We need a different conversation about food and weight. We need a conversation about food and weight that is not focused on the outcome being about food and weight.
We need a conversation that recognizes and centers two critical aspects of our difficulties:
Our relationship with food is happening within the context of a larger food creation and distribution system that maximizes profits at the expense of public health, and;
Our relationship with food is not about food and weight, but about deep relational wounds that often begin in childhood and for which food, eating, and weight control or chaos are symptoms.
There is an intersection where we find ourselves starved for the core sense of love, acceptance, belonging, and security, all of which evoke embodied feelings of satiety, warmth, fullness, and calm; and the prevalence of cheap, readily accessible foods that have little nutritional value, but also evoke a temporary sense of satiety, warmth, fullness, and calm.
Yet, because these very real sensations are not love, acceptance, belonging, and security, so many people find themselves driven to return to food as the source of the sensations over and over as we attempt to regulate our nervous systems in the face of very real unmet human need for deep connection.
This is the why when diets “don’t work.” Food restriction is incompatible with our physiology AND our neurobiology. When food is the solution to the problem, removing that solution still leaves the underlying problem.
This is true for all addictive patterns.
The solution must acknowledge the deep truth that we eat within a complex, economically driven, and politically protected food system that needs the population to eat and eat and eat.
We are provided a rich abundance of highly rewarding food products that keep us coming back for more.
All the while we are starved for the love and human connection we so desperately need for physical and psychological survival.
Nourishment, which is our very first experience of warmth, love, and safety moments after we are born is deeply wired into our beings to be associated with the core experience of love.
We have to stop demanding that people somehow eat normally in a very abnormal environment.
We have to end the suffering of shame and blame and daily private wars being waged with food in the battlefield of our bodies.
We have to reframe the discussion and help individuals and communities understand the problem is not will-power. It is not self-discipline. Is not that people are lazy or gluttonous.
It is that, as human beings, we are desperate for deep connection, yet we find ourselves deeply disconnected, not only from each other, but from ourselves.
We are not bad for seeking satiety, warmth, fullness, and calm in the face of constant discomfort, fear, distress, worry, and the terrible lie that we come to believe in childhood that we are fearfully and irreparably not enough. We are not bad for reaching for the thing that evokes the same embodied sense as that for which we so deeply long that is provided in such pervasive supply.
We must frame this conversation around removing the suffering of misunderstanding and blame for the individual and shifting the focus to empowering the individual and demanding that, as a society, we recognize the incredible harm our systems are doing to us as individuals and as a collective, as well as the planet we inhabit.
We must demand that health and mental health professionals divorce themselves from the “blame the individual” narrative around eating and weight. We must demand that professionals learn the available science of interpersonal neurobiology and addiction. We must demand that helping professionals honor the dignity of every human, trusting that each is doing the best they can within the context of their experience.
We must step beyond the false duality of fat/thin, healthy/unhealthy, good/bad, all/nothing narrative about food, weight, and eating disorders and compassionately recognize the profound need for human attachment – to ourselves and each other.
We must recognize that we are not eating in a normal environment for humans. We need complex solutions that compassionately recognize the complexity of our relationship with food as a species and its inherent link to our very nature as social beings.
Happy. In our modern, western culture, we want to be happy. It is our highest pursuit. Our entire economy is built around the pursuit of this feeling, this experience of…happy. We expect everything to serve this goal. Our entertainment should make us happy. Our clothes, cars, homes, devices, and other things should make us happy. Our relationships should make us happy. Our therapy and our medications should make us happy. Our jobs and our money should make us happy. Our food and our diet should make us happy. Our exercise and our yoga should make us happy. Our religion, our community, our spiritual practices should make us happy.
Then we are told that these things can’t make us happy. “Happiness is an inside job,” they say. You are responsible for your own happiness, they say. So we go to therapy and say there is something wrong with us that we aren’t happy. Maybe we have always had access to resources and we “checked all the boxes” and did what we were supposed to do and now we have the house and the spouse and kids and the career, but we are still not happy. Or we did not have resources and we struggled and scratched and clawed and we made some kind of life for ourselves, but still we are not happy. Or maybe we have wildly abundant resources, we live a 1% life and there’s an emptiness in our abundant existence and still we are not happy.
