Asking for What We Really Want is Harder than Saying “Pass the Dessert”

In loving memory of Bud-Bud, who always had a good appetite.    

In loving memory of Bud-Bud, who always had a good appetite. 

 

Do you find yourself munching when you are not really hungry? 

Do you find yourself using snacks as reasons to take a break from work? 

Do you reward yourself with a treat when you finish a task — or use a treat to get you through it? 

When you get upset about something, do you find yourself in the fridge or pantry to console yourself? 

If so, you are experiencing emotional eating. 

And we all do it sometimes. 

Who hasn’t overeaten over the holidays because those favorite foods bring back good feelings? Who hasn’t mindlessly eaten to get themselves through a tough assignment? We all do this once in awhile, sometimes without even realizing it. We can’t always eat mindfully and with focus, savoring our food and stopping when we are perfectly satisfied. But for some of us, this overeating happens all too often, causing distress — and sometimes health problems. 

When I see a client in my nutrition therapy practice, I often look at whether she or he is eating a balanced diet. These days, many clients are not eating enough carbohydrates. So many people are afraid to eat too many of them. Not eating enough carbohydrates, proteins, and fats — as well as not eating enough total food energy or calories — can be a set up. An imbalanced or inadequate diet may lead to low energy, cravings, thinking about food too much, and overeating. However, sometimes the foods clients eat seem to be in alignment with their nutritional needs, but they still find themselves binge eating or eating beyond comfortable fullness regularly. It’s frustrating and it really has nothing to do with their food choices much of the time. This is pure emotional eating. And it’s a growing epidemic, so to speak. 

And why not? 

Food is legal and readily available. It’s grounding, sensual, and only takes a few minutes out of our to-do list to engage in. But is that snack really what we are hungry for? Do our bodies need food at this moment — or are we really looking for downtime, stimulation, sensory pleasure, or soothing? Food can provide all of those things for us, but at what cost? Tuning in to what it is that we really want and need — in any given moment — is a practice. It is not easy — particularly if we are someone that is oriented towards serving or taking care of others. (I am all too familiar with this myself.) 

I’d like to propose that the more we ask specifically for what we want and need — of ourselves and from others — the less we will feel the pull to put food in our mouths when we are truly not hungry. And the more we will feed ourselves nourishing food when we are indeed hungry, too.

One of the exercises that I encourage clients to do is to have them set an alert on their phones.  (We carry them everywhere, so we might as well use them for personal growth, right?) The alert should go off at random times several times per day. When that alert sounds, the client has to stop what she is doing and tune in. She should ask: What is going on in my body? What am I feeling? Am I hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Bored? Do I have to pee? Do I feel lonely? Cold? In an uncomfortable position? etc… 

For many of my clients, these alerts may be the only times that they truly check in with themselves during the day. Some begin to notice when they are hungry earlier than when they are ravenous and just about ready to eat their best friend. It’s hard not to overeat when we get that over-hungry.  

Some clients realize that as they work, play, connect, and engage in life, they forget to eat. After a full day, they find themselves starving — literally and figuratively. They may race off into more adventures in search of fulfillment, while denying themselves the food and reflective connection with themselves that they actually need for sustenance. 

Some people do the random alerts exercise and discover that they are frequently in discomfort, but were never aware of it. This prompts them to get help for some physical injuries or digestive issues. 

Some people realize that they want something, but they are afraid to ask for it. It’s easier to just plow ahead and take care of everyone else’s needs rather than tune in to their own.

When clients are helping professionals or parents, they often find it hard to stop and turn their focus on themselves. Eventually, they discover that when they take the time to check in and and take care of themselves (with a bathroom break, snack, short walk outside, stretch, deep breath, or whatever they need in that moment), they are actually better able to be generous and helpful to those around them.

Sometimes our little mindless snacks throughout the day serve that purpose. We’re trying to take care of ourselves some, but not too much. We don’t really take the time to think about what we really need in those moments — connection, touch, warmth, beauty, movement, fresh air — sometimes because we are afraid that we can’t get it or that we don’t have time to get it. But a nibble here will do… 

I’d like to argue that we don’t have time to ignore our needs and desires! 

If we do, it can create stress, exhaustion, resentment, an unfulfilling life… oh, and, yes, overeating and any of the health-oriented “perks” that come from that…  

This week I worked with a client who reflected that she was binging or eating mindlessly after work on a regular basis. When we dug deeper about it, we found that she was using food as a way to “take off the day.” Food helped her get out of her head and into her body, transitioning her from work to home after a stressful day. There was a part of her that was so used to using unhealthy ways to cope with stress and transition, she didn’t really feel like she deserved more than a binge. When we did some imagining about what it would be like if she didn’t hold the belief that she doesn’t deserve the self-care, she was able to come up with an alternative to binging. 

