I’m allergic to fish and seafood. Mine isn’t the anaphylactic, throat-closing, epi-pen into the hip kind of allergy; mine is the cold, clammy, projectile vomiting like Regan in The Exorcist kind of allergy. My parents had figured this out by the time I was five years old.
Seafood lovers often take pity on me for this, but all of my memories of it are grim. ALL of them. I eat it. I get sweaty and turn green. I hurl. And hurl. And hurl. The end. I have no positive associations with seafood whatsoever. If only I could say the same thing about overeating!
Sure, there have been many occasions when I’ve stuffed myself to the point of feeling ill, had to unbutton or even unzip my pants, or simply prop myself up against a couple of pillows for a while and just breathe through it. As an obese African American woman, of course I felt the scorn and judgment of others. I saw the eye-rolls and the looks of dread as I approached my designated seat on an airplane, or quietly requested a seatbelt extender. I recall the blistering sting in Cambodia while visiting Angkor Wat, when I realized that Japanese tourists were taking photos of me, and not the ancient temples themselves. And of course, the shame of not being able to fit in any clothing in three different countries can still haunt me. Despite all of these (and countless other) negative consequences of overeating, I kept doing it. For years and years. And years.
It took me decades to finally realize that I had to be getting something positive from it. There had to be payoffs that were satisfying enough to override all of the negative consequences, or else, like eating seafood, I never would have done it again. This was a HUGE realization for me.
We are conditioned to believe that overeating and being fat are all bad, that nothing good can come of it. I’ve learned that this is simply not true. So I got busy trying to figure out how I was benefitting from overeating, what needs were being met by it, because clearly, being fat was one of the negative consequences that I was willing to live with because the payoffs were more significant, more important.
Here are a few of the key benefits I discovered were true for me. Some of things might be working for you, too:
- Food can be a great pacifier. Whether frustrated, annoyed, or really pissed off, if I was in a situation in which I was not free to get up and leave, free to speak my mind, or free to slap the crap out of someone, I often turned to food to keep my feelings in check. I guess being fat was a better alternative than getting fired, or years prison!
- Food can be a great plug. Many of us have issues percolating in our subconscious – and I’m talking about the nitty gritty, core issues we probably aren’t even aware of, but may well be keeping us from being the best we can be. Whenever mine would simmer enough to begin to rise up into my conscious mind and get my attention, I used to use food to block its path. That was much easier than experiencing the discomfort or facing the reality of whatever was bubbling up. Stuff it back down, and then put a cork in that bottle. It’s a temporary solution, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work.
- Food can be a great anesthetic. I’ve never been a drinker (of alcohol), and I’ve never used illicit drugs, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve used food to get high in much the same way. The right mix of refined carbs and fat could soothe my nerves, and gently ease me into a blissfully numbing stupor so I didn’t have to deal with anything for a while.
- Food made me feel safe. Being full was like wearing a bullet-proof vest; I wielded my fat like a shield, and I continued to overeat as a means of reinforcing my layer(s) of protection. It was as if my weight made me feel more formidable, like I could withstand pretty much anything.
The problem is that all of these benefits were short-lived. As soon as the food worked it way through my system, then the feelings and issues and pain would come back, and once again, I’d have to overeat to ward it all off. The positive consequences were short-lived, but the negative ones endured for a loooong time.
So when I decided to change my diet, I had to take responsibility for myself and my behavior. I gave myself permission to feel whatever I felt, to own my feelings and take responsibility for them. I still couldn’t slap the crap out of anyone who annoyed me, but I wasn't a child anymore; I could walk away. And in those situations when I couldn’t just walk away, I could certainly fantasize about slapping the crap out of someone! I could pretend to be jotting down notes but really be writing details about how I’d like to dismember someone, or rip their tongue out, put it in a food processor, and then feed it back to them with a spoon!
Little by little, I found better, healthier ways to meet the needs that food had satisfied before. That was critical; it's not about distractions, or just keeping yourself busy instead of overeating. You really need to recognize the needs themselves, and satisfy them in a way that makes you feel better. Otherwise, you're simply depriving yourself; you're not overeating, but your needs aren't getting met either. This can't last. Honor those needs. Like me, you might learn a lot about yourself in the process. I learned that I can find peace in nature, that nature re-centers me; so I started walking and hiking instead of eating out of frustration, or eating to calm my nerves. I found my voice, and learned to assert myself rather than swallow my opinions. I learned a long soak in a jetted tub is a wonderful way to take the edge off, no matter what time of the day or night it is.
So that's my bit of advice today. If you’re looking to change a habit you don’t like, take some time to figure out how you’re benefitting from it (no matter how destructive it is). Really give yourself time to figure this out, because it’s not always easy, but it’s definitely not all bad. Once you’ve identified the payoffs it provides, then generate a list of other things you can do instead, constructive things that bring you pleasure, and satisfy the same needs. And then, start making the change.