During the 30+ years I've been teaching people how to break free from emotional eating, I've learned that there are two parts to changing our relationship with food. One is the hands-on work with food itself -- how to eat when we're hungry, eat what our body wants, and stop when we've had enough.
The second part of breaking free from emotional eating involves paying attention to the nonfood areas of our lives and learning how to feed ourselves in ways that are as divine as chocolate, minus the calories. When we don't pay attention to, and then celebrate, what is right about our lives in this instant, we end up waiting for what we believe are the right conditions -- being at the perfect weight, having the perfect partner, living in the perfect house -- to be happy.
I call my friend Sally my "what the hell" friend because she uses any reason to celebrate. Every dinner is a cause to break out her new silverware. She paints each toenail a different color and wears eyeglasses that glitter. We drink water from crystal goblets her grandmother gave her. Even when her 3-year-old son, 60-pound shaggy dog, and two cats are tearing around the house, she uses her best dishes.
No matter how I am feeling when I arrive at her house (this even includes when I'm having a "fat" day), I soon find myself thinking, Oh, what the hell, might as well paint my toenails gold. Might as well take a bath in the middle of the day in her giant tub with the mermaid soap dish. What was I so caught up in before I got here, anyway? Sally's philosophy is: "Create feasts. Make noises. Celebrate every little thing." And when I am with her, I do.
Once I had a boyfriend who didn't love me. Usually I am so humiliated by the memory of how I threw myself at his feet that I either repress everything he ever said to me or else portray him in my books as heartless and ignorant (revenge being one of a writer's great advantages). But this morning, as I was thinking about celebrating every little thing, I recalled something he said during a fight we had in a spectacular restaurant. "Why not think of all the times we've celebrated and all the times we have yet to celebrate as a bank account from which we can draw funds?" he asked. "Let's put aside this fight, take some celebration savings out now, and replenish the fund when we get home.”
I remember looking from him to the mushroom tart on my plate, thinking, I could let this horrible fight go. I could enjoy this tart, and we could have a wonderful time. Then I thought, But if I let it go, I will be a wimp. He doesn't deserve to have a good time after what he's done. If I let it go, he will win. I didn't bother to ask myself what I would lose by holding on to my anger -- I only figured that if he didn't love me, the least he could do was suffer. So I said, "Forget it. It's a terrible idea," and ruined the evening for us both.
It’s taken me many years to remember that I was enchanted by the idea of a celebration fund, and to admit that even cads can have brilliant ideas. Rather than focus on how fat and miserable we are, or how fabulous life will be when we change, we can put our attention on what is right in our lives right now. You’ll be surprised at the sea change in your attitude. It’s like taking off in an airplane during a rainstorm and flying above the clouds. You suddenly realize that the luminous blue has been there all the time.
When you draw from a celebration fund, you set aside your involvement in your drama-of-the-moment and pay attention to all the reasons you have to celebrate just being alive. And you can do this whenever you want! It's like having Christmas in the middle of July. Or Valentines Day today!
Of course, you can't celebrate what you can't detect, and most of us are living in the clouds of our own thoughts, unaware of the blue sky above. One way to shake yourself out of thinking mode is to use a wonderful meditation technique called labeling, which allows you to disengage from your thoughts du jour and be present in the world that exists outside your brain synapses.
Whenever you catch yourself thinking, say to yourself, That's thinking. No matter how compelling or urgent your thought seems, simply label it and let it go. When the white noise disappears, the whole beautiful, delicious world materializes before you. Being caught up in your thinking is akin to sitting in front of the Grand Canyon with a bag on your head. When you label your thoughts, you remove the bag and arrive in the present moment.
Sometimes it happens naturally: When you're walking along the street tangled in your story line of the moment (what you ate that you shouldn't have eaten, what you will eat when you get it all together, what your life will be like when you finally lose weight, and any other emotional eatin variation), you catch sight of something that makes you stop thinking. A child with curly red hair trying to train her new puppy. A row of giant coral dahlias. A silver-faced mime who looks like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. And suddenly whatever was going on before seems silly, small, and irrelevant, and you are sublimely happy.
That is the moment when you realize that you are so much more than your thoughts. It is the moment you understand that you are not your body, either; that your self-worth is not dependent on your weight; that happiness can be yours in this very instant. This is cause for celebration.
So remember: Label, seize every opportunity for celebration, and when all else fails and you have an irresistible urge for revenge during what could be a special time, draw on the celebration fund. Learn from my experience: Forget revenge, and don't miss the mushroom tarts of your life.