Monday, February 20, 2012

Wanting it all (answering a few good questions)

I got an excellent question from Human In Progress and the answer ended up being so huge that it exceeded Blogger's comment length. So, instead of editing down the answer, I'm going to answer in a post:

"I don't know how long I'm going to do this. The problem is, my mind is already whining about "NEVER getting to have" a big piece of cake or whatever. I probably just need to give it time: after considering a pint of ice cream to be a single serving for years and years, one scoop is bound to look paltry.

Nevertheless, I am curious: do you ever eat a sizable dessert? Did you ever do so while working actively at weight loss? Was there any particular way you convinced yourself that for the most part, "less is more" when it comes to dessert? 

The first thing that I should say is that I still eat more calories than “necessary” on occasion. Part of what I've done is simply accept that this is something everyone does sometimes. This probably happens at least once every 2 weeks, possibly once every ten days. That's okay because I eat less than necessary sometimes as well. It all seems to balance out. I think humans were never designed for stable consumption and that there is a drive to cram everything in sight into your maw at times, especially when you've been pushing your hunger tolerance in an effort to lose weight over a long period of time. When this happens, I never change my eating habits the next day to compensate. I also do not beat myself up or berate myself. I just see it for what it is and get on with a more “normal” eating style in the coming days.

I think it's extremely important not to moralize or judge your eating habits at all. That is, it is important to not label yourself as “bad” or “good” or to see yourself as a “success” or “failure” due to food consumption patterns. Mainly, I look at what happens as one consequence or another to my body. Awhile back, I talked about seeing eating like saving or spending money. If today, I eat a lot of something because that's what I want to do, it's like “spending” more money than budgeted. The consequence is that I'll have to spend less over the next week or so to balance out that excess expenditure. When I started to incorporate this view of food into how I regarded eating, I started to lose interest in large portions to some extent. I saw a certain “cost/benefit” ratio in play. Was I going to enjoy every bite of a big piece of cake enough to want to pay it back later? Would I “spend” the calories on that experience? Sometimes, the answer is “yes”, I am willing to pay that price, but I'd better get my money's worth and attend to enjoying every bite.

However, that being said, it is not that simple because the rational aspects are only half of the equation. Compulsive eaters and those with psychological issues related to food do not deal with food rationally. They deal with it irrationally. It took a long time to develop a fuller cost/benefit view, but it took a lot of time and mental effort to handle the other side of this coin when it comes to the "I want it all" syndrome. I also used to feel dissatisfied unless I could have as much as I wanted whenever I wanted it. I still feel that way sometimes, but not nearly as often as before (it used to be every day). The notion that the experience of eating was inadequately fulfilling if I couldn't eat a lot was one I have wrestled with for quite some time.

There was a very long and a still ongoing process of dissecting the feeling of wanting a lot and changing how I viewed such things. I can only speak to what this all entailed for me, but I'd be surprised if some people did not share similar feelings. The first was that I think that eating compulsively, that is, the mere act of putting large amounts of food in my mouth and chewing and swallowing it was immensely comforting to me. The taste, texture, and smell of food and appreciating them didn't have anything to do with this purely psychological benefit of eating. This is equivalent to perhaps how alcoholics drink not because they enjoy the taste of alcohol, but because they can numb themselves by drinking a lot of it. For them, it's not even about the initial buzz or good feeling, but about a state far removed from normal. This is the difference between a compulsive eater's thinking and that of a person who really enjoys food or even a mere sugar high. We “need” a lot of food to satisfy a deeper need than the pleasure food brings.

Fighting off this desire is not in the least bit trivial and sometimes, I say, “to hell with it” and give into it. However, I know what I'm doing when I do it. I know that I've grown weary of the battle and am deciding this time to lay down my weapons and give in. I tell myself it is okay as long as it is not something I do everyday or often. Occasionally, it is alright to do it, but I never allow it to happen for two days in a row. The “recovery” the following day gives me strength and confidence that I can give in without setting off a new pattern. Failing and succeeding so often has shown me that I control food, it does not control me. If I want to abuse it once in awhile to feel better, I damn well will. I don't have to be perfect and I don't have to be strong every single day. I've got a serious problem with food and I'm solving it, but it makes me tired emotionally so sometimes, I have to rest and give in. Some day, I think this will not happen, but not because it's not “okay” to do this, but because I'll extinguish the emotional connection over time. It's been a flame I've been suffocating for a long time, and it doesn't burn as brightly as it did in 2009. I'm patient enough with myself to give myself the time to keep working on this. I see progress in the direction I want to go. Progress is enough. Perfection is setting myself up for failure.

