How Do You Handle Setbacks?

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“It was going really well and now it’s not and I’m just so annoyed and angry with myself.”

This is something I hear a lot.

I understand.  You’ve been doing really well listening to your body about when you’re hungry, what you feel like eating and when you’ve had enough.  You’ve been leaving food on your plate (something you thought you’d never do), you’ve turned down ice-cream because you didn’t feel like it (unheard of) and you ate just one brownie rather than devouring the whole batch (say whaaat?!).

Rather than grappling with food on a daily basis, perhaps for the first time in your life, eating has become easy and natural.

“I’ve got this”, you think. “I’ve nailed my eating issues once and for all”.

What a relief.

Then all of a sudden you feel like you’re going backwards.  Your eating has become chaotic again and a voice in your head is telling you to stop all this nonsense and go back to dieting.

I know it’s disappointing and frustrating – but it’s OK.

It’s a setback and it’s a perfectly normal part of recovery.

Setbacks are a vital part of the process of healing your relationship with food.  They’re a chance not only for you to learn more about why you overeat but also to find out what you’re made of.  But it’s unlikely you’ll see them that way to begin with.  For you, a setback probably means you’ve failed.

And that’s the issue.  It’s not the setback itself – it’s how you react to it.

If a friend said to you “I’m seriously struggling with a major issue in my life at the moment and I’m feeling really vulnerable” what would your response be? My guess is that it’s unlikely to be:

“OH, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!  WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?  THIS IS SO SIMPLE, YOU’RE SUCH AN IDIOT!  YOU’RE SO WEAK AND PATHETIC AND I HATE YOU!”

You wouldn’t be a great friend if this was your response (actually you probably wouldn’t have any friends).

But while you’d never speak to a friend in such an uncaring way, this is probably how you speak to yourself when you think you’ve made a “mistake”.  If you’ve had a binge, or eaten something you think you “shouldn’t”, a very negative, critical, harsh side of you kicks in and starts beating you up.

It’s a good idea to give that side of you a name so you can easily recognise it when it comes up. I’m fond of “Criticising Git Wizard” (thank you Marcus Brigstocke) but you can call it whatever you like as long as the name conveys its negative function.

Because does it help?

How do you feel when that side of you gives you a hard time?

Do you feel supported and enthused to get back up and keep going?  Or do you feel ashamed, worthless and defeated?  I suspect it’s the latter.

And when you feel that way your inclination will be to withdraw from the world and go and eat.  A lot.  Before you know it, you’re stuck in a shame cycle which is a horrible place to be (I know because I used to live there on a semi-permanent basis).

You’re probably thinking “but that’s how I speak to myself, I can’t change it, it’s just automatic”.

But it doesn’t have to be.

I understand that’s how you’re used to relating to yourself but it doesn’t have to continue.  You could you do things differently.

There’s a saying here in the part of the UK where I’ve lived for the past 17+ years:

“Norfolk people do things different”.

Aside from the fact that I’m not entirely sure what it means, and apart from the fact that it makes the grammar fascist in me want to have a hissy fit, I like it.  I like the idea of “doing different”.

Back to you and your friend who’s struggling with a serious issue.  In reality, what would you say to them if they were upset?  Maybe something like:

“You’re doing so well.  You’re learning.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, you’re doing the best you can. Keep going.  Let me help you, maybe together we can figure out what you need.”

So how would it feel if you spoke to yourself in that way?  Different, I know.  But good different.  Supportive different.  More likely to help you navigate the bumps in the road to normalising your relationship with food different.

In 2011, the actor Denzel Washington gave a brilliant Commencement Address at the University of Pennsylvania.  His theme was “fall forward”.  You can find the full speech here but I’d like to share a particularly powerful part:

“Fall forward.  Here’s what I mean:  Reggie Jackson struck out 2600 times in his career – the most in the history of baseball.  But you don’t hear about the strikeouts.  People remember the home runs.  Fall forward.  Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that?  I didn’t know that.  Because the 1,001st was the lightbulb.  Fall forward.  Every failed experiment is one step closer to success”.

I love the idea of falling forward, rather than back.  And, believe it or not, you have that choice every time you experience a relapse.

Next time you’ve eaten something you didn’t want to or you catch a glimpse of your reflection in a shop window and the Criticising Git Wizard or whatever you’ve called it starts trying to shame you –

Stop, take a breath and think:

Am I going to fall forward or fall back?

To fall forward, replace the usual negative message with something you would say to a dear friend who was in need of comfort, reassurance and encouragement.  You’d do that for someone else, now it’s time to do it for yourself.  Not just once but every time that negative voice has a go at you.  It’s hard at first but it becomes easier over time.

The problem isn’t that you lack determination, resilience and resourcefulness.  The problem is that you don’t yet know you possess those qualities.  Setbacks give you the chance to find out.  Not just with eating but with everything in life.

So when you’re faced with a challenge, remember these two things:

Be more Norfolk and do different.

Be more Denzel and fall forward.

 

Here are some more ideas about what to do after a binge.

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