We live in a culture that teaches us to pursue happiness, but not how to be happy. If we were happy, why would be buy shit? We are raised from infancy to believe in the primitive recesses of our brains that happiness lies just around the corner is the next car, the next outfit, the next degree, the next job, the next gadget, the next class or book or program or diet. We love to believe that happiness is in the perfect body. And in the rush to do whatever we have to do to acquire this happiness, we don’t have time to stop and ask ourselves what it is that we are really seeking? What is happiness?
I think happiness is simply a balance between safety and risk. Our nervous systems are always on a pendulum swinging back and forth between seeking safety and seeking challenge. When we feel safe, we want to venture out, explore, play, build, climb, push limits. And we feel Joy, excitement, accomplishment, fear (the good kind). When we find those limits, we want to know safety, comfort, holding, care, and love are within reach. We want to wrap ourselves up in this cocoon until we are back to calm. We feel Love. Then we want to venture out again. We readily observe this in young children who venture out to play, become overstimulated, and run back to mom for comfort. When the child feels calm again, off he or she goes to play again. The truth is we do this throughout life only we seek comfort with partners, friends, pets, and other trusted relationships. Happiness is the delicate dance of calm and risk, rest and creation, connection and expansion.
Through this lens, we can start to see the way we pursue happiness, in all of its complexities, very differently. When we begin to use this lens to show up with intention, we can craft our pursuit of happiness more effectively and build lives we love.
If there’s one thing I could tell you, it’s that the answer to healing our mind is in our body.
Imagine going to the movies. Overpriced popcorn. Gallon of soda. Sticky floor. Surround sound. America’s favorite pastime. The theater goes dark and we are quickly immersed in the world on the screen. A world made up of intentional visual content and dialogue that tell a particular story. Yet, often the most powerful aspect of storytelling is the least recognized: sound. In film and television, sound effects and musical score are critical to creating the emotional experience of the film for the viewer. The music tells us when to be scared. The music tells us when to cry. The music tells us when to feel happy or hopeful.
Imagine being in a pool right now. Now imagine someone starts playing the theme from Jaws. I bet you’d get out.
At every moment we experiencing our world in our thoughts, emotions, five senses, and our embodied, or “felt sense” experience. Our “felt sense” is the physical response that our bodies experience when we experience emotion. Some people are very tuned into this sense, others feel less aware of it. But for all of us, it functions much the way a music score does for a scene in a film. Emotional content that is not or cannot be conveyed with words stirs and pours through us. And, just like the music in a movie scene, if you change the felt sense, you change the emotional reality of the moment.
A lovely example of the power of music in film is the movie, Dunkirk. The filmmakers deliberately chose to tell the story through the music rather than the plot (there’s a way in which not a lot actually happens – very little character development, but not an action movie either). Yet, viewers feel like something intense and dramaticishappening because of the score in every scene.
What does this have to do with therapy and mental health? Everything. Depression, anxiety, grief, insecurity, addiction, all of it includes, and if often fundamentally located, in sensations in the body and these sensations form the emotional foundation for the stories we believe about ourselves, our lives, and what’s happening right now. Remember, you know there’s no shark in that pool, but it is your body that insists that you get out when that music starts playing.
I often see clients who experience anxiety (which is a thought word for the emotion of fear or scared). For anyone with anxiety, when you think about it, the distress is not about the thoughts. It’s the physical sensations of rapid heart-rate, tightening chest, electricity in the chest and arms, agitation (feeling the need to move), and heat that make it so uncomfortable. If it was just the thoughts, we’d simply think something else and all would be fine. We can, in fact, change our thoughts, but if our body doesn’t come with us, if the music doesn’t change, we are all but powerless to change it.
Body-centered therapies offer ways to learn to change the music. By slowing down our noticing and working mindfully in real time in a session, we can shift from focusing on thoughts to working with what is arising in the body right now. We often find that the body is carrying old hurts and protective-yet-harmful beliefs about ourselves that are longing to be acknowledged and healed. We find that when we do so, it isn’t that we let go of them, but they let go of us.
Next time you are watching a film, notice the music. Is there an invitation to hear the music playing in your own being?