“The Loss Years” is a term I use to describe the years (or decades) lost to a preoccupation with one’s weight and the resulting loss to self-esteem. This speaks to whether you’ve been trying to lose weight during this time or whether you’ve been living in fear of regaining lost weight. Both syphon huge energy from your life that you can never get back. Look closer and I’ll bet you’ll find a lot of mindless repetition around diet and exercise, none of which hold much meaning for you. Without engaging your brain in learning and memory, you’re at risk of creating another “loss year” right now.
Learning is the acquisition of NEW information, by having something modelled or taught to you or by experiencing it directly. Memory is the process of RETAINING this information over time. Both of these brain functions form your foundation for change. Hint: anytime you find yourself stuck in a “why” question about your weight loss (e.g. Why am I so ambivalent? Why do I keep procrastinating? Why am I sabotaging my efforts?), that’s a clear indication there’s learning to do — about yourself NOT diet and exercise. In fact, until you can respond to these questions with empowering answers that inspire you to act, there’s learning to do.
Perhaps you’ve attended events that you hoped would provide these answers. You may have heard lots of new information and felt inspired while you were there… but it didn’t translate into action when you got home. That’s because your brain needs continued exposure to this new information and many opportunities to experience it, to reorganize itself for change. That’s why coaching relationships have proven to be so effective. When it comes to learning, regular touchpoints trump massive brain dumps every time.
Taking this further, you’ll find that creating a physical “coaching space” and daily rituals for yourself — where you replicate the original conditions of your learning — makes it easier for your brain to retrieve and practice newly acquired information. Furnish this space with “structures”, physical reminders that help your brain stay connected with your learning. Recruit another person and repeat what you learn to them within 1-2 hours of learning it yourself. Revisit your learning within 3-4 days and look for ways to create further experiences from it. These methods speak to the conscious connection, numerous repetitions and consistent timing that your brain needs to rewire itself.
And don’t forget the senses. Stimulating multiple senses enhances learning. For example, vision dominates our senses but smells and music can evoke our emotions. Emotions add meaning to information by creating visceral reactions in the body. Personalizing your experiences also adds meaning — that’s why simply adopting someone else’s weight loss approach will always fall flat until you find a way to adapt it to your own life. Why is meaning so essential? It encodes the information better in your brain, making it more memorable.
So what’s the point of retaining all this information anyway? In evolutionary terms, the main purpose of remembering our past experiences is to anticipate future ones. No doubt you’re familiar with short-term memory. It’s the limited, temporary and unstable form that has just failed you when you’ve walked into a room to get something… and then forgotten why you’re there. Contrast this with long-term memory, which is persistent, retrievable and stable. Through repetition, your brain gradually consolidates information, moving it from short-term to long-term memory. Just how many repetitions does this take? Hundreds upon hundreds. And how long does this process take? Quite literally, years.
What’s really fascinating is that during this period of consolidation, every time you recall a memory you actually relive it through your filters and language of today before it reconsolidates again. This means you’re constantly editing your past experiences, whether you realize it or not. All the more reason to pay attention to the stories you tell yourself. Narrative, especially strongly negative narrative, imprints more deeply into memory. The deeper the imprint, the greater the influence on you.
This is profound when you consider how you relate to your “loss years”. Each time you recall your past efforts with a sense of failure, your self-esteem takes a hit and you become more fearful about your future efforts. Judgement is paralyzing because judgement and learning cannot co-exist. The good news is, there’s no expiry date on learning. Whether something happened yesterday or years ago, once you start bringing your curiosity to these experiences, you’ll be able to see them for the gifts they are. The only failure in life is failure to learn. Thankfully, that door is always open to us.