Have you heard of the amnesia of the disordered eater? I know it well.
If I know that going to work without my lunch leads me into the queue for super-stimulating snacks, why do I forget to make it?
If I know that I’m going out for a meal in the evening, why do I load up with the leftovers from the children’s tea?
When I open my wardrobe every morning, why is that ancient pair of impossibly small jeans still staring at me accusingly?
Because, dear friends, we are human. We have the capacity for growth, change and renewal given the right environment, but modern life is hardly that. We are like germinating seeds. We cannot be pushed, hurried or cajoled into change. After much activity below the ground, waiting for the right conditions of moisture, warmth and light, we peek our heads out above the earth, gently unfurl, wobbling and waving as our spindly stem grows and our roots deepen to anchor us, before we can fully support the beautiful bud that will, in the fullness of time, blossom.
But everything around us tells a different story. It’s simple! Calories in, calories out! Eat less, move more! Bikini body in three weeks! Eat this, swallow that, join here, get this app!
At I eat what I need we follow a very different philosophy. It is based on re-learning what we have forgotten. What we have overridden. What we have cast aside in the rush to squeeze our bodies into shapes they were never designed to be squeezed into (think corsets, vertiginous heels and “shapeware” friends!) We have lost connection with the feelings, the sensations that our bodies are transmitting moment by moment. Like hunger, like fullness, like gripping tension, like thirst, like aching, like bursts of joy, like contentment. These states are non-verbal, but we recognise them when we pause, pay attention and feel inside. They are present in all of us, but who knew? Whoever told you that re-learning to listen to your body could be the answer to recovering from this plague of disordered eating and body hatred?
I can truthfully say that I consider myself recovered. After so many years of struggle and frustration I am free. But the reality of this freedom is that it requires a daily, sometimes hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute practice of awareness that I have to PRACTISE. Brene Brown puts it so well in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection”. She gives an example of having a “yoga attitude”, after all her ideals and beliefs are strongly aligned with the ideas and beliefs contributed to yoga, and she highly values them. She even has yoga clothes and a yoga mat. She may have read books about yoga (I made that bit up, but you get the gist). But without the yoga practice, it’s just an attitude, a leaning towards. Lots of knowledge without actually applying any of it in action is just that, a lot of knowledge. All that theoretical knowledge makes us incredibly well informed but we wonder why we are ineffective in changing any of our unsupportive behaviours. “But I know better than this!” is often the exasperated cry. But, dear friend, it’s the practice that brings the changes and the benefits. It’s the re-learning and reconnecting with our bodies that marks true recovery and growth towards natural eating. If I know one thing it is this: PRACTISE. My recovery is nothing but a bunch of theoretical knowledge nestling in my already overcrowded brain if I don’t PRACTISE.
Does this mean that we never stare into the bottom of an empty biscuit tin ever again? No, it doesn’t. The deeply ingrained neural pathways of our old behaviours have been superseded by new, slightly wobbly tracks that are patiently waiting to be re-affirmed again and again by our ACTIONS. They grow deeper and more reliable and more accessible with USE. But they feel weird and uncertain to start with. Like the crawling toddler who sinks to her knees after a few tentative steps, we try out our new pathways and then drop back into the old unconscious ways for a bit. It’s easier, it feels familiar. But like the toddler, we want to grow! Who wants to be stuck in food thoughts all day? Who wants to have dessert as their bedtime companion? Who wants the highlight of their day to be “wine o’clock?” Who wants to look in the mirror and hear a tirade of frankly loathsome comments about their body, coming from their own mind? Not me, nor anyone I have ever met.
So here is how we DO it, how we ACT differently. We move from unconscious habitual behaviours into the realms of new possibilities. Thinking about it, ruminating round and round about how things could or should be different, looking up different expert opinions, government guidelines, listening to podcasts, reading books, all add to our knowledge. I know, I’ve done all that before! But as Brene points out, knowledge without practice is just knowledge. Knowledge alone does not heal disordered eating. We can develop our own practice, our own process of change and growth. Emily, Jane and I offer ourselves as your guides, to walk alongside you. We follow this map, the IEWIN Process:
NOTICING: we consciously pay attention to the sensations in our bodies, for example, by checking into our bellies to see if we are actually hungry before eating. And check in during eating to see if we have had enough. We are not hyper-vigilant. We simply pay attention. We are very good at doing this for others!
CREATE SPACE: we can do this by simply taking a breath before lifting the lid and delving in and ask ourselves, “am I choosing this or am I feeling compelled to do this”? We give ourselves the opportunity to do something differently rather than reinforce the old tedious habits. Notice how strong the pull is to always do what you have always done though!
BECOME CURIOUS: curiosity is neutral. We adopt an “hmm, how interesting” detached observation of our behaviour rather than the harsh and critical judgements of “you stupid ****, why can’t you be different? Why do you keep doing this? You are so blah, blah, blah…”
ENGAGING WITH OURSELVES KINDLY: this follows on so well from the above. We forgive ourselves easily, we refuse to dwell on what has passed or what is to come (overeaters like me love to catastrophise) and instead we put the highest priority on our own comfort and wellbeing. Forget the punishing boot camp mentality and think warm fluffy blankets and comfy cushions. You would be surprised (or not) at how uncomfortable us overeaters feel about treating ourselves kindly. We somehow feel we should be punished for our behaviour, not realising that we were only trying to support ourselves with our substance of choice and then we got stuck in a habit. Which is what brains do. They just love a habit, it makes life easier for them. And habits can change, brains can be re-wired! We are not wrong or bad. Far from it.
BEING IN OUR BODIES: this is it folks. This is where the gold lies, right here, inside YOU. The practice is to go inside, reconnect and re-establish the natural eater pathways that were laid down for you as your birthright. Before they were conditioned out of existence by your babyhood feeding to a routine schedule; The Clean Plate Club of your childhood; the teenage diets that then led to a lifetime of disturbed metabolism and restriction and the giant external pressures of cultural norms. We lay down, we breathe. We get comfortable again with feeling sensations, the non-verbal communication with our bodies. It’s what natural eaters do effortlessly.
GETTING STUCK AND STARTING AGAIN: we can regret our choices but we are not guilty of anything. We are doing our best with the capacity that we currently have. By working our process we develop a greater and greater capacity to sit with the fear of our deeply discomforting and frankly painful feelings. We are not “on” or “off” anything; we are not “being good” or “being bad”; we simply acknowledge the messy, non-linear business that is recovery from disordered eating. And then we laugh, perhaps get on the whatsapp group, share our moments of triumph and disaster when we disappeared down yet another food hole and then we move on.
BALANCE: moments of complete joy when you listen in, you feel and know the right choice without deliberating and wrestling with yourself; moments where you realise that food and body size no longer feature in your mind as a backdrop to your life; moments when you put the knife and fork down because you have had enough and you trust that feeling; moments when you love your body deeply and you are grateful to be alive, right here, now.
So, like the seed, when you are ready, you will germinate, push your head out of the dark earth and feel the warm sun. When you are ready we are here at IEWIN to gently guide and support you in developing your own process of change and growth, so you can eat what you need and feel what you feel.
Want to explore these issues with Emily and Jan?
We’re doing three events on Feminism and women’s issues – eating, body image, and #metoo. The first event is in Brighton, on 3rd May. Tickets are available through the eventbrite, or on the event on our ‘I eat what I need’ Facebook page.
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