Let’s say you’ve managed to normalise your relationship with food.
You’ve been eating in tune with your body for a while – you’re eating when you’re hungry, you’re eating exactly what you feel like, and you’re stopping when you’re satisfied. In addition, you’re getting better at acknowledging your feelings and you’re finding ways to meet your emotional needs directly. Now that you’re no longer overeating, you’re really beginning to work with your metabolism and, whaddaya know, you’re starting to lose weight.
Or is it?
You may not be aware that often the purpose of binge eating is not only to take you away from challenging feelings but also to make you put on weight.
I’m not saying you deliberately put on weight. I know you’re not consciously thinking “great, this’ll put loads of weight on me” after you’ve binged (quite the opposite, in fact). But that doesn’t mean something isn’t going on behind the scenes, outside of your awareness.
There can be many reasons why people subconsciously put on and retain weight and, in my experience, they’re all valid and worthy of exploration.
For example, suppose you’ve had a really damaging relationship with someone who behaved abusively towards you. Issues with food may always have been lurking in the background but they were seriously triggered during the relationship and you started secretly bingeing in an attempt to detach from the emotional pain of the abuse.
You may have managed to escape the relationship but the experience was so profoundly negative there’s a part of you that’s terrified about having another relationship ever again.
Running contrary to that is your belief that if you lose weight you automatically have to begin a new relationship, or that the act of losing weight makes this more of a possibility (are relationships only the preserve of thin people? I don’t think so).
It’s this belief and the fear that it generates that can initiate a return to bingeing, as a part of you says “quick, let’s get the weight back on so we don’t have to be in a relationship and can feel safe again”.
Beliefs such as this give you the sense that if you lose weight then THINGS WILL CHANGE and that thought can be deeply alarming.
Here are a few other beliefs that people often (unconsciously) hold about losing weight:
• If I lose weight I’ll have to dress differently.
• If I lose weight I’ll have to be confident and outgoing.
• If I lose weight I’ll have to have sex.
• If I lose weight I’ll become cold and heartless.
• If I lose weight I’ll have to have my act together.
• If I lose weight I’m not allowed to fail.
The fear is that if you lose weight you somehow transform into a different person.
You have to dress very differently, perhaps more fashionably or provocatively. You’re never allowed to be shy or insecure. You’re expected to have sex. You must be self-assured, successful and on top of your game. At the same time, you have become frosty and uncaring towards others (sometimes people equate fat with being warm and caring, and worry they’ll become cold and indifferent if they lose weight. But it’s you who’s warm and caring, not your fat).
This list is by no means exhaustive and it would be good for you to have a think about any beliefs you might have about being slimmer that may be getting in the way of really healing your relationship with food (I’d love to hear them).
The point is that a part of you can feel frightened and vulnerable about losing weight and you need to assure this part of you that nothing has to change unless you want it to.
A good way of doing this is to create your own personal rules for when you’re slimmer. If you’re having a bad reaction to the word “rules” then pick something else – how about personal guidelines? You then clearly set out what you want to believe and how you want to behave.
For example, I’m aware that I have a slight self-aggrandising side to my personality. My fear was that as soon as I lost weight, a raging narcissist waiting in the wings would suddenly enter stage right and take over. So, the first “rule” I wrote for myself was:
“When I lose weight I will not act like a douchebag”.
Now that I’ve lost weight if I’m in danger of behaving in a self-aggrandising manner I hear a voice in my head say “erm, Julie, just so you know you’re being a douchebag right now and you said you wouldn’t do that. Just saying”. That helps to keep that part of me in check (sadly, it doesn’t always work).
If we take the examples I gave above, some new “rules” to counteract these beliefs might go as follows – When I lose weight…
• I don’t have to have a relationship if I don’t want to.
• I don’t have to dress any differently if I don’t want to.
• I’m allowed to be unsure of myself.
• I don’t have to have sex if I don’t want to.
• I’ll keep an eye on my behaviour (also known as “The Douchebag Rule”).
• I’m allowed to be imperfect.
• I’ll still be the warm and caring person I’ve always been.
• I’m allowed to make mistakes, as we all are.
I wouldn’t stop there. I would write as many as you want to in order to give the message to your vulnerable side that you know what you’re doing.
Often it can feel like you’re sitting in the passenger seat while your emotion-driven overeating is steering. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Generally, things start to improve the day you decide to sling your eating issue in the back of the car while you clamber into the driving seat and take control of the wheel. You may not know exactly where you’re going but at least you’re in charge now.
Hopefully then the day will come when you decide to dump your overeating baggage at the side of the road and put your foot on the accelerator. Smiling, you watch it disappear in the rear-view mirror as you head off into your binge-free future.