We all have a different story that brought us to a negative and unhealthy relationship with food, exercise, or body image, and uncovering the roots of where these attitudes are born is KEY in making a shift. My relationship with food, exercise, and my body has changed in direct congruence with perceived amount of control I had over my life, my happiness, and how authentically I was living at the time. This didn’t become clear to me until I reflected on the times when I naturally ceased to obsess about food and exercise and treated my body with a new level of respect and care. To explain how I arrived at this conclusion, I'll walk you through my evolution.
As a teenager, controlling my food intake and exercise regimen provided me with a sense of control. I was insecure and overwhelmed, so obsessing about my appearance, food, and exercise was my outlet. In college, I again turned to obsessive behaviors about food and exercise because I felt a huge lack of control and balance in my life, and I didn’t feel as though the extreme nature of my drinking was making me happy (this didn’t stop me, however, so it stayed with me through the duration of college). During the first few months post-college, when I was studying for my CPA exam at home in Albuquerque, NM, it was the first time I implemented a daily meditation practice and really focused on my personal development. Naturally, my eating habit regulated. I never overate, only ate when hungry, and I focused on movement over exercise. When I returned to Denver, my partying lifestyle resurfaced, and I once again used controlling food and exercise as a way to try to find balance.
When I quit my first corporate job in public accounting and decided to backpack with girlfriends in Southeast Asia for several months, it was the first time I took a step towards creating the life that I wanted. My inclination to control my food and have a strict exercise regimen melted away just as it had when I was living at home after college. When I returned home, I reflected on how my relationship with food and exercise had ebbed and flowed throughout my life at that point, and I was searching for the common threads. It became clear that obsessing about food and exercise was both a coping and control mechanism, and I turned to unhealthy behaviors during times when I wasn’t living an authentic or balanced life. Presently, I can sense when something is out of alignment in my life, because my mind will return to those negative and unhealthy thought patterns. It’s a crystal-clear sign that I need to do some internal work when this happens.
Our relationships with food, exercise, and body image are often a reflection of misalignment within. If we’re not living a life that is authentic to us and are searching for happiness outside of ourselves, we will rely on a form of escapism. For me and so many women, this is an obsession with food and exercise, but it can manifest as overeating, binge watching TV frequently, excessive drinking, drugs, dependency on others, etc. When we feel the desire to reach for these, it’s an opportunity, a calling even, to uncover what is truly making us unhappy. Once we determine what that is, we usually have two options: change our actions/situation or change our attitude/perception. For example, when I realized I was miserable in my public accounting job, I wasn’t able to leave right away, but I decided to start saving money and made a plan to quit and travel internationally by the end of the year. And in the meantime, I enjoyed the relationships I developed at work and continued to put my best foot forward. I made a plan to change my situation and actively monitored my attitude at the same time.
Our negative relationships with food, exercise, and body image can be great teachers if we let them, but we have to be willing to take responsibility for our situation and put in the hard work. Looking within to identify the root cause isn’t always easy, but it is SO worth it. We can’t solve our internal struggles with external solutions. So, where do we begin if we’re not quite sure where these thoughts and feelings are coming from?
Start by asking yourself questions related to your thoughts patterns and habits. If you’re struggling with body image, what are you hoping to gain when you obtain the “perfect body”? Is it admiration and approval from others? If you have an obsessive relationship with food, in what situations do you feel most tempted to restrict or obsess about your food intake and what are the related emotions? If you struggle with overeating, excessive drinking, or always reaching for foods that are terrible for you, what feelings are you running from or trying to solve by reaching for food, excessive booze, overeating, binging, etc.? If you tend to over-exercise, are you using this as a coping mechanism for feelings you’re avoiding, even when you know it’s just harming your body more? Or are you using it as a control mechanism?
2. Witness Without Judgment.
Allow the answers to these questions be a stream of consciousness and see what comes up **without judgment***. This part is extremely important! I remember coming face to face with feelings I had been suppressing for a long time, and it was overwhelming in the beginning. This is a constant practice for me when I uncover subconscious feelings, and I find it really comforting to know that this is just a normal part of any healing process. But we need to continue to call this shit out, as uncomfortable as it may be.
3. Consciously Choose New Thought Patterns and Behaviors.
Now that we have identified the feelings, thoughts, and/or situations that are manifesting as poor body image or negative relationships with food or exercise, we need to decide what actions or changes to our thoughts we can make to remedy the root cause. For example, if I have determined that I don’t like my body because I’m worried about not being good enough in the eyes of other people, then I will list out all of the qualities about myself that I like that have nothing to do with my appearance. Celebrate these! I will also list out the qualities of myself that I’m not particularly fond of (still, nothing to do with appearance) and select one to work on. I HIGHLY recommend you choose one action or thought pattern to work on at a time, as this exercise can quickly become overwhelming and you may be tempted to throw in the towel before you really begin.
It’s also tempting to use the results of this exercise as a reason to berate yourself even more, and I’ve been there. However, every single one of us has things we need to work on to better ourselves, and I don’t believe this process ever ends. So, doing this work from a forgiving and loving place makes the process infinitely more enjoyable.
What does this look like in practice? When I was traveling in Asia, I really had to come to terms with my internal struggles and how they were manifesting through issues with my body. I journaled my ass off and realized that I didn’t have healthy emotional boundaries with many (if any) people in my life (a root cause). This lack of boundaries created emotional chaos for me and I felt like I always had to prove my worth in relationships. As a result, I was trying to control everything about my diet and exercise routine to allow for some form of consistency in my life, and I also thought I would finally feel worthy if I looked perfect. An internal struggle I was trying to solve with external means. I decided to read as much as I could get my hands on about creating healthy boundaries (this article was a huge help), and I slowly started creating boundaries with people in my life. It was uncomfortable at first, to be sure, but I started to feel so much more secure in my relationship with myself, and therefore others, as a result. This was just one piece of the puzzle I needed to work on at the time, but I noticed an immediate shift in my need to control my food and exercise.
Realizing our struggles with food, exercise, and how we view our bodies don't actually have anything to do with our bodies is simultaneously terrifying and liberating. We cling so tightly to our thought and behavioral patterns that the idea of letting them go can be really uncomfortable. However, there is also great freedom in realizing that we have the power to change these relationships and our reality by turning our attention inward and doing the work. A friend once told me, as we discussed how overwhelmed we were by everything we needed to work on within ourselves, "Doing work on ourselves is the some of the most challenging work in life but also the most important and rewarding." I realize I'm only 28, but so far I agree. And I certainly believe this to be true when it comes to healing our relationships with food and our bodies.