Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!
Because of the topic, I am sending my Friday Story a day early. After a lifetime of emotional eating, I feel like I’ve turned a corner. Just in case there is a nugget in here that will help you navigate a day that can be problematic for many of us, here your are.
I’ve resisted writing on this subject mainly because I refuse to join the dirty team that has tried everything to convince us our appearance equals our worth. I want no part of that. This piece isn’t about weight or dieting. It’s about being true to ourselves and making choices from that place.
Also—I am not a licensed mental health professional, so for those dealing with clinical addiction, I trust that you are seeking help with the appropriate folks. This is strictly for those of us who self-medicate in ways that make us feel juuuust bad enoughabout ourselves. You know how we like to kick our own teeth in when the opportunity arises? That.
So, here goes.
It started in my childhood home where any form of sugar that came in the door was a big deal. My mother followed Nutritionist Adelle Davis, treating her books like sacred texts. Adelle railed against the typical American diet of processed foods and sugar. Whole wheat bread with as many grains as you could stuff in one loaf was the centerpiece of her philosophy. The peanut butter and honey sandwiches I brown-bagged to school had the heft of a shot put and tasted of the fields. In the age of canned foods and TV dinners, Adelle sounded the alarm bells that our physical and emotional health would be forever compromised by making such choices. My mother dutifully heeded her warnings.
When the white bakery bag holding gingerbread men showed up on our kitchen table, we surrounded it in reverent silence. My mother distributed the puffy bodies with delicate icing and each of the four of us went off on our own to savor every bite. We learned to enjoy our sweet indulgences in private.
From those years forward, the sensation of sugar dissolving in my mouth and amping my blood sugar translated as pure pleasure, the total absence of pain. But those moments were rare. I turned this into the belief that to live virtuously, pleasure should be withheld, almost indefinitely. No cookie for you. And if you did indulge, have the decency to hide it.
A half century later, it strikes me that I have both rebelled against this conditioning and followed it to the letter. I am an eater. I’ve dieted but always unsuccessfully—I really don’t believe in deprivation. I exercise regularly and have felt justified in my hearty appetite. But I haven’t been happy with the way I feel in my clothes for most of my life. Over the past few months that has changed. The more I engaged in the following behaviors, the more grounded in my body I felt and the better I became at mindful eating. I feel good in my clothes! Here’s what I recommend.
- TELL THE TRUTH
Most of my stress snacking had occurred after dinner when all meals and snacks should be done for the day. When I observed my patterns, I noticed that if I had engaged in some harmful people pleasing earlier in the day, I was more prone to self-medicate with food by the time evening rolled around.
The last time it happened here’s how it went down: my son had two sleepovers over a holiday weekend. By the following school day, he claimed he didn’t feel well. I had a full schedule and now it would be interrupted. There’d been disruptions to my work for several days already and I had started to feel panicky.
I let him sleep in, figuring I’d take him to school later and still get most of my work done. When he finally woke up, he said maybe something he ate didn’t agree and he should stay home. Acid reflux had been an issue so it was plausible. But then he bopped around all afternoon, watched funny shows and made quesadillas. I suspected I’d been had.
The minute school ended at 3:30 pm, he enjoyed a miraculous recovery and got dressed to meet his friends for skateboarding. Rationalizing that the exercise would do him some good, I allowed him to go. By 8:00 pm, I was stuffing this incident down with black & white cookies from Trader Joe’s.
The moment this kid had a spring in his step, I could have said the following, “You are clearly well. I have work to do. GET IN THE CAR.”
- FEEL THE FEELINGS
For as long as I can remember, I have tried to avoid feeling ANY painful emotions and have even attempted to convince my kids to slap a smile on a sh!tty situation. My way has been to guard my fragile heart (and theirs!) against any painful incident, tossing it away like a hot potato.
Take the summer after I started college. All my friends went home, but I stuck around, as usual. No invitation arrived to spend the summer with either of my parents, not that I was surprised. Neither of them figured their four kids into any living arrangements anymore. An empty college campus can be a lonely place. I waited tables all summer but the restaurant was dead. The spots down in Santa Barbara would have been hopping, but I’d have needed a car for the highway miles. When I wasn’t working, I hung out alone in my apartment. Without the funds for furniture, I lay in a sleeping bag on my bedroom floor. Someone had left a little black and white television, so I watched a fuzzy game show or read from the pile of discarded books left by previous tenants. The only pleasurable part of the day was eating 25 cent ramen or Cup o’ Noodles which was all I could afford.
