This morning, as I sat to breakfast, and in my almost starting-over with recovery status, I decided to eat my toast and eggs mindfully. Eating mindfully, if you don’t know, means eating with no distractions, paying particular attention to your food with all your senses: what it looks like, how it smells, how it tastes, the textures in your mouth, whether it’s fulfilling your hunger or not, etc. This is a technique that can be applied to many aspects of life, not only eating, for various reasons and you can find a lot of information online about it.
For me, however, eating mindfully has always been a problem. I find it difficult to do because eating has always had a link, for me, with escapism and watching TV. In my full-on bingeing days, I would not start eating without having something on that I really wanted to watch, whether a TV show or a movie. But eating mindfully means I can’t do this anymore and it’s been tough. It’s a habit I find difficult to acquire and yet I feel I have to. I did, this morning, like some others (and some not), but it got me thinking about why we do certain things easily and others not and the relationship of that behaviour to the sense of obligation. It also made me think of my first ever therapy session.
I realised I had a problem with food some time before I became pregnant with my first child, over five years ago. Back then, I didn’t have a notion of what Binge Eating Disorder was and I put myself under a more generic ‘Food Addiction’ label. Either way, that’s what lead me to Life Therapies Clinic and to seek treatment after years of dieting and spending money on systems and personal trainers, etc.
On one of our four sessions, after discussing issues with why I wanted to lose weight and discovering it had more to do with external factors than myself, my therapist asked me to stand up. When I did, she pushed me then asked me ‘what happens when I push you?’
The first thing that happened is that I stepped back onto the same place I was before she pushed me. The second thing that happened is that you want to push back. This, applied to weight-loss, got me thinking. We want to lose weight, for whatever reason. Dieting, food restrictions, good and bad food concepts, as well as exercising, we push ourselves through all of this. All it takes is willpower, they say. Well, anybody who has an eating disorder will tell you that’s not necessarily true, but regardless, the fact that we push our own bodies and minds through this sort of obligation, combined with the low success rate of diets (1-5%), seems to confirm my therapist’s first lesson: if we are pushed, our brains will push back.
You might have noticed that I say ‘we are pushed’ and ‘we put ourselves through this’ at the same time, as if we are not the source of the obligation and, also, as if we are. We are the source of the obligation but this obligation might be a response to an expectation that it’s not necessarily ours.
Where do these expectations come from?
I have a lot of ladies on my Facebook page that are part of different online business and a lot of them work for companies that sell weight-loss products. Day in, day out, a message is shared by one of them with something like ‘I need ten ladies who want to drop a stone before summer’. I always feel like posting a video of myself dropping stones in my garden, but that’s neither here nor there.
They use different techniques to market their products: success stories, before and after pictures, etc. And I’ll give it to the products, it shows great results.
Of course, none of them show unsuccessful stories. It also doesn’t show you five or ten years down the line, but this is not an article to ditch these products, although as a ‘dieting’ strategy as such, I am not one to encourage their use. My actual point is threefold:
- Who decided that the ‘before’ was ‘bad’ and the ‘after’ was ‘good’?
- How does this make people who are not being successful feel?
- What does this say to the larger public?
To the first question, society decided that. Whether it is through high fashion and skeletal models, a global medical concern for the rise of obesity in the Western world or the obsession with celebrities and their appearance, we have come to accept that being fat is a ‘bad’ thing and being ‘thin’ is a good thing. Bollocks to that, I say, but we’ll move on.
The second question is more difficult to answer. We don’t know. We see very few comments from unsuccessful users (of these products or anything else in the wider weight-loss industry) and those we see we have to search for. The reason for this is because the results speak for themselves, don’t they? If they (MLM representative or Weight Watchers) are constantly showing us all these amazing women who have lost ten, twenty, forty kilos, and here we are, in week three of our dieting efforts, sitting in front of the TV with a take-away and a tub of ice-cream… well, what does that say about your products in contrast to what it says about us? The marketing of these products tells us that the system works. The problem must be us, then.
And if the problem is us, then it’s only up to us to do something about it. As a society, we are aware that being thin is a must. Our friends tell us constantly they need to go on a diet, never mind that they can fit their whole body, arms and all, into one of your trousers’ legs. Maybe even one of their kids too. Then there are these women (and yes, marketing for weight-loss is still majorly aimed at women, although there is a changing tide in how men understand their own appearance and the number of men with eating disorders is on the rise) who are anything from smaller than you to three times bigger, who go into these programs with amazing results. Again, nobody shows you the five or ten years down the line. Either way, all this marketing and propaganda is telling society that weight-loss is a must and we need to be thin and it’s easy if you buy into any of their systems and put the work in.
So what is one to do? Well, one diets. One exercises, one does what one has to do to meet those expectations, right? Except that it’s damn hard. These expectations become an obligation in our own mind and we then respond to these obligations. Now, I am going to stop talking about dieting, because it is definitely not part of recovering from an eating disorder, but I’ve used it so far to illustrate my point. I want now to translate this to any sort of action of behaviour you impose yourself to achieve a goal. In my case, recovering from an Eating Disorder and becoming, overall, healthier physically and mentally.
And the thing is, therapy has its own requirements. Keep a diary, eat six times a day, eat mindfully… etc… These recommendations become quite quickly an expectation and then, as we’ve seen above, an obligation. And then we push ourselves to do it, and our brain pushes back. This is a pretty common reaction, even though everybody responds to expectations differently. Indeed, Gretchen Rubin has identified four categories of responses to expectations, but I am not going to into them, follow the link to know more about that. I can’t say that I am able to wholly identify with a single one of those categories but one thing hit home for me about one of her categories: they find it easy to comply with both external and personal expectations because they are motivated by the fulfilment they feel at the end, the goal of the action.
In the case of weight-loss, the end goal can be motivating if you believe the overall assumption that being thin equals being happy, but again, anybody with an eating disorder will tell you that’s not a true or valid assumption.
In my case, however, the goal is to be cured of this disease with all the perks that come with it: not obsessing with food constantly, not bingeing, responding to my feelings in a healthier way, understand my own feelings but also, maybe, eventually, lose weight. My mind tells me that at least some of that would make me happy and, in all honesty, I’ve been happier since I’ve gone through therapy, but I think, in the back of my mind, the weight-loss is still there. It’s not loud, just a whisper, a murmur. And because I am aware that being thin won’t make me happy, is that hindering my progress in my recovery? Is the weight-loss expectation still an obstacle because it is linked to my recovery? Is my brain pushing back against that expectation?
I usually have some sort of final resolution to my articles that makes them neatly closed and hopeful, but today is not the day. The truth is, I don’t have the answer to those questions. All I can hope is that eventually I will, but for now, my mechanism is this: I do it when I can, when I don’t feel too much push back, but I don’t force myself when my brain is fighting it in the hope that this will serve as a sort of exercising or training for my brain.