Personality & Obesity – Pillars of Change

Emotional Eating

By Heather Hamilton, PhD.  ©2022BreakThrough!

Personality & Obesity – Background

There are few studies that explore personality traits as related to eating behavior, despite obvious biopsychosocial (physical, mental, and environmental) factors and attitudes that directly affect health and well-being. This lack of research is surprising when we consider that our perceptions and personal view directly affect our thoughts, behaviors (activities we’re willing to engage in), and comfort with social situations.

One of the widely-used assessments for personality is the five-factor model, which measures: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness [1,2]. Of the five traits, low scores on conscientiousness are most consistently associated with dysregulated eating (as well as smoking, drug abuse, and other binge behaviors). This stands to reason given that conscientiousness measures behaviors such as order and self-discipline. For adults with diabetes (n = 1900), low conscientiousness (which reflects careless behavior and a lack of planning) was identified as a significant risk factor for higher mortality rates [3]. Neuroticism scores correlate with weight gain and reflect research linking psychiatric disorders (such as depression or anxiety) with high rates of obesity. Not surprisingly, impulsivity (one of the sub factors measured by neuroticism) contributes to increases in BMI [2] and presents as a significant factor for weight gain following bariatric surgery [4].

Personality – Character

Despite the paucity of clinical research, as a psychologist who treats the mental health disorders that lead to emotional eating, it’s extremely rare that any client presents with any significant deficits in character. In fact, traits of kindness, caring, loyalty, dependability and nurturing are most prevalent across our client population. Most of the time, life experience has simply covered up their potential and robbed them of self-confidence. Our approach to building client trust and hope is to separate character from choices and behavior early in treatment. We focus on strengths with remarks like:

You’re kind, caring, wise and loving – you are everything you need to be!

Our goal is to explore thoughts, choices and behaviors that can support your health.

As a person – you’re enough!

We’re going to focus on tasks; NOT character.”

When clients take this approach to heart, often there are tears of relief and sadness, but what soon follows is an earnest interest and willingness to explore what they can DO differently.

The BreakThrough! Deep Dive

Soon after clients acknowledge their strengths we begin exercises to identify and change the inner narrative. Consistently clients present a self-defeating, miserable inner critic we call “bitching Betty.” Throughout BreakThrough! programs the inner critic is presented as a compilation of other peoples’ stuff – hurtful remarks, bullying, abuse that was assimilated early in life. Surfacing this critic begins early through structured supervised course work (in office and through our online learning management system).  Often clients identify several people who reinforce(d) bitching Betty. After this work, clients understand why they’ve been eating re-actively to feelings generated by Betty and the transformative work (critic to inner coach) can begin in earnest. All we ask our clients to do is focus on what they do already and make changes as indicated. In closing; weight management is not about character – it’s learning to make healthy choices!

 We hope you have enjoyed this short article from The BreakThrough! Program.

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