Establishing a Normal Relationship with FoodThis week, I’m writing in response to a question from a web program participant as part of a web program forum discussion about establishing a normal relationship with food. Since my answer to her question was rather lengthy and detailed and, I believe, relevant to you all, I thought I’d share the question and answer here for this week’s “Tools for Recovery” article. Question: If we’ve spent years using food to cope and stuck in the Diet Mentality, how the hell do we have a clue what is normal around what to eat and how much? Michelle’s Answer: In my own personal recovery and my 17 years as a specialist in this field, if there’s one thing I have learned, it is this: In the early stages of recovery, it is not helpful to focus on food in a structured way or to get caught up in some external meter of what to eat, when or how much. However well intended and healthy the guidelines, at the early stages of recovery, your Drill Sgt. and that well-worn Diet Mentality path will glom onto any structure around food as another diet. Soon you’ll be back where you started: judging how well you’re sticking to the plan, and berating yourself when you don’t; forgetting to focus on WHY you’re using food to cope, and instead, focussing on what you’re eating. Isn’t that what you’re working to change by being here? I find that once you’re a little farther along in your healing (and some of you may very well be there now – if so, more on that later), you will be able to choose to not have certain foods or to not have certain foods at certain times or in certain quantities without feeling at all restricted, without triggering your good old Diet Mentality and the DS’ judgement and pressure. The most important thing to focus on early in recovery is WHY you’re wanting to eat what and when you’re wanting to eat. Figuring out the WHY is the key as that then frees you to approach food in that moment from a place of rational thinking and self-awareness. This means that even if you are so overwhelmed at the time you choose to binge or restrict or purge after using your tools (which can happen early on), your binges etc., are much smaller and less overwhelming after you’ve done a list of stressors or DS dialogue, if they happen at all. Learning to eat naturally is the act of doing your best to wait until you’re hungry to eat and doing your best to stay present enough to stop when you’re comfortably full rather than stuffed – no guilt for eating certain foods as long as you’re eating when hungry and stopping when full. It’s also about learning to respond to stress in appropriate ways by identifying what is causing your stress and looking for life-enhancing solutions for the problem. In my personal and professional experience, if you try to bring in any structure around food aside from the gentle structure of Natural Eating before you’ve figured out how to identify and attend to the WHY of your eating, you will just start to obsess about what you’re eating again, and your eating disorder is off and running yet again, leaving you feeling like a total failure when you could have been incredibly happy and successful just by taking the focus off food. Before you can safely begin to focus on directing your food choices, you must have some consistency with your ability to remind yourself, when you start to want to binge or think about restricting or purging, that this is just a coping strategy. This consistency will naturally lead you to remind yourself that there is some stressor in your life that is triggering your irrational, all-or-nothing thinking: a trigger that is making you feel so overwhelmed that somehow it makes sense to think that binging or purging or restricting is going to help you. When you witness yourself consistently connecting these dots any time you feel drawn to use food to cope, you will be free of the stranglehold of binging, purging, and restricting, and naturally have the foundation to begin to safely invite yourself to be more conscious around what you’re choosing to eat, and how much. Let me be clear that in all my years of professional experience, the clients who move through this process with the greatest speed and ease are those who are willing, for a period of time (set yourself 3 months or 6 months), to:
- a. set aside any judgements of what they are eating;
- b. and instead, just focus on reminding themselves when they are using food to cope that that is, in fact, what they are doing;
- c. use their tools of the 4-7-8 breathing, DS Dialogue, and List of Stressors daily; and
- d. set aside their judgement of what they choose to eat (oh, did I say that already?).
- accepting the reality that right now you have a dysfunctional relationship with food;
- accepting that in order to straighten out any dysfunctional relationship, you’ve got to first acknowledge that it’s dysfunctional and that you play a part in that dysfunction;
- taking a big step back from trying to control and change the other person/substance and do the work you need to do on your thinking and your behaviour in order to be the person you need to be to have a healthy relationship with that person/substance (i.e., let go of trying to control food and instead focus on why you’re wanting to control it or overuse it at that moment);
- re-entering the relationship with your new skills and awareness and self-esteem, and continue to use your tools in the relationship whenever you feel any of the old stress or triggers arising. Around food, this could look like gentle invitations to change certain choices (i.e., stop having dairy if it makes you feel sick, maybe stop all together or just have a little a few times a week; stop having 3 diet pops a day if you notice it dehydrates you, maybe just have 2, then one…) or to balance the kinds of foods we choose (I.e., a gradual reduction in our consumption of processed carbohydrates and refined sugars and an increase in whole grains, fruits and veg) that are appropriate and will be successful here;
- experiencing true peace and integration as you stay grounded in your rational mind and clear thinking and the self-respect and self-compassion that that brings, regardless of what’s going on for the other person (or in this case, regardless of what food is around you and how much and that there’s no one around to see how much you have or don’t have).
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I can totally relate to this question and I can totally agree with the answer. Normal is a loaded word for me. For me, normal means fitting in and being just like most other people, but it also means being mundane and not special. I’ve found that by learning from Michelle, I can redefine normal to mean being myself, accepting myself and others, and fitting in by being my own person in the community. Ha ha ha, I certainly wonder about normal too. LIke, some people don’t like to eat much in the morning, but that is not right for me. WHo is normal?