The next stage of analysis of this situation is understanding how I got to the point in which this sort of compulsion has evolved. Why do I derive satisfaction from cramming lots of food in my mouth and swallowing it? Many other people don't suffer this. The answer, I'm sure, in the minds of many people is biology. There certainly was a predisposition, but I think that it was a connection that grew over my entire life and it's thick and strong, but I can cut away at it like a tightly bound rope. Each time I sever a thread, the connection gets weaker. To cut it, I have to know what it does for me and why I need it. This excavation is very personal and tricky. It gets to the core of what psychology can do for a person and that's offer understanding that can lead to profound change. Unfortunately, it is often like digging holes in the yard and hoping to find treasure. I don't know when the connection I've made is “right” or not. I can only keep digging.

One little gold nugget that I have absolutely determined is a part of this is that I have spent all of my life putting my needs second. My ego structure is such that I feel like putting myself first makes me a bad person (thanks, Mom, for planting that seed and watering the hell out of it). Beyond that, growing up as a fat child, there were many dreams and positive experiences I never got to have. Other kids dated, looked cool in hip clothes, and had homes that they weren't embarrassed to bring their friends to. They weren't so poor that their father hunted squirrels to put meat on the table or scrounged for discarded bottles that could be turned in for the deposit money in order to buy milk at the end of the month. There were so many things I could not have, but I could have food. It was the one area of my life where my head decided I was going to assert my desires 100%. I was not going to deny myself on that front. Cramming that large amount of food in was me having what I wanted when I wanted it in this one way. Being denied that panicked me and made me feel powerless, because I was so powerless everywhere else in my life.

Knowing this helped me talk myself out of the pattern through time. My whole life since starting to lose weight has included a lot of internal dialogs that sometimes I am so sick of having that I'd like to scream. Even now, with decreased frequency of food issues, I still have to tell myself, “you are not hungry, you just want to eat,” a fair number of times everyday. Food is less central to me. It's less important, but it still occupies a space in my life which is greater than it is for “normal” folks. I still find myself daydreaming about food when I'm bored, or meal planning, or viewing the best part of an experience as the food.

However, this really is decreasing in frequency. It's nothing like it was even a mere 6 months ago. Yesterday, my husband and I went to a world famous amusement park and in the past, I'd be thinking about how the special food would be the best part, but that was not the case. This time, I was focusing on the rides, seeing the place, and being with my husband. The experience, not the food was the thing I was looking forward to.

I should note that there is very much an aspect of this which is “duller” than things used to be. That is, the lights were more brilliant and the colors were brighter when food was fully centralized. There is a process going on in which I can feel the things which were unimportant or of weak importance to me growing in importance while food lessens so. It's like a scale and it used to be that food was on one side and heavily weighted and stuff on the other side was so light as to be of no consequence. When I was originally changing my relationship with food, I felt like I had nothing to look forward to or enjoy as I lost what really made me so happy and had not yet found the joy of what was on the other side. I got very depressed at times at the hollowness of my life as I lost weight. I found little to enjoy without food. It is taking a long time to add weight to the other side of that scale as I remove it from the food side, but it's coming along. I can't even really control it, but I think it is happening as a natural consequence to decentralizing food in my life and trying to mentally focus on a life which has a more balanced perspective.

I have to force myself to think about and focus on other things. It is something which I must attend to actively and cannot merely be expected to happen as a result of a reduction in food consumption or applying the conventional tools of diet culture. In fact, I think I can only fully realize this by abandoning the tools of that culture because they, while educational and helpful in the initial phases, also require you to stay on the topic of food. Once I get the general habits down, I have to let them go in order to live normally and not be emotionally reliant on food. I have to become more dependent on other things and I know that if I'm stuck on food, then I've either got an emotional issue that I need to manage differently or I'm bored and thinking about food in the absence of other topics.

