Monday, June 26, 2006

Geneen Roth Workshop Notes

This past weekend, I attended Geneen Roth’s “Take Back Your Life” workshop, which I highly anticipated after reading most of her work. The title was intriguing enough—I wondered who had taken my life and if I really wanted it back, for that matter.

About 200 (mostly) women piled into a large banquet hall, whose walls were covered with Pictionary-style paper, offering sentence completion exercises. Throughout the conference, women were able to add their associations to such leads as:

If I ate whatever I wanted. . .
Thin people. . .
Fat people. . .
I am keeping myself deprived by. . .
In the cafeteria of life, I. . .

Geneen began with (and came back to several times) the premise that “You eat the way you live.” In this way, food and your intake (or lack thereof) is a clear metaphor for the way you live your life. What do you deserve? What are your thoughts about abundance and pleasure and entitlement? With the help of some colleagues, she’s categorized all “emotional eaters” into two groups: restrictors and permitters.

According to Geneen, restrictors are those who like rules/structure, and fare pretty well on diets (at least for a while). They are typically able to recite the calorie/carbohydrate/etc. count of most foods they ingest, and their deprivation-driven motto is, “Less is more.” Permitters, on the other hand, detest/rebel against rules (including diets) and often “go past their hunger as a way of merging with chaos.” They allow, but they allow too much.

Which type resonates with you?

As Geneen correctly indicated, both are defense mechanisms, which we use to protect us from difficult feelings. And both are demonstrative of how you are in other parts of your life. As she describes it, “Your relationship with food is a doorway,” and examining this relationship can give insight into other struggles you have.

Most of Geneen’s work has focused on overeating, which she encourages us to meet with a kind and curious inquiry. Hmm. . . I wonder why I just ate beyond the point of fullness. I guess something must be bothering me—what could it be? Often, this is not our default reaction following a binge—instead, we judge, criticize, shame, reject, and promise (or threaten) to be “better” tomorrow. In this way, “We treat ourselves exactly the way we’ve been treated” in the past.

Early on in the conference, we divided into groups of four (all strangers) and were asked to tell our individual stories about food and our weight. I went last. It’s a powerful thing, having to summarize your entire history regarding eating and your body in just a few moments. . . and with people you’ve never met. Geneen’s personal history includes over 1000 pounds gained and lost (via dieting and bingeing) over the years and a bout of anorexia, in which her weight plummeted to 82 pounds, followed by a rebound weight-gain of 80 pounds in just two months.

Geneen’s eating philosophy is her personal variant of intuitive eating. Her seven eating guidelines include:
1) Eat when you are hungry.
2) Eat sitting down in a calm environment. This does not include the car.
3) Eat without distractions. Distractions include: radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing conversations, and music.
4) Eat only what your body wants.
5) Eat until you are satisfied.
6) Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others.
7) Eat with enjoyment, gusto, and pleasure.

At one point, we divided into groups of six and discussed the guidelines and why each might be difficult to employ. I’m comfortable with numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7, though find myself arguing 2 and 3. Sometimes you get hungry. . . and you’re in the car (or another not-so-calm environment), and it’s my belief that to deprive yourself of food just because of the environment you’re in, conflicts with #1.

I also get stuck on #3. I’m not sure why it’s kosher to dine with family/friends, but not to sit down to eat with the radio or television on. I think, if you have to eat alone, doing so without any kind of background noise feels like punishment. It feels like a diet. Perhaps mindful eating can be approached less rigidly, by coming in and out of mindfulness, checking in with yourself periodically as you eat (“How is this tasting?” “Am I satisfied, yet?”) the same way you’d do when eating with company. I understand that eating should ideally be a calm, focused experience, but this isn’t life (or, at least, my life), and so for me, these guidelines feel a bit too rigid, at least in the way I conceptualize “making peace with food.”

Speaking of mindful eating, we did an eating exercise together. All 200 guests received a small paper cup containing a raisin, a tortilla chip, and a Hershey’s Kiss. Beginning with the raisin (and ending with the Kiss), we took the item out of the cup, held it up to the light, rolled it between our thumb and index finger, smelled it, rubbed it against our lips, sucked on it, chewed it, and eventually swallowed it. I mentioned to a friend that the workshop should be subtitled, “How to Make Love to a Raisin.” It was an interesting, and somewhat frustrating, exercise that came with an interesting moral. Geneen noted that so often (especially when we’re snacking or bingeing), each bite (or chip or piece of chocolate) only serves as a prelude to the next. Increasing awareness will likely return the focus to the present and break the spell, but it does so, I think, at the expense of interrupting the calming disassociation of overeating, thereby returning you to the very feelings you’re trying to avoid. If this were easy, you probably wouldn’t be turning to food in the first place.

Geneen spent a lot of time talking about feelings, attempting to locate feelings in the body, and recognizing, that while notable, feelings are not more powerful than we are. “When you inhabit a feeling, the paradox is that it opens and changes,” she says. It reminds me of behavioral psychology—so often, we avoid difficult feelings, and in this way, they actually gain momentum and power over us. To embrace the feeling, to expose ourselves to it, is actually what allows the feeling to defuse.

Other quotables:
“When we began eating emotionally, it was for exquisitely good reasons.”

“Diets, when they’re based on force, or the conviction that you have to change/restrict yourself do not work.”

“No change ever happens by force, guilt, shame, or punishment.”

“We live our lives following instructions from people in our history that we wouldn’t ask for street directions today.”

“If the goal of human life really is just to lose weight (or be thinner) and this is why we live our lives, we would not get to the end of our lives and leave our bodies behind.”

Overall, I enjoyed the conference, but think I would have been more moved had I not already read her books—I can see how coming across her principles for the first time in person could be an immensely powerful experience. Many of the women communicated that this was their last hope, that they were desperate, frightened, and sad. There were lots of therapists there, some food people (nutritionist/dietician types), thin people, fat people, and many who publicly admitted personal struggles with self-esteem, love, depression, parents, and life. I love Geneen’s focus on feelings (instead of weight). As she said, “It’s really easy to lose weight,” and if this were all you wanted to do, you could go on a diet and lose the weight. But, it doesn’t address the reasons that you’re overeating, and you’re likely to end up in the exact same place again. About her own process, she stated, “I wasn’t suffering because I was fat; I was fat because I was suffering.” Ultimately, I think the road to “making peace with food” is a uniquely individual one, and Geneen’s work, while not entirely palatable to me, has certainly contributed to the way I approach eating/body image issues both personally and professionally, and I enjoyed the opportunity to see her and to surround myself with women on the verge of discovery.


PalmTreeChick said...

Very interesting, drstacey. I definately fall into the "restrictor" GIVE ME RULES and STRUCTURE category!

Must have been an eye-opening weekend for a lot of people.

I see life coach and she once told me that by depriving myself many foods I am depriving myself many things in life. I don't know, the whole "eat the way you live." I can see partially where that fits in, with my working out being more important than my social life, but I haven't really looked any deeper into it.

Anyway, good post, as usual. It was a good weekend (weatherwise) to be inside.

Joyce said...

Aha! the much awaited post.
Regarding the seven eating guidelines and your observations about them: In the book, she does clarify that these are not rules, and that if tv, reading, etc, enhances your eating experience, then bring it on. I believe she would completely agree with your idea of "coming in and out of mindfulness, checking in periodically as you eat". In fact, I believe that the book describes it in much the same way.
re: increasing awareness to return the focus to the present and break the spell... etc. "If this were easy, you probably wouldn't be turning to food in the first place."
Exactly. If there is one way that I consistently describe Geneen's life giving approach, I like to tell people that it is "simple" but not "easy".

I take with me the bit about feelings not being more powerful than we are. I will ruminate on that and hopefully see it propel me into the next level of "taking back my life".
thank you, Dr Stacey for sharing the seminar with us.

Shaunta said...

