Fat loss is all about lifting weights, eating protein, and ensuring you’re in a deficit, right?
If you’re not dropping body fat, it’s because you’re not training hard enough.
If you’re not getting leaner, it’s because you don’t have enough willpower.
If you’re not getting the results you want, it’s because you’re not implementing the necessary physical actions.
It seems straightforward.
While, of course, these actions are, at times, essential, it’s important to appreciate it’s about so much more than that.
Fat loss has far more to do with your thoughts, reactions, mindset, and the psychological traits you possess than what you’re eating or doing in the gym.
It’s not so much about what you can do, but what you can’t see.
Unfortunately, these crucial mental qualities are often left behind in a flurry of whey protein shakes and James Smith shouting ‘calorie deficit’ at you in amongst a hubbub of swear words and Instagram reels.
You’re better than that.
Which is why you’re now going to start adopting – and practicing – these seven vital psychological traits required for fat loss success:
1. Psychological Flexibility
Psychological Flexibility refers to an individual’s ability to cope with, accept, and adjust to difficult situations .
It ostensibly means holding our own thoughts and emotions with greater care and acting on longer-term values and goals rather than short term impulses, thoughts, and feelings.
-> It’s about eating more than you’d planned but not setting about devouring everything in sight
-> It’s about encountering a sad and stressful situation but still acting in alignment with your health and fitness goals
-> It’s about being frustrated with a perceived lack of progress but still implementing the necessary actions to take you closer to the values and goals you have
“It is not distress itself that interferes with well-being and optimal functioning, but rather the countless ways of trying to escape distress” 
How can we improve our psychological flexibility, then?
First and foremost, it’s crucial you identify your values.
Not only do values ensure we focus on particular character strengths over specific dieting methods – for example, displaying self-compassion and self-acceptance over banishing carbohydrates from our lives – but they promote greater internal motivation as well.
Ascertaining your values before anything else will provide you with direction. These are not necessarily defined by what you want to achieve but reflect your deepest desires for how you want to behave as a human.
Secondly, start recognising that you are not your thoughts.
This concept, known as defusion, means gaining distance from the thought, feeling, or sensation you’re experiencing in that moment – and recognising it for what it is. This allows you to make decisions aligned with reality.
You’re not confined to that one emotion in that given moment because you know there are many other, concurrent thoughts and sensations around you.
By allowing your mind to identify any negative thoughts, you can reframe them in a positive way and choose alternative behaviours.
Third, think about practicing mindfulness.
This is a valuable tool that helps you become aware of the present moment.
How do you feel right now? What are you thinking? What is going on around you?
This skill helps us to make better choices with what we are dealing with, instead of using rigid responses based on past experiences or our fear of what ‘might’ happen in the future.
Mindfulness helps you recognise the ‘you’ beyond the ‘you’.
Self-compassion has been commonly defined as :
‘The practice of responding to challenges and personal threats by treating oneself with non-judgmental understanding and kindness, acknowledging distress, and realising that pain and struggle are part of the universal human experience.’
It’s the ability to relate to feelings of suffering and struggle with warmth and understanding, not succumbing to the uncompromising approach we’re accustomed to.
Unfortunately, we don’t always realise when we’re being harsh on ourselves. These criticisms can often surface in the form of basing our whole ability level on one tiny mistake, demanding we ‘should be doing this’ or ‘should be doing that’, or making global self-deprecating comments in light of a specific situation.
-> ‘I overate at dinner last night, so I’ll never be able to master my nutritional habits’
-> ‘I should be going to the gym four times a week, and if I don’t, I’ve failed’
-> ‘I shouldn’t be doing this badly with working towards my health and fitness goals; I’m useless’
Self-compassion removes these judgements and moves towards a place of acceptance that not everything will go according to plan.
You will overeat, you will experience tough emotions, you will miss the odd gym session, and you will fall short of the high standards you set yourselves.
This vulnerability and imperfection are essentially what makes us human.
It’s why those who report having greater levels of self-compassion experience greater overall happiness, higher levels of optimism, a greater sense of wisdom, increased curiosity, learning, and exploration, and more conscientiousness.
Instead of condemning poor decisions, uncomfortable emotions, and inevitable mistakes, it’s now time to recognise the limits of human behaviour and welcome these issues with kindness.
Researchers have described the trait of ‘grit’ as a form of resilience that embodies a passion and perseverance for long-term goals – along with a willingness to endure long-term discomfort, to get there .
In her book, Grit, Angela Duckworth explains how the secret to achievement isn’t talent, but is, instead, this unique blend, of “passion and persistence”.
She believes that grit is developed from a combination of four focuses or behaviours:
-> Discovering an interest in what you do
-> Nurturing a strong sense of purpose
-> Focusing on improvement, no matter what gets in the way
-> Holding onto the belief that you’re able to overcome the challenges you face
Cultivating grit will help shape your fat loss journey.
If you can establish an unfading passion for changing your eating and exercise habits, you’ll be able to persevere amid tribulations, or episodes of demotivation. It’s about embracing the process of growth that we know fosters results.
If you’re able to display unrelenting reserves of stamina over time – through wanting to improve your exercise and nutrition skills, along with your habits and desires – you’ll be more likely to stay the course.
It’s also been found that those who possess the trait of grit, not only train harder, but also exercise more frequently,than those who don’t .
Grit is a devotion to improvement, strength, beneficial behaviours, and an improved lifestyle, over a long period of time.
Enthusiasm is common, but endurance is rare.
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4. Growth Mindset
Your mindset explains the theories you use – often subconsciously – to define certain experiences. How you view these certain experiences forms a deep impression on how you lead your life.
