Outsmarting Overeating: Boost Your Life Skills, End Your Food Problems
By Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd
The theme of Outsmarting Overeating: Boost Your Life Skills, End Your Food Problems promotes the importance of developing and using life skills which support a satisfying life without reliance on unnecessary eating. How did your personal and professional experience shape this theme?
Half a lifetime ago when I had my own binge-eating problems, I was not sufficiently skilled at living well. Specifically I needed to learn how to take better care of my body and handle my emotions more appropriately. Through therapy and hard work I learned to develop these skills. Professionally, over the course of 30-plus years, I’ve seen clients who come from dysfunctional families and who have a bare minimum of life skills. One day I thought: No wonder, they turn to food for fun and comfort. If I can teach them to be more skilled at living, they won’t turn to food except when they’re hungry (and occasionally for pleasure).
You state, “You can’t continue to be ambivalent about your value as a human being and expect to move forward and stay there.” Can you please provide some examples of how this ambivalence would be experienced? What would change as one improves their sense of self worth?
To steal the lyrics of an old song, when it comes to valuing yourself, “Is you is or is you ain’t?” That means either you value yourself wholeheartedly and believe 100% that you deserve the best in life, or you don’t. And what you believe you deserve will dictate the choices you make for yourself. If you’re ambivalent about deserving someone who loves you, you might very well pick someone who kind of does and kind of doesn’t. If you’re conflicted about whether you deserve financial success or whether to do meaningful work, you may not achieve your potential. If you aren’t sure you are lovable, you might sometimes treat yourself as if you are and other times treat yourself as if you aren’t (i.e., exercise then give it up, take vitamins then stop, etc.).
Improving one’s self worth changes everything. Living with love, friendships, passions, and all kinds of pleasures become possible. Settling isn’t even a possibility. What you deserve becomes a non-issue and the focus becomes, how can I get what I deserve.
Living consciously is one of the life skills you present. How does this particular skill help people “feel okay” rather than turn to food?
The problem with living in memory (for that is what happens when we focus on “the past,” as if it were another reality) or the future (another non-reality) is that it immobilizes us. The only place we can actually do anything is in the present. When you live consciously, you know that there is only now. The past is done, over, finished. The future has yet to come. When you live consciously, you might intentionally recall the past or consider or plan for the future, but you know the only place you can take action is now.
For example, if you’re full of regret and trying to change the past, you might turn to food to soothe yourself and miss moments of actual living. If you’re anxious about the future and seek food mindlessly, you’re missing out on feeling fine now. We can always consciously choose to feel okay in the present, no matter what is going on. And we can make whatever happened in the past okay by assigning it a positive or neutral meaning or making it irrelevant to our current lives. Equally, we can assure that we’ll be fine in the future, by making sure we’re always okay in the present.
You discuss self-regulation and respecting the human need for both freedom and structure. Can you illustrate how use of self-regulation can impact both an individual’s relationships and an individual’s overeating?
Freedom and structure are concepts that dysregulated eaters are generally conflicted about without realizing it. Both concepts are value neutral and necessary for a balanced life. Too much freedom and we crave structure. Too much structure and we yearn for freedom. Doesn’t this describe exactly what happens to many dysregulated eaters as they yo-yo from dieting to binge eating back to dieting? Or from never going to the gym to being there every day to gradually or abruptly not going and, instead, staying home?
People who have eating problems generally have other problems with self-regulation as well. They see life and themselves in all-or-nothing terms: good or bad, productive or lazy, work or play, perfect or a failure. I recommend that clients forgo extremes even when they think they want them and take actions that fall within a narrower range on either side of midline—a bit of structure, a bit of freedom. And I encourage them to experiment with what feels like a balance, which is an internal sense, not what someone tells them is right for them. The same is true with eating and not going to restrictive or excessive extremes. When you learn to regulate food, it’s easier to regulate other things in life and vice versa.
You make the observation that many dysregulated eaters see the negative, what’s going wrong, the problems versus what’s going well. What are some steps a person can practice to develop a more positive, optimistic view?
I believe that people are born with certain temperaments through biology that make them see things more positively or negatively. That said, everyone can learn to be more optimistic. I encourage clients to do pride journals and daily write what they did well and feel good about. Feeling proud is very difficult for many dysregulated eaters. Shame comes easily; it’s what they learned to feel in childhood. They see pride as boastful or arrogant or believing that they’re better than others. I teach them that pride is feeling good about what you do and, therefore, about whom you are. By paying attention to what they’re proud of, they’re forced to tune into the positive and end up looking at situations in a more upbeat light. For instance, they may note that they ate half a bag of cookies mindfully, but not the whole box—and feel proud. Or they may eat the whole box and feel proud that they didn’t beat themselves up for it. I also teach them to make decisions based solely on whether or not they’re feeling proud or ashamed of themselves.
