Thin From Within: Reflections On How We Change How We Eat by Terese Weinstein Katz, Ph.D
Thin From Within celebrates two years of posting this month. Its focus on “how inner conflict keeps people stuck” has carried us in many directions. The obstacles that block us, after all, emerge in many places. Looking back at the very first post (reread here), it strikes me that the work of inner change–of “preparing the soil” for the tools of change to work–remains a crucial goal for many who struggle with weight. What strikes me as I reread the posts altogether, though, is how the stream of new discussions about weight continue to complicate how we understand both “inner conflict” and “stuckness”.
These discussions examine addiction and brain science. They explore the mechanics of willpower. They find the intersections between meditation, self-compassion, and ultimate self-control. In sum, they spotlight some overeating triggers that operate whether we’ve done our inner work or not. And they point to some solutions we can access however stuck we’ve been. Overall, they reconfirm some key Thin From Within concepts. You could summarize these, perhaps, as “Your problems with food aren’t all your fault….Yet only you can grab the reins to steer to a better place.”
For this, the tools of habit change, self-care, and at times addiction medicine, provide the pathways to healthier weight and peace of mind with food. That initial blogpost emphasizes how, even where the tools exist, however, we sometimes can’t get ourselves to use them. Figuring out why we don’t and how we can: this is the work of inner change. At this reflecting point, though, let’s look at a part of the change process that we rarely see when we’re trying, and then forgetting, or trying, and falling short. For as helpful weight loss news may seem, it can at times worsen the burden of what you feel you should be doing, and what you feel bad about not doing. If you’ve followed this blog to date, you know that’s not a good recipe for managing your eating.
In the 1980s, Drs. James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente published their influential model of how we change. They describe stages, ranging from complete unawareness of the need to change, through successful permanent habit change. One of those stages, “preparation”, describes what’s often happening when we try to change how we eat. Frustrating though it may be to try to plan meals, eat on a new schedule, or say “no” to foods that get you gorging, your efforts may be preparing you in a very real way for making changes that stick.
What this model tells us, then, is that we obviously should keep trying even if efforts at first don’t succeed. Think of how many times people try to quit smoking before they stop for good. Think of the 25 previous diets of the person who’s kept the weight off for years now. On a smaller scale, think of something that you’ve changed and now don’t think twice about—perhaps you’ve switched to low-fat milk and now find whole milk very rich.
You can see that what at first might not “take” did, in time. With every bout of effort we learn what works and does not, we prepare the mind and body for ultimately living with new ways. Sometimes, too, it takes a lot of experimenting to find the particular tools or methods that really click for you. “Change is a process, not an event.” “It can take a few rounds.” “You should keep trying.” “Any effort you make in the right direction is worthwhile.” Here I quote directly from a Harvard Health Letter (9/07) summarizing decades of research on changing unhealthy behavior.
Repeated new behaviors start to teach the brain new ways of responding. Truly they begin to lay new pathways that will eventually become the stronger ones: in other words, the new habits. Another, less obvious, phenomenon can begin, too. You could start to think of your efforts as messages that you’re giving to yourself, messages that you’re worth the trying. That you know you’ll succeed in time if you learn, if you persist or practice. Then, what you may eventually hear yourself say about grabbing those donuts is something like: “It’s just not worth it. I’d rather feel better about myself. I don’t want to go back there.” Feeling better about yourself has then risen to a higher priority than the immediate relief of the old habit. Some inner change has happened.
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