If a wish-granting genie had appeared during the 17 years I was gaining and losing a thousand pounds, I would've said, "Take 50 pounds off my body immediately and make me thin. When I wake up tomorrow, let me eat ice cream without guilt and munch potato chips without seeing them on my hips within ten minutes." If the aforementioned genie had been smart, she probably would've said to me, "Are you kidding? With all the wishes you could possibly have -- being forever happy or endlessly wise or even unspeakably rich, you want to be thin?" And my answer would've been a resounding yes. I wanted your basic miracle. Just one teeny miracle.
If there's one refrain I hear constantly from people who are struggling with food, it's that they want this to be over, done, kaput. They want to wake up thin tomorrow and spend the rest of their life without a food problem.
Yup, I understand. Been there. Wished that. But let me tell you the good news about that wish: It's entirely possible to break free from emotional eating. You can be someone who walks around without thoughts of food occupying the main portion of your mental life.
The bad news, of course, is that the work of transformation is up to you, and the work itself is a journey that -- uh-oh, here it comes -- never ends.
Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield tells a story about a family of nomads traveling through the desert on camels. One of the children calls out, "Hey, Dad! When are we going to get there?" And the dad calls back, "We're nomads. We're never going to get there!" That's how it is: with life, with emotional eating, and with transforming ourselves. It's a journey, an adventure, a process; we're not done until there's not a breath left in our bodies.
Part of the challenge of emotional eating involves changing how we think about food: from a problem to fix to a path we walk. Instead of telling ourselves that we want to get rid of our struggles, we can ask ourselves how the vehicle we've chosen for the journey -- our relationship with food -- functions in our lives. How is emotional eating helping us, speaking for us, and expressing something we feel we can't express directly?
One of the principles of my work is that there are always exquisitely good reasons why we turn to food when we aren't hungry -- and our work is to develop a kinder, wiser relationship not only with food but also with ourselves. It means being willing to consider and then explore how we use food in our lives. It means treating ourselves with compassion, and understanding that the point isn't to arrive at some imagined destination but to have a transformative, fascinating, fabulous time arriving. And arriving and arriving.
A few years ago, I worked with a woman who couldn't stop eating desserts. Rebecca would get through the days eating balanced meals, but at night, she'd graze from cheesecake to ice cream to cookies. Then she'd get disgusted with herself and go on a high-protein diet, during which she wouldn't eat any sweets. After she lost weight, she'd go back to her regular dessert-laden lifestyle.
Rebecca wanted help figuring out why she constantly sabotaged herself. I told her that I believe we use food for good reasons and even though it seemed like self-sabotage, I knew she was trying to care for herself in some way; it was our task to discover what that was.
At first, Rebecca was interested only in discovering how to fix herself immediately. She wanted magic. She wanted instant answers. She wanted to wake up thin tomorrow.
But when she relaxed and stopped focusing on the goal, she remembered that when she was younger, her parents were very poor and there was never enough meat on the table. But there were always cookies, she said. "We always had sweets because they were cheap, and my mother could feel that she was giving us something we liked."
As she recalled the days of being hungry, she realized that bingeing on desserts made her feel close to her parents, who had died years before. "I know this sounds strange," she said, "but now that I am a successful businesswoman, I have this secret belief that I am being disloyal to my family. I have what they never had -- enough money to buy the main course."
Once she realized what she was doing, she could ask herself if what she believed was actually true. And she recognized, of course, that it wasn't, and that there were other unharmful ways to remember her parents. When she stopped wanting to make the
problem go away, she relaxed enough to be able to explore the root of her emotional eating. And she stopped being married to sugar.
If Rebecca had woken up thin before understanding the reasons she was eating sweets, the sense of guilt and abandoning her family would've still haunted her.
Years ago, I attended a month-long retreat with Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. As I walked along the paths at his retreat center, there were signs every few steps that said, "You are arriving in every moment." There was never a sign that said, "You have arrived."
Think about how different life could be if you stopped emphasizing the end, the fix, or getting there and began enjoying each step of the way. If one moment was as good as the next. If the goal in life was not to fix yourself but to transform yourself.
Here, after all, is a miracle: You're already on the journey. You already know and already have everything you need to continue. Relax, breathe, be kind to yourself and everyone else.
Oh, there's one more thing: Enjoy the ride.