How long will it take to heal your disordered eating and body image Issues?

photo credit: lost in the mirror via photopin (license)

There isn’t a neatly marked timeline to follow. Be patient and keep moving forward.                                                 photo credit: lost in the mirror via photopin (license)

“I thought I’d have made more progress by now.”

“I’m so tired of thinking about this.”

“Why is my friend doing better than me?”

“When will it be easy?”

Sometimes clients express these thoughts about their journey and I’ve certainly thought these things myself at different points along the way. I wish there was a simple answer. Losing weight often is easy – eat less, get more activity etc., but working through the reasons you gained weight in the first place can be time consuming, painful and sometimes feel like you’re just trying to keep your head above the water. You may not feel like you’re making any progress day to day or week to week. It can be frustrating, angering even!

You believe you are “working” so hard at this – you’ve thought about your weight in some way forever! So why do you feel like you are in the same place you were 6 months ago? A year ago?! Ug!! It’s maddening sometimes.

There’s no clear, fixed schedule or timeline for healing from disordered eating or body image issues. Everyone is on a different journey, has different triggers, unique habits and support systems in place, all of which contribute to how well they’ll do in the long run.

I can’t give you a schedule of when you’ll be “fixed”. But one thing I know for sure is that we’re all in a rush to get “better”, to not have this hanging over our heads anymore and for most, to do as little as possible to get there. I know I did – I literally tried to pray the fat away!

I remember being a child, laying in my bed and praying to Mary (I was raised Catholic) to help me not be “fat” anymore. I thought she’d understand more than Jesus or God, you know, being a woman and all. I asked Mary if she could make it so that every calorie I ate would actually burn 2 calories.  I don’t know how old I was exactly but I was still young enough to believe in “magic” but yet old enough to know about calories and their effect on weight and I knew that if I could burn 2 calories for each 1 I ate, then I’d lose weight in no time!

She wasn’t able to answer that prayer (maybe she was busy that day) but it was the first of many occasions where I daydreamed about what it would be like to not be heavy anymore. Ironically, I don’t  look at my elementary school pictures today and see a “fat” kid. I was mildly larger than the other kids – which certainly got worse as I got older – but I was not overweight enough to have to pray it away!

The result of thinking about my weight and food from such a young age, and gaining and losing so much over the years, is that by the time I reached adulthood and was ready to deal with my problem with food, I already felt like I had been “dealing” with it and “working” on it for years!

Thinking like this made me only give partial effort to whatever I did try – because I was, in a way, super resentful that I even had to work at it – since I had been “working” at it, at least by beating myself up and thinking about it for so so long! I expected any diet, workout or self-help book I got myself involved in to solve my issue in 2 months, 3 tops! But, I had been eating and thinking about my body in a disordered way for a long as I could remember. How the hell long will it take to get over this?

I have a rough mathematical answer for you. I give credit to Charlotte York for the formula.

In the Sex and the City episode Take Me Out to the Ballgame (Season 2, Ep 1)  Carrie and Big have broken up and Carrie is pretty depressed about it. Miranda, of course, is totally annoyed that Carrie isn’t back in the dating scene already but Charlotte tells Carrie that it takes “half the total time you went out with someone to get over them”. Only a month has passed since they broke up and Carrie and Big dated for a year so Charlotte suggests that Carrie will be over him in 5 more months.

I think Charlotte’s breakup timeline is probably similar to our food and body image stuff. If you’ve been struggling with food, dieting, overeating, restricting, criticizing your body etc for decades, you can’t expect to heal from it fully in 6 months or a year. It may take YEARS and years.

Later in the episode, Charlotte says “You can’t just push yourself into feeling good. The only way to get over someone is to feel really bad, cry to your girlfriends and replay what you hated about him over and over in your head all day.”  Those specific items aren’t what you need to do to make progress in your relationships with food and your body BUT Charlotte’s sentiment is in the right place – she’s telling Carrie that she has to focus her mental energy and take actions that will help loosen the hold Mr. Big has on her. He’s a habit that she has to break with new habits. In the same way, we have to use our mental energy and physical actions to take steps and create thoughts that will heal us, that will create new patterns and new habits. You have to be conscious with your thoughts and you have to make room in your life for the things that you know support the habits you want to acquire. (I could use that whole episode or any episode of SATC as a metaphor / analogy for this stuff – but really that would be a whole other blog! haha!)

Huh? My eating or body image issues are a habit?

That’s really all most of our shit is – habits we’ve picked up along the way. Things we’ve gotten really good at because we do them repeatedly. Now it’s time to get good at something else – not doing those things that are causing you pain and doing something else constructive instead.

Let me give you some examples!

