When it doesn’t feel safe to lose weight, deal with the safety issue before the weight
I’ve re-read the last paragraph of Roxane Gay’s book “Hunger. A Memoir of (My) Body” several times and each time it made my spine tingle.
“in telling you these truths about my body, I am sharing my truth and mine alone. I understand if that truth is not something you want to hear. The truth makes me uncomfortable too. But I am also saying, here is my heart, what’s left of it. Here I am showing you the ferocity of my hunger… See what I hunger for and what my truth has allowed me to create”
The book is the telling of that truth, from the traumatic gang-rape at the age of twelve through degrees of insight and healing, to a point where she is “as healed as I am ever going to be”.
It’s a powerful story, both about trauma and about hunger. About eating with a very clear purpose:
“I ate because I understood that I could take up more space. I could become more solid, stronger, safer. …… My parents …. Knew nothing of my determination to keep making my body into what I needed it to be – a safe harbour rather than a small, weak vessel that betrayed me.”
When we want to lose weight but have reasons not to, it’s called ambivalence
Because Roxane Gay eats to get safe but then feels desperate to lose weight, she finds herself in a state of inner conflict. Of wanting and not wanting at the same time. Both the wanting and the not wanting are authentic, and when we truly experience both at the same time, it’s called ambivalence. She describes how the ambivalence affects her experience of losing weight:
“there is always a moment when I am losing weight when I feel better in my body. I breathe easier. I move better. I feel myself getting smaller and stronger. My clothes fall over my body the way they should and then they start to get baggy. I get terrified. I start to worry about my body becoming more vulnerable as it grows smaller. I start to imagine all the ways I could be hurt. I start to remember all the ways I have been hurt.
I also taste hope. I taste the idea of having more choices when I go clothes shopping. I taste the idea of fitting into seats at restaurants, movie theatres, waiting rooms. I taste the idea of walking into a crowded room or through a mall without being stared at and pointed at and talked about. I taste the idea of grocery shopping without strangers taking food they disapprove of out of my cart or offering me unsolicited nutrition advice. I taste the idea of being free of the realities of living in an overweight body. I taste the idea of being free.
And then I worry that I am getting ahead of myself. I worry that I won’t be able to keep up better eating, more exercise, taking care of myself. Inevitably, I stumble and then I fall, and then I lose the taste of being free. I lose the taste of hope. I am left feeling low, like a failure. I am left feeling ravenously hungry and then I try to satisfy that hunger so I might undo all the progress I’ve made. And then I hunger even more.”
There are many roots of ambivalence
It isn’t only the conflicting desires for safety versus weight loss that fuels ambivalence. Food does more than promise safety, as Roxane Gay describes. It can comfort and reassure us. Our evolutionary drive to move towards things that give us pleasure and away from what cause us pain is intimately linked with food, appetite and eating, so that we eat to experience pleasure and we eat to avoid pain.
“I was lonely and scared and food offered an immediate satisfaction. Food offered comfort when I needed to be comforted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me. Food tasted good and made me feel better. Food was the one thing within my reach.
…… food was not only comfort; food also became my friend because it was constant and I didn’t need to be anything but myself when I ate”
And yet another reason to eat is when we’re eating to punish people:
“my family’s constant pressure to lose weight made me stubborn, even though the only person I was really hurting was myself. The constant pressure made me refuse to lose weight to punish these people who claimed to love me but wouldn’t accept me as I was.”
If you are ambivalent, are you ready to change yet?
When there are many reasons you gained weight in the first place, it’s wise to understand what they are, and to approach each one step by step in the spirit of asking yourself whether now you are ready to overcome them. If you aren’t then it may be better for your long-term health to tell yourself that you can change how you eat at any time in the future, and that before you try to do that, you need to be emotionally ready. That way, you’ll save yourself soul-destroying doomed diets, where you deprive yourself of comfort, safety and all the other things food may be helping you with, only to run out of willpower/energy because it’s all too much.
If you are ready, then you’ll need to allocate energy and mental space to making changes to how you eat. It’s hard work at the best of times to change lifelong eating habits. As Roxane Gay says,
“I no longer need the layers of protection I built around myself but pulling those layers back is harder than I could ever have imagined”
When you are ready and it is a priority, and you ditch the idea that it should be easy, you can work on the eating and the reasons-for-eating, one step at a time. Pulling back layers of protection is complicated when they interconnect. You can feel you’re in a Catch-22 of competing feelings and impulses.
The Steps to dealing with ambivalence about weight loss:
- Remind yourself to start where you are now
- Set yourself a realistic interim goal
- Look at what specific change you want to make to your eating habits
- Work out what the emotional barriers or “saboteurs” are which are likely to hold you back (such as feeling less safe; losing a source of comfort; losing overeating as a way of punishing people)
- Find the necessary resources to help you address each barrier in turn, using resources on the Appetite Doctor website or recruiting help from a trusted friend, or employing a therapist
- If you want to work with me directly, see this page on the website
If you know anyone who might be interested in this article please share it with them. It might really help them to see that mental blocks to losing weight are there for good reasons. The psychology of why it’s so hard to lose weight takes up a tiny fraction of column inches and bookshelves devoted to the subject, but for many of us, it’s why we’re stuck.
A note on major trauma
If you have experienced a major trauma as Roxane Gay did when she was 12 years old, there are specific therapies which can help. Processing major or complex trauma requires skilled help (complex trauma refers to repeated trauma such as childhood abuse).
The two therapeutic approaches for psychological trauma which are recognised by the UK government’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) are Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (www.emdr.org; www.emdr.com) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.