So, this is all a long-winded explanation of the side of wanting to eat all I want from the psychological viewpoint. I can't tell anyone else what drives them, but I would encourage you to try to understand why you need a lot of any food to satisfy you. The truth is that I think that people rarely enjoy every bite of a treat that is a big portion. That isn't to say it never happens. I've eaten an entire piece of cheesecake (a small one, but a whole piece) and relished every bite before. It wasn't compulsive and it wasn't gratifying a need to have “all I wanted”. I enjoyed it totally, and that really is what it is all about. I think one thing I can offer as advice is to think about whether or not you want it all before you even eat it. If you decide beforehand that you won't be happy unless you eat it all, then it's about something other than the experience of enjoying your food. If you end up eating it all anyway, that's okay, but just understand why and learn from that. Through doing so, eventually, you'll be able to develop a sensory relationship with food which is based on enjoying it and not using it to fulfill other psychological desires. Even if you end up eating a whole piece of cake every time, it'll be because you loved every bite, and that's the best way to approach food. So, the bottom line is you can have anything you want, but it's better for you to know that it is actually what you want and not something deeper than that cake.


The Paris Chronicles said...

Once again, your word just make so much sense. It's really striking to read my "other" weight-centric blogs and then click on you. Intelligent, reflective, modest, humble...I get so much out of your posts.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thank you, Paris. It's comments like yours that keep me doing this when I feel my voice is not welcome in a world of calorie counts, menu lists, and minutes of exercise.

It really does mean a lot to me when I hear such things. My best to you.

Human In Progress said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question in such a thoughtful way.

Every bit of this post is insightful and educational, and I know I will be re-reading it again and again. My biggest lightbulb moment, however, came from this passage:

"I think one thing I can offer as advice is to think about whether or not you want it all before you even eat it. If you decide beforehand that you won't be happy unless you eat it all, then it's about something other than the experience of enjoying your food."

That almost sounds like the typical advice about tuning into your feelings before you fall into the food, but it's different in a subtle--and crucial--way.

The typical emotional eating advice I'm talking about goes something like: figure out if you're sad or stressed or desperate or angry when reaching for food, because if you are, it's not about the food/hunger and you shouldn't be eating.

The problem with that advice is my emotional landscape shifts continuously and rapidly throughout the day and I can't always make sense of it. If my assignment is to check for any negative emotions that could possibly be driving my desire to eat cookies on a given day, and to abstain from eating whenever those emotions have occurred (that day, that morning, the night before...), then I'd never be able to eat cookies or anything else ever again because there's ALWAYS something emotional going on in either the background or foreground of my life.

What I understand you to be saying (in the passage quoted above) is: pay attention to your feelings about the FOOD itself before diving in; if you feel you must eat an entire pie before even taking the first bite and finding out whether it tastes good or not, something is wrong. Pause and figure out what's going on.

That is WAY more do-able! And that makes it way more helpful.

I know I must get better acquainted with my emotions in general and trace how they relate to food and eating; I'm not dismissing that. But when it comes to the specific problem with desserts that I'm having, this method of starting with the feelings about the food itself and asking "must I have it all? Why?" is what I needed. I don't have the urge to eat entire pizzas or entire pots of mashed potatoes or entire vats of mac and cheese. Those foods are tasty and I do tend to overeat them, and certainly have done so to quiet emotional turbulence. That is a concern, and part of the overall emotional eating puzzle that has to be solved.

But the MUST. HAVE. IT. ALL. thing comes into play with desserts, and now I have a targeted question to apply to the recurring situation that was troubling me the most.

Thanks again! :D

screaming fatgirl said...

I'm very pleased that this was helpful to you. I wish I could say that this will solve the problems, but I know better. ;-) Understanding is always complicated. Well, life is always complicated.

One thing I think people make a mistake about is thinking that emotions drive eating every time. They do drive eating sometimes, but sometimes the food drives the emotions because it is something we assign a lot of value to in our lives.

Food should be assigned a value, but that should be the value of sensory pleasure, not being in control of our lives, seeing it as reward or punishment, or as a source of emotional comfort. I think pat assertions about being an "emotional stress" or "stress eater" are too vague to be of value.

In your Valentine's post, which incidentally I wanted to comment on but my life is so busy these days with preparations for a cross-country move that I rarely have a moment to do anything that isn't a big necessity, you talked about how your husband's comments or behavior made you resentful and angry. You wanted to eat more because you felt he was attempting to deny or control you. In fact, I think you ate things you didn't even enjoy because of the emotional reaction to someone trying to take away your power to make choices. This is a feeling I'm well familiar with and it means that your access to food is very important to you in a deep way. It's far more meaningful to you than a source of nourishment or sensory delight.