If you’ve gotten into the habit of getting up off the couch during commercial breaks to look for snacks in the kitchen – you’re going to feel compelled to do it on every commercial break. You may almost feel physically pulled to the kitchen or almost like you’re on autopilot if you’ve been doing it for awhile. How long you’ve been doing it for will determine how difficult it is for you to break this habit. To break this habit, you’re going to have to associate something else with those commercial breaks – this might mean turning off the TV and finding a different activity entirely. Or it might mean doing jumping jacks during commercials or maybe folding laundry. And when you first try these new things, you may be successful 3 days in a row and then resort back to your old ways. Next time you may go 5 days in a row and then go back.  The point isn’t that you went back to your previous habit (that’s bound to happen) – the important thing is that you keep getting up and trying to change it for the better.

We know that often people overeat / binge because they are trying to numb themselves from feeling something that they don’t want to feel (unhappiness in their marriage, confusion in their career, worries about the future etc). Sure there is often some deeper psychological stuff going on but the simplest explanation for what it actually is is that it’s a habit that was created (regardless of the circumstances that created it).  Ultimately it is an action they took a few times, subconsciously or consciously noticed the effect it had on how they felt (it mitigated the pain they were feeling), and so they did it again, and again. It becomes a learned response. X happens and Y is the action taken. Stopping it starts with allowing those negative feelings to just be there – but it doesn’t end there.

Stopping someone from bingeing doesn’t happen with one single habit change – you have to go at it with multiple things, repeatedly and for a long time. Those things will be different (to a degree) with each person.

One of my clients has been successful in preventing binges by making sure she gets plenty of sleep, speaking her mind at work and at home (instead of keeping things bottled inside), writing in a journal daily and by eating more fat and protein in place of refined carbohydrates. She doesn’t just HOPE that these things happen – she creates space for them in her life by setting a bedtime and sticking to it, scheduling journal writing time etc. She essentially creates a plan to fit these new habits in daily.

Some of the ways I avoid bingeing is by eating a diet that is 90% whole foods (the sugar / crunchy / salty junk sets me off), caring for my body with frequent exercise and by doing lots of thought work that affects my daily outcome (Check out Self Coaching 101 by Brooke Castillo – great tool for changing your results!). How do I make space for this stuff? I plan for it. I make grocery shopping, meal prep, exercise and thought work priorities in my life.  Bingeing used to be treated like a priority. I couldn’t wait to get home from work to zone out and eat (or in the car if I could get to a store first). I made space for it and it became a firmly ingrained habit. I didn’t get where I am today in a few weeks or months. It has taken YEARs of trial and error,  repeated attempts and conscious, focused actions!

Do these new habits that we’ve made space for mean we NEVER go back to our old ways? No. Pretty much everyone slips into their old behaviors at some point, sometimes many many times. Even me. I’ve slipped back into my old habits more times than I can count but you know what? Each time it has happened I have learned something from it – a new thing to watch out for, a new tool to keep me taking good care of myself possibly and certainly more experiences to share with all of you. I should also mention that each time I’ve “fucked up” it’s been less serious than previous times. What I consider a binge for me now, I would not have considered a binge 3 years ago. What I consider crappy eating today doesn’t look like my crappy eating from 5 years ago. I am always making progress and always working to do better.

It’s not easy but it’s also not hard all of the time either, I promise! Sometimes things will just click and you feel like “I’m going to make it!”, other times you will feel like you’re not making any progress at all. My advice to you is to:

  • Keep going no matter what. Creating new habits/responses requires time. You are actually creating new neural pathways in your brain when you repeat a task over and over and it will get stronger the more often you do it.
  • Get conscious – get to know yourself. Learn all of your habits, thoughts and how you may try to lie to yourself (it’s only 1 bite!).
  • Keep track of all that you’re trying – what’s working? what’s not?
  • Note where you are getting support – friends, family, coaches, therapists? Who knows about your struggle and cares about your success? Where else can you get support?
  • What resources you have read, watched and listened to? What kind of resources speak to you the most?
  • What tools help you to connect to your body in a positive way? Mindful or intuitive eating? Throwing out the scale? Keeping a food journal? Gentle exercise? Figure those things out and do them often.
  • What things trip you up? What situations trigger you to choose old habits? Make a plan to prepare for these situations so that when they pop up you know what to do.
  • Keep track of your accomplishments no matter how small. Where have you made progress? What good habits have become almost 2nd nature to you? Keep this list handy to look at on those days when you feel like you are at square one and it will make you feel proud.
  • Have patience. Settle in. There’s no rush. Giving up keeps you in the pain that only seems easier because it’s familiar!

As I said earlier in this post, there is no concrete timeline for healing your relationship with food and your body. It may take far longer for you than it does a woman in your yoga class or less time for you than your roommate from college. Your timeline is unique because the circumstances, relationships, thoughts and experiences that created the eating and body image problems (habits) you have today are yours. Try not to compare where you are with where someone else is.

You may have an issue with food or with how you think you look but you are also smart, resourceful, persistent and deserving of a peaceful food and body life. You are also capable of taking new actions towards the life that you DO want. Even if you’ve been struggling with dieting, bingeing or criticizing your body for 50 years, there is the possibility for change if you settle in for however long it will take and keep taking dedicated action daily. Don’t give up.

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