Recently I’ve heard from some of you who’ve shared your ‘dark nights of the soul’ around food and body image. (Thank you by the way, I love it when you write!)
Indeed, a ‘dark night of the soul’ is an apt phrase for what food struggles feel like. For starters, they often manifest their worst side at night. Moreover, they don’t just hurt our bodies. These battles hurt something inside us as well.
Whether you are binging at the kitchen counter, drinking a few too many wines on the couch or suffering in hunger, here’s one thing that we all have in common…
It’s never about the food. And it’s not about your body, either.
There are very understandable reasons for why we think our problem IS with food and our bodies. For starters, our brains are very good at telling us stories about why this is the case:
I ‘should’ lose weight,
I just want to be healthy,
I don’t have ANY willpower around food,
My husband will find me more attractive when I lose the baby weight.
Yet when you dig – even scratch – beneath the surface, the picture is often completely different. My concerns when we don’t give ourselves permission to explore this is that;
a) Our patterns around food and body image stay the same, and
b) We lose the opportunity to address something that could improve our happiness and wellbeing.
Let me share an example.
Some of my lowest points with food used to happen at night after work. (This by the way is really common. Our appetite biorhythm naturally peaks between 5pm and 7pm, which is difficult to fight if you’ve been hungry on a diet all day.)
It’s a picture I’ve heard from countless clients; once the key turned in my front door, it was almost as though a panic button to eat lit up in my brain. After a day of being hungry and stressed, I wouldn’t even wait to sit down before eating. Some days, I would stand at the kitchen counter and cry between mouthfuls.
In these moments, all kinds of thoughts would swirl through my brain. ‘Critical Kali’ had a lot to say about my lack of willpower and perceived gluttony. ‘Control Kali’ was equally vociferous, madly planning compensatory exercise measures and a restrictive meal plan to start the next day.
It was not until I learned to be with my shame and anxiety, that I discovered none of it was really about my body.
When I learned to explore my emotions around food with self-compassion and curiosity, I discovered an entire landscape that was previously unbeknownst to me! It was like having blinders ripped off.
There are many, many underlying reasons for why women find themselves stuck in patterns of overeating or undereating (or both). If you think about this objectively, it literally can’t be about the food because our bodies are innately designed to manage our appetite (when we don’t interfere with it).
It also can’t really be about our bodies. Because almost all of the things that we want in life don’t magically appear when we lose weight. And almost all of our problems can’t be fixed by dropping a dress size.
Weight loss is a tempting mistress. She promises us a desired outcome (i.e. a more beautiful body) if we follow a prescribed set of rules. Yet she also beguiles us with more than that; somehow, somewhere along the lines, ‘being thinner’ gets confused with ‘being successful’ or ‘being enough’.
If only happiness were so simple!
I call this Fairy Tale Diet Thinking. It’s no surprise that we feel this way and I don’t believe it’s your fault if you currently do. After all, media sells us an image that desirability, success and happiness belong to beautiful people. We are also explicitly sold the story that “Weight loss = Health & Happiness” from the diet industry.
Is it any wonder we’re confused?
I choose to believe that just as ‘Diets’ appear seductively helpful (but are not), ‘Dark nights with food’ are painful yet are trying to send us a helpful message. It may be that you need more physical nourishment during the day so you aren’t hypo-ing when you walk through the door. Or it could be that you need to give yourself permission to rest, instead of using food as an excuse to stop.
There are a million different reasons for doing what we do…Yet making the focus of our problem about food or our bodies robs us of the chance deal with the heart of what is really troubling us.
I sincerely believe that health is a part of what contributes to our happiness. Yet I also believe – from personal and professional experience – that losing weight is not a panacea for all our problems. Misery comes in all dress sizes, yet making it about the ‘dress size’ doesn’t allow us to see what’s underneath.
I am a big believer in the value of therapy to unpack a lot of this. A compassionate, qualified psychologist with expertise in this space is invaluable.
However, next time you find yourself alone in the kitchen (or couch, or wherever), giving yourself a good ol’ mental beating about food or your body, try being gentle with yourself and ask these three simple questions…
It may sound so simple, yet how often to we take a mindful moment to really, deeply consider how we are feeling?
I know now that when I overeat it’s not because I’m lazy, a pig or useless. There is always a reason. It may be that I’ve not eaten enough that day, am tired or am searching for an excuse to rest.
None of this can be clear to us unless we give permission to check in with ourselves. From this state, we are newly empowered to address the ‘thing’ underneath the manifested food behaviour.
Once we’ve identified what’s really true for us right now, we’re in a great position to do something that really serves us.
If you are hungry and genuinely wish to eat – please do so! This is never, ever about tricking ourselves into eating less. It’s about exploring what’s going on with our relationship to food and finding options that really deeply nourish us.
Perhaps your soul is truly yearning for a chocolate bar. Or maybe you’d like nothing better in the world than to go to bed early with a good book. I believe that our bodies and hearts are always trying to serve us if we listen in.
I’m yet to meet anyone who has hated themselves into better health and happiness. So despite the fact that mental beat-ups with food feel awful, they actually don’t even help.
Self-compassion is one of the best tools we can use to improve our relationship with food and our bodies. It allows us to explore what’s going on for us with kindness and non-judgement, rather than through the biased lens of body hate. It strips away the spiteful stories we tell ourselves and allows us to operate from a clearer space.
By asking this simple affirmation, you are softening your attitude and beginning a process of befriending yourself and your relationship with food.
I hope that this blog has lifted your spirits and offered you some useful ideas to try. Rather than dark nights with food, here’s to many brighter nights days for you ahead!