Ah, the holidays are upon us. Is anyone else worried about consuming too much and gaining weight and debt? Or is it just me??
When you think about it, nothing shows what we truly value better than what we pay for or put in our mouths – i.e. what we consume. When it comes down to it, we consume in order to meet our needs. But needs are slippery things, aren’t they?
What do we really need?
I believe all we really need is shelter and food, and to feel loved, honored and valued for exactly who we are.
But there’s a problem with those simple needs: sometimes we make them complicated. For example, one of the things I hear most from my clients – mostly women – is that they often look outside themselves for validation. Are the kids doing well in school? Will the house ever be clean and organized? Is there money in our account to cover our bills this month? Do I look fat in this outfit?
If anything outside of themselves is not going well, they become stressed and unhappy. They feel they can't be happy or feel worthy except under certain conditions. And being incredibly strong creatures, women often succeed at using their strengths and talents to force external conditions to meet their expectations (or, more often, others’ expectations).
However, while this strategy can work – at least in the short term-there’s an easier way: We can choose to feel happy, successful, and worthy of love no matter what the external conditions.
That’s hardly breaking news. But during the holidays it’s easy to get lost. A lot of women get fixated on buying things as a way to gain a fleeting sense of control and happiness.
But whether they realize it or not, many more women turn to eating – which could simply be a source of nourishment or pleasure – and they train their sights on controlling their appetites and weight in order to feel better about themselves.
Or they create large quantities of food in order to foster feelings of love and togetherness. It’s a no-win situation, and that’s why I want to talk about eating and the holidays.
Because I learned an important thing about lasting happiness when I confronted a 15-year struggle with my weight (that’s a picture of me above – 25 pounds heavier than I am now – and still happy).
Women, Food and Love
Geneen Roth’s book Women, Food and God was a recent best-seller and after reading it, I wrote a blog post about my own struggle with food and weight. Later I encouraged one of my clients (who was also reading Roth’s book) to read my post. She couldn’t believe that I once weighed 25 pounds more than I do today.
As I told her, it’s funny – I don’t think of myself as a person with food or weight struggles anymore and I have to be reminded that I once was after reading something like Roth’s book – where the raw feelings someone else is able to articulate call up memories from almost 20 years ago.
Eating is a Metaphor
By the time I got to college I had been watching and burning calories since I was 10 years old, and I was exhausted. Luckily I went to a very progressive college, one which had set up an “ExCo”-short for “Experimental College”-where students got to teach their own classes on a diverse range of topics. You could take courses on everything from “Sex 101” to “Advanced Klingon.” As a freshman I immediately signed up for the course Women and Body Image. I took it for a semester-and I taught it for my remaining years in college.
The class reading list included books by Kim Chernin (The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness and The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity), Susan Kano (Making Peace with Food), and, of course, more from Geneen Roth (When Food is Love and Feeding the Hungry Heart), and I devoured them.
They are still on my bookshelf now over 20 years later. I’ve tossed out hundreds of books over the years, but they will always have a treasured spot on my shelves, honored like friends who helped shine a light on my path and who helped me to heal.
A Destructive Form of Control
They taught me that when all personal motives for losing weight are stripped away – the desire to be attractive, to be loved, to be successful-what unites the women who seek to reduce their weight is the fact that they’re looking for an answer to life’s problems in the control of their bodies and appetites.
In other words, these women, having discovered that they couldn’t control the world around them, chose to exert a destructive control over themselves. When I made that connection, that was it for me. I decided I was no longer going to allow this specious, almost superstitious reasoning to determine how I felt about myself.
Again, with the help of those books and the women in my class, I decided I would trust myself to eat when I was hungry and stop when I no longer received pleasure from the food. I still didn’t trust myself to exercise just for the joy of moving my body (and I didn’t appreciate the mood-elevating benefits of exercise yet), so for years I only took meditative walks. And I gained and maintained 25 “extra” pounds.
A Super-Sized Achievement
As a result I learned to love myself in spite of my weight, and I consider that one of the greatest achievements of my twenties. And then I met the love of my life-now my husband-and when he loved me back, even though I wasn’t exactly supermodel-size, I knew he was a keeper.
Shortly after my husband and I married we acquired a puppy, a very high-spirited Golden Retriever, and I learned that if she was going to be happy she would need to run at least once day. So I started to run with her. I don’t know what made running take the way it did then-maybe it was just my dog’s enthusiasm, or maybe I discovered that I, like my retriever (and Bruce Springsteen) was born to run-but I loved hitting that trail from the first time we set out. And while I had exercised-sometimes to excess-throughout my teens, and always with the aim to lose weight, this time I never thought of running as a means to burn calories. I just loved it, and I kept doing it.
I’ve never been sure if it was the running or the fact that I loved myself and my life so much that I no longer turned to food to fill feelings of emptiness or “not-enough-ness.” But it was then, in my early thirties, that I lost those 25 extra pounds. I’ve never gained them back.
Be Happy Anyway
Now in my early forties, I no longer run long distances, but I still try to do 20 minutes of heart-rate-raising cardio every day. Once again, I do this because I feel so much better when I do. In much the same way, these days I eat when I’m hungry and with pleasure.
I believe eating is a metaphor for the way we live. Obsessing over our food and focusing on our weight – or anything outside of ourselves – keeps us from finding the joy that is available to us right here and now.
On the other hand, though, the same behaviors that help us to release stressful thoughts and bad feelings-those essential skills of staying present, valuing ourselves, tuning in to our bodies and emotions, asking for what we need, and keeping ourselves open to receiving what we need-enable us to live full and happy lives. And when we’re full, we’re not hungry for empty calories.
So, my holiday wish for you is that you not worry about the consumption of presents and pumpkin pie as much as you focus on creating more meaning and joy – focusing on the meaning and joy that you can find in abundance around you, if you look.