“I want to stop obsessing about food.”
“I want to stop eating out of boredom or for emotional reasons.”
“I want to stop feeling so badly about my body.”
These presenting concerns, among others, are the laments of clients in my office each week. After many failed attempts at dieting or restricting food in various ways, we can become disheartened at the prospect of change and left with a the shameful sense that we are just not trying hard enough or exercising adequate willpower.
The fact is that when we are deprived of one of our basic needs, we begin to obsess about the thing that would meet the need and take more of it in than necessary when it is finally available again.
As the parent of a three-month old, I am well aware that a loss of consistent sleep results in me feeling obsessed with my fluffy bed and pillows, longing for those college days when I lazily rolled over in bed and hit snooze for the fifth time and didn’t have anywhere to be until my four o’clock (p.m.) class. I can get obsessed with counting how many hours the baby is sleeping between feedings, calculating averages, searching through old logs in journals I kept during my first and second boys’ first few months to figure out when I can expect a full night’s sleep again. I get consumed with figuring out how to get a little more sleep.
But then I am graced with a six-hour stretch of sleep, and everything changes. I feel reacquainted with my fun, likable self, as opposed to the irritable, sleep-deprived version of myself that turns into the shushing witch while the baby sleeps. I start to feel like I’m coming up and out of a tunnel for a breath of fresh, rejuvenating air, and my brain cells once again send signals to one another in a timely fashion. I smile at people, get ideas, laugh, play my ukulele, and ride my scooter. I start feeling alive again.
Many clients I see develop the same type of obsession around food- how much weight can be lost? How little food can be consumed, especially the enjoyable type? And likewise, as they progress in therapy, they become alive again. Food becomes a gift to have and enjoy appropriately. The body becomes a vehicle for energy and passion, and a beloved home. And the obsessing can stop.
I think food is like sleep. One of our basic needs. And when it’s deprived in either variety or portion, or used in harmful ways to cope with distress, we obsess and suffer. But when we give ourselves the gift of foods that we enjoy and that our bodies need on a regular basis, our needs are met and we will do far less obsessing.