Motivational Strategies for Weight Loss; Self-Determination Theory (STD) & Psychological Basic Needs

Find this episode on Bridges2Barbells Radio Podcast, Episode #62

Today, we’re going to stick with the topic of motivation for weight loss like we did last week and some motivational strategies we can put to use. Last week I gave you some motivational strategies of making healthier habits more of a lifestyle… just a part of who you are.

Today, we’re going to dig into a well-known theory that has been applied to many different areas including weight loss, but also education and career environments and what goes into self-determination and internal motivations. We’re also going to talk about the opposite and what keeps people from being determined and motivated to reach their goals. So, we’re digging into some psychology research. Ya’ll know I love psychology, I love to see how the brain responds to so many different things like the surrounding environment, childhood events, and all those things. It’s fascinating to me. And this is the area that a lot of people don’t want to really work on because it’s even harder than the physical or physiological side of things.

Sometimes it’s just hard to get your mind to cooperate, right? So, I want to talk about why some people seem to be just naturally more self-determined and why others struggle with it.

Now, I got my research from two different articles, and I’ll link those at the bottom for you if you’re interested in reading the studies on your own, so check that out if you’d like.

So again, we’re going to talk about motivational strategies and a theory of human motivation called the self-determination theory that basically seeks to understand the link between motivation and well-being.

Self-determination theory has 3 assumptions:

1. Humans are inherently proactive, we naturally want to thrive and strive after goals and have the potential to master those internal drives and motivations as well as outside environmental forces, rather than being passively controlled by them. It’s basically the essence of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.

2. Through decisions and behaviors, humans slowly increase levels of their psychological state toward growth.

3. While humans have this natural tendency to do and accomplish these desired things, the surrounding environment has the potential to either support or hinder their growth.

So again, humans are naturally driven or motivated and have the capacity to act upon and master what they desire, they have the capacity towards psychological growth through their actions, and their surroundings can either support or thwart this potential growth.

Now, within this theory there is a lot of focus on psychological basic needs because whether those needs are met may determine the growth and motivation process and enhance self-determination. The basic needs are essential for your healthy mental functioning and growth.

3 Psychological Basic Needs (BPN):

1. Autonomy (being responsible for one’s own behaviors and outcomes and believing that one can achieve what they desire to - being empowered when you feel a sense of choice).

2. Competence (feeling able and effective at whatever the given task is – aka self-efficacy.

3. Relatedness (being cared for and supported by others and having a sense of belonging)

All of these are impacted by the surrounding environment. So, just like food meets a basic physiological need, these needs support healthy psychological functioning and well-being.

Now, for those who aren’t getting their psychological needs met on a consistent basis (autonomy, competence, and relatedness), there tends to be a coping mechanism they engage in that is less than desirable.

One of those responses are finding what is called, “need substitutes” (something that people do to compensate for the unmet need). This is typically something like striving for an extrinsic-motivated goal versus an intrinsic one. So, for instance- status, money, or the perfect body that the surrounding culture says brings satisfactions and reward.

As we all know, the happiness that these things bring are very short-lived and do not adequately meet the basic psychological needs. So, when needs are consistently not being met, we are typically more susceptible to cultural messages of claimed happiness (like the perfect body).

Without needs being met, insecurity creeps in and we go looking for something to substitute that unmet need. We see it all the time, particularly in women. They want that ideal body thinking THIS will make me happy.

In reality, there are some unmet psychological needs and that striving for the perfect body is a substitute for that insecurity and lack of satisfaction.

The second coping mechanism people may engage in is compensatory behaviors. We see this a lot with addicts whether its drugs, alcohol, or food. There is this need to buck against self-controlling behaviors and a need to seek escape from awareness. Binge eating is a method by which people escape awareness because it places their focus on something other than the problem. They want to rid themselves of emotional distress and so in this moment where they’re eating, they think of nothing else but the food in front of them. And often go back for more so they don’t have to think about their anxieties. It’s a substitution behavior that bring immediate comfort but doesn’t last very long at all.

Another compensatory behavior is extreme restriction with a sense of control and security. Again, the focus is on something in front of them… that thing that they DO have control over unlike their unmet psychological needs.

