Last month, in Recovery Can Feel A Lot Like Skydiving, I shared several analogies that I use with people who struggle with food and body image issues. As soon as I’d completed that article, I recalled more useful analogies. This article will highlight some of these. I hope you find these helpful.
Associating Negative Beliefs about the Self with the Body
Remember the children’s party game, in which a picture of a tail-less donkey is taped to a wall, and a blindfolded child is whirled around a couple of times and then handed a tail with a thumbtack stuck through it? The child tries to pin the tail onto the donkey’s rump. When it comes to disordered relationships with food and exercise, the “tail” is every negative belief and self-doubt that we might have about ourselves, such as “I’m lazy,” I’m not good enough,” or “I’m not loveable.”
The “donkey” is our bodies. Living with these beliefs and doubts is painful. Figuring out how to become productive and feel good enough is challenging. Pinning them on our bodies is a means of making them concrete, so that they can be managed. We may believe that if we never skip a day of exercise, do our best to never eat more than a certain amount, strive to keep our bodies lean, then we can redeem ourselves.
Those of us who struggle with eating and exercise think that the problem is the donkey, but actually, it’s the tail!
Recognizing Signals and Acknowledging Feelings
It’s a warm, sunny weekend afternoon. You’re relaxing in your lounge chair, watching a great sports event or lost in a terrific novel, and the smoke alarm goes off. It’s loud and annoying and you can’t concentrate on your game/book. So what do you do? Get up and pull the smoke alarm out of the ceiling, of course, and go back to enjoying your activity in peace—but the house burns down. You stopped the signal that alerts you to the presence of a fire, but the fire was still there.
Urges to abuse food and exercise are signals. These urges tell us that something is up, that we are experiencing something that is emotionally hard to handle, that we need something, some sort of comfort or support. Whether we act on these urges by abusing food and exercise or simply push through and resist the urge, we need to stop to pay attention to what we are thinking and feeling. We need to figure out what is triggering the urge at that particular time. If we don’t, it’s like pulling a smoke alarm out of the ceiling instead of looking for the fire. Healing from eating and body image struggles means addressing the underlying issues, not just managing the problem behaviors.undereat, eat and vomit, or overexercise) as a signal, like a smoke alarm, that something is going on that needs our attention. Instead of ignoring or distracting ourselves away from the urge, we need to stop and focus inside ourselves, and find out what is causing the “fire.” This will enable us to learn to honor our emotions and meet our real needs, instead of stuffing feelings down or starving, exercising, or vomiting them away.
Moving from Overeating or Deprivation to Mindful Eating
In order to shift a relationship with food from a disordered relationship to a healthy one, there must be no off-limits foods. All foods must be “legal.” When certain types of foods are avoided because they’re too scary—because the eater believes that if he/she starts to eat them, he/she won’t stop until far too much has been eaten—the eater closes the “food window” on them. These foods become forbidden fruit. And forbidden fruit is irresistibly tempting. Eventually, the eater gives in and begins to eat the food. Some part of the eater says, “The food window is open! We have to get as much as possible in now, because it’ll close again any minute!” Not knowing when another chance will come to eat these foods, he/she binges on them. The next day, of course, he/she swears never to eat these things again—closing the food window. Until the next time it opens.
The food window must be opened for good. It takes a while for all parts of a person to learn and to trust that it is permanently open, so in the beginning, the eater will often overeat the previously forbidden foods. But, if they are eaten mindfully, with awareness and presence, the lure of forbidden fruit will fade, he/she will become just as comfortable with these foods as with the foods that had been considered “safe.” When there’s no more deprivation, there’s no more deprivation-driven desire to eat.
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