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Sometimes I miss the obvious. I treat many clients who were raised by parents (most often mothers) who either excelled at dieting and food restriction or modeled nothing but emotional, mindless or binge eating. Or parents bounced from one extreme to the other—one week tossing out any foods that contained carbs or sugar and the next week bringing all those same foods into the house in bingeing on them. Now, even when dysregulated eaters come to therapy desperately wanting to stop dieting or bingeing, they have no clue how to do it. Not one real clue.
As children, they learned specific eating behaviors like denying themselves food when they were hungry, eating less caloric foods than others in their family, eating out of deprivation, seeking food for comfort, ignoring appetite signals, or a combination of all of these strategies. Sometimes they were criticized when they reached for food and other times when they didn’t eat enough. Sometimes they were praised for saying no to sweets and treats, while other times they were told to eat more to show love.
Here’s where my missing the obvious comes in. How could clients possibly eat “normally” when they have absolutely no idea what “normal” looks like. In their lives, there are only two possibilities: restriction or overdoing, controlling eating impulses or surrendering to them, food as enemy or food as lover. When I talk with them about “normal” eating, it must seem like I’m telling them a fairy tale in another language.
Add to that being pressured not to be fat or to be thinner. Or to never eat anything but highly nutritional foods. Without the skills to follow their appetites, their choices were only dieting or purging. I know that, as for many years those were the things I was very, very good at—when I wasn’t being very “bad” and binge-eating. It’s amazing how skilled dysregulated eaters become at secret eating and purging after a meal. They have no idea that there’s a whole ‘nother set of skills they never learned because no one ever taught them that will give them a comfortable, positive relationship with food.
For those of you who recognize yourselves in the above descriptions, please don’t feel ashamed that you don’t know how to feel hunger, fullness or satisfaction, that cravings include only high fat, high sugar foods, that you can’t imagine saying no to or eating small amounts of foods you love, or that you can’t live without obsessing about your weight. All these new behaviors are learnable. They are skills. They take attention, time and practice, but there’s no reason you can’t learn them. It’s never too late if you’re still breathing.
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