We typically approach diet, health and weight loss as a science: eat less, lose weight. Exercise more, lose weight. In this mechanistic view, we view the body as a machine, where we do X to get Y.
We focus on fixing the behavior (eating less junk food, less sugar; losing weight, and tempering our emotional eating) as the solution to our problem. To fix these bad behaviors, we employ all sorts of tricks: bribery (When I lose 20 pounds Ill buy a new wardrobe), vanity, putting up skinny photos of ourselves as thinspiration, blame, name calling (You fat cow!), punishment, guilt, shaming, boot camps, white knuckling it, and more.
The challenge with behavioral approaches is that their success often comes at a high cost. Even if they do work lets say you finally lose the weight the cost to your psyche, heart, and tender spirit is too much to bear.
This can play out in many ways. We may feel like somethings missing like weve become a rat in a laboratory and were just going through the motions. Theres no joy, no celebration. Food and weight become a dry, barren duty.
We may feel small and separate cut off from essential parts of ourselves as we judge which parts of us can be seen, felt and expressed and which parts are silenced. Its a high price to pay for reaching a happy weight, and eventually, were not willing to pay it. The soul longs for freedom and starts acting out in messy, messy ways (like eating an entire chocolate cake) that are bound to get our attention.
We may feel beaten up by self-criticism. Our standards of behavior are so high that we never get there, so were constantly frustrated by our lack of progress. We may be exhausted from shoulding all over ourselves: I should be thinner, I should eat less at night; I should exercise more, I should be kinder to my co-worker, I should be more patient with my child, I should be sexier
Or the control we enact to be good causes us to feel compulsive, anxious and tight. We live in a state of mental obsession, of constant rumination about the size of our butts, the content of our meals, and the fitness level of our bodies: what happens if I eat more than 1800 calories a day? If I dont walk for two hours each morning? Will I get fat again? We live in a very tight, narrow rigid space. It doesnt feel good even if we can slip into our skinny jeans.
But most of the time, this approach doesnt work. We gain back the weight. We put aside the eating plan. Life gets messy and we stop exercising. The consequence is that we feel frustrated and pissy and hopeless. We give up, believing healing is impossible.
Its not impossible. It does need a different approach.
In my experience, overeating is not healed through tricks, will power, or even well meaning attempts to eat healthier. Its definitely not healed through punishment: blaming, shaming, name calling and more. Its not necessarily healed through diet or nutrition, either, even though sound nutrition is an essential component for physical healing.
Overeating is healed in relationship. Im suggesting that weve got it backwards weve been trying to heal the behavior first, hoping that the relationship (self acceptance; healthy food choices; loving structures; kindness towards our bodies and more) will grow from there.
This is like trying to grow an apple tree without roots. Nothing grows without roots. Nothing grows without relationship.
I suggest we start with the roots. Its the relationship that you have with yourself, with food, your body, and your tender humanity that allows you to heal the behavior: the overeating thats driving you nuts.
To heal the behavior, first heal the relationship.
Here’s why: a relational approach offers much, much more than a thinner body or peace with food. There are hidden jewels gems you gain during the process. These include greater self compassion, self love, and self esteem; less perfectionism, all or nothing thinking, and anxiety; a greater comfort with our emotions, and an inner feeling of wholeness. Healing the relationship brings its own rewards along the way.
In addition, in my experience, healing the root of the problem is the only way to create lasting transformation: to create external change healthy, nourishing habits with food and internal change a healthy, nourishing relationship with yourself.
The mercy of this path is that its intrinsic in you. You dont have to force it. Everything wants to grow. An acorn longs to be an oak tree. A seed, a full blown plant. And you, the fullest expression of who you are. When you feed the roots the relationship you will grow.
And grow. And grow.
To learn more about using the power of relationship to heal overeating, try Heal Overeating: Untangled, 12 audio lessons to heal the roots of overeating.
Hi Karly! I loved your message this week. I know the relationship I have with myself is the root for me to grow into the healthy, mindful person that I so long to be. Thank you for your great advice and loving, kind words to lead me in this direction. Namaste.
Karla, thank you so much for this wisdom. This goes right with a message I heard today about God being the vine and I the branch. In order to grow and produce fruit, I rest in the Vine. Self effort and striving doesn't get me anywhere. It's the relationship of grace and mercy that's the start and better habits are the result. I've had the cart before the horse! When you know better, you do better. But doing isn't the main point…the quest to do better is just bread crumbs to lead me to healing and wholeness. The wholeness was the point all along. Love and blessings to you…
Karly not Karla…sorry 'bout that!
I'm so glad this post touched you and resonated with you. I so enjoy hearing from you about your unfolding path. I feel touched to share in it!