These people typically set impossible standards for themselves and are very rigid in their eating behaviors. Think of those who are anorexic. The one who wants to prove themselves worthy, they want approval for being thin because there is another unmet need inside.

Then you may have people who mix the lack of self-control with the rigid behavior. So, someone may stick so rigidly to a low-calorie diet for months and then lose all self-control and eat uncontrollably.

So, these are examples of compensatory behaviors. Actions that are typically harmful in nature due to lack of psychological basic needs being met.

All of it is an attempt to drive attention away from the sadness, dissatisfaction, anger, insecurity, or whatever other deeper issue may be buried. Both attempts to engage in substitution and compensatory behaviors interferes with the true satisfaction of psychological basic needs and leads to a cycle of avoidance and some sort of eating pathology whether that be binging or restricting.

When psychological needs are met, there is a better sense of self-determination. Self determination reflects how well someone functions in their own interests and values versus the opposite where people are more oriented to give in to social pressure and expectations. So, those who have unmet psychological basic needs are much more susceptible to buy into society’s thin-ideal body which often leads to these maladaptive behaviors like binging, purging, or restricting.

What are the reasons people may have unmet psychological basic needs?

Based on empirical studies, one of the biggest predictors of unmet needs is parental control often stemming from childhood. If you grew up in a home with one or both controlling parents and felt like you couldn’t meet their expectations, you might have developed a negative trait of perfectionism which can drive the need to perfect and thus, have the perfect body.

You may be rigid in your schedule, eating habits, and other life areas because you grew up in a high-pressure parenting environment which typically brings a lot of self-criticism and negativity. Research suggests that a supportive parenting style was more associated with fewer body image distortions and negative eating behaviors. The same can be said if you have a partner that is controlling.

An environment of control in a home hinders the ability to have positive self-determination. Low self-determination is associated with reported negative self-image and body shaming.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation Examples and Body Image Disorder

So, for one person motivation is more intrinsic. They do an activity because they enjoy it and know that it benefits them. Extrinsic motivation, the one who has low self-determination, looks at an outcome that is separate from the activity (i.e., eating low calories because they want a thin body, not for health or because they enjoy it).

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying if you want to change your body and physique because you’d like to look better in the mirror that you have low self-determination. We’re talking about people who go to extreme pathological types of measures to cover up an unmet need (i.e., having the ideal body is a must or else). It’s the reasoning that lies behind the action. We all to some degree want to look more attractive, right? That’s not pathological. But when it comes from a place of self-hatred or body shaming or the need to control...

that’s when it becomes a problem-when we strive to lose weight for approval or self-worth or to avoid negative feelings, these are external or extrinsic motivations.

Those with Intrinsic or internal motivations and healthy self-determination engage in physical activity and healthier eating because that person knows the value of it for their health and psychological well-being. Their actions line up with their values and goals and there is a sense of wanting to change versus needing to change lifestyle behaviors. One is a desire, the other one is a desperate need to make up for what they are lacking.

Now I want you to picture these two types of people. Imagine one person going for a run as more of a leisure activity, something that is enjoyed and seen as beneficial to health and wellbeing. This person has a higher sense of self-worth and less anxiety. This person goes to lunch and orders a big salad because they enjoy the way healthy eating makes them feel. They know they’re fueling their body to fuel them for their leisure activity.

The other feels like they need to run (or whatever the activity) because they are concerned about their appearance. There’s anxiety if they do not get to engage in the activity because their focus is on their looks. They begrudgingly order a salad because it’s the lowest calorie menu item and it’s the only item that doesn’t mess with that ideal body image in their mind.

You can probably envision the stark difference in anxiety levels between the two, right? One is self-determined with intrinsic motivation. They have a good sense of well-being, and it appears their psychological needs are being met. The other is full of anxiety because they are so focused on their body image. Every activity and every meal revolve around that body image. Every thought and decision revolves around how they look which leads to several body image issues. They’re stressed and constantly worried about gaining weight and being dissatisfied with themselves. There’s shame if they don’t run. There’s shame if they order the cheeseburger instead of the salad. There’s an obsession with needing to control and restrict. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance happening that is a result of unmet psychological basic needs and it often results in a body image disorder.

