From Self-Neglect to Self-Compassion: A Health Transformation Journey

A bestselling author shares her strategies for journeying to a happier, healthier place—and losing 60 kilograms along the way

I used to be the poster child for self-neglect.

I used to live my life as if I didn’t have a body: as if the basic rules of human biology simply didn’t apply to me.

Sleep? Who had time?

Exercise? I didn’t see the point.

Nutrition? My food groups were caffeine, alcohol, and simple carbs.

But, as my 50th birthday approached, I realized something had to change—and that something was myself.

I was dangerously overweight—“morbidly obese” to be precise—and I knew that carrying all that added weight put me at risk of developing any number of diseases and chronic health conditions.

I wanted to live a long and healthy life. I just wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get there. After all, I’d tried—and failed—so many times before.

Somehow I managed to find the courage to try one more time. I think it came down to this simple yet powerful realization: that I was the only one who had the power to change my own life.

I decided that I needed to use that power wisely—in a way that worked for, and not against, me. I knew that things had to be different this time around: that whatever changes I made to my life had to be sustainable over the long-term. After all, what would be the point of working really hard to lose weight, only to end up gaining that weight back again? I wasn’t willing to subject myself to that kind of emotional devastation yet again.

I recognized that I needed to get at the “why” of my overeating as opposed to simply dealing with the most obvious symptom (the fact that I was putting too much food in my mouth). This would require gaining insights into the underlying motivations driving the behaviour.

I started out by keeping a food diary so I could get an accurate handle on the type and amount of food I was eating. I began to notice how much better I felt when I gave my body foods that delivered lasting energy as opposed to merely settling for a fleeting energy spike. And I became much more mindful about when and why I was eating. Often, my reason for eating had little to do with actual hunger. It was more about swallowing uncomfortable feelings.

About four months into my weight loss journey, I decided to treat myself to a fitness tracker in order to encourage myself to boost my physical activity level, too.

That simple decision changed everything for me.

When I had first started trying to lose weight, I had been completely sedentary. Just walking around the block triggered massive cramping on the bottom of my feet. But as the weight began to come off, the pain disappeared and I discovered something amazing, something life-changing, actually. I discovered that I enjoyed being physically active.

And physical activity liked me, too (a rather astonishing revelation for someone who had grown up hating gym class). Going for short walks two or three times per day helped to reduce my anxiety level, resulting in a much calmer and much happier me. That, in turn, helped me to replace a long-term coping strategy (turning to food whenever I was feeling stressed) with a much healthier habit (reaching for my running shoes instead).

My life has been transformed as a result of being active on a daily basis. Even the voice in my head has changed. The voice that used to be harsh and self-critical is now kinder and much more compassionate. I have learned to treat myself at least as kindly as I would treat a friend who was struggling with a weight problem as opposed to trying to bully myself into losing weight.

It’s been nearly six years since I first embarked on this journey. It took me two years to lose the weight and I’ve been maintaining that weight loss for the past four years, give or take a kilogram or two. The strategies that I use to maintain my weight have become the foundation for a happier, healthier life. They’ve made it possible for me to stay on track through some rather noteworthy personal challenges, including the stresses associated with writing two books, a struggle with a balance and dizziness disorder, and a house fire!

I regularly pause to take stock of what’s possible for me now—and that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago—like the fact that I’m now capable of dashing up 12 flights of stairs while thinking to myself, “Hey, this is no big deal!” It feels amazing and I am incredibly grateful to have found my way to this happier, healthier place.

If you’re someone who is thinking about making this journey, here’s what I want you to know. If I can do it, you can do it, too. It may not be easy, but it is possible—and it’s incredibly worth it.

Wondering how to get started on this journey? Here are some strategies that have worked for me.

  • Start noticing what you’re eating. Notice which foods provide you with lasting energy and which simply leave you hungry for more. I found it helpful to keep a food diary as opposed to merely relying on my memory (which, as it turns out, is pretty fallible when it comes to remembering what I’ve eaten). Maybe you might find this strategy helpful, too.
  • Challenge yourself to move a little more. Start with a walk around the block (or whatever feels possible for you right now) and see if you can build on that over time.
  • Treat yourself with self-compassion. Be at least as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend who was struggling to improve their health. Think about what you would say to that friend if they were feeling frustrated or discouraged. Odds are you would say something kind and encouraging. It’s simply a matter of training your brain to say those same types of things to yourself as opposed to treating yourself like your worst enemy.
  • Find a buddy. You don’t have to make this journey on your own. In fact, it’s easier (and a whole lot more fun) if you don’t: find a way to journey with other people. Who knows? Maybe you know someone else who is trying to make some health changes. And, if you do, maybe you could be a support to one another. Or maybe you could tap into support online.
  • Think progress, not perfection. It’s not a question of whether you’ll have a bad day, but when—and, most importantly, what you’ll do when that happens. It’s okay to have a bad day or even a string of bad days. Everyone does. What matters is that you have a game plan for picking yourself up, learning from the experience, and helping yourself to get back on track. My game plan involves treating myself with kindness—reminding myself how far I’ve come on my journey to better health and how much I’ve learned along the way. Because here’s the thing: I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to keep trying.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous bestselling books about pregnancy and parenting. Her brand new book—Happy Parents, Happy Kids— has been recently published by HarperCollins Canada. Her website is anndouglas.ca.