Monthly Archives: June 2014

It’s Not What You’re Eating, It’s What’s Eating You

It’s not what you are eating, but what’s eating you. For me, and I suspect it is the same for most people, our attitude to food is as much about emotion as it is about satisfying hunger.

Instead of allowing a rush of emotion to drive you towards comfort food, try to stop and judge instead what your body, or more particularly your brain, needs. It deserves better: if you are bored or angry or sad then those emotions are telling you something you need to listen to. It might be as simple as getting a boost from somewhere else rather than from a pudding.

I was interested to read about the experience of the tennis player Monica Seles, who battled with binge-eating for ten years but was cured when she began to focus on food properly for the first time. ‘Every time I sat down to a meal, I could make a decision,’ Seles writes. ‘Was I going to treat myself with love and respect, or was I going to sabotage my own happiness and health for a short-term rush? The decision was an easy one: I chose nourishment over destruction every time. Eating wholesome food left me satisfied much more quickly than mounds of processed fake food ever did.’

The other psychological shift is to move from feeling deprived to feeling you are gaining something extra. It is not about suppressing all pleasure in food. Instead of focusing on what you can’t eat, focus on all the delicious dishes you can enjoy and that benefit your health.

Seles writes of how important it was for her not to feel she was on a ‘diet’. As she rightly says, that implies there is a danger you could fail to keep to your diet. And nothing is more tempting than something that is forbidden.

It can often be easiest to adapt slowly, rather than to enforce wholesale change overnight. Have a cooked breakfast, but have tomatoes alongside the bacon. Don’t abandon salad dressings, but use different oils: wheat germ or flax, sesame or sunflower oil, as well as the more usual olive oil; and add almonds, pecans, cashews, walnuts and pine nuts to salads.

Once you start to eat well, the process gets easier. You begin to feel better. By taking charge of your life, you enter a virtuous circle of looking after yourself. One of the most terrifying feelings about being depressed is the utter lack of control; you can feel like a piece of flotsam, blown by icy winds to terrifying places.

Gradually become more attuned to the connections between mood and food. What is that craving really telling you? How do you feel after eating certain foods? What fills you up that you enjoy and that powers you through your day? You deserve to be properly nourished, in both mind and body.


When We’re Confronted by Someone who is Self-harming

When we’re confronted by someone who is self-harming it brings up all sorts of difficult feelings: fear, anger, guilt, condemnation. When the self-harming results in a suicide attempt these feelings are magnified. What we can lose track of is what it is like for the individual whose suffering is being expressed in this way. The best way to understand what they are going through is to listen to them, and particularly to listen out for how they experience others’ reactions to their self-harming.

The subject of taking an overdose is particularly fraught with stigmatizing attitudes; if you do this and regret it afterwards you know that you need to tell someone, but doing so can be terrifying because of the knowledge that you may be judged. Self-harming and then seeking help can look on the outside like some kind of ‘attention-seeking’: one young woman described how the first time she had to seek medical help after an overdose the attitudes of the A&E staff reflected this. She felt judged and misunderstood and was frightened about seeking help in the future because of this experience. The next time she took an overdose the last thing on her mind was seeking attention – she did it impulsively because at that moment she wanted to die, or at least harm herself as punishment (as she herself to be a ‘bad person’).

When she had to go to A&E she was very nervous in case she experienced judgemental attitudes again. However this time, and throughout her stay in hospital, the care was fantastic. There were no snarky comments from nurses, the A&E doctor held her hand and said she’d endeavour to make sure that she would get the help she needed so she wouldn’t be in this position again, and further doctors listened and let her talk about what had happened without jumping in with pre-conceived ideas of what her motivations were.

This experience of people listening from the very beginning, and being able to talk things through, enabled her to come up with plans to stop it happening again, and to start to get better much quicker. And now she feels safer about seeking help if it were to happen again.

I think the lesson that we can all learn from this is recognise the person behind the behaviour. To remember that we don’t know the intentions of that person, and that person may not be entirely sure of them either. Self-harming may have seemed the only (or the least worst) option available to them at the time. Above all, we need to remember that this person is someone who deserves dignity and respect, just like anyone else.

The downside of being a people-pleaser

People who bend over backward to accommodate others’ requests find themselves committed to bolstering the well-being of others even at the expense of their own. Many of us are self-admitted ‘people-pleasers’ and face the prospect of feeling too busy, too stressed and that our attention is divided. Responding to the needs of others, of course, is a crucial part of normal social functioning. But people-pleasers are so invested in outside approval that they set their own wants and needs aside. They find it almost impossible to say no.

What makes someone so anxious to fulfill other people’s expectations that they end up sabotaging themselves? The seeds of people-pleasing are usually planted in childhood. Often, parents will simply tell their children what to do and never encourage them to assert themselves. Such an environment sends the message that the only way to feel valuable is to comply with others’ demands, give others what they need. The pattern only solidifies as children grow up, fearing that if they do not strive to please, people will not love them. They respond to this perceived threat by becoming obsessed with meeting others’ needs. Because girls are typically trained from an early age to accommodate and defer to others, a disproportionate number of people-pleasers are women.

Once established, such behaviors become self-reinforcing which makes them difficult to uproot. They get rewarded by bosses, colleagues and friends just as they do by parents, prompting pleasers to assume doormat postures over and over again in hopes of receiving more kudos.

But despite the fleeting high of adulation, relentless praise-seeking exacts a heavy toll. People-pleasers expend so much energy meeting others’ needs that they lose sight of what they want from life. They’re often seized by the disorienting feeling that they’re not in control of their own lives, which leads them to lash out. If you’ve been a pleaser for a long time, you’re going to get more and more resentful of the person you’re pleasing, and that can lead to passive-aggressive behaviour.

The key to changing this ingrained behaviour is a well-thought-out policy of temperance. Retain positive people-pleasing traits like friendliness and sensitivity, but clarify your own needs and assert them more. If someone asks you for something, ask yourself if it’s feasible and consider your own needs, too. Take a close look at what situations trigger your pleasing behavior and why. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? Is it because I really care about this person, or because I’m afraid I’m going to lose them?’ This kind of questioning can help you uncover the source of the fears underlying your people-pleasing bent. Did your parents’ conditional love lead you to dread abandonment?

Here are some simple steps to controling your tendancy to be people-pleasing.

Be receptive to others’ concerns, but don’t leave your own by the wayside. To make sure you’re the one feeling in control:

  • Stall for time. If someone puts you on the spot, politely defer: ‘I’ll check my calendar and get back to you.’ Then you can assess whether the request fits in with your schedule and goals.
  • Examine your motivations. People-pleasing seems like the epitome of niceness, but pleasers may assume their submissive postures because of what they expect in return. If you grant someone a favour, do it because it fulfills you and not to get something back.
  • Role-play to practice asserting your needs. Get a friend to play a pushy boss, parent or acquaintance: whoever triggers your people-pleasing. Then practice saying no to unreasonable requests until it starts to feel natural.