Your motivation at work, whatever drives you to eat better, eat less, or be active is going to determine your thoughts and behaviors.

Dieting for the sake of appearance is more associated with drastic and controlled dieting. Dieting for the sake of health and a better lifestyle is less associated with unhealthy diet behaviors like binging and purging or restricting.

So, this is where it’s critical for you to assess and understand your motivations behind your actions. Why are you dieting? Why are you exercising? Are you doing it for health and enjoyment or are you more focused on physical attractiveness? Are you feeling pressured to look like the model in the magazine or on social media because there is some unmet psychological basic need of either autonomy, competence, or relatedness? Are you more susceptible to the false promises of happiness commonly associated with thinness in our culture? Are you buying into the promise that meeting external goals fulfills internal needs?

Autonomy Principle

Now, let’s go back to the basic needs. The first one and arguably the most important is the autonomy principle.

When autonomy is satisfied, a person feels a sense of integrity because thoughts and behaviors are authentic and self-promoting. When that need is unmet there is a sense of frustration and pressure of being pushed in an undesired direction. So, if there is any area of your life where you’re not receiving autonomy, whether it be with your job, your lifestyle, maybe your marriage, or any area where you are feeling pressured and unable to make decisions for yourself and being controlled by some external force, your basic need may not be getting met.

Your environment can play a huge role in this, and autonomy can vary depending on the scenario. So, for instance, you may feel autonomous in your home, being able to make day to day decisions of what to eat, where to go, how to raise your children, etc., but at your job you may have no say in anything. So, experiencing autonomy can depend on the moment, in a certain place, or with a certain person.

When you feel autonomous, you are more interested, engaged, and generally happier.

In the opposite scenario you are usually frustrated, feeling helpless, and maybe even angry.

So, to relate this back to dieting and exercising - Do you feel like you HAVE to eat less or exercise more because society says you need to have this particularly body shape to be happy? Do you feel like you HAVE to lose weight because society might say that cellulite and a pooch on your belly is undesirable?

Those are examples of doing something for the sake of something else besides your own internal motivations. So, do you feel autonomous in your weight loss or health goals? Do you feel like your actions (working out/eating healthy) reflect your values?

A more autonomous approach would be choosing to eat less calories because you want to lose the extra fat on your body that slows you down, clogs your arteries, or makes you feel sluggish. Or maybe you just want to feel better in your skin. Maybe you want to be more active with your children or grandchildren. These are examples of internal motivations that promote autonomy when you act upon them. This is the kind of approach that will help you reach your goal in a self-determined and self-directed manner.

Studies show that those being trained by a coach or a personal trainer who supports their autonomy and decision making proved to maintain their exercise plan for the long term. Also, those who learn new skills or improve current ones for intrinsic desires tend to maintain their behaviors and stick to their plan. Research also shows that those who do not receive autonomy from their coach, trainer, or workout partner are less likely to follow through with their diet and exercise program.

This is why it’s so important that if you are hiring outside help, you are not given a list of do’s and don’t’s. That doesn’t work for you in the sense of having autonomy. So, when I work with clients, we collaborate on habits that THEY feel they need to change for intrinsic reasons. Usually, clients come to me with a very vague goal and particularly it just has to do with a number on the scale. This is how the conversation might go:

Client: I want to be X amount of weight.

Me: OK, well, why do you want to be this amount of weight?

Client: Well, I want to be happy.

Me: So, does the weight loss equate to your happiness?

Client: Well, I know that I felt better and had more confidence when I was that weight before!

Me: OK, so it sounds like your main goal is to feel better and be more confident?

Client: Yes!

Me: OK, let’s focus on habits that will make you feel better first. Then we go into what health and confidence looks like to you…not to society.

What does health look like to you? What do you think will make you feel better?

Client: Well, I know that if I ate more whole foods instead of so much processed foods I’d probably have more energy.

Me: Awesome, that’s a great start. How can we start with that? Let’s look at how much processed food you eat now and how we can incorporate more whole foods at a comfortable pace.

So, you see what I did there? The client has looked a little deeper into their intrinsic motivations and I’m incorporating autonomy on their part to allow them some decision making.

I’m not going to say “welp, to get to that weight this is exactly how you have to eat.”