She is indeed hungry when she gets home from work around 4pm, so having an appealing, satisfying snack that could hold her until dinner was the first order of self-care. Then, taking a walk so that she could do something physical seemed like a good way for her to shift gears. She wanted to literally pound the pavement after a challenging work day. Walking helps her breathe deeply, slow down, clear her head, and transition from a day of taking care of others. She realized that thinking of physical activity this way was nurturing and would support her mental transition from work to home, as well as take good care of her body. The positive effects of exercise on our brains and bodies are well documented and she knows this. But it worked better for her to think of exercise as a “want” instead of a “should.” 

It was hard for my client to ask herself for a healthy yummy snack, physical movement,  and some self-care and transition time between work and home. It was easier for her to be careless with herself and operate the way she always has. Once she identified what she really wanted during that binge-filled afternoon time and was able to ask herself for it, she could come up with a plan for how to take care of herself. The challenge will be bringing consciousness to that time of day so that she can really make the change.

She still might need to contend with the part of her that feels undeserving of good self-care, but she has a plan and some compassionate, curious language to use with herself when that comes up. Having me to check in with around her progress helps her to take it seriously, and hopefully I’m modeling non-judgmental processing of her progress on these new afternoon practices. I’m seriously rooting for her and she knows it.

If you find that you aim to make food and self-care changes, but you just keep getting stuck, don’t underestimate the power of connecting with a nutrition therapist or other professional experienced in disordered eating that can help you non-judgmentally explore your resistance to change. Often our own self-judgement gets in the way of helping us make the changes that we want. It may also help to talk to friends or family about your new practices — or connect with a higher power or nature and ask for help. A little compassionate support often goes a long way. 

The next time that you find yourself trolling for sweets or gobbling mindlessly when you aren’t really hungry, ask yourself, “What do I really want? What am I really hungry for right now?” Even if you can’t stop the eating, keep asking this question and stay curious instead of critical. Knowing your desires and needs is an important part of healing from compulsive eating. In fact, it’s an important part of healing from any disordered eating, even restrictive under-eating. When you know what you want, you can ask for it — of yourself or of others around you — and you can stop using food as an inadequate (albeit yummy and soothing) substitute. It takes courage to ask for what you really want and desire, as well as time to reflect and really get to know what’s inside. But it’s worth doing, no matter how long it takes. There may be many bumps along the way, but the result is not only freedom from disordered eating but a more passionate, heart-centered, satisfying life.

Change and Resistance

ChangeAndResistanceDisorderedEating.jpg

Change.

It’s in the September air here in Boston. Children start school. The college students come back. Mattresses and dressers are seen on sidewalks and on top of cars everywhere. In fact, a cool September breeze blows through my windows as I write this in my new office between Davis and Porter Squares, on the Somerville/Cambridge line. It feels exciting to be in this sunlit space, despite all the adjustments that moving an office creates.

I haven’t blogged in what feels like too long. There are many very valid excuses, like taking a vacation, spending summer days with my children, and moving my practice space from two locations into a new one right here. I took an unintended two months off from writing, and today I feel rusty and resistant and prone to procrastinate.

Before I started typing this, I walked into Davis Square to get lunch. I could have lingered long, but the part of me that really wanted to sit down and write today told me to have my lunch and come back to my breezy space to re-engage with my blog readers after this summer break. It was quite amazing to discover just how many things I had to do before I actually sat down to type. I had to make a cup of tea, make sure my desk was set up just right, open my third floor windows more to let in that breeze, finish up some paperwork, call a few clinicians about our mutual clients, etc, etc...

Yes, it was striking how many really important things I had to do before I got around to doing what I really wanted to do: write. In fact, in the hierarchy of things that I wanted to do today, reconnecting with you, my readers, was top on my list. So, why was I feeling so unable to just sit down and do it...? Why was I procrastinating...?

When I slowed down and checked in with myself, I realized, for one thing, that I was really out of the habit. Prior to my writing hiatus, I had been blogging every other week. I took a much-needed 11-day vacation and unplugged myself completely from my computer and work, but then I never really went back to the blog. Sure, I have wonderful reasons, but regardless, I got out of the habit. And here I am, with a whole afternoon finally free and dedicated to blogging and I’m (first unconsciously, and then quite consciously) avoiding it...

This got me thinking about my clients and resistance to change. So many people come into my practice because they want to be eating differently. They want to have a better relationship with food or recover from an eating disorder. They know what they ultimately need to do to make the changes, but it’s so hard.

