The Forever Fat Kid: Identity and Growth, Part 2

The Forever Fat KidSo you’ve grown up overweight, awkward, unpopular, healthy or not, but now you’ve reached a point where you’re different. And you’re probably struggling to change your self-image and maybe even your behavior. From a health coaching perspective, I think it’s important to consider a person’s history and self-image in planning for future behavior change.

When there’s a mis-match between what’s externally visible and what’s internally felt, coaching becomes a bit more complicated. A “forever fat kid” may be reluctant to try exercises that are for “fit people,” wear revealing workout clothing, or splurge on a healthy treat because these aren’t congruent with her identity. This is a barrier to change.

I believe this same “identity stasis” phenomenon may also play a role for people who struggle to adjust their lifestyles to accommodate new health issues. How can I have high blood pressure when I feel so young? Why do I have to rest this injury when I am an athlete and committed to performance? How could my body have changed in a way that doesn’t reflect who I really am inside?

Negative personal self-images can linger from non-physical identities as well. I’d wager that quite a few cases of imposter syndrome can be traced back to  youthful experiences with failure or even just facing intense pressure. Being called up to the big leagues is great, but you may still be a farm team player in your mind. Take Jon Stewart, who in talking to Apatow said:

You are where you came from. No matter where you end up, no matter what you achieve, on some level, you feel like you belong in a basement underneath a Middle Eastern restaurant telling jokes. That’s never out of you . . . it’s a psychosis more than anything else.

And let’s not overlook people who were bullied and teased as children, who may have learned to go along to get along and still as adults feel flashes of fear when they dare assert themselves. They struggle to see themselves as worthy adults rather than the targets of ridicule.

Forever awkward. Oh Lord.
Forever awkward. Oh Lord.

I’m not convinced that this “forever fat kid” syndrome is necessarily a bad one. Remembering our roots can make us gentler, kinder people. It may give us empathy for others who are struggling, or it may help us moderate our behavior with more sensitivity. Mindy Kaling talks about how becoming famous and being in the public eye transformed her: “All that stuff I do to ‘appear’ better has actually made me a better person. I wish I had always acted like I was a little bit famous.” In Kaling’s case, she is able to adapt her old non-famous habits to her new circumstances with positive results.

And in terms of performance, we can use feeling like an imposter to motivate learning and growth. This piece does a great job of outlining the positive actions a person can take when self-doubt threatens to impede success.

When identity stasis is bad is when it limits a person’s confidence, prevents her from enjoying her accomplishments (whether those take the form of a leaner physique, professional success, or anything else), or creates a pervasive sense of insecurity. And, of course, if your self-perception as the former fat kid holds you back from engaging with healthy behavior change, that’s a problem too. In Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin talks about how identity can get in the way of new habits, for example if a “fun-loving person who is always a good time” wants to drink less with friends (hmm, might this also lead to feeling unsupported?). She gives another example of someone who struggles to maintain a diet because she thinks of herself as “not fussy.” I get that.

I’m not sure if there’s a cure for former fat kid syndrome, except to be self-aware in the moment and recognize those flashes of insecurity as vestiges of a long-ago self. It’s a process.

Do you have old skins you’ve never quite shed? What identities will always be a part of you? And how do you adjust to a life where those identities don’t fit you on the exterior anymore?