Dr Carol Dweck, a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, explains that our mindset exists on a continuum, from ‘fixed’ to ‘growth’ .
Believing that your physical and mental qualities are pre-set – that your ability to perform specific tasks is set in stone – will limit your chances of successfully shedding weight, or building muscle.
This has been coined an entity or fixed mindset.
Believing your qualities can evolve – through effort, appropriate planning, and constant adaptation – however, will lead to greater achievement and mastery.
This is known as an incremental or growth mindset.
The way you view your efforts play a prominent role in defining success. It’s not about the perfect training programme, polished meal plan or flawless, high-protein snack list – but in appreciating the importance of managing the way you think about your skill set.
From your capacity to improve the execution of weight loss behaviours, to displaying resilience during unexpected challenges, placing confidence in your capability at improving will lead to long-lasting physical changes.
Individuals with a ‘fixed’ mindset seek to validate themselves; those with a ‘growth’ mindset focus on developing the inner self.
It’s no coincidence that those who adopt a growth mindset possess heightened expectations, partake in increased exercise frequency, display better coping strategies, and hold greater nutritional habits.
Society has taught us to value our worth solely on our accomplishments, namely with the way we look.
Unfortunately, this leaves us emotionally vulnerable to slip-ups and the desire to meet unrealistic standards, both physically and mentally – ultimately ending up with us feeling anxious and like a failure when we can’t meet those expectations.
We simply can’t separate judgments of our accomplishments – or looks – from judgements of ourselves.
Not only are we ever-changing works in progress, but we’re far too complex – possessing many identities and traits – to successfully view ourselves as single entities, never explicitly ‘good’ or ‘bad’, nor ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’.
Realising that we’re flawed individuals, who sometimes do well and sometimes don’t, allows us to evaluate our actions objectively – including mistakes and weaknesses – without condemning ourselves as humans.
-> We overeat because our environment and emotions sometimes get the better of us
-> We feel lazy because no individual is ever ‘always’ motivated
-> We fall short of our fat loss goals because chasing perfection is simply unattainable
Unconditional self-acceptance means that we ‘fully and unconditionally accepts ourselves whether or not we behave intelligently, correctly, or competently and whether or not other people approve, respect, or love us’ .
By acknowledging our potential for mistakes and weaknesses, we can still strive for high standards without the fear of shame or anxiety, because our entire self-worth isn’t damaged should we fall short of those standards.
By eliminating the rigid conditions by which we assess ourselves, we provide ourselves with the freedom to evolve and flourish.
Self-acceptance is not succumbing to the easy route or giving up, but, instead, allows us to work harder because we’re no longer fearful of – or trying to hide – our weaknesses.
-> Does one slip-up throughout the week take away from all the other success you’ve managed?
-> Is it feasible to conclude you’re a failure or a ‘bad’ person because you struggle at times, especially when everyone else does as well?
Accept yourself and strive to do better, because you can.
Conscientiousness can be described as the tendency to control impulses, act in socially acceptable ways, and engage in behaviours that facilitate long-term goals .
Those high in conscientiousness are able to encounter a slip-up but keep going.
They honour their word and follow through with what they say they’re going to do, regardless of what’s going on around them.
Someone who is conscientious may work on their food skills for a few days, experience a slight wobble with the biscuit tin, but still work on their food skills for the rest of the week.
The only game they’re playing is to keep their word for the next day.
Accepting their failures is done without emotion or fixating on negative feelings; merely the process of picking themselves up and persevering in the face of adversity, because that’s what they said they’d do.
Mental contrasting is one method to improve conscientiousness.
This requires you to imagine your goal, the path to the goal, and potential obstacles along the way.
By envisioning the path to the goal, this technique can help you choose more feasible short-term goals and targets, and make a greater commitment to these ambitions.
7. High Agency
The willingness to recognise the internal experiences and external moments that we can’t necessarily manipulate – and still be able to make good choices – is vital for long-term progress.
Those who display the trait of High Agency don’t surrender to the story handed to them.
They believe they’re able to bend their decisions to align with their goals, despite external circumstances and emotions blocking their path. They utilise proactive language, underlining that they can ‘…look at alternatives’ and ‘…choose an appropriate response’.
Those who lack the trait of High Agency concede to the story bestowed upon them.
They’re unwilling to make decisions that align with their goals because of external circumstances, and thoughts that they tolerate as the norm. They immerse themselves in reactive language, often reinforcing the ideas that ‘There’s nothing they can do’ and ‘It’s just the way they are’.
Those with High Agency are willing to undertake challenges and display perseverance when circumstances don’t fall their way.
They accept what is out of their grasp and engage, instead, in the actions that’ll propel them forwards.
-> They still perform a bodyweight circuit if they can’t get to the gym or they’re on holiday
-> They still make food choices aligned with their values and long-term goals if they’re ill, stressed, or struggling emotionally
-> They still practice skills and behaviours if they’re at social events or find themselves in an unexpected situation
Individuals with high agency make life happen, as opposed to life happening to them.
1. Kashdan, T.B., & Jonathan, R. (2010) Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 865-878.
3. Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-191.
4. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101.
5. Reed, J., Pitschet, B.L., & Cutton D.M. (2012). Grit, conscientiousness, and the transtheoretical model of change for exercise behavior. Journal of Health Psychology, 18(5), 612-619.
6. Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256–273.
7. Ellis, A. (1977). Psychotherapy and the value of a human being. In A. Ellis & R. Grieger (Eds.), Handbook of rational-emotive therapy (pp. 99–112). New York, NY: Springer.
8. John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big-Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L. A. Pervin & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (Vol. 2, pp. 102-138). New York: Guilford Press.
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