Freedom with Food

for healing difficulties with food…for transforming body concerns


Preparing for slips

When starting out on any long journey, it’s important to be ready for times when things don’t go according to plan. And the journey of making changes to eating patterns is no exception. There’s no doubt that if you are learning to reduce the bingeing in your life there will be times when you have a full-on binge; or if you are wanting to stop grazing, there will be days when you graze as much as you ever did. For many people the habitual response is something like: ‘I’ve blown it. I’m a failure. I’ll never be able to...’ whether this response is experienced in thoughts or expressed in giving up. Because of how our neural pathways are built, the pull to respond like this is stronger if you grew up around someone who 'modelled' this kind of response by using it themselves in what they did or said; and it gets stronger each time it is used.

Luckily, we also have a different kind of experience to draw on. When a baby is learning to walk, its first attempts always involve falling over. Instead of giving up at this point, it tries again, through trial and error gradually learning how to balance. A graph showing the baby’s progress wouldn’t look like a straight line to achievement but a zigzag one-- the same as a graph showing successful changes to eating patterns. Everyone who learned how to walk, learned not through avoiding setbacks but through treating them as learning experiences. And strengthening these neural pathways in your mind are likely to be key to achieving what you want now.

Take time to consider the following questions:

From what you know of yourself, in what way might things not go well with changes to your eating habits? How are you likely to respond internally, in what you think or feel? And externally, in what you do? In what ways is this response useful to you? In what ways is it not useful?

If you decide that this habitual reaction is not useful, how did you come to learn it? The answer might be: from watching others; or perhaps there was a way in which this reaction served you in the past; or perhaps there were important times in your life when there was no other option than to react like this.

What would be a helpful response these days? Is this a response you are already able to make in other areas of your life, for example, if things don’t go well at work? (If so, you can imagine yourself applying this reponse to food and see how that goes for you. If not, you can try imagining responding in a positive way to making a mistake in another area of your life first, and see how that goes for you.)

Take action
Write down a plan for how you will respond when things don’t go well with food, and be ready to use it. Your plan may include:

any emergency action
what you plan to say to yourself, and how you will respond to any habitual thought reactions that don’t serve you
what you plan to do, and how you will turn away from any habitual behaviour reactions that don’t serve you
anything else you need to remind yourself of at this time
the support you ask for from others

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.