Food was my friend, the solitary feelings the enemy. Survival instinct told me that surrendering to the full measure of loneliness would have crushed me. Back then, I didn’t know there were other ways of taking care of my needs. A walk on the beach would have done wonders.
These days, I seek out all sorts of other sensory pleasures. Food maintains it’s spot high on the list, but it’s among many other non-food items. I must be intentional about feeling an entire emotion (all 90 seconds according to neuroscience) and to unlearn the conditioning to avoid them at all costs. I know if they get stuck inside, I’ll have to neutralize them later with brownies.
- MIND YOUR BUSINESS
This is probably the most critical contributing factor to bringing an end to my stress eating. Byron Katie teaches that it is not our business to worry for or about other people. She recommends asking ourselves if the concern is our business, meaning, are we the ones making the decisions or is someone else? There are three types of “business”: my business, your business and God’s business. (If you aren’t a God person, substitute that for nature, the universe, chance, fate, whatever helps you understand that certain stuff is out of our control.)
Taking on others’ business has been a major source of anxiety for me. The big ones on my list are: any of my kids falling ill, being hurt or getting into trouble. Sounds weird to say that what they do is none of my business, but it’s actually true. I can do my best as a parent to teach them how to make good choices and manage their feelings, but I control exactly none of how they do it. Oddly, it’s a relief. Worrying about my family has dominated much of my adult life but with this insight, I feel pretty good. Plus, trying to fix it for themwill stunt their growth anyway, so we are all better off.
- SEEK SUPPORT AND ACCOUNTABILITY
A few months ago, I tried to help someone going through a difficult time. She had coped with problems by self-medicating with food. She asked for help so I asked around. A trusted friend recommended a Registered Dietician—a woman in town whom I had always liked but didn’t know what she did for a living. Apparently, she was in high demand and only had one spot for months. I set the appointment. Turned out, the time didn’t work for my friend. When I clicked on her calendar to cancel, I realized I could benefit from an expert’s opinion on my choices. My digestion had always been troubled. Energy ups and downs plagued my every day. Extra weight had me feeling uncomfortable in my clothes despite exercise and healthy eating.
One look at what was going on and Dianne explained that the dried fruit I snacked on with regularity spiked my blood sugar and sent me into a crash. My temperamental belly had been not so silently objecting to the amount of beans I consumed. They had always been a major staple of my diet. Due to my daily breakfast of oatmeal and maple syrup and then a turkey avocado sandwich for lunch, I’d chosen a diet perfectly tailored to weight gain. My body required way more vegetables, more protein and loads less sugar. I followed what she told me and now I don’t crave sugar and enjoy steady energy. I feel better than ever.
Not that you asked, but since today is basically our national holiday for overeating, I will share Dianne’s advice: “fill 3/4 of the plate like this: protein, vegetables and salad. The last 1/4 of the plate with other traditional foods high in carbs like stuffing and potatoes. For dessert take small tasting pieces on a plate. The key is that Thanksgiving is a wonderful meal, not a weekend, so beware of leftover starches and desserts.” Ok! I may do most of that, we’ll see. That little kid in me who hates to be deprived is still in there after all.
5. CHOOSE YOU
In years past, feeling bad about myself and really wallowing in it paired nicely with poor food choices: it could be something with sugar (brownies and chocolate chip cookies), or highly processed (ALL the chips). My vacuum cleaner style of eating had very little to do with actual hunger. I felt entitled to console myself with food and there was no scolding parent here to stop me. I felt trapped in this little kid thinking.The more I ate, the worse I felt—perfect.
That’s no longer what I want for myself. When making choices, I now take a mindfulness break to focus on one my senses: breathing, music, or touch (rub index finger and thumb together feeling the ridges of your fingerprint). It puts me back in my body to make choices that will feel good to me. I feel more responsible for the person who will wake up tomorrow and reflect on what I did today. I don’t need another opportunity to beat myself over the head. Lord knows, I have done enough of that.
Today, I choose me.
When your body and mind are integrated, you feel whole. No morsel of food anywhere feels as good as that.
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