Why lasting lifestyle changes are so damn hard.

Why lasting lifestyle changes are so damn hard.

“There is this guy that looks 20 years younger than his age, with white teeth, an enviable tan and a body of a Greek sculpture. He tells me exactly what to do in order to heal from all diseases and to live a happy, healthy life forever after. I believe him, he looks amazing and all the testimonials speak for it. I know what I have to do: Eat my fruits and veggies, give up all the junk, start a regular fasting regime and start exercising 1 hour every day.”

“The problem is that I can’t seem to stick with it. I last for about a week, and then I always fall back into my old habits. The evening fast turns into mid nigh potato chips and chocolate. The marathon training turns into an evening Netflix marathon. I have come to believe that I am simply a hopeless case with zero will power. I see other people switching their lives around with a divine grace, so the only logical conclusion is that I am simply a failure in this too. I should be able to will myself into it like I see other people doing, but there is something in me that just takes over and I find myself raiding the pantry, or rushing to the junk isle in the supermarket and the next thing I know I’m sitting in my bed with an empty Oreo carton.”

Sounds familiar? This is a common story that I have heard over and over again from clients and friends.

If you can identify yourself with this to any degree, I am here to tell you that you are not a failure. There is nothing wrong with you and you are no less capable than those other people turning their lives around. But you are right, there is something in you that takes over from time to time, and that is a suppressed part within you, making desperate efforts to fulfill its needs and to be recognized.

The reason why many of us find it impossible to make lasting changes to our diet is because we are using food as a coping mechanism. It might have been the adults in our lives that gave us the example, or perhaps we were clever enough to come up with it on our own, but the point is that we learned to use food for comfort and to escape from unpleasant emotions. We may have learned very early on that food means connection, belonging and being rewarded for good behavior. We may have learned that the best way to deal with feelings of isolation and lack of safety is to hide under the blanket and lose ourselves in the sedating effects of a chocolate cake.

These coping mechanisms are carried over to our adult lives, but to a large extent, unconsciously. Let’s say that as a child, Lucy often felt like people were unpredictable and thus felt unsafe in social situations where others were not considering her best interest. The only way that she learned to cope with this overwhelming feeling was to hide from the world and seek comfort in foods.

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Did you ever feel as a child like you had no control over your environment and that people were unpredictable?

However, as she grew up she figured that it’s silly to feel this way and that she should be strong enough to stand up for herself (this belief was also reinforced by her parents and siblings). So she started suppressing this aspect that was feeling unsafe, thinking that it would interfere with her social life, and started identifying with a strong protector aspect that can handle anything and for the most part, does not need people.

The vulnerable child aspect got locked away in the cellar.

But it’s not possible to simply remove aspects of ourselves, so after being bulldozed for long enough, this aspect takes over in a desperate attempt to get its needs met (and it learned to meet its need for safety with food). In this case, feeling unsafe might trigger that aspect to make us binge eat uncontrollably until our feelings of self loath would drive us to suppress that aspect again and get “back in line” for the time being.

But as we now understand, that part within us is not evil, nor is it trying to destroy us. It is simply an aspect (usually a child) whose needs are being ignored, and because it is not heard, it has no other option but to use whatever means it can.

It is unreasonable to expect ourselves to give up all these coping mechanisms without addressing the underlying emotions. Self-control can only get us so far, but unless we address the reason why this coping mechanism was created in the first place, we will forever be fighting against this suppressed aspect, or we will simply create new coping mechanisms.

The most self-loving way then to deal with cravings is to talk to the part that wants to eat those things and to try to understand its needs behind this behavior, because ALL addictive behavior is ALWAYS a coping mechanism. What will happen is that instead of self-hating for not being able to live up to our standards of discipline, we will start to feel compassion towards ourselves. Then, from that point on we can start finding ways to meet the needs of that aspect in healthy ways. In the example case this would mean finding other ways to feel safe that do not include binge eating.

Sometimes simply opening a dialogue with this part will ease the craving attacks and give us a sense of control over our lifestyle choices. So instead of beating yourself up for slipping on your journey, take it as an opportunity to learn what is underneath that uncontrollable behavior. Seek to understand the part of you that resists change and most importantly, know that the way that part is feeling is VALID and deserves to be taken into consideration.

Because self love is NOT pretending that we are only those things that we have deemed positive. Self love is embracing ALL parts of us.

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Some of the content in this article was inspired by the work of Teal Swan, a pioneering teacher in emotional healing and interpersonal connection. To read more about inner parts and how to work with them, I highly recommend reading her book Anatomy of Loneliness and checking out her videos on the topic on Youtube. 

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