How can we want something so badly, but find ourselves behaving in ways that don’t support those goals and values that we hold dear? Although there are lots of reasons why we resist change, one of the simple reasons is that change is hard. Until something becomes well-practiced and rhythmic, it feels awkward. My writing today feels like that. When it’s a more regular practice, it flows more freely and with ease and energy. After being away from it for so long, it feels foreign, choppy, and far from easy. Today I can viscerally appreciate how hard it is for my clients to change their habits with food and physical activity.

So, after an hour and a half of procrastination, how did I finally sit down and blog? I remembered something from a book that I am currently reading with colleagues in one of my supervision groups about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The book is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, and I highly recommend it. ACT is a psychotherapeutic modality that (at least as I see it) is a soup mix of various behavioral therapies with a hefty dash of mindfulness. ACT concepts can be applied as part of psychotherapy or nutrition therapy or simply on their own at home by anyone. In fact, they can be applied anywhere there is a desire for change.

One of the major concepts that I’ve appreciated about ACT is the concept of slowing down and asking yourself, “Are you living the life that you want to live right now?” Are you focused on what is meaningful to you and aligned with your values? When we have psychological problems or stressors, we often think that we should put our lives on hold while we try to lessen or take away the pain. Working with ACT means that we don’t try to take away the pain, we try to “lean into it” and learn from it, while focusing on acting in ways that are meaningful and values-driven.

My favorite metaphor in the book is one about grief. Grief is like an inflatable ball that we are holding underwater. We can hold it and hide it underwater for a long time time, but the moment that our guard is down and we remove our hands from the ball, it pops back up to the surface. Many of us try to bury grief by working a lot, by taking addictive drugs, and, yes, even by binging or restricting or obsessing about food. We will do anything to make the pain go away. Although these methods work at first, they hurt us in the long run. The ACT model says that instead of trying to push away pain, we can acknowledge it’s presence in our lives and ask ourselves, “How can I best take care of myself and act in accordance with what I value, given that I have this suffering in my life?” There are many techniques for working on change in this way, and I am delighted to report that many of my clients are finding the techniques awkward at first, but very transformative once they get into a rhythm of practicing them regularly.

This brings me back to my own awkwardness and procrastination today about writing. I was stuck in my “shoulds.” I should finish this task before I start writing. It should feel easy and flowing and energizing when I write. I should not have let so much time go by without blogging... Well, that got me nowhere. (In fact, a massage therapist friend has told me that “shoulds” give people tight shoulders. I could feel the tension mounting.) I was trying to avoid the suffering, the awkwardness, the strong resistance to change that my body and mind were feeling about writing.

So, instead of trying to push away the discomfort that it took to sit down and stare at a blank document on my computer, I sat with it for awhile. It made me squirm. I kept looking out the window, wanting to flee and go back down to the Square for a latte. I took a deep breathe. And another. I  acknowledged to myself that sitting down to write is hard, particularly sitting down to write something that other people will read. I reminded myself that getting away from writing for two whole months was a choice that I made. I would probably make it again, given the same life circumstances. I decided to renew my commitment to myself and my readers to get back on track and write biweekly again. I also realized that being rigid and unforgiving toward myself when I don’t do it perfectly is not helpful.

My eyes darted around for something else that I needed to do so that I could avoid writing some more. I tried to be kind to myself, and noticed this without judgement. I sat some more and thought about how writing today was really the way for me to live the life that I want to live right now. It’s not easy all the time, and sometimes it is a really big struggle, but writing and reaching out with free, easily accessible inspiration is meaningful to me, especially to include a community that is beyond the boundaries of my own practice walls. And a regular writing practice, like the blog, keeps my writerly muscles toned.

Wow, was it hard to get started today! And, wow, did I learn about myself and my habits a lot in the process! I think that instead of spending an hour or two procrastinating in two weeks when I sit down here to write again, I’ll start with that question: “Are you living the life that you want to live right now?” and remind myself that my writing practice is meaningful to me, no matter how hard it is to get started. In fact, the struggle is not only inevitable (as I’m sure all you writers out there will agree), but a great teacher.

Can you imagine how this might be applied to changing your relationship with food or with physical activity? Change is challenging and resistance to change can be strong. It’s hard to break out of our comfort zones and those places that we go to automatically. However, we can slow down and ask ourselves: How do we best take care of ourselves during these times -- in a way that is aligned with our own values and meaning? How do we eat in a way that nourishes us and makes it easier for us to be the people that we want to be in the world -- and not how the eating disorder or someone else told us we “should” eat? I believe that if we can begin to ask those questions, then we will begin to understand that change, however much it makes us squirm, really is possible.