“When I’m having a bad day at work, I fantasize about the food I have at home.”
“When I’m making dinner for my kids after a long day of doing a million things for them, I can’t wait till I put them to bed so I can be by myself and eat all the leftovers.”
“I look forward to the times my husband goes away on business so I can do whatever I want with food.”
“The split second I am upset, I race into the kitchen and eat, eat, eat, as though my life depends on it.”
“As I feel the anger start to bubble up, I race to the box of xxx and crunch until I feel calm.”
“On Sundays, I feel so lonely I can’t wait to dive into the xxx to feel better. Then afterwards, I feel even worse. I also feel defeated, like I will never get better.”
“I feel so overwhelmed at times, I just can’t stop eating. I’m not sure whether I am overwhelmed and then can’t stop eating or if I can’t stop eating which causes me to feel overwhelmed, or both.”
“As I am jamming my hand into the package for another mouthful, I am promising myself that this will be the last bite but I can’t stop until it’s all gone.”
The above quotes from some of my clients illustrate that an eating disorder is not about the food. It is about the “state of mind” or “state of being” that the food and food behavior accomplishes. These quotes also illustrate the urgency these clients experience when thinking about getting to use the food behavior, as well as the helplessness that they feel.
I consistently try to help my clients see the relationship between their food behavior and what they are trying to “accomplish” by engaging in that behavior. Look at the words highlighted in the quotes above:
Doing a million things>>>be by myself
Look forward>>>do whatever I want
Upset>>>my life depends on it
Overwhelmed>>>can’t stop eating
Can’t stop until it’s gone
If an eating disorder were just about food, these clients would be able to “just stop” doing these types of behaviors and eat without all the urgency and subsequent remorse. But, an eating disorder is a complex combination of brain “hardwiring” and chemistry, environmental and familial issues and traumas, inability to communicate and feel authentically and effectively, etc. These food behaviors are an adaptation to many things.
If you are suffering from the type of eating disorder that causes any circumstances similar to the types of scenarios mentioned above, you personally know how hard you have tried to “just stop”. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not that simple.
But, there is hope.
First off, you have to try to understand that you have a complex history of underlying issues, combined with a brain that is genuinely trying to make you feel better. It’s not your fault that you have found a food behavior that “works” in the moment to calm you down, numb you out, or wash away the thoughts and feelings that are painful to you. If it weren’t such an “effective solution”, you wouldn’t be so urgently seeking it out. You wouldn’t obsess or fantasize about it. You would be able to “just stop.”
Second, you must be willing and able to be kinder to yourself. If a loved one were going through the same pain and suffering you were going through, you would have compassion for them. Give yourself the same compassion. Tough love or self-criticism is not only ineffective; it worsens the behaviors every single time.
Third, without judgment, you have to be willing to self-reflect about what the food behaviors are trying to “tell you”. What are they accomplishing? Insight is essential. Without it, you will continue to beat yourself up and try to “fix” the problem behaviorally. It never works.
Fourth, you have to be willing to discover and tolerate the feelings you are attempting to numb out from, without the fear that you can’t do it. This is an area where clients often ask me “how do I feel my feelings? I don’t know how to do that.” The answer is simple and complex at the same time. We know that the food behavior is designed to numb out the feelings, so by delaying using the food behavior, you will feel something. You most likely won’t be able to do this for more than a few minutes at a time. During the few minutes you are trying to be abstinent from using the behavior, you may only feel anxious and obsessed about wanting to use the food behavior, but use the time wisely to gain information about the function of the food behavior. You may want to say to yourself, “I want to eat xxx so badly right now, but I’m going to hold off for 15 minutes to try to learn something about myself. During these 15 minutes, I’m going to journal whatever I am thinking or feeling. Then after 15 minutes, if I want to eat xxx food, I will.” By doing this through repetition over time, you may get some answers and may elongate the time during which you can be abstinent from the behavior.
Fifth, take the information you have gathered and try to make some life changes with it. For example, the woman who found that she fantasized about being by herself with food, after a long day with her children, used the information she gathered to try to make more time for herself during the day. This way, she wasn’t in such need for it at night. The client who experienced loneliness every Sunday, decided to plan an activity with a friend or at least reach out and talk to one or two people every Sunday to feel connected. By realizing what the food behavior is “telling” you, you can work on improving the quality of your life.
Lastly, seek support. Both professional and personal support will help you make the changes you are seeking. You truly cannot do this work alone.
By no means does this process change your food behaviors in a day, or week, or month. You didn’t get to where you are in a day and it will take some time to make lasting changes. It can be done though…one baby step at a time.
Through (1) understanding, (2) kindness, (3) insight and self-reflection, (4) taking time to feel, (5) making slow life changes, and (6) getting support, you will heal…
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