The only reason you ever use food to cope, no exceptions, is because you have needs (See Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Needs Chart on the left) that aren’t being met in some area of your life and you’ve told yourself that you’re not allowed, not deserving, or just not capable of getting them met, no matter what you do. These stories you’re telling yourself lead you to feel depressed and anxious, lethargic and frantic, in other words, they overwhelm you.
And when you’re feeling overwhelmed about something you believe you can’t do anything to change or resolve, the only thing to do is to find a way to diminish or discount the impact of that thing: to numb out.
In comes your primary coping strategy.
Is it binging?
- Is it restricting calories, certain kinds of foods, or times of eating regardless of whether you’re hungry or not?
- Is it purging (through an hour or two of exercise, through laxatives, or vomiting)?
- Is it an attachment to a certain weight or way of looking?
- Is it drinking?
- What about drugs; shopping; gambling; the pursuit of that perfect relationship?
- Do you take responsibility for what others feel, or what others need?
- Do you procrastinate to cope with overwhelming things?
- Do you isolate yourself?
- Do you avoid certain people or places?
- Do you resist downtime?
- Do you resist going to bed at a reasonable hour?
- Are you a clean freak? Or just the opposite?
How do you currently cope with the unmet needs in your life?
Which of the above coping strategies do you use when you have needs that aren’t being met? Make a mental note or write them down.
Step 1: Learn to immediately identify when you have needs that aren’t being met.
Step 2: Learn to acknowledge and validate those needs, rather than question or squash or judge them.
Step 3: Learn how best to meet your needs in ways that are lasting and life-enhancing. This builds self-esteem and creates a life that is peaceful, balanced, passionate and fulfilling.
Step 4: Live, have fun, enjoy, practice good self-care without effort and never even think about using any harmful coping strategy again.
But before you can live in step 4 you have to master steps 1 – 3.
Each of us has an appropriately and naturally occurring sensation of discomfort or distress when we have a need that isn’t being met. I call it “the niggle.” A sense of “something’s not right” or “I just can’t relax” or, even worse: “Something bad is going to happen.” Your goal is to learn to identify immediately when the niggle arises. And, instead of judging it and numbing out to it with one of your coping strategies, you’re going to do this:
- Acknowledge that you have a need that isn’t being met. “I am feeling that niggly sensation. That means I have a need that isn’t being met.”
- Ask yourself what you were just thinking or what just happened that may have triggered you to feel stressed (niggly).
- Then ask yourself: “What has to happen with that situation I was just imagining in order for me to feel completely peaceful?” (However unlikely or unreal it may seem, let yourself get clear on what you really need in that situation in order to feel peaceful about it – write it down!)
- And voila, you’ve identified your unmet needs and can now set about learning how to meet them. You may also discover that your niggle was arising not from any present-day unmet needs but from memories of old painful circumstances or from imagining certain future events in a way that made you feel niggly (ie. that your needs wouldn’t be met in the future).
Most of us have such a long history of judging and tuning out to our needs that just doing step 1 is a challenge on our own, let alone steps 3 and 4.
That’s where I come in.
It doesn’t have to take a long time. It doesn’t have to be “hard.” It’s only taken awhile, but it’s been challenging so far because you’ve been trying the wrong thing over and over. It typically takes 5 or 6 sessions to get the basic tools in your tool kit (or one weekend workshop) and then a few follow-up sessions as you road test them.
There is this ridiculous mentality out there in the medical system and amidst many eating disorder and substance abuse recovery facilities that once you’ve got an eating disorder, or alcoholism etc., you’ve got it for life and that the best you can do is learn to live in such a way that minimizes its effect on your life. Well, that is just not true at all. That is the most defeating, paralyzing mentality anyone can have and it’s no wonder that by the time people come to work with me, they’re feeling completely stuck and hopeless.
I want to reassure you that your use of food to cope, in whatever way you do it, and any other harmful coping strategy you engage in, can be completely overcome and left behind for good. And you don’t have to go through years and years of arduous, white-knuckling it, just a few months of consistent practice of a new way of looking at yourself and at the world is all it takes.
It’s all about needs. You can choose to continue to judge your needs and shame yourself for having them, and therefore doom yourself to stay stuck where you are. Or you can allow for the possibility that in a short period of time, even if you don’t know how, you can learn to identify and meet your needs in ways that makes you feel stronger and happier than ever before and that make your relationships with others the way you’ve only ever dreamed of.
That’s been my experience as a completely recovered binge eater and exercise bulimic, and as a specialist with over 17 year’s experience in this field. There is hope. There is freedom. There is an amazing life waiting for you!