I teach them that successful people don’t dwell on what they did wrong. They learn from it and move on. They also focus on what they’re doing right, not what they didn’t do or have left to do. I generally start my therapy or coaching sessions by asking what went well during the week because clients want to tell me all the things they did wrong and don’t even register sometimes what they’ve done well. Breaking this pattern and turning it around makes all the difference.
Please share your suggestions on how one can measure progress?
Progress can be measured in three ways. The first is by the duration of the dysfunctional behavior, that is, how long it continues. Say, your usual binge lasts for hours. You’re making progress if you binge for 20 minutes, catch yourself, and then stop.
A second way to assess progress is through intensity, that is, how thoroughly absorbed you become in the behavior. Let’s say your binges are generally ferocious and you only realize you’ve been gorging after you’ve finished all the food in your house. You’re making progress if, during your binge you remain aware that what you’re doing is self-injurious and don’t go “unconscious.”
The third way to measure progress is by the frequency of undesired behavior, for example, going from bingeing every day to doing it only once a week. The goal is to lengthen the periods of normalcy between bouts of dysfunctional eating.
Can you please discuss your comment, “…many dysregulated eaters appear to have lived with an inner void for most of their lives. If you are one of those people, be careful not to go overboard with activity just to feed the void, because the absence of bustling around is going to make natural downtime seem even emptier?”
Some dysregulated eaters talk about eating to fill an unnamed emptiness within, while others run around trying to stay busy and productive but don’t know why. In either case, a feeling of emptiness or an inner void is the problem. Sometimes that void is caused by a disconnection from self, especially from true emotions. Sometimes the emptiness is from boredom (not enough to do) or loneliness (lack of connection to others). Other times it’s from not having enough meaning in one’s life.
It’s vital that dysregulated eaters stop doing and eating and, instead, open up to what might fill the void. It could be any of the things I mentioned or something else. I went through a few years of ennui and, though I was done with mindless food seeking by then, I knew something was missing in my life. When I began to pay attention to what that might be, I eventually quit my job, went into private practice, and subsequently wrote six books.
When we feed ourselves true emotional nourishment, we have no desire for food as a substitute. For that matter, food is a poor replacement for anything but real hunger and an occasional craving for some particular edible pleasure. When we feel nourished by life, we crave quiet time when we can turn off our minds and recharge our batteries, again in non-food ways. We don’t feel empty or, if we do, we know what will fill us up constructively.
About the author –
Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed., is a psychotherapist, educator, eating coach, national speaker, international author, and expert on the psychology of eating—the why and how, not the what, of it—with 30+ years of experience teaching chronic dieters and overeaters the skills that “normal” eaters use naturally to maintain a comfortable, healthy weight for life without dieting and food restriction.
She is the author of five books: Starting Monday—Seven Keys to a Permanent, Positive Relationship with Food, Nice Girls Finish Fat—Put Yourself First and Change Your Eating Forever, What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Treating Eating and Weight Issues, The Food and Feelings Workbook—A Full Course Meal on Emotional Health, and The Rules of “Normal” Eating—A Commonsense Approach for Dieters, Overeaters, Undereaters, Emotional Eaters, and Everyone in Between! Ten foreign language editions are available among three of her books.
Her articles have appeared in Social Work Focus, Social Work Today, Eating Disorders Today, The Newsletter for the Society for Family Therapy and Research, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and she has been quoted in, Ladies Home Journal, Berner Zeitung, The Wall Street Journal, Women’s Health, Self, Shape, Weight Watchers, Body and Soul, In Touch, and OK magazines, including a feature the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Her TV interviews include ABC, FOX, WHDH, Brookline, MA cable, and SNN and she has done dozens of podcasts and scores of radio shows.
She is a founding member of the Greater Boston Collaborative for Body Image and Eating Disorders, has served on the Professional Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Eating Disorder Association, and has taught seminars for Simmons College School of Social Work, Boston University School of Social Work, Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, the National Association of Social Work, the Massachusetts Dietetic Association, the National Organization for Women, the Multi-service Eating Disorder Association of Massachusetts, and the University of South Florida Department of Social Work.
A graduate of Simmons College School of Social Work, Ms. Koenig practices and teaches in Sarasota, Florida. She blogs at http://www.eatingdisordersblogs.com, and moderates a message board at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/foodandfeelings. Follow her on https://www.facebook.com/karen.r.koenig.9, http://twitter.com/KarenRKoenig, and http://www.youtube.com/user/KarenRKoenig. www.karenrkoenig.com