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When clients begin treatment with me, they often discover and bemoan the fact that simply working on their eating difficulties isn’t enough. If you’re like them, it may be hard to accept how many other aspects of your life need fixing to become a “normal” eater. The truth is, the quicker you begin remedying and resolving other issues and learn the life skills you need, the quicker you’ll improve your relationship with food.
Even without eating problems, as you are right now, you’re still lacking the life skills you need to live happily and meaningfully. As Geneen Roth says in WOMEN FOOD AND GOD, your eating problem is simply the door to your best life, a symptom of everything else that’s wrong. The subject is complicated and progress must be made in food and non-food arenas for your eating to become more consistently “normal.” Working both sides of the aisle makes all the difference and this is why clients with eating problems do better with therapists who specialize in treating these disorders.
For example, if I have a client with a stressful job who eats to soothe herself, we’ll start off discussing her difficulty with relaxing and move onto effective non-food ways to unwind and self-soothe. Then we might get into why she’s so stressed which turns out to be about fearing confrontation, being a perfectionist, and hating to make mistakes. So she’ll begin practicing speaking up, tamping down her perfectionism, and asking others for help. But find she’s still overeating. So we’ll resume talking about new strategies she could use to deal with stress and barriers to practicing them. When more of them are in place, we’ll maybe discuss how to tell her boss when she can’t take on more tasks and how she can leave work on time even if all her reports aren’t finished.
See where I’m going here? You can’t work only on resolving your eating problems because they’re so integrally tied into the rest of your life. Getting over this hurdle—thinking it’s just about food—is a major first step. Next is identifying skills you’re lacking to negotiate life effectively. Remember, you’d be lacking these skills even if you were a “normal” eater and at your desired weight. The goal is to keep building skills which makes it easier for you to eat “normally,” while also developing tools to connect to hunger, food preference, satisfaction, and fullness. In many cases, you might need to acknowledge and attend to underlying anxiety and depression or early trauma, or keep putting effort into letting go of a diet mentality. Resist the urge to oversimplify your eating problems and make sure to keep yourself learning whatever you need to make progress. Fix whatever needs fixing and you’ll succeed.
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