We’ve got to get to the main desire and then work together to find out what is comfortable for them to start doing to get them toward that goal. Now, it’s with the focus being on “I want to have more energy, I want to wake up without feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck, etc.” instead of the whole focus being on a number the scale indicates about your gravitational pull to the earth.

Now the client has a sense of autonomy. She’s also going to gain competence because we are starting with small habit changes that she will master over time and feel confident about. And the relatedness is being established. We are working together as a team knowing that each of us must show up and do our part. I bring in some knowledge, skill, and compassion, she brings in the dedication, commitment, ideas about what she can change, and trust.

So, what we can gather from all the information I told you today and all the research in this episode is that first, your source of motivation is critical. It’s key to have your psychological needs met so that you can be self-determined instead of externally directed. We’ve got to stop looking at only the surface of the whole dieting and weight loss phenomenon and dig deeper into the mindset work that most people want to shoo away.

You will not get far in meeting your goals if your mind isn’t in the right place. And even if you do reach your goal, your basic psychological needs are still not met because you haven’t done the work to identify and modify them.

Your environment, the people you choose to surround yourself with, your inner thoughts… all of those matter so much. When it comes to weight loss or body changes, there has to be autonomy, a sense of making decisions because you’ve identified some internal motivations and you want to act upon them.

For me, I want to age well. I’ve been surrounded by people all my life that didn’t take care of their body or mind and I don’t want to end up like them. I want to be healthy; I want to be moving well and often well into my late age. I want to feel good and strong now. I don’t want to have to worry about injuries or sickness. Those are my internal motivations that keep me going.

Yes, I want to look good as well. I want to be proud of the work and dedication I’ve put in and then be able to actually see the physical results, but my sense of worth and sense of self doesn’t hinge upon that.

So, what drives you today?

That’s the biggest thing I want you to take away from this episode. Are you striving for weight loss because of outside forces, or because you’re insecure, or because you want to make others proud? And if so, there needs to be some mental work.

Why do you feel this way? Why is there a desire to please others with your body image? Why is your sense of worth based on something outside of your control? Whether it’s others’ expectations of you, or if you’re worried about your desirability… these are things that need to be checked and worked through. I was this way once for sure. But there was a mindset shift. I literally read a book called Self-therapy and did the activities in it to uncover my deepest insecurities. I talked about them with people I trusted and worked through them. And that’s when things began to change for me.

So, my plea to you today is to really examine your motivations and where they stem from. Identify them, acknowledge them, and work through them. Dig deeper for internal reasons to lose that weight. If you have no need to lose weight other than to look perfect for everyone else to see, maybe you decide that you don’t need to lose weight after all!

Either way, once you start digging deeper, there should be some relief to have that sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. It might take some work. It might be uncomfortable. But the growth that’s going to start happening will literally change your life just like it did mine.

I workout and eat well because I literally love it. I’m excited about it. It’s my choice solely for my well-being and not for anyone else. That’s freeing… and I want you to feel that way too.

Alright my friends, I know this was a lengthy one, but I hope that it really struck you as something that could change your entire outlook on the way you see dieting and exercise. I hope you’ll take the time to do the inner work it takes first before you go after dieting and extreme measures to lose weight. Do the work, and I promise you’ll reap the benefits of it.

If this post gave you an “ah-ha” moment or just really encouraged you, I’d love to hear from you!

Pretty please leave me a review so I can continue bringing you guys content and so that it will reach those who need it. Send me a message on Instagram if you’d like @ bridges2barbells. I’d be happy to hear about what you got from this episode or if you have any questions shoot those my way too!

Thank you, guys, for being here. Go do something great today for yourself. Go practice that autonomy, make wise choices, and make sure you come back next week for another episode.

Talk to you guys soon!

Bye for now!


Reference Articles:

Verstuyf, J., Patrick, H., Vansteenkiste, M., & Teixeira, P. J. (2012). Motivational dynamics of eating regulation: A self-determination theory perspective. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9(1), 21-21.

Ng, J. Y. Y., Ntoumanis, N., Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., Stott, K., & Hindle, L. (2013). Predicting psychological needs and well-being of individuals engaging in weight management: The role of important others. Applied Psychology : Health and Well-being, 5(3), 291-310.

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