure to change how or what they ate.

I collected all the reasons I was hearing for clients having been unable to make or sustain change, and started to think hard about what these reasons were about. I noticed that the reasons fell in to four categories which I called Saboteurs, one of which was to do with self-belief.

Self-belief

There are various ways in which self-belief, or lack of it, can get in the way of us achieving our goals, and I’ve written before about another aspect of self-belief in this blog “When it doesn’t feel safe to lose weight”. Interestingly, out of all the blogs I’ve written, that one had the most emotional reactions – readers wrote to me saying they were overwhelmed by how much the article resonated with them and how relieved they were to understand that this issue had a big part to play in why they had yo-yo’d with their weight before.

In this article I’m going to talk about the part self-image plays in being able to lose weight and keep it off.

What is self-image?

Self-image is the way a person perceives themselves physically, and in terms of abilities and limitations. In Appetite Retraining I distinguish it from other aspects of self-perception including self-efficacy and self-esteem, though they are all inter-related.

What your client needs to be able to lose weight and keep it off, in relation to self-image, goes beyond a belief in their ability to make the necessary changes to their eating/ exercise patterns. They need to feel comfortable with their new size and shape, and any changes that might follow.

  • Will people react to them differently?
  • Will they be OK with comments they may get?
  • And most importantly, will it feel OK to live in their new shape and size?

 

Needing to adjust to a new self-image

What I mean about your client adjusting to their new shape and size is being able to become comfortable with their new body shape/ size. It may take a bit of time. Think about when you’ve changed your hairstyle or bought a new outfit – what was it like to look in the mirror and how long did it take before you got used to it?

How you feel about how you look, and how others react to your new look may be a process rather than a one-off mental shift. And if you don’t like it, or if it doesn’t feel like you, then you’ll revert to your old style (or weight) before long.

Thinking ahead

As I say in my book, How to Retrain Your Appetite, it’s important for your client to start getting to know their future slimmer self before they arrive there, particularly if they are anxious about how losing weight and changing shape might affect their relationships with others.

Being able to get their head around what it’s going to be like to succeed might sound a bit of a strange idea, when it’s something they have dreamed of. But our brains like what is familiar, even if that is negative. So when you achieve something you didn’t think you could, it can feel weird or even wrong. And then your brain will work to square the circle, either by updating your view of yourself, or by reverting to your familiar (failed dieter) persona. Let’s look at how you can help your client ensure it’s the first of these.

What you can explain to your client is that by getting to know their future self they won’t be surprised when they become him or her. It will feel natural and familiar. And their brain will like that.

Practical ways to help your client adjust their self-image as they lose weight

  1. Encourage your client to look in the mirror regularly and just notice any changes they see. They don’t have to do any more than notice these changes in a non-judgemental way. This will mean they get used to their appearance changing.
  2. With every small success, ask your client, “What does the fact that you did that, tell you about yourself?” This is something I ask clients all the time as a way of helping them update their view of themselves, one step at a time. They might recognise the significance of this achievement – “I can be in control around food”, or they may be very cautious in what they say – “I managed to resist having seconds today”. This is fine. By noticing the small victories, your client will be able to move from seeing themselves as “someone who can’t” to “someone who can”, and that positive change may well spread to other areas of their self-perception.
  3. Perhaps think with your client about how they will look back on this period of changing how they eat. Addiction expert Professor Robert West does this in his “Smoke-Free Formula” approach to helping smokers quit. Creating a new non-smoking identity is one of the key features of Professor West’s approach. As he says,
“Everyone needs a story for their quit attempt. A narrative that helps you to make sense of what you’re going through. Now is a good time to think about what will be your story. In five years’ time, when someone asks you if you smoke and you reply, “I used to but I don’t any more”, how will you look back on your experience?”
In asking this question, the smoker is being invited to step into his/her future identity and to reflect on how they made the shift, using the bigger picture of a five-year time-frame. You can try asking your client quite early on in your work together this question – “Five years from now, when someone asks you if you’ve ever dieted, think about what will be your story? How will you look back on your experience of our working together and you succeeding in achieving your goals.” There is no right or wrong answer here. The point is just to get your client thinking about what life will be like to help them develop their changing self-image as they go.

 

  1. If you want to work more on developing your client’s ability to connect with their goals, here’s my recent blog article “How you can use visual imagery to help your clients lose weight”.

 

Do you want to learn more about eating behaviour change and saboteurs?
Self-image is just one aspect of the psychology of weight loss. I know that colleagues working in the field of helping people change how they eat, from all disciplines, are really keen to develop more understanding of the psychology of eating, appetite and weight loss. It has been a revelation to me how much psychological complexity there is in changing how we eat. This has become my professional passion!

If you’d like to join one of my training workshop for professionals on how to help your clients change unhelpful eating habits and overcome their saboteurs, check out my website to see upcoming events. 

The next 2-day workshop on “The Psychology of Weight Loss: How to help your clients change unhelpful eating habits” will be online on July 2nd and 3rd and will be available as a recording to all attendees after the workshop. Do join us on this workshop if you’d like to develop your practical skills in helping your clients change how they eat.

References

McCarthy, H (2019) How to Retrain Your Appetite. Collins and Brown.

West, R. (2013) The Smoke-Free Formula. Orion publishing

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