Stockholm Syndrome and Weight Loss

According to a study, 42.5% of Americans over the age of 20 are considered obese. That is almost half of the population, over the age of 20. A staggering number that accounts for health and mental health issues. Of that number, many report feeling like they are being held captive by their thoughts, weight, and how others view them. This in turn only intensifies the feelings of being held captive by something beyond our control. Over time, we start to sympathize with those feelings. We make excuses for them, rationalize how they make us feel, and, in some way, even find comfort in them.

This creates a Stockholm Syndrome dynamic.

Stockholm Syndrome

If you aren’t familiar, Stockholm Syndrome is an emotional response that some victims of abuse and hostage situations develop. It is where they develop positive feelings toward their abuser or captor. This isn’t a quick change in the person, it takes days, weeks, months, or even years of being held captive or within close contact with the captor. These feelings can create feelings of sympathy and a desire to protect.  At the same time, it can create negative feelings towards those that want to help the one being held captive.

How does this tie to being overweight?

For those who are overweight, the consequences are lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and more serious disorders like depression and health issues. Obese people are looked down upon and portrayed as slow, overindulgent, and less attractive. When the whole world seems to show you that you are undesirable, it is easy to understand why anxiety, depression, and obsessions around eating can develop.

We grow accustomed to the abuse we see and feel on a daily basis. It becomes who we are and we get used to it, in some ways. We expect it and in some way creates a comfort level because it happens so much.

At least, this was the case for me.

My Stockholm Syndrome

I have mentioned in previous articles that I was excited about my weight loss and then it changed slowly to horror. This led me to miss how safe I felt being more overweight and created a whole new process of judging myself. To me, this reads very similar to having Stockholm Syndrome. It sounds odd to hear someone say that about being overweight but it feels like my mind was rationalizing it.

I have been overweight for a large portion of my life. From middle school, through college, and into my adult years. It was what I knew and I convinced myself that I could not do certain things because of the weight.

I was trapped in the mindset of being a large person. Every time I would try to think a positive thought, the overweight Keith would chime in that I wasn’t good enough or that I was too fat. Over time, I accepted those thoughts as my own, they felt normal to think. It was exactly like being held captive by an abuser.

Losing weight removed that “abuser” and I was left seeing something that was completely different than what I had known. I longed for that dark voice telling me I was fat and couldn’t be like everyone else. Even though it is my body that is more healthy and realizing that it was just a lack of self-worth kept me from trying to make changes. I wanted that voice back, it was, in its own weird way, comforting and familiar.  I felt safe believing I didn’t have worth due to my weight. 

In the same way that Stockholm syndrome can create distrust or fear in those trying to help if someone tried to show me or talk to me about how I could improve my health, I did not trust them. I had excuses for them. “Oh, you don’t understand. I need to eat this much just to have the energy to get through the day,” or “My knees won’t let me do that kind of exercise.”

This is part of what I am working on to change.

Struggles of acceptance

Initially, I embraced the freedom of startling to lose weight. I knew that I looked and felt better but this voice in my head started picking those things apart. “You don’t look healthy.” “You are losing too much too fast, this can’t be good.” “Look at that lose skin, people will be repulsed by it.” These were the thoughts that started to creep into my mind.

I only saw who I was and what was staring back at me was alien and strange. As the weight came off I felt exposed and weak. The armor that was my weight was being removed and it left an exposed and open wound, of sorts.

The weight had been this callous to the world. I knew I was being judged as a bigger person but after years of the torment of stinging words about how fat I looked or how big I was, it was something I knew and knew how to deal with. This was unexplored territory.

I only wanted the safety that being overweight provided my self-esteem.

I knew I was getting more healthy and I fought to keep going. Those dark voices challenging the thoughts of being stronger and healthier with their jabs of how people will react seeing the horror that is starting at me in the mirror. No matter how unhealthy of a situation I knew my weight was, it was comforting and safe because it was a shield I knew.

The guilt, embarrassment of losing weight, and not being able to trust when people were saying how much better I looked are all signs of Stockholm Syndrome.

How could I start to change this perception I had?

Healing is essential

As mentioned Stockholm Syndrome is an emotional response to trauma, not a psychological disorder. I started my healing by speaking to a therapist about these things. What I started to learn is that a lot of this started in my childhood with feelings of insecurity and low self-worth. Many of it came from my father constantly telling me to be a man and not have feelings. Hearing I wasn’t good enough or smart enough. Being called fat and lazy and the endless bullying for classmates.

These all laid the foundations for my current state.

I had to work to realize that the child me was still hurting from these things and needed to be addressed. We operate in a world where our adult selves may understand how to respond rationally to situations but the child in us still reacts based on emotional response. You get hurt, you cry. Someone makes fun of you, you lash out. I had to learn that these thoughts don’t serve me anymore. While they are valid, they aren’t productive. Understanding why the “child me” is hurt is essential before I can understand the rational side to start healing and moving forward.

The next important thing that my therapist pointed out was that I started this journey by talking to my primary care doctor, liver specialist, and nutritionist. I took the needed steps to ensure I started this journey and could move forward in a healthy manner. This was the plan I enacted and have been on. The weight loss I was seeing was all based on healthy ways of losing weight. The plan they put forward would allow me to consume needed calories, approximately 2100 per day, and the needed exercise to allow for a constant 2 – 2.5 pounds a week. This combined with changes to how and what I eat has created a healthy lifestyle.

I only needed to tell those dark voices that the way I was losing weight is healthy and acceptable.

This is me now

From these things, I could start to change my lifestyle. Lifestyle is the keyword here. When I started this journey, I thought about the changes to how I ate as a diet, and that created problems. After all, 95% of diets fail. They tout how you can change quickly and many enlist negative reinforcement to keep you going. Again, feeding into a Stockholm Syndrome pattern. For things to work, they need to make a change to how you interact with them – a lifestyle change.

I have had many talks with my boyfriend about how I currently feel in my weight loss journey and at one point he made a comparison that clicked with me. In the animated series Bob’s Burgers, the son Gene Belcher dons a Sasquatch mask and becomes Beef-squatch. He is sitting down at the breakfast table and they ask if he is going to take the mask off. His response is “this is me now.” His sister remarks that she had heard that before and the rest of the family agrees. They say, where have we heard that before. Enter the montage of every time Gene has changed his look and said those exact same words “this is me now.”

This kind of hit me and made me realize that it is about how we view ourselves that helps in making those needed lifestyle changes. By speaking those four little words, you bring into existence a new way of looking at things. You create the idea that this is who you are and any other image of who you were is cast aside. There is only the now and moving forward with it. 

Untying the knot

Healing is never quick. The kind of damage that comes from years of harassment and acceptance of a situation needs time to unwind. Daily I have to remind myself that I am moving forward in a positive manner and making healthy strides towards a better life. I have to learn to be more forgiving of the changes in my body and appearance. I try to spend less time scrutinizing the differences and more time accepting that the changes are for the better.

Each day becomes a little easier to accept when someone tells me that I look good from all the weight loss or how healthy I look. I remind myself this is not a dig on how I once looked but a congratulation for the hard work I am putting in to make myself a healthier image of who I am. It is a big and tight knot, but patience and focus will allow me to untie it, in time.

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