I recently watched Brene Brown’s Netflix special, a video version of her book and course called Daring Greatly. I had taken the course with a friend of mine and we’d learned a lot. Much of the video special was familiar to me, but when she got towards the end and was talking about vulnerability directly, I saw once again how much I protect myself against feeling vulnerable. And food is one of my best devices.
I grew up with parents who loved us and kept us physically safe and attended to our physical wellbeing. But my father was often absent and my mother was not emotionally equipped to parent, especially someone as vigilant and sensitive as I was. Her rebuffs of my vulnerability, my fears and concerns, taught me to protect my feelings at all costs. And she modeled first food and then alcohol as ways to self-protect.
While I needed that protection as a kid, I don’t need it so much anymore but I sure think I do. And I’m coming to see that a lot of my overeating is not a response to vulnerable situations but a pre-emptive strike. If I stay numb enough with food, I won’t get vulnerable.
But I’m coming to a place where I don’t want to be so guarded anymore. I also don’t want to eat so much. So embracing the prospects of vulnerability by not eating is something I’m becoming open to. And the key will be identifying that tendency to eat in advance of discomfort and not doing so.
Do you eat to protect yourself? Could you become willing to let that go?
In addition to getting honest about what we eat every day, my sister and I are practicing getting neutral about what we eat. We’re giving up good, bad, better, worse, not so good—that whole string of judgment words concerning what and how much we eat.
Our goal is to give up shame and guilt about food. We are eating what we are eating. We are making the choices that we are making. I want to get to a place where food doesn’t have the big emotional charge that it currently does in my life. Where a handful of chips isn’t the enemy. Where French fries aren’t taboo. Where I’m not eating in secret because I feel bad about what I’m eating.
Instead I want to move food into a realistic part of my life, not one of mythic proportions.
What might change if you got neutral about what you eat?
All the 12-Step programs promote rigorous honesty since most of us addicts have a slippery relationship with what we consume when our addiction is active. I couldn’t get sober until I was honest with my doctor about just how much alcohol I was drinking and how often. So lately I’ve been practicing being rigorously honest about what I’m eating. I’m not changing what I’m eating, just telling it like it really is.
I’m doing this with one of my sisters, who also suffers from overeating issues. Each day we email each other with what we ate the day before. We delineate by meals and snacks. We don’t comment on what the other person ate; instead, we thank each other for our honesty.
In the past, I’ve only been honest about what I’m eating when I’ve been adhering rigidly to a diet. Now I’m interested in a very different relationship with food, and honesty seems a good start.
Who might you be honest with about what you’re eating?
Once we’ve identified our obstacles to abstinence, the real work begins. The Serenity Prayer asks us to find the courage to change what we can and accept what we can’t—and of course the wisdom to know the difference.
In my three decades of recovery, I’ve learned that the “accept what we can’t change” group is really very small and mostly centers around death and permanent loss. The rest of our obstacles take the courage to change them, courage we may at first believe we don’t have.
We can start with changing the small things: We can ask our friends to change the venue of a restaurant even if our tradition of eating and drinking there has been going on for years. We can screw up our courage and take a class or join a meetup group to counteract our shyness and loneliness.
We can move on to the larger things (or start with those). We can quit a job where the break room offers too many triggers. We can separate from an abusive or demeaning or cheating spouse even if the kids will be unhappy. We can even refuse to have lunch every Sunday with our mother-in-law, sending our spouse to have lunch with her and taking ourselves to a movie or a 12-Step meeting instead.
Change isn’t easy but energy comes from it, energy that can serve more change and help us create a life we really love. Staying stuck in our old ways gives us only the old life and most of us are eating addictively because that life doesn’t fit us anymore.
If more discipline and will-power aren’t the answer to abstinence, well, what is? The answer is relatively simple to identify and often very difficult to implement. It’s change. Not just changing what we eat and when we eat it and how often and how much. While those are often the focus of our recovery program, they’re not the whole story. For it’s why we eat and eliminating those factors that are the key.
It could be a big thing. Grief or trauma you’ve never resolved through prayer or spiritual work. A tedious or demeaning job that makes you bored and restless all day every day. An unhappy or loveless partnership that you stay in “for the kids.”
It could be something less obvious. Creative impulses that never get attention because you have an old story that you have no talent. Shyness that you don’t really see anymore but that keeps you lonely.
It could be a seemingly insurmountable thing that seems too small to do anything about. A break room at work always full of sweets. A long-standing tradition with friends for margaritas and high-fat dinners on Tuesday. Lunch on Sundays with your mother-in-law who always criticizes you.
Each of us has to ferret out our own obstacles and that may not be easy. Food is the obvious culprit but seldom is it at the core of our problem.
What obstacles to abstinence seem obvious to you? Which are less clear but powerful?
In Atomic Habits (which I highly recommend), James Clear says that none of us get up each morning and say to ourselves, “Today I plan to do the same stupid self-destructive things I did yesterday.” And yet many of us do.
