Spoiler alert – this is not about diets nor weight loss. It’s about changing my relationship with food and my body.
My love/hate relationship with food and my body started somewhere around 10 years old. What started as an innocent Truth or Dare game among kids ended in exposed private parts, embarrassing tasks and a deep feeling of humiliation and shame. I cried after and wanted to tell my mother but was afraid and instead went to the peanut butter jar for comfort. A spoonful turned into my first binge, which temporarily worked to distract, numb and perhaps even punish myself. And then after, I felt even more ashamed and out of control. I felt sick and made myself throw up, which gave me a small sense of being back in control. This was effective enough to suppress my emotions for the moment and life continued, without ever discussing the game again (until therapy many years later).
I lived in an emotionally abusive environment, and whenever I was stressed or upset (which was often), I continued to turn to food for comfort. At 12, an adult described me as “obviously overweight”, and I was put on my first diet. Up until this point, I knew I was a little heavier than my friends, but I hadn’t really thought much about it. That label really stuck with me and triggered a huge amount of shame. This is what people see and think about me? I must be so ugly! Alarm bells went off in my mind. I began wearing baggier clothes to hide my body and felt so ashamed about my eating, that I hid a lot of that too. But there was the Catch-22, the one thing that game me comfort – food – was the source of the new problem. The cycle of crazy dieting, exercising, bingeing, purging escalated into full-blown bulimia throughout my teens.
In my late teens and early 20’s my life improved dramatically, I found freedom, went to university, made great friendships, and studied psychology. I was able to stop the bulimic behaviour. But I mostly turned to other coping and distraction strategies, such as partying. The weight gain/weight loss rollercoaster continued throughout my life, and my self-esteem was directly related to the number on the scale.
As I matured, I felt confident in many other aspects of my life – as a mother, in my career, as a good friend – but the relationship with food and my body was still tenuous at best. I would look in the mirror, scan myself and my mind would tell me “you’re ugly”, “that tummy fat roll is disgusting”, and “you’re obviously overweight”. Those words and thoughts would hook me, and I would base my behaviour on them. I’d think, if I were 20 pounds lighter then I will feel more confident, buy a certain style of clothing, fit in with these other women more, feel like socialising, not now. When I ate, I often didn’t even enjoy the food, I just felt shame and guilt.
When I began training in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) about a year and a half ago, the lightbulb went off for me. ACT explains how we get fused to thoughts, avoid negative emotions, turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms, and thus alter our behaviour in ways that move us away from value-based goals. And this creates a maintenance cycle that perpetuates the problem. For me, looking in the mirror and listening to the voice saying I was ugly would make me feel worse, and then I’d think oh why even bother trying, you’ll just fail again. Then I’d turn once again to my comfort food and avoid the things in life that made me feel uncomfortable, like going places where I was afraid of being judged (like the gym).
Last year, I decided I wanted to address my weight once again for health reasons, but approach it differently than in my past. My blood pressure was too high, and I was suffering other issues, such as sleep apnea and joint pain. I set new goals for myself (the Commitment part), not tied to the number on the scale but instead about becoming healthier in my relationship with food and my body. I stopped avoidance behavior and made an appointment with my GP to discuss my health, look at my hormones and other factors, and discussed little lifestyle changes (not extreme diets). I set SMART goals for myself and committed to 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week and mostly stuck to this. I became aware of the all-or-nothing thinking that was getting in my way and stopped getting derailed by missing a few days of exercise or eating some junk food.
The biggest benefit of ACT was learning how to become aware of my thoughts and learning how to get unhooked from the words. I began to notice when I wanted food for reasons other than hunger. The same exercises I use with my clients I practice daily in my own life. I take time to observe my thinking without judgment, actively defuse from thoughts like “you’re ugly” through ACT techniques and find myself looking at myself much differently now. I even cherish my squishy tummy now, which I call my kangaroo pouch as it once housed my babies. And finally, I’ve learned to ACCEPT discomfort in life, to lean into my emotions – all of them. I feel pain, I feel upset, I feel hurt at times, and that’s okay. These feeling are giving me important messages. I don’t need to turn to food or other coping mechanisms to try to numb that anymore.
I still love food, maybe more than ever. I finally can eat without the accompanying emotional baggage, without the shame and guilt. I eat when I’m hungry, and I eat the bread! And I stop when I’m full, not when I’m numb. Oh, and I lost 40 pounds, my blood pressure is normal and no more sleep apnea…. so, there’s that.