The power of listening to yourself
Eating behaviour is not really about food because eating issues are often part of a bigger issue, and that issue is in your mind.
By addressing eating issues directly, we are often trying to fix the symptom and not the cause. Eating issues are the symptom, your mind is the cause, and the solution. For many, eating issues are a symptom of an inner dissatisfaction, a marker of not living in alignment with your values in some way, whatever that may be. It isn’t anyone’s fault; it is a by-product of the society we live in and is relevant for most people in some way. The visible symptom is not always disordered eating. Inner discomfort can show itself through compulsive shopping, alcohol use or lots of other ‘numbing’ behaviours.
For most of us, the solution involves viewing our whole selves with kindness, understanding what we truly want and deciding to take charge of our lives.
Once you have done that work on your mind, healthy dietary behaviours can fall into place on their own. Does it sound too good to be true? Well, it is, in a way. Retraining your mind is hard work, and it takes practice, but the results are worth it.
"Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes" - Carl Jung.
We are so busy that we often do not manage to listen to our thoughts, to our feelings, our needs; we never have enough time. We fill every second of our day, multi-tasking, and when we do have precious spare time, it is often spent scrolling through social media, emails or reading the news. We don’t have time to notice that we are 'stuck' or heading to the ‘wrong’ destination. Without time alone with our mind, we cannot receive the messages that our bodies and minds are trying to tell us, often that we need help. Disordered eating, migraines, IBS, and all sorts of health problems can be our bodies and minds sending us a message. Instead of tending to these calls for help, we do not have time.
“I don’t have time to….” must be one of the most used phrases in Western society. Really it is not about time, but more like “I don’t value….”.
If we think something is important enough, then we will find time for it. If someone said that you could have a million pounds if you managed to get to Australia in 48 hours, I am sure you could drop everything and find a way to get there.
For many people binge and emotional eating occur because of a hidden unhappiness inside.
Do you feel like you are running on a treadmill that you cannot get off? Why can’t you get off? Perhaps, deep down, we fear getting off in case we do not like what we find. We fear the unfamiliar. We may fear being alone with our thoughts. We may not know how to get off. The mind is powerful and many of us are locked into cycles of harmful thoughts without knowing it. Sometimes listening to yourself is all that is needed to break the cycle.
"Something in my life is not quite right, but I don’t know what else to do."
I hear a lot of people say something like that (and I said it myself). There might be a spark of doubt that something is not quite right. Somewhere inside, there could be a hint of unease. We often hide these feelings deep inside; we often bury them so quickly that we barely notice them. I think of these feelings as a beachball, hiding them is like pushing the beachball under water. As more feelings get ignored, that beachball keeps getting bigger and gets harder to push under the surface. Eventually it may explode, then you need to learn to swim. You could choose to learn to swim before your beachball explodes. You can also learn how to deflate your beachball and keep it at a manageable size. If your beachball is at a healthy size, then your behaviours are more likely to be healthy too.
If something does not feel right, then it probably is not.
Many of us are living at odds with our true inner selves. We may not even know what we really want from life or who we really are. We may be doing things that we don’t enjoy because we think we should without listening to what we really want. We are not doing things that are aligned with our values We may think that we don’t have a choice. There is always a choice. Even if that choice is in the way we choose to think about something. This sort of inner turmoil can lead to comfort eating or binge eating by trying to block it out.
I believe that stopping binge eating or emotional eating is possible for anyone who commits to listening to and accepting themselves and who decides to do the work.
While it can be scary to listen to our thoughts and acknowledge our feelings, it is the key to changing behaviour. Not only is listening to our thoughts and feelings the first step to stopping binge eating and emotional eating, it is also the way to being calmer and less stressed 1. As a bonus, it makes you nicer to yourself and others 2 (think the Dalai Lama). It can also set us on a path towards our innermost ambitions. It is starting to sound too good to be true again isn’t it? I have done it myself and I have helped others to transform their lives this way. However, it is hard work, and takes a lot of practice.
Since childhood, I have found comfort in food and my weight has yoyoed. I had five different sizes of clothes in my wardrobe since I was a teenager.
I would cycle through each size of clothes every year or so. I wanted to work out how to lose weight, so I became a health scientist. Despite having what many people would call a great job, my weight still went up and down, I had a very unhealthy relationship with food, and I felt a growing sense of unease. I used to say “I know I want to do something else, but I don’t know what and anyway, I would be crazy to leave this job.” I felt that I was on a treadmill and I could never run fast enough. My weight continued to go up and down, I experienced various forms of disordered eating and I started to have constant migraines. I now know that I was pushing by body and mind too far. I started collapsing on the way to work and having regular panic attacks. My beachball was becoming unmanageable. I did not know how long I could carry on, but I felt stuck and I did not know what to do. I was ignoring what my body was telling me. Western culture values being busy, often mistaking it for importance so it can seem selfish and even ‘lazy’ to make time to listen and feel.
When I finally listened, I understood that I ate to numb feelings of shame, of unhappiness, of self-disapproval, of guilt.
I ate as a way of starting again, to hide my feelings of failure, to numb my emotions and hide my sadness and fear. I ate out of self-sabotage because I was not good enough to be slim, because I did not deserve to be slim. I just was not good enough. Then it was like a lightbulb went off. When I listened, I realised that I had the power to control what I ate, and I was the only one who could do it.
When you start to accept yourself as you are, there is no longer a place for the self-punishment of disordered eating and the self-sabotage of yoyo dieting.
By listening to myself I understood my personal eating triggers and was able take charge of them. It was then that I stopped needing to diet and I stopped craving food. Listening to yourself is first step to mastering your eating behaviours. The next step is learning to look at yourself with kindness, which I will discuss next.
Life changes or life events can inspire us to take stock of our lives and re-focus on what is important 3.
It can be a great time to look at things with fresh eyes. If you are a parent, as added encouragement, any healthy changes you make now will benefit your children too 4. The change of pace of life event can allow time to listen to yourself 5. During times of change feelings of unease are more likely to bubble to the surface and can remind us to listen.
Practice listening to yourself:
When you get a spare minute, instead of scrolling through social media, or something similar, see what thoughts and feelings appear.
Try to notice your thoughts without judging them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It can feel uncomfortable at first, unusual and even selfish. Try to just let the thoughts be and try not to think of them as good or bad, just notice them. Even if you regularly do mindfulness or meditation practice, it can be helpful to have mini mindful breaks throughout the day, especially at times when you may be using an unnecessary distraction activity like social media. What are you trying to distract yourself from?
I would love to hear how you got on, feel free to drop me an email and let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org