Knowing this doesn't solve the problem, but it is a window to a solution. Food occupies a place in your life disproportionate to its importance in anyone's life. It does appear to be the point at which you will assert that you have power and control. This is the same for me, which is why I've been trying to move it to another place (no small feat). Doing so sends ripples out though as it affects other relationships. I've had to push to assert myself in other ways which in turn changes the dynamic of my marriage which confuses and upsets my husband. Making him aware that I need to assert myself in other areas more often helps because he isn't as confused and is more likely to offer me opportunities to assert my will (and less likely to resist when I do).

In your case, your Starbucks experience has the ring of your husband resisting your will (since he doesn't like going there) and your hiding your eating from him as an act of defiance seems to be an assertion of power. You couldn't freely do what you wanted so you did something to prove your freedom to yourself, even when you didn't enjoy it. It's not about emotions really as emotions came after the stimuli, not before. It's about power and feeling helpless.

Analyzing your state of mind sometimes has nothing to do with eating issues. Eating is just the consequence because it allows one to act out in situations in which they feel they have insufficient control.

Of course, I am speculating here. If you can, I'd strongly recommend having a talk with your husband in which he plays no role at all in your eating and explain the issue of asserting your will and getting some understanding from him. If you are like me, your esteem is so low that you have spent a lot of your marriage yielding to your mate because you feel your needs should be second. But, you're not me so I don't want to risk projecting my situation here. ;-)

Human In Progress said...

Knowing you are busy with a cross-country move makes me all the more grateful for your dialogue with me at this time (although I know that's not why you mentioned the move!). Just saying. :)

I appreciate that you don't want to project yourself or your marriage onto me or mine, but in this case you are correct. The parallels are striking. And my childhood sounds very similar to yours, right down to the mom that taught me that my needs came second if they came at all, missing out on lots of fun/ typical childhood experiences, being ashamed of my house and not having friends over as a result, not getting to enjoy cute clothes, etc. And I've no doubt that eating what I wanted helped me navigate that reality.

Not to get too far off track here, but my mom was dysfunctional and a narcissist. It was always clear that her needs AND wants AND whims came before mine, and that if I had any value, it was derived from being useful to her and only extended to that usefulness, and no further. I bring this up because a memory keeps resurfacing that I now see through the lens of self-assertion: mom was a chronic dieter and kept special Weight Watchers desserts that we were forbidden to touch in our extra freezer in the basement. And I would sometimes sneak them despite being terrified of the possible consequences (being hit, screamed at, humiliated in front of the rest of the family, and grounded). I'd sneak or eat more than my fair share of lots of other food, too, but those WW desserts stick out in my mind. I'd eat them while they were still frozen (before she could catch me!) and could hardly taste them in their frozen state. How much could I have been enjoying those things?

Fast forward to today, and my husband's needs definitely come first. We've been having the kinds of talks you're recommending in the past couple of months, but it seems like we have to revisit those themes over and over. Perhaps it's because I haven't figured out the new ways I'm going to assert myself; I've just been saying "do not try to police my food. It backfires. Trust me." Sounds like it's time to go beyond that.

Lots of other good points I'd like to respond to, but this is already getting too long. Thanks again and good luck with the move!

LHA said...

A very interesting dialogue here. Thanks Screaming Fat Girl and Human in Progress for such interesting comments and insights. I have a lot to think about in my own life just from reading what you have written.

prairieprincess said...

This is so good and kind of echoes my thought process for the last few days. The last couple of days I have realized that I have had this "drive" to eat, and it didn't matter what it was. And that drive was a drive that I sometimes put into other things instead of eating. It was a fear-based drive that led me want to just "gorge." YOU talked about this kind of issue, and I want to say, "thank you."

Anonymous said...

I just linked over from your post from 2/22/2013...I think this goes along with what I commented on in that post.
I've been losing for 3 years, and learning to deal with how I ate before has been interesting. On most days I eat a huge salad because it takes a long time for me to eat, and it's bulky, and I get that satisfaction I used to get from eating a huge mountain of something else becuase I'm eating for a long time and I feel full when I'm done.
For my treats I keep them quite small, so I *can* get that "every bite is wonderful" feeling when I eat them.
It isn't 100% of the time - I mean, nothing is - but for the vast majority of the time these things help me satisfy a lot of what I got out of how I used to eat.
I'm rambling again!

screaming fatgirl said...

I think it's really important, Eliza, not to expect to be 100% all of the time. In fact, I think it's important to sometimes just let yourself do what you want to do so that you don't feel "trapped". It's all about perspective-shifting and eating for pleasure rather than eating to fulfill some sort of constructed idea, whether that idea is that you have to have it all to be satisfied or that you can never have any at all.