We get up, we vow to not overeat or binge or buy those demon foods and yet we do. We go into the restaurant at lunch determined to eat a salad with dressing on the side and we order the burger and fries. We stop at the convenience store for one ice cream bar and we buy three 4-packs and eat six bars before bed. We go to sleep feeling sick, ashamed, and vowing to do something different the next day. And maybe we do but usually we don’t. The need for comfort is too strong.
Recovery from addictive behaviors requires many things. And while discipline and will-power are useful, they aren’t the key. And most of us know this. Some of us are highly disciplined and most of us are not lazy at all. We’re just looking for the answers in the wrong places.
In the last post, I talked about our possible addiction to having a problem. I think this may well be motivated by our fear of freedom and happiness. I know that’s counterintuitive. We all want to be happy and free, right? And I think that’s true. We all want that, but some of us are afraid to get it.
I grew up in an eggshell household. My mother’s bad moods were infrequent but unpredictable and I always seemed to be waiting for that proverbial other shoe to drop. I was waiting to be ignored, rejected, occasionally scorned for the tender feelings I had. My mother was also an odd combination of cheerful and unhappy. Her Christian upbringing promoted cheerfulness no matter what but preached that life is fundamentally miserable. I didn’t want to believe that but it was hard to resist.
So instead of happiness and freedom, I chose comfort and relief. At first with food, then with alcohol and relationships that weren’t great but were okay. Once I moved away from home, my mother wasn’t the problem. Alcohol was. And my boyfriend. And when I got sober and broke up with my partner, food was. Again.
I’m not sure what the solution is for those of us who are afraid to be happy but I want to find out.
Is fear of happiness part of your struggle with food?
We Americans are a curious culture. We pride ourselves on our problems. I’m too busy, too stressed, working too hard, eating too much, spending too much, drinking too much. These things may all be true but some of us practically boast about them. I’ve overheard conversations between younger women in coffee shops where they seem to be trying to outdo each other with how busy their lives are. And most of us know young men, and some not so young, who boast about how drunk and wasted they get. Adults of all genders boast about how tired they are as if this is a good thing.
I speak of this from decades of personal experience as an over-worker, over-eater, over-drinker. In fact, most of my long life I’ve had one consuming problem or several. Alcohol, abusive boyfriends, boring work, overeating. I’d no sooner solve one than another would pop up.
Eventually I had to realize that I was the common denominator. And that I was addicted to having a problem. Oh the problems were real enough. I am an alcoholic. I’ve had difficult relationships with me. I am a chronic overeater. But all of that can be resolved if I want to be free.
And somehow I don’t want enough to be free. The current problem shapes my life, gives me something to worry about, something to struggle with. As if struggle has to be the norm, not happiness. Am I ready to be problem-free?
Are you addicted to your problem?
Most of us know how easily triggered we are by foods we love but don’t want to eat anymore. I get uncomfortable smelling bakery goods. I get just as uncomfortable watching others eat chocolate cake or donuts or a bowl of ice cream. Why? Because I have so many pleasant associations with those foods that my cravings get activated and it’s a struggle to keep saying no.
So how is this an environmental problem? Because these triggers have shown up in my environment and I am safer when my environment doesn’t contain problem foods. Here are some ideas for creating environments that support your desire to stay abstinent:
- Choose meeting places that don’t carry your favorite binge foods. I avoid bakeries, coffee shops where the only seats face the pastry case, candy stores, ice cream stores, pizza parlors. I have a fair amount of will power but I don’t want to use it up resisting foods that don’t work for me.
- If you live alone, keep your home free of foods that aren’t on your food program. And if someone brings something in for a potluck or other event that triggers you, send the leftovers home with them. It’s been helpful for me to have all foods in my home be safe foods.
- I keep food off the counters and out of sight except for my fruit bowl.
- If you live with others who don’t follow your program, have a conversation about creating a safe environment for you. One woman asked her husband and kids to support her by keeping their snack foods in a lower cupboard and to always dispose of their wrappers and put their dishes in the dishwasher. Another woman asked her husband to get a small freezer for the basement where he could keep his ice cream and eat it in his work room.
- The grocery store can be another difficult environment. I shop only once a week, get almost everything I need in the fresh departments that are on the outer edge of the supermarket and avoid many of the aisles. I don’t need to see those foods.
What changes could you make in your environment to support your abstinence?
Recently I got a good but hard lesson in paying attention to what my body is trying to tell me. For most of my life, I’ve been really great at tuning out the messages it sends. I get them but then I don’t listen. So I can’t tell when I’m full enough or whether I’m hungry or just craving.
Recently I’ve had problems with a condition called esophageal spasm, where the channel between throat and stomach contract more aggressively than is needed. It’s painful and sometimes terrifying (it can seem like a heart attack). So I’m advised to eat slowly (not my style) and eat multiple smaller meals. This is hard for me as I never feel full or satisfied but if I eat too much at one time, I really suffer. So I’m getting a good lesson in listening.
Where might you benefit from listening more closely to your body?