Monday, July 10, 2006

Reverse Psychology

Many writers who address eating/weight concerns speak of “making peace with food.” I’ve always liked the premise, but I wasn’t quite sure what it would look like in practice, until I began to think about the distinction between the conscious versus unconscious mind. Many psychological theories propose that an important goal of therapy is to make what’s unconscious conscious—in other words, to bring feelings, experiences, memories of which you may be unaware into conscious awareness. I think that this goal holds with regard to eating concerns, particularly as we try to uncover reasons for disordered eating, such as emotional eating, restricting, and focusing obsessively on weight and shape—are we bored/lonely/angry/scared? What are we trying to avoid?

However, with regard to the process (and allowance) of eating itself, I wonder if the goal should be the exact opposite—to make the conscious unconscious—to return food/eating to the role of any other physiological process (sleep, breathing, urinating) and to NOT think about the whole experience so much. Imagine what it would feel like to NOT be thinking:

Have I had too much?
What else have I eaten today?
This has too many calories.
My stomach feels huge.

It seems to me that if you can arrive at a place where these thoughts and questions no longer occur to you, that is making peace with food. But, can we really accept eating as simply another physiological process? Imagine giving other biologically-driven processes the same airtime that we give food:

I really shouldn’t pee again—I went so much yesterday.
I know I’m tired, but I’m definitely not going to allow myself to sleep tonight.
Did I just take in too much oxygen? There was so much air in that last breath—my abdomen feels way too big!

Of course, these statements sound ridiculous, but substitute food/eating and you have an all-too-familiar way of thinking. As best we can, we sleep when we’re tired, go to the bathroom when we have to, breathe unconditionally—if only we could do the same with food.


PalmTreeChick said...

I'm laughing at your second to last paragraph.

Seriously, interesting post. I can't imagine what life would be like without having all those food/weight related thoughts ALL the time. I'd have a lot of free brain space. It would probably feel like complete freedom. I bet it would be nice. Just seems like such a difficult thing to achieve.

Sometimes I say to myself "okay, I am not going to worry about what I eat or think about it. I'm just going to do it." I say it, but it never seems to happen.

The same with working out. I say, "I'm tired today. I'm not going to care if I don't burn as many calories as I usually do." I still end up obsessing about it and thinking about how my workout sucked, the rest of the day.

If you figure out a way to get rid of those thoughts, let us know. You can bill us later. ;)

Emily Jolie said...

You had me laughing out loud! Great post!

There ARE people who don't dwell on what they've eaten last, what they will eat next, how long they should wait before the eat again, if at all...! I always wonder what it would be like to be one of these people! Of course, those aren't necessarily the people who eat the healthiest foods, either. I would like to find a balance between putting just the "right" amount of energy into preparing and eating those foods that are good for me, yet not dwelling on the subject longer than is necessary.

As I see it, it's a life-long journey. Food is always going to be a part of that journey, and my relationship to it will fluctuate along the way. When I look at my mom - she has gone through so many different phases in her life. She has tried all sorts of "diets" (more for health than for weightloss - like macrobiotic foods, raw foods, etc.); she has gone through periods of being strict with herself and periods of allowing herself mundane little pleasures; she has been skinny, and she's been "normal."

One thing this is making me realize is that, no matter what choices you make today, your choices could be different tomorrow. And that's ok. Say you go on a trip - you want to try all the delicious foods that are new to you. Most likely, you'll put on some weight as a result. Is this a reason to panic and think you'll be stuck with the extra weight forever? No! You'll get back home and get back into your routine, and, before you know it, you're body will be back to it's regular size and shape.

Just some thoughts and musings on this topic...

with love,

Anonymous said...

Ha, when put that way, it does sound very funny. What about obsessing on the other side? Sometimes I can get so involved in planning my food. For instance, after work at the gym, I start obsessing and thinking about what I am going to eat when I'm done.

kathrynoh said...

I don't know - sometimes I really don't want to go pee. It's an effort and the bathroom is really cold and I think if I ignore it, it will go away. But then I must admit I *never* feel guilty and end up going.

Anonymous said...

I see what you are getting and I agree with your premise but as much as I enjoy reading your blog, reading posts like todays make me crazy.

EDs are serious problems and every women does NOT have an ED. You can say that society has caused all of us to focus excessively on weight and shape, but this is very different from an ED.

Some women can read your post and say ha that's funny, now that I look at it like that I see a problem. But others (men and women) can read it and think you just don't get it. The issue behind the ED sometimes attached to more than just food. It can be about regulating sleep, food, exercise, and urinating. What I mean by this is that the things you listed at the bottom as idiotic concepts are not that foreign from some ED stricken people.

