When people interested in my Healthful Eating programs schedule their introductory conversation, I ask what they would ideally like to gain from our work together. Nine out of 10 times the answer is some variant of:
“I’d like to be in better control of myself.”
When we talk about what benefit having this control (over what they eat, how they eat, what they weigh, etc.) will provide, the answer inevitably comes back a theme: Self-confidence. Self-esteem. The ability to feel like they can go out into the world and engage in their lives fully.
I get it. Who doesn’t want that!?
Here’s the interesting thing about control giving us self-confidence and self-esteem: it’s an illusion. It’s one of the biggest illusions we buy into. There are a lot of cultural influences convincing us that having more willpower, discipline, and control will help us, and for a short time, we might even experience it as a temporary win–thus reinforcing the concept.
The paradox is that our often excessive efforts at self-control are really a distraction from doing the real work many of us need to heal ourselves. We crave control over our food or our bodies because we have the false belief that such control will somehow manifest the confidence or esteem we lack and believe we need to live our lives fully, without considering that it’s totally possible to have such confidence and esteem right NOW. We run on hamster wheels because we’re avoiding the root causes of our troubles.
Hamster Wheels Will Not Manifest Self-Confidence & Self-Esteem
To add insult to injury, we often get caught in a hamster wheel of positive and/or negative reinforcements from our “control” efforts. The basic hamster wheel looks like this: we try to control ourselves in some way; we fail; we double our efforts; our failure doubