This blog was written as a contribution for Primal Athlete
Why is it so difficult to kick old habits? Thrive Therapy just wrapped up the third session of their 12-week Weight Loss Group Therapy program. In this group setting, each woman has expressed the desire to lose weight and feel more comfortable in her own skin. However, at least once a week someone brings up their lack of control around eating or that they continue to eat when they are not hungry. The goal of each woman is clear but their actions do not support what they want. Their statements are quickly followed by harsh criticisms of poor self-control or low self-worth.
“I’m out of control.”
“I know I shouldn’t eat that but I do anyways.”
“Its just a bad habit I have.”
This last one, the habit, is where I would like to focus my attention. It seems that once we use this word we attempt to remove the responsibility of having formed the habit in the first place. As if our habits are part of our genetic makeup that we cannot alter.
The definition of habit according to dictionary.com,
An acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.
Habits are formed as a result of repeated behavior patterns. They become involuntary over time, because of the routine we have created. I emphasize taking responsibility for our habits because without acknowledging that we developed these patterns we will fall victim to our own actions as if they are not our choice. For example, “I can’t eat just one cookie” vs. “I won’t eat just one cookie.” Taking responsibility for our eating habits as they are sets the framework for generating a new behavior pattern, a new habit. That is unlikely to occur until we determine how this habit has served us until now.
Having worked in the field of autism since 2006, I have spent countless hours determining the functions of behaviors: biting, screaming, hitting, you name it. The reason so much time was dedicated to simply observing was to understand why the child was doing what they were doing so we could provide a more functional or appropriate way to access that need.
Are our behaviors so different? This alone helps me understand why so many people want to lost weight but their actions say they don’t. In my blog post titled, My addiction saved my life, I discuss how addictions are touted as a “crutch”. I propose that crutches serve a purpose and are useful when something is broken. We need support during difficult times in our lives, plain and simple. Albeit an unpopular perspective, I attempt to generate an outlook of gratitude around a topic that has so much judgment and pressure by acknowledging that these addictions serve a purpose in our lives. They (gasp!) helped in some way, at some point.
Until they didn’t.
I have a mantra in my practice: it’s not a problem until it’s a problem. In other words, these habits that at one time provided comfort from our circumstances and anxiety no longer offer that support, or worse, become the source of our pain. In the movie, Austin Powers, the overweight character, Fat Bastard, proclaims, “I can’t stop eating! I eat because I’m unhappy. I’m unhappy because I eat.” Now it is a problem. Now it is time to start looking at why we acquired this behavior pattern in the first place so that we can begin to meet that need in a way that will benefit our lives, families and future.
Here are a few tools I use in my workshops and therapy to start looking at the root of the problem.
In my Confident Women workshop and Weight Loss Group Therapy I have each person create an awareness inventory for their goals.
Instructions: Write down your goal (for any area of your life) then create two columns. In the column on your left, write down what you’re doing that brings you closer to your goals. In the column on your right, write down what you’re doing that brings you further.
Become curious about when this habit/addiction/impulse started and write it down. Write about what was going on in your life at the time. What was happening in your family? Any significant events? Try journaling while you’re eating or during your habit you’d rather not have. What do you notice?
I have a client who wants to get to the bottom of her emotional eating. She decided to experiment with eating away from the TV, eating all of her meals at the table. The only thing she could do while eating was journal about her experience. The following week she reported back on her experiment and we observed that she would sit at the table for her healthy meals, but would continue eat at the TV when eating something she intended to overeat. Her journal conveniently noted, “No analysis” at these times. It is at these moments specifically that I want to know what is going on. It is at these moments where we will begin to understand why we are turning to food in the first place. It is here that we discover what it is we don’t want to face and a new habit has the opportunity to sprout.
–Ashlee Secord is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of Thrive Therapy in Burnsville, MN. Ashlee has lost 100 pounds over the last decade and has firsthand experience of the emotional struggle faced with weight loss. For information about individual counseling or the weight loss group therapy contact Ashlee today.