An ED had a stronger grasp than the basic need to fit into your clothes or being thinner or even match people in magazines. It can be about the regulation and restrictions. It can be about feeling unworthy. It can even be about a strive for perfection which is greater than just physical looks; but rather a goal to be a sweet, kind, perfectly behaved girl.

I enjoy reading your posts every day but mostly because it starts a much needed debate in my head. Most of the time I agree with your intentions and even your premises. Sometimes I agree with you. But other times I realize you are writing this for women who have issues with food that do not qualify as an ED and the comparisons which make women with non-ED issues feel better express a lack of understanding of the motivation, struggles, and true sense of an ED.

Bex said...

I have just come across your blog and I love it!! I am currently going through a 'dieting detox' after years of abusing my body with food and what I read in your blogs reinforces all of the things I am starting to think about dieting and the push for the 'perfect body'!

I can't wait for the day that maybe I can stop obesessing and just start living again! Thank you for a blog that opens up the real world of dieting :O

Stefanie said...

I just want to chime in that I don't agree with the anon poster who didn't agree with you. I am recovered from an eating disorder but may never feel "normal" about food, fat, size etc. It is a life long struggle. But just because someone doesn't have an actual eating disorder doesn't mean that food obsession isn't making their life less enjoyable and that's the crux of the situation. Society, movies, our culture and our desire to fit into all of those things is a driving force in a great many womens' unhappiness. I'm glad you are making people aware of this.

Haley-O said...

I also, of course, disagree with the anonymous poster. I think that a statement like "every woman has an eating disorder" is a good one. ED's are serious--more serious (i.e., life-threatening) for some people than for others. Western culture makes if very difficult (if not impossible) for us not to have a distorted, unhealthy perception of food, our bodies, etc.. And, I think that this blog's title taps into that fact.

I see what Anon is saying--that some people with serious, life-threatening eating disorders may be misled by the blog's title. But those people need more than a blog to help them heal. In any case, this blog would be an excellent start.

I think DocStac is doing a fantastic job of, at least, making those of us who have any kind of eating, body, self-esteem, self-restriction issue to remind ourselves every day that the quest for happiness, from freedom from obsession/restriction, is worthwhile, and that we are not alone or helpless in this quest.

Haley-O said...

I also want to say, in regard to Anon's post, that many of us regulars have had serious eating disorders--and are "recovering" (a never-ending process)--so, it's not like we haven't been there, or like we haven't "qualified as an ED," as s/he put it. And, i think the Doc makes very clear that ED's are not easily definable, that they are not just about food. Abundantly clear. (I don't mean to sound rude at all to anon--anon had some interesting and thought-provoking points. I just happen not to agree :) So, no hard feelings, anon).

Haley-O said...

Oo, and one more thing--GREAT POST, Doc! GREAT! And, I am sooo exhausted right now (should not be writing all these comments), but I'm on a sleep diet. ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments to my prior comment. I appreciate your comments and disagreements.

Dealing with food (and its related issues) is a life long journey. I didn't mean to imply that this issue doesn't make everyone's life less enjoyable and shouldn't be addressed. I just don't think it's really possible to "NOT think about the whole experience." It's unrealistic to think that those recovering from EDs (me included) are going to just given up thinking about the calories, the fat, the tighteness of their clothes. The goal is to be happier about ourselves at any weight but putting a blind eye to our shape and weight is unrealistic. Plus, I don't think it's a safe option for those with severe EDs.

I have a friend who was encouraged to focus on other things and not her food and calorie intake, but she woke up one day realized she had "let herself go" and she was no longer a healthy weight but legitimately overweight. If she was a healthy woman with the "normal" eating issues she might not have responded as dangerously. But her discovery sparked a return to her old ED ways and it was worse than ever.

I've also watched friends recover by slowly accepting a higher number of calories. Their habits of watching calories did not change. They were still restrictive. But their levels of restriction relaxed and are now at a healthy weight and a healthy mindset. Though their need to control, regulate, and organize their food (as well as other parts of their life) is still a part of them that would be harmful to give up. They are healing by looking for what made them feel good about their ED and reproducing it in a healthier manner, rather than eliminating it.

I am sharing my lengthy comments because I think this issue is much more complex than just viewing food as any other biologically-driven need.

drstaceyny said...

PTC--yes, the thoughts certainly take up a lot of time and energy (and very easily become habits)

There is a way out--it's just not the easiest thing. . . .

drstaceyny said...

Emily--it's definitely a delicate balance to strike. Sometimes I think of it like a pendulum--if you've been over-concerned in the past, sometimes it helps to be under-concerned (if that makes sense) in order to arrive at a healthy balance. I think a good balance occurs when it doesn't feel so consuming. There's a natural ebb and flow (as you note) of appetite, cravings, etc. even amongst people who don't struggle with food concerns. Good thoughts. . . (and I LOVE the way you write "love" on your blog/comments--it really makes the process feel like more of a community struggle (in which there's support) than a painfully individual one)

drstaceyny said...

