Resolutions Schmesolutions!

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Have your New Year’s Resolutions started to go south yet…? I’ve noticed that it’s kind of trendy this year to not create resolutions. Like it or not, though, there is an energy of change and renewal that comes with January. It’s hard to deny. So we ride it, and think about breathing out the things that we’d rather leave in 2013 and breathing in the new…

So many of us set New Year’s resolutions or goals about weight loss or change in diet or exercise. I know this because clients have told me that the gyms are packed and the weight-loss commercials have increased. It’s a January phenomenon. Then, by March (if not before), the gyms are less crowded and many resolutions are forgotten. We sort of forget about them until next January. This can leave us feeling rather demoralized and ashamed, as if we have somehow failed or don’t have enough willpower or strength.

As a nutrition therapist, my work is all about assisting in behavior change. My clients want to eat more wisely, or move more freely and confidently in their bodies, or discover the freedom that life without disordered eating can bring. I believe in setting goals (realistic ones) and being patient with and honoring the process to get there. So, how can we look at those new year’s wishes in a new light so that we don’t run out of steam by March…?

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First, I propose New Year’s Explorations (instead of resolutions). Yes, we want to eat healthfully, in a way that makes us feel vital and energized, but how to we get to that place? Over the last 16 years that I have been doing this work, I have discovered that the majority of my clients actually know how to eat well. I don’t mean perfectly, as I don’t believe there really is one perfect way to eat. In fact, our bodies are all so different — and people all over the world live and thrive on so many different kinds of diets —  that I just don’t believe that our food choices deserve the scrutiny and obsessiveness that we have developed here in the U.S. With practice, I have seen many people figure out the way of eating that best suits their lifestyle and values. But what if you know the way that you want to eat, and you already know a lot about nutrition, but you just can’t stop eating patterns that sabotage this? For example, you want a diet that is balanced and moderate when it comes to sweets, but you find yourself binging on the foods that you are trying to moderate. Or maybe you don't want to be obsessed with what you eat, but you are so afraid of eating too many carbohydrates or calories that you find yourself restricting your food and feeling famished and focused on food all day.

We often use food — either over- or under-eating — as a way to deal with (or not deal with) challenging feelings or thoughts. Eventually, it can just become a habit. Compulsive overeating is something almost all of us do at times (particularly around the holidays) and is sometimes a way of self-soothing when our physical and emotional needs aren’t being met. Find yourself eating those holiday cookies in order to keep yourself awake to wrap gifts — or during holiday obligations that weren’t all that fun? Maybe you really wanted sleep or different company, but you treated yourself to food instead. You took care of the part of you that enjoys yumminess in your mouth, but not the other part of you that needed sleep or connection.

A client I met with this morning had the wonderful experience of being at a social gathering with friends that felt so nourishing. She was so “fed” by the company and the activity of the evening that she really had little interest in all the wonderful food that was present. She ate when she needed to, but she mostly had little interest in eating as her spirits were being nourished elsewhere. Another client today talked about the way in which she could be more flexible with her food choices, allowing herself to eat in a less rigid way, if only other parts of her life felt more fulfilling. Her elaborate food preparation rituals and the pleasure that she takes in eating her highly-planned meals is “all I’ve got” for self-care and pleasure in the day. She was able to imagine, though, that she could think about food a lot less and eat a quicker, less time-consuming meal if she had other pursuits in her day that were engaging her passions. She is trapped by her disordered eating, but her disordered eating also takes so much time that she has little space to think about how she might go about cultivating more of what she really wants in her life.

In the Non-Diet Book Club this morning, we also talked about the ways that we can be so afraid in our culture to sit still and ask ourselves what really fills us up. What nourishes our hearts and souls? We compulsively eat, drink, shop, exercise, text, clean, play games. We are — all of us, and I am far from perfect here — sometimes afraid to just sit still and simply be. We don’t often check in with our hearts. We are sometimes afraid of what we might find. We are afraid that we don’t know what our heart’s desire really is. Or if we do know what it is, we don’t know the first thing about connecting to it or bringing it into our lives. So many clients say that it’s so much easier to just keep [insert food behavior, whether it be binging, restricting, or eating carelessly] than to change and do something else, even if that something else might be good for them. Some of us are so conditioned to feel lousy, criticize ourselves, and live in our heads instead of our hearts, that it is hard to imagine operating otherwise. Change is hard. We need support and strength in order to do things differently.

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I know that clients are moving towards full recovery from disordered eating (no matter their path to get there) when they begin to truly cultivate the things in their life that help them to feel connected to themselves — and their unique values and purpose. Do you feel that groundedness and that sense that all is well in the world when you do something that you are passionate about? Doesn’t your life just flow better when you are feeding your spirit and senses — and when you find moments of being in the present? It can be simply spending time in nature or with a trusted friend or meditating or being lost in a project that you are passionate about. Not thinking endlessly about things that already happened or worrying about things in the future that are beyond our control, but just being in the present. Doesn’t life just flow better for you? Do you feel a little relief from that thinking, analyzing part of your brain? Do you not even think about food then, at least until your body gives you the clear signal that it’s time to refuel? Some of us find these moments of just being present more easily than others. Be patient with your very own journey.  

In 2014, I wish more of those moments of presence and deep heartfulness for you. And how do we all get there? Not by making resolutions, but by making explorations and finding out — in the quiet space that you give yourself — what it is that really “feeds” you. When you spend more time nourishing your spirit and soul, the power that food has over you becomes weaker -- and you are able to use your psychotherapy, nutrition therapy, and individual soul work more effectively.

Ask yourself these two big questions in 2014:

  • What fills ME up? What nourishes my soul and spirit and keeps me grounded in the present?

Some examples from my clients this week: listening to music, praying or meditating, walking in nature, taking care of someone that you love or your home, hanging out with a friend, playing with a pet. In fact, animals are particularly helpful for keeping us in the present. They don’t know any better.

  • What form of movement nourishes and feels good to my body and soul? Do I like to move my body alone or with others? Does vigorous or more gentle movement really ground me?
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I don’t know about you, but the right music can transform dish-washing into a satisfying dance party in my kitchen. Movement comes in all shapes and sizes. Think outside the gym.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to eat or exercise differently in the new year and setting goals to do so. But don’t forget that the reason that you might be overindulging in food, drink, or sedentary living just might be that you are starving for what matters most to you and trying to fill up or reward yourself with something else. Explore this in the new year… Check in with yourself (or, if you are a planner, your calendar) every month this year. Are you filling your life with the things that matter most? If not, make appointments with yourself to do so. Build that nourishment right into your life the way that you schedule all your other priorities. (Most busy people have to do this.)

Explore and discover what makes you feel happy, present, and full this year. You may find that eating becomes less of a battle and big deal when your soul is being adequately fed. And the really cool thing about the eating binge or the exercise resistance creeping back in here and there… Well, I recommend trying to dispense with the self-criticism and recognize this as a sign that your soul and spirit needs more nourishment. Don’t be afraid to sit quietly and ask your heart what it really needs if you find yourself hanging out with food you don’t want to eat. Be gentle with yourself and explore what you hunger for in 2014.

Change and Resistance

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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.