I never eat in front of the TV, but I do often eat lunch at my computer, catching up on blogs. Eating with a good book is also a real pleasure for me. The idea of just sitting there eating doesn't appeal to me at all. I do recognize the need for me to not eat mindlessly (like just stuffing popcorn in my mouth at a movie without tasting it.) But I think if I've fixed a plate with the appropriate amount of food to make me full without overeating, then reading while I eat is okay.

I'm the opposive of a restrictor. I do not do well at all with rules or structure. I tend to get very rebelous, even at the idea or hint of rules regarding diet/weight loss. The phrase "it's not fair!" runs through my head a lot. "It's not fair--everyone else can eat french fries." "It's not fair--everyone else gets to eat in front of the TV." LOL You get the point. Then I start overcompensating with binges, without ever even having followed the rule in the first place!

Emily Jolie said...

Hi there,

I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate reading your blog! It's so refreshing and quite eye-opening! Thanks for lots of great food for thought!

I've been in both categories, personally - allowing and restricting. It's interesting to find you can have both in you. Never thought I could be a restricter until I was. Now I find myself somewhere inbetween again and working towards having a healthy relationship with food and making peace with my body. I was there, at one point, then got off track. It was all the more frustrating because I'd been in such a good space. I finally feel I am finding my way back to my center.

I've read some of Geneen's books and found them interesting, although there was a lot I couldn't quite relate to. Thanks for sharing your experience at the conference!


drstaceyny said...

PTC--yes, it was very helpful to think about things in this way. I get the whole exercie/social life thing--I wonder if there are any others ways you're depriving yourself?

Joyce--I'll have to re-read. In person, it felt a little rule-like. Glad the feeling bit resonated with you.

Shaunta--exactly! I think what fuels a lot of bineging/overeating is that concept of, "It's not fair." (which, probably goes beyond the food and eating)

EJ--thanks for stopping by. I think it's possible to do the restrictor-permitter dance (if you think abt it, that's probably the hallmark of bulimia). Good luck with your process. . .

Shakti said...

You know, I personally found that reading one of Geneen Roth's books was enough; after that, they started to get really redundant and seemed to be the same regurgitated material over and over...I found that by the time I got to the third book, she started to sound really whiney about her past, almost like she was stuck on being the victim of her life. She has found a way to tap into the emotions, but hasn't found a way to resolve them and move forward. Thanks for the great blog, though.

dogheart said...

Thanks, Dr.Staceyny and readers, PLEASE HELP, INPUT WANTED!:
I'm a psychotherapist working mostly with women, about all of whom are unhappy with their weight. It's mass society's sick brainwashing, but I don't want to rant. I was intrigued by what Geneen Roth does and want other resources, approaches and info to help the folks I work with. As a trained therapist and veteran of O.A. (Overeaters Anon.), I'm familiar with the basics, but remedying this issue and the mass unneccessary suffering it causes,
is a major puzzle. So, please, if you can share what has helped you, I'll appreciate it and pass it on. E mail me at:

brenalee said...

I attended Geneen's workshop in Chicago early this year. I found it up lifting and had a lot of aha moments. I have been attending OA meetings for the past year or so. I am finding it hard to related both of these together. Has anyone done either or both. I feel that Geneen states all foods should be available while many of the OA members I have met that have been successful refrain from sugar and flour products and some refrain from wheat as well. What is your take on this I am very interested in hearing your views.

Mrs S said...

I finished reading Women, Food and God tonight. I am probably a permitter because I have difficulty following restrictive diets. I have 20 pounds to lose, which is probably nothing compared to what some women need to lose. However, I am noticing aching knees and general tiredness more often. I'm okay with rules 2, 3, 6 and 7, but will have to work on rules 1, 4 and 5.

Amalfi Girl said...

Holy wow, I am so glad I just found your blog. I have followed Geneen Roth's advice in order to overcome a binge eating disorder, and I do think most women have eating disorders (or at least body dysmorphic disorder--how many women say "Yes, I look fabulous!" and actually mean it? I am writing about my journey with all of this at my blog, Eat, Run, Have Fun! (blogspot). Feel free to stop by and leave me a comment!