Are You Hungry for Hope?

By Mary Anne Cohen

Are you hungry for hope? If you have battled with bingeing for a very long time, you may feel despair at ever making positive changes. If you cannot stop throwing up after you binge, you may believe you will never get better. And if you look at yourself in the mirror and are convinced you could never like your body, you might feel deeply despondent. So, how does one inject hope into what feels like a hopeless situation? How does one move from hopeless to hope to healing to wholeness?

Hope is when you look forward to something you desire and have reasonable confidence that you can achieve it. You have a strong belief that you can reach a cherished goal. Hope is different than optimism where people try to have a positive outlook and “whistle a happy tune whenever they feel afraid.” While optimism is a positive attitude, hope has a goal and a determined plan of action to help you achieve your goal.

When people feel hopeless about making progress in their eating or weight issues, they often do one of two things:

1. They become paralyzed and stuck in their misery and do nothing. Since nothing changes, sadly their despair deepens. Eating and weight issues become a chronic way of life and can be accompanied by an increase in emotional and physical limitations. A lack of hope engenders passivity, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then resignation sets in.

2. Or they make a sweeping overhaul to change themselves quickly and dramatically. People begin to follow restrictive or fad diets and punishing exercise regimes. But a quick fix is rarely sustainable because it takes so much energy and deprivation. So, people wind up eventually reverting back to their old behaviors.

Neither choice provides much hope for long lasting change. So how can we stimulate hope when all of our best efforts have failed? Jackie, age 24, gave me an unusual lesson in hope. In our first consultation after listening to Jackie’s story, I told her that she definitely had a diagnosis of binge eating disorder. A slow, bright smile lit up her face. She seemed thrilled! I was so surprised at her happy reaction that I asked her why. “Because, up until now, I just thought I was crazy!” Jackie explained. “I have been so ashamed and guilty and felt so alone with my chaotic and sneaky eating. I’ve spent a ton of money on food and even hide food from my family. Now that I know I have a real diagnosis, you are giving me hope that there is something I can do about it. If there is a true rhyme and reason to what I do, then hopefully I can change it!”

To generate hope with your eating struggles, begin by doing just ONE thing different. Since change is composed of a series of forward moving steps, taking even one step in your own behalf will provide a glimmering of hope. Hope begets hope, and you can continue to build strategies regarding your emotional eating with “bite-size pieces.”

Other strategies to encourage your own hope include:

· Lessening your perfectionism. The identity of many emotional eaters is based on performance, pleasing, and striving to be perfect; they are convinced this is what makes them lovable. However, evaluating your life and your eating behavior through the lens of “I must be perfect” will sign you up for a lifetime of frustration and self-doubt. The antidote to perfectionism is believing that, “good enough is good enough.” 

· Speaking with others who have the ability to just listen (and not necessarily give advice). Venting our stress rather than acting out with food is a robust tool to lighten our burden. “I love coming to therapy,” laughed Sherry, “because you have to totally listen to me and I don’t have to reciprocate by being polite and asking how you’re doing! Frankly, I don’t care how you are. I just want to talk about myself!”

· Changing what you can, accepting what you can’t. Accept a certain amount of powerlessness. Take all necessary steps to fix a problem; let go of the results. In the midst of a grueling divorce, Pearl recognized that all the cake in the world was not going to resolve her conflict. She continued her plan of action to solve her legal dilemma while working valiantly not to compound her own pain by overeating.

Everyone’s path to self-care and self-soothing is as unique as a fingerprint. Keep refining your unique path. The last chapter has not yet been written on your life. There is still room and time to cultivate a good, strong relationship with yourself where food is no longer a tool for emotional expression and release. Sink your teeth into LIFE, not into your relationship with food!

About the author:

Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, is Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders. She is author of 3 books on the treatment of emotional eating. You can visit her at www.EmotionalEating.Org and read sample chapters from her books.

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