Get to know your teams

People who overeat often get discouraged about finding a solution. Sometimes this is because they’re confused about why they would be eating this way. Sometimes it’s because of so many past diets, when they tried to push their body to do something it wasn’t designed to do-- and naturally the body fought back. Sometimes it’s because they have tried a recommended strategy to stop overeating, and then found it didn’t work (or didn’t work for very long).

For example, Sharon heard that people overeat because they fear being deprived, and so gave up all her rules and restrictions around food. Yes, she felt less deprived as a result but this didn’t stop the unwanted eating-- in fact she found she was even eating more. What she didn’t know is that difficulties with food are multi-factoral: there is more than one reason for them. This means it’s not only hard to see clearly what is going on, it’s also hard to make changes when just one aspect of the situation is tackled.

You could think of difficulties with food as a tug of war: on one side are a number of factors which are pulling in the direction of unwanted eating (psychologists call these perpetuating factors); on the other side are a number of factors pulling in the direction of more positive eating habits (psychologists call these protective factors). Some people find they are being pulled first one way, then the other, with neither team gaining ground for any length of time; others find that one team is consistently stronger than the other. When Sharon reduced the power of the team member called Fear of Deprivation, there were still plenty of others on the team pulling her towards overeating. But when she identified a number of the other key players in the overeating team and reduced their power, while boosting the strength of the other team, she was able to make lasting changes.

What will you call the team that supports the continuation of unwanted eating in your life?

And who are its key members? These may include things like the environment you live or work in, ongoing stressors, how you experience your body, habitual ways you respond to certain feelings or situations, or habitual thinking patterns. It may also include brain/body factors like fluctuating blood glucose, low serotonin, having to deal with food intolerances. You can use the headings below as a guide as you write down your ideas.

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What will you call the other team? Here are a few possible team names:
Right Eating Team, Balanced Eating Team, Positive Eating Team, Healthy Relationship to Food Team.

And who are the key members? These are factors that will support you in creating the food life you want. You can use the headings below as a guide as you write down your ideas.

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Take action
Over the coming 24 hours, see if you can add anything to both lists.

Because our brain/body system is so fundamental to good functioning at every level, it’s a priority to sort out these factors first if this is at all possible: this will make addressing the other factors easier. If you listed any brain/body factors, what is
one thing you can do to start addressing them? Here are some examples: book a health appointment, research on the internet, consider what has helped me or others before.

Planning the journey

Moving from one set of experiences with food to another set is like going on a journey, a journey towards freedom with food. Knowing where you are at the start of the journey can help with planning your route. Also, knowing your starting point makes it possible further down the track to look back at the journey so far: you may find yourself pleasantly surprised with how far you have come.

In planning your journey it’s also important to know where you’re heading for. This knowledge can help keep you on track, and may also inspire you to keep going when the terrain gets rocky. Some people find having a clear destination in mind helpful; others find that fixing on this trips them up: it seems like an impossibly far-off goal and they get disheartened.

If this sounds like you, instead of thinking of the future in terms of a destination it may work better to think in terms of a direction with a number of milestones along the way. You may find this helpfully shifts the focus of your attention onto what you are working on now and the next milestone ahead of you. And it may mean you notice each time you reach a milestone, and allow yourself to pause and celebrate.

To plan your own journey, you may find it helpful to consider how you would answer these questions (I’d suggest write down your answers so you can come back to them at a later date and monitor how your journey is going):

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Take action
Here’s one way to act on what you’ve written down. When planning a journey it’s a good idea, if possible, to check out the terrain and the possible challenges in advance. So over the next few days you could get prepared for moving towards that first milestone by
  • checking your everyday experience of food and eating against your answer to question 1. Some of us overestimate how severe our difficulties are because we focus on what isn’t going so well; others underestimate, fearful of facing the reality.
    • checking how close or far away are you to the first milestone you identified. Some of us overlook that on easier days we may have already reached our goals; others regularly set targets that are too challenging for where they are on their journey.
    • noticing what aspects of your daily life will be a support to you on your journey.
    • noticing what aspects of your daily life may make it harder for you on your journey.

It may help to talk this through with someone, for example a trusted friend or family member, or a counsellor experienced in working with people who have difficulties with food.

Starting the process

The lotus flower is an ancient symbol. This white flower grows out of the mud, so it symbolises the growth of something beautiful out of an unpromising situation.

If you’re experiencing unwanted overeating of any kind (such as compulsive eating, emotional eating, comfort eating or binge-eating), you’re likely to be familiar with some of the distressing feelings and thoughts that often go along with these difficulties. These can include a sense of not being in control of what you do, low self-esteem, a sense of shame, and negative expectations about the future. You may not know that overcoming eating difficulties can bring about enjoyable experiences such as a confidence in being able to make choices in life, a rise in self-esteem, a sense of achievement, and positive expectations of what you and your life can become.

This blog includes ideas to support you in creating these more enjoyable experiences. In the same way as the lotus grows out of the mud, you may find that dealing with the difficulties you’ve experienced around food will allow something beautiful to emerge in your life.

Here is a suggestion that may help you to find out more about what is going on now and how you want your life to be.

Create a piece of A4 paper that looks like this:

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Starting with the left hand side, write a description of how things are with you and food these days. You can consider including: the kinds of foods you eat; the amounts you eat; the foods you avoid; your feelings and thoughts about food and eating; your daily overall eating pattern; how the current situation with food affects your life.

Then on the right hand side write a description of how you would like things to be in the future. You can consider including: the kinds of foods you would like to eat in the future; the amounts you would eat; the foods you would avoid; your feelings and thoughts about food and eating; your daily overall eating pattern; how this new situation with food will affect other areas of your life.

Take action
You can support yourself in creating the future you described by strengthening certain neural pathways in your mind, the ones that relate to the inner experience of that future. One way to do this is to identify a quality you will need for this journey of getting you from how things are now to how you would like them to be. For example, courage, self-compassion, determination, persistence… or something else.

Close your eyes and imagine being filled with this quality in this moment. It may help to bring to mind a time when you experienced having this quality. Or you could imagine a situation in which you would feel filled with this quality.

Write about your experience of this activity and add any other reflections you have.

If it was easy for you to imagine being filled with the quality you chose, great. Doing this activity If you found this activity too challenging right now, you may find it helpful to talk it over with a counsellor or psychotherapist.