During our first month of sessions together, my client “Olivia”—not her real name—came in each week with a familiar story.
Many evenings, her healthy-eating intentions had fallen by the wayside. Sometimes it was pizza with family. Sometimes it was drinks with friends. Sometimes it was a whole batch of cookies all by her lonesome. Often it was at least two out of three—especially on weekends, though there was usually a Wednesday or Thursday thrown in there as well.
Unsurprisingly, such indulgences didn’t leave Olivia looking or feeling her best.
And yet, she was all about the exercise—belonged to two gyms and one hot yoga studio, went on daily beach runs, and regularly worked out more than an hour a day.
Indeed, in a “Day After Overindulgence” situation, exercising long and hard took top priority. Driven by feelings of guilt, shame and even desperation, she’d workout like mad to counteract her choices the night before.
And that’s just half the story.
The next day (or later the same day), Olivia would feel so good about how much she’d exercised, how many “toxins” she’d sweat out, and how little she’d eaten while in “detox mode,” that she’d decide:
You can probably guess what came next.
Another night of going out, overdoing it, and not following through on earlier intentions…followed by another day of Olivia feeling as though she was fighting herself in an effort to reverse the damage and lose excess weight…followed by another “reward” for all that effort.
Notice a pattern?
It’s easy to see from the outside…and much harder when you’re the one caught a repetitive, predictable loop.
Thing is, food and movement can be beautifully nourishing and powerfully healing. Or they can be part of a harmful, addictive cycle.
Discerning the difference often comes down to a simple question: Do you feel like you’re fighting yourself?
See, our bodies have a natural tendency to move toward wellness and balance. Given the right nourishment and attention, they want to thrive. They want to look and feel healthy.
If something’s off in our relationship with food or movement, the body knows it—even before the conscious mind.
Feel like you’re fighting yourself? Then you probably are.
Why’s it matter?
Well, for starters, it will stand in the way of getting where you want to be with health and wellness. This includes weight-loss goals, but also much more.
Even if a “binging and purging” or “food-as-reward / exercise-as-punishment” cycle seems to work for a while, it takes a heavy toll on the whole body-mind. Same goes for other variations on this theme—crash-dieting is a popular model, as are many “cleanses” and “detoxes,” particularly when done regularly and interspersed with periods of overindulgence.
Over time, such patterns are profoundly depleting. They lead to slower metabolism; reduced energy levels; gradual weight gain; increased brain fog; mental-emotional ailments; and impaired digestive, endocrine and immune function. (When Olivia started with me, that pretty much sums up her health situation.)
Step 1 = Seeing the Cycle
This scenario sound familiar? Feel like you’re fighting yourself when it comes to eating or exercise?
Well, first know you’re not alone. Indeed, this a central area of work for many, many of our clients.
To be honest, there’s not a quick fix. Stepping out of an addictive, unhealthy cycle is often the stuff of extensive, guided change efforts (the sort our programs are designed to support).
Whether with support or on your own, a core piece is seeing the cycle—seeing your cycle.
Name it. Know that it is not you but is part of you.
Sounds simple…but sure isn’t easy. Seeing your cycle takes mindfulness, curiosity and a willingness to be really (often painfully) honest with yourself—a willingness to be vulnerable.
Wondering what this looks like?
One place to start is to ask yourself the following questions—and to do so with a gentle, curious, compassionate touch:
1. When you think of food and exercise, what comes up? How do you feel in body and mind?
I love food! And exercise! But, yeah, I guess they kind of stress me out. I need to make sure I hit the gym each day…and get a big sweat at hot yoga—really gets rid of the bloat after too many drinks. Let’s me keep doing what I’m doing, if you know what I mean.
My energy’s not great and I can’t seem to lose weight, but I’m working on it. I heard people talking about a juice cleanse—maybe I’ll start that next week.
Thinking about all this makes me a little anxious. I’m noticing tightness in my jaw…and uneasiness in my belly.
2. Do you experience food and exercise as a form of nourishment and self-care? Or as something else?
Nourishment—totally. Or, um, at least if I don’t overdo it. I mean, I like treating myself every now and again, but who doesn’t?
I always work it off the next day. Sure, that last class was a rough one, but I pushed through…then had pizza.
Right. I guess sometimes I’m playing catchup when it comes to exercise. “Detox to re-tox” and all that.
3. Taking a longer view—let’s say six months—do you notice any patterns, or themes, around food and exercise? Things that seem to repeat?
Let’s see, I lost ten pounds last January, when my friend and I went on a strict diet for two weeks and made yoga every day. We were on a real health kick!
But then came Marge’s party…and Tim’s wedding…and that crazy weekend in Miami. By February, I’d regained the ten pounds plus five more!
In Spring, I did a “seasonal cleanse” someone suggested at the gym. Lost a few pounds…though in a few weeks it was back. Then summer hit and there’s just been a lot going on.
But I’m ready to get serious now—starting a diet Monday. Oh, okay—guess I see a pattern. >Sigh<
4. Coming back around to our earlier question: Do you feel like you’re fighting yourself? If so, in what way?
Yeah. Honestly the whole thing kind of exhausts me.
I’m really sick of thinking about dieting and exercise. I wish I didn’t have to worry about it and could just focus on something else.
In exploring these questions, take your time and be really honest.
Don’t worry if you need to think on them for a while…or if answers don’t appear straight away.
Just by asking the questions, you’re already doing the difficult, pivotal work of exploring your relationship with food and movement. You’re already shedding light on—and thereby weakening—any addictive or harmful cycles that may exist for you.
How so? Well, seeing an unhelpful cycle is powerful—is empowering. By seeing the cycle you expand your sphere of awareness…and in this way expand your sphere of choice—of your choices.
That’s the first step in choosing to step out of an addictive cycle and into something different. Into a place where, rather than fighting yourself, you’re manifesting a more ease-filled, complete version of you.
How’d Olivia do?
Pretty awesome actually! It wasn’t easy and didn’t happen overnight, but after a year of working together, Olivia was eating and exercising much, much differently.
First came seeing the cycle (which, truthfully, can be the hardest part). Then came learning to do something different—and having compassionate accountability and support to follow through in a consistent, sustained way.
As with most clients, this was very much a process and definitely saw ups and downs. But, gradually, over the course of months, Olivia’s nights of overdoing it became less and less frequent.
The changes she was making in her eating patterns made maintaining her desired bodyweight way easier—even though she reduced her exercise hours. Meanwhile, by scaling back on overexercise, she didn’t feel the pull to rebound with overeating.
Instead of continuing to fight herself, Olivia learned to align with her body’s natural tendency to move toward wellness and balance. She stepped out of a harmful, addictive cycle…and rediscovered the nourishing, healing power of healthy food and movement.
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