How (not) to Inspire Change



“This is a poison!”

Dr. Huizenga spat this out as an insult this week as he threw a handful sugar at Colby, one of the contestants on the biggest loser. I watched, knowing that reality TV has a way of making us relatively numb to this kind of unkindness and disrespect, as the show’s host and resident doctor used a number of scare tactics to frighten these troubled people into losing weight. Not long after he threw the sugar, he held up a card with a date on it to another man – March 20, 2020 – and told him that was the date he would die.

This is the way we’re told to treat people with big problems, and how we expect to be treated when we have a problem. Professional caregivers and loved ones are somehow trapped by their reverence of numbers (for instance, the statistic that 97% of people who lose 40 pounds or more will put it back on in five years or less) and are unable to see people’s problems at a more human level. There’s a misconception that there is no way this person will change if we don’t make them, so we show them the facts, use force, and introduce fear to get our points across.

Facts, force, and fear: As Alan Deutschman points out in his book, Change or Die, these are the usual guidelines people use in trying to change the behavior of others. The big problem is that the three F’s rarely work; “people aren’t motivated by the fact that they can live until they’re 86, not even if they’re 85,” he says. When you’re feeling depressed, hopeless, and powerless, getting through the day is much more important than getting through the year. And as for those scary facts, like your predicted death date if you don’t change your behavior? It’s just too scary. We would rather live in denial than have to think about the effects our behavior is having, no matter how dire the facts are.

And this can be a good thing! “If we constantly worried about everything that’s constantly threatening us – nuclear proliferation, terrorism, global warming, and the conflicts and crises described in most of the articles in the first section of The New York Times, then we’d have trouble calming down and summoning the focus, energy, and positive outlook to cook breakfast or drive to the office. Basic psychological heal demands a certain level of denial.”

In his book, Deutschman speaks with professionals to analyze what actually inspires change. A huge factor appears to be community. Finding a community, or even a single relationship, that expects the change you need to make will happen raises the chances of success. The community doesn’t just support your new lifestyle, they help you reframe your mindset by helping you live your new lifestyle. Relationships are crucial.

It also has to be the right relationship. Deutschman talks about when he became obese. He was working for GQ at the time, and the magazine paid for one of the world’s top trainers, who once held the title “Mr. America,” to help him lose weight in an elite NYC gym. Under his guidance, Deutschman gained weight. Some years later, he joined a small neighborhood gym in California and met a not-so-famous trainer who’d lived a life similar to his. They talked about music, and her “infectious enthusiasm” for exercise. He lost 40 pounds, and went on to become one of the 3% of people who kept if off for more than five years.

As a side note, I am doing this book no justice. Get it here and read it as soon as you can:

Here’s what we can take away: scare tactics don’t work, on us or on other people. When you need to make a change in your life, surround yourself with people who expect that change to happen. And if you know someone who needs to change, don’t belittle them with facts, no matter how important the facts are. Be there for them, and lovingly expect the change. Embrace their new relationships with people who expect it, too.

And – I can’t believe this has to be said – don’t throw sugar at anyone.


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