Whether you have been on and off the diet bandwagon for decades or you are still struggling to lose the last ten pounds, what I am going to share with you may just surprise you. While nutrition and exercise play a significant role in getting, and keeping weight off – for many, the underlying emotional issues must be resolved in order to sustain long term results.
This revolution came early in my career, but it instantly became my life’s guiding mission as a therapist. Jenny was my very first client. She was a seventeen year old covered in tattoos from head to toe that had registered for a camp dedicated to tackling adolescent obesity. After sizing me up with a long unblinking gaze, she began to tell me her story. What I heard made me want to throw my coaching manual out window. I had been prepared to provide all of the tools and skills necessary for the organization and planning of a weight loss program, but this was not the core problem. Instead of being about food, her tale was one of shame and fear. I spent the next few days listening to stories surrounding the same theme of shame, fear, and worthlessness. At the center of it all was psychological fragility and vulnerability. Below are three recommendations that will help you:
#1 Don’t build a house on sand: After many years in practice I have learned the undeniable truth: what you are eating is more about what’s eating you. While the abuse of food may be the presenting problem, it is often a symptom of another deeper issue. Symptoms are the unconscious mind’s attempt to work through another problem, hidden from consciousness, but manifested in the form of unproductive or unwanted patterns of thinking, feeling or behaving. Dieting and exercise in these cases is like treating a brain tumour with aspirin. The growth causes severe headaches. Ignoring the cause, we try to cure the headaches by prescribing aspirin. And while this may alleviate the pain for a few hours, it will do nothing to remedy the underlying cause of the headaches. Food is used to avoid dealing with the questions at the heart of the problem. Successful therapy involves looking into the deeper confines of the mind to uncover and resolve the root of the problem.
One of my clients, Sarah, battled with her weight for many years. After the initial therapy session she relayed difficult stories about her childhood that revealed a lack of predictability, justice and unconditional love. It drew her to a life based upon order and rules. It wasn’t a surprise that she turned to law as a career later in life. Her overeating developed as a response to life challenges, and brought an immediate sense of relief. Our work together involved identifying Sarah’s deep thoughts around not being good enough, showing her how to challenge these, and then replacing them with more adaptive, evidence-based statements.
As a result, for the first time Sarah felt able to choose an alternate course of action around food. Since our work together, Sarah’s weight has come down AND she’s been able to participate more in family activities. Sleeping has become easier, she’s lost the pain in her joints, and claims her energy levels are way up. She has become kinder and more nurturing towards herself and her body.
#2 Don’t judge a book by the cover: Adrienne, a forty-two year old, bright and charismatic woman, came to me after a year of using food as a temporary solution. On the outside, Adrienne was charismatic, bright and outgoing. On the inside, she was suffering. After having identified a problem pattern of taking initiative, we sat down to look at her earliest memories. In Adrienne’s very first memory of age five, she had become the recipient of an adult’s unwanted sexual advances. This traumatic experience taught her that initiating contact with others was not to be trusted. As a result, she began to hide and isolate herself, avoiding situations in which she was required to reach out to others. Unfortunately, life requires us to reach out. And so we began to work on rebuilding the trust in herself.
With the root of the problem revealed, we began to practice the tools of cognitive-behavioural therapy by finding opportunities for her to practice initiating contact in a safe way. Whether it was asking the waiter to take back the food which was not cooked properly, speaking to a manager to return an electronic device, or initiating a conversation with her partner about their intimacy, Adrienne slowly began to trust herself. Each week she would be assigned three similar tasks, which would be documented in her journal and reported to me when we next met.
After our twelve sessions together, Adrienne’s strength and trust in herself grew significantly. She had found a level of comfort in herself that not only allowed her to reach a level of intimacy with her partner, but also apply successfully for a new position at work. While she experienced some discomfort at the beginning, she quickly realized that the uncomfortable feelings were the precursor to growth and development, to which she was now happily open. Oh, and did I mention she lost weight too?
#3 Know the dish to know thy self: Food provides comfort and relief from stress, fear, shame and suffering. Underlying the stress and emotion we find vulnerability, which we numb with food (and drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, and gambling). The problem is that we cannot selectively numb emotional pain with a couple of martinis and a Big Mac; we can’t delete the unpleasant emotions without turning off the good ones, such as joy, gratitude and happiness. When we do, the outcome is misery, which leads back to the martini and Big Mac, initiating a cycle of physiological and emotional damage.
The good news is that we do have the ability to change. The process, which starts from within, allows us to be deeply and vulnerably seen. We must believe that each of us has intrinsic value that is not contingent upon our so-called strengths and weaknesses, successes or failures. We must believe, that with our flaws and frailties, we remain worthy of unconditional love and acceptance, just as we are. When this happens, the struggles we face become more manageable and the desire for comfort food no longer becomes compulsive.
By Jaime Saibil
Psychotherapist, Spectrum Recovery