Welcome, Bex--and thanks for stopping by!

drstaceyny said...

Kathryn--you're right--it might be a hassle to get up, but it doesn't come with the same emotional consequences. . . I've talked to others, though, about how sometimes we like to martyr ourselves ("Let me see if I can wait a little longer"), as if that's some sign of personal strength. What's that about? ; )

drstaceyny said...

Anonymous--thanks for your comments. I'm glad that you're reading, despite the fact that the dialogue doesn't always sit well with you.

As a response to your concerns, I'd direct you to my response to another anonymous (or you?) a few posts ago. I'm not writing about anorexia or bulimia, specifically (though it wouldn't hurt to explore how common these disorders are). I feel that there is enough literature out there that focuses specifically on A & B (and it's quite comprehensive).

As Constance Rhodes discusses (in Life Inside the "Thin" Cage), all eating behavior occurs on a continuum, with healthy eating on one end and a & b on the other. In the middle, there's a wealth of symptoms (thoughts, feelings, behaviors) that are considered disordered eating. They may qualify as EDNOS and they may not. There's a v. fine line b/w EDNOS and A & B (who's to say that someone who doesn't meet criteria for A b/c she still gets her period is suffering any less than someone w/full-blown anorexia?) and again a v. fine line b/w EDNOS and other disordered types of presentations (tendencies to restrict, eat emotionally/compulsive, etc.) Another grey area occurs (on the left side of the contiuum, if you can visualize it) b/w disordered eating and dieting/over-exercising etc.

So, my point is to highlight the fluid nature of disordered eating (as Stefanie and Haley note, many people will find themselves at different points over time) and to illustrate the commonalities between all types of presentations. I don't think it's helpful to compare (who has it worst), but rather to point out the similarities and similar roots. For the personal stuff, that's of course best done with an individual therapist/coach/doctor/spiritual advisor/etc. and certainly not going to be tackled here (though, I hope, of course, that this is helpful to some).

Feel free to email me if you'd like to further this dialogue.

drstaceyny said...

Stefanie--that's exactly my point. Thanks for sharing your personal spin. . . .

drstaceyny said...

Haley--thanks for talking about your experiences, too. I think it's easier to understand the continuum when we hear personal stories (or have experienced them ourselves).

And, the sleep diet? My personal (least) favorite. . .

PalmTreeChick said...

I like the response you wrote here:

(who's to say that someone who doesn't meet criteria for A b/c she still gets her period is suffering any less than someone w/full-blown anorexia?)

I completely agree with that. Clearly, I don't have the psychological training, but I know that eds the symptom of something deeper. I don't know, but it would seem to me that in most cases of people suffering with some type of ed, regardless of the severity, there is that constant battle going on in the brain. I think the battle wages on but it's not always acted upon. Therefore, the mental aspect of anorexia and bulimia, or whatever the ed is, is there, just not all of the physical aspects.

Did that make sense?

Anonymous said...

Different Anon here...

This post and its comments are the most interesting yet. I would love to be free of the thoughts of calories, fat, and shape. I agree the world would be a fabulous place if we could all use this energy for good.

Yet, I must admit I also agree a bit with the 1st Anon. Is it really possible to eliminate these worries, comparisons, and restrictions? I'm sorry if this is not proper but as much as I'd love to give up thought about calories and food I don't want to be fat. Sure thin is idolized and fat is demonized, but also fat isn't healthy. If you are going to look at food and eating issues which aren't only bulimia and anorexia, there is also the basic concerns of depression and basic unhealthyness created by bad food choices.

All kinds of foods have been created to tempt us so now a world of us just eating because we feel like it isn't a realistic option. Decades ago the treats were brownies or ice scream or cakes. They were all made with real ingredients and if you ate too much sure you might get fat but it wouldn't really be that harmful. Today there is so much more appetizing stuff, if we didn't watch calories, fat content, etc we may be tempted to live on junk food. It would be insane to think this is an acceptable way to live.

Meg said...

I totally agree that it would be great to move the conscious thoughts to the unconscious.

I think I'm getting better and then I have a day like today where my head kicks in and won't shut up with the constant annoying dialogue of overconcern. I wish I had a silencer.

On a similar note, I've often thought how nice it would be if I thought about my clothing size with the same disregard that I think about my shoe size.

Anonymous said...

I wish I thought of my shoe size like "normal" people do. Instead I used to have a ultra narrow food where I had to go to special shops to have shoes created or only wear a few designers exclusively. But not as I age and gain weight, my feet are getting wider and all those shoes are now too tight. It's impossible for me to not notice that even my shoe size is growing the wrong direction.