Much of my learning curve these days revolves around this inquiry:
How can I kindly relate to what is happening in my life rather than trying to control it? I find that when I focus on relating – relationship – there's more creativity, flow, trust, and joy and less worry, stress, blame and fear than when I try to control. I also find easier solutions!
It's a practice for me for sure 🙂
I bow to you in namaste,
sigh…wonderful! thank you : )
What an inspiring and empowering post! Thank you Karly!
I may have posted this story before but I feel compelled to share it again because it really speaks to what you have shared in this post.
A few years back, I managed to surpass my goal weight by five pounds and it was my lowest weight in my adult life…a size 6! I did it with the help of my strongest allies: guilt, shame and perfectionistic thinking.
My boyfriend at the time asked me to be his date for his best friends wedding. So, naturally I worked extra hard to eat right, excercise and find the most flattering outfit possible to show off my fabulous new figure.
On the day of the wedding I slipped into my new dress, got my hair and make up done, and when I was done I looked into the mirror and I was exhilerated to see a a beautiful slim woman staring back at me in the mirror. I felt like a movie star!
I received many compliments from my date and his friends that day. Initially it felt good because it validated all of my hard work. Yet, somehow I was struck by how uncomfortable I suddenly felt. I remember feeling nervous because of all the attention that I was getting, and I couldn’t understand why I would feel so uncomfortable when I believed that I “should” feel confident, happy, strong and vibrant. Instead I felt like an imposter in pretty packaging. I truly did.
After that night I felt bewildered at my emotional experience and I came to realize that I was upset because I had betrayed myself. I believed that becoming a size 6 would bring happiness, confidence, peace and acceptance and I could not be more wrong.
Where was the comfort I had grown accustomed to receiving with daily doses from carbs and sugar? It was gone. I had no anchor and I felt like I had the emotional stability of a house of cards. My daily routine was executed with military precision so that I would not gain weight. I felt like I was walking a tightrope while trying to balance an elephant on my back!
Suffice it to say I am no longer a size 6 and I don’t really care. Its been a few years now and I have come to terms with the fact that I may never achieve that weight again, but that is okay. I am much happier now than I was back then.
I attribute my body acceptance with coming to terms that punishment, duty, guilt and shame will never bring home the level of comfort that I am accustomed to recieveing from food. It will never nurture my emotions or heal my wounds. Only love, compassion and kindess will do that…and a lot humour helps too! I endeavour to implement structure to give me strong roots and though it is a challenge, I know that even when I move in that direction just a tiny bit. Like, going to bed early, journalling, contributing to First Ourselves I feel alot more centered and calm.
May this story be an inspiration to let go of “fixing the behavior” and start “healing the relationship” you have with yourself.
Karly thank you again for this post. This one is worth reading again and again.
It seems to me that over eating is nearly always a substitute for something else – whether it is comfort eating to cheer yourself up or boredom eating because you have nothing better to do.
Letting go is such a powerful spiritual practice! It's humbling for me to realize just how much I want to control life and be in charge. At the same time, it's an incredible relief to recognize that I don't have to be in charge – the burden is not mine to carry – and to hand it over to the hands of the Divine.
When I stop controlling and let go, I find greater wisdom, patience, and creativity. In a word, I find solutions! I also find a bounty of compassion for my precious, imperfect human self who just wants to protect its tender heart.
I'm grateful this nourished your heart this morning.
You're so welcome Kate! XOXO
P.S. – If you liked this, you may be happy to know that it's from the opening pages of my newest book, a daily devotional for overeaters. It's tentatively titled "The Heart is Big Enough: A daily guide to heal your relationship with food, your body and yourself through self compassion.
I bow to you Kathy. Your story inspires me! I love how you've found a refuge in self compassion and self kindness. As a fellow former perfectionist I agree – it is much more nourishing than perfection. It feels so good to relax into my worthiness instead of striving after it.
Thank you for sharing your story with me…I smiled while reading it and have been percolating on it for days.
I find these posts so inspirational. I am thirteen years old, whether it matters or not. I just wanted to let you know that you are helping everyone. With the growing epidemic of obesity, I believe that now is the best time of all to be conscious of what we put into our bodies. Although I am not obese, or overweight, I have always had a self esteem problem. All my friends are thinner than I am; they look fantastic in bathing suits and tight clothing. I always felt inferior, and I knew part of it was because I ate too much sugar (not a ton, but I have a very sensitive body, which is a blessing, really) and so I decided, once and for all, to lay off the sugar. It is only my second day of doing so, and although I'm not any thinner, I look healthy. Most importantly, I feel healthy and beautiful. That's all I ever wanted for myself, and now I have it. So thanks.