Having a better understanding of where you are in your journey towards more peaceful eating helps you have more patience for the process. While everyone’s journey is unique, changing unhelpful food behaviors can generally be broken into four stages: Unconscious Unhealthy Behavior, Conscious Unhealthy Behavior, Conscious Healthy Behavior, and Attuned Healthy Behavior.
1st Stage: UNCONSCIOUS UNHEALTHY BEHAVIOR: This is when you find yourself engaging in unhealthy behaviors — but you don’t know why.
Example: You just got home from dinner out with girlfriends, and you head straight to the kitchen to look for something to eat — even though you’re already full. It was a low-key evening and nice to catch up with everyone, so you don’t know why you’re now raiding the fridge and pantry. You figure you’re just out of control with food, and go to bed feeling uncomfortably stuffed — and mad at yourself.
Remember: The goal in this stage is to develop more awareness and understanding and typically requires the help of a therapist skilled in eating issues.
2nd Stage: CONSCIOUS UNHEALTHY BEHAVIOR: In this stage, you continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors, except this time you know exactly why.
Example: Driving home from dinner with your girlfriends, you notice you have an urge to eat even though you’re not hungry. Reflecting on the evening, you recall one friend’s incredible news: she’s pregnant! You’re so happy for her, yet you’re also noticing some discomfort. Curious, you continue checking in with your body. (You learned in therapy about feelings and how they manifest as physical sensations.) You notice feelings of worry (worry that you won’t see your friend much post-baby), sadness (you dream of starting a family one day but right now it feels out of reach), and guilt (for feeling this way) — all this on top of the genuine happiness and excitement you feel for your friend.
Once you’re home, you head straight to the fridge. You know you won’t feel better afterwards, but right now you just want to turn your brain off and turning to food sounds like an easy way to do that. Besides, you don’t know what else to do.
Remember: It’s common to feel discouraged in this stage and tell yourself things like, “I know better than this! Why do I keep doing this?!” It’s very important to remember that you must get to this stage in order to continue making progress. Self-compassion is helpful in all of the stages and perhaps especially in stage two. “Awareness without self-compassion is like personal warfare.” (Heard that once at a FACES Conference, but I couldn’t locate the source of the quote online.) In fact, the power of self-compassion alone just might get you to stage three.
3rd Stage: CONSCIOUS HEALTHY BEHAVIOR: In addition to awareness in this stage, you practice skills to be with your emotions, and learn alternate behaviors and tools. You continue gaining perspective and taking your work in therapy deeper. You might also discover that some of your behaviors are a result of deprivation, unhelpful food rules, and/or a diet mentality. It doesn’t feel natural, but you begin shifting from automatic unhealthy behaviors to very consciously practicing new healthy behaviors.
Example: Same situation above, except you practice one or more of the tools that you’ve discussed with your therapist and dietitian. You feel like you’re white-knuckling it, but to your surprise, it works! You may even decide to eat even though you’re not hungry, but there’s no guilt and it doesn’t feel compulsive or punishing. You feel empowered but you don’t want to get your hopes up that you can keep doing this. It all feels so new.
Remember: This is both an exciting and uncomfortable stage. Exciting because you’re practicing your healthier skills and start experiencing the short-term benefits of doing so. It’s also uncomfortable because practicing these new skills feels awkward, unnatural, maybe even a little scary. Lapses are inevitable — but they can also be reframed as powerful learning experiences with the right support. What’s key is the repetition of healthy behaviors, which helps your brain to build its “emotional muscle” to be able to pause and be, rather than simply react.
4th Stage: ATTUNED HEALTHY BEHAVIOR: Can you guess what this stage is? :-) This stage is your earned reward for your willingness to dive into the previous stages. It can feel like a long journey to get to this point. You continue to experience the inevitable uncomfortable feelings, disappointments, etc. that are part of life, but you’re able to do so without disordered eating behaviors that no longer serve you. There was a time you couldn’t even imagine it, but being FREE of food worries actually comes naturally for you.
Remember: One of the most beautiful, not-always-intended outcomes of working on food issues is that you get to know yourself really well. You learn how to get your needs met, be attuned with your body, and treat yourself with compassion. You understand that the best way to serve those you love is to prioritize your own wellbeing.