Mastering Change – Part II: Common Threads Among Maintainers of Change
Change is what fascinates me – learning about people who take hold of problems and do something about them. Rather than focus on what’s broken, I prefer to focus on what’s fixed. But, as eluded to in Part I of this series, my greatest fascination is with how people maintain change over the long haul. So I’ve spent most of my career finding, surveying, and interviewing hundreds of people who either lost weight and kept it off or who have a history of long-term resolution of serious drinking problems. (Some did both – they lost weight and quit drinking, plus some also quit smoking.) I also interviewed countless experts and reviewed the scientific literature in each field.
The 208 weight maintainers lost, on average, 64 pounds and kept it off for 11 years. (To be eligible for participation, they had to have lost 20 pounds and maintained the loss for at least three years.) The 222 people who resolved drinking problems had done so for an average of 13 years. (The cut-off for participation was 5 or more years.) For each group, one of my major goals was to see what the individuals had in common – whether they overcame their problems on their own, went to a program, had help from an individual, went to a support group, or used some other strategy.
Identifying Traits of Positive Change
I wrote about the weight maintainers and the former problem drinkers in different books, the Thin for Life books and Sober for Good. But I decided it would be really interesting to step back and identify what both groups of people – the “masters of change” – had in common.
Following are my personal insights, just my own general impressions, when I look at what it took for this group of more than 400 people to “stay changed.” (Many of these findings are supported by those of the National Weight Control Registry [NWCR].)
- They never gave up. Despite what you hear about hopelessness for yo-yo dieters and people who have been heavy since childhood, about 45 percent of the individuals who took part in Thin for Life had been heavy since childhood and nearly a quarter since they were teens. Most had lost and regained many times before finally succeeding at keeping weight off. Similarly, most Sober for Good participants had tried to get sober many times before getting a handle on their drinking problems. One man lived on the streets for nearly a decade, went to jail four times, held 53 jobs in ten years, and almost killed his best friend in a drunk-driving accident. When I interviewed him, he had been an attorney with 16 years of sobriety. The messages here are that there’s hope, even for what appear to be the most hopeless cases, and that people should try again and again.
Also, it’s never too late. I interviewed people who didn’t quit drinking until they were in their sixties. And many of the weight maintainers were over 40 when they were finally successful. Most astounding, Holly L. tackled a 97-pound weight loss when she was 69.
- They took responsibility for their problems and what it takes to overcome them. Over and over, the weight maintainers told me that when they were finally successful, they had accepted that it was up to them and in their power – that there was no magic bullet. That doesn’t mean that many of them didn’t get help; about half did when they were finally successful. But ultimately, they had to want to change for themselves – not because someone else was on their back.
Similarly, in Sober for Good, when I asked participants if they felt quitting drinking was voluntary, nearly 9 out 10 responded with, “Yes.” Violet F. said, “ I stopped drinking for me and remain sober for me. This isn’t something one can do for someone else.”
- They did it their way – finding a way to overcome their problem that was right for them. So often, self-help groups and books work from the assumption that there’s just one way to overcome a problem – e.g., this worked for me, so it should work for you, too. Just because a weight loss approach or recovery program worked for a celebrity doesn’t mean that it’s the way.
When it comes to alcohol recovery, although 97 of my sober subjects found success with AA (which many folks think is the only way), 125 got sober in other ways such as Women for Sobriety, SMART Recovery, secular recovery groups, on their own, or with individual counseling.
The bottom line is that after years of failed attempts, most changers find their own way out, often piecing together things from their past attempts or combining several approaches.
- They made a long-term commitment – accepting the need to make permanent changes in their lifestyle. When I asked the weight maintainers how they think they’re different from those who lose and regain, their most common responses had to do with lifestyle change and realizing that they could not return to their old habits. Similarly in Sober for Good, over and over people told me the turning point was when they realized they had to give up alcohol for good – and committed to that pathway. Note that these were people with long-term sobriety, so this doesn’t mean that the “day at a time” philosophy” can’t be helpful in the beginning.
To be continued…
Quotes in this were adapted from Thin for Life Eating Thin for Life, 1997, and Sober For Good, 2001 by Anne M. Fletcher. Houghton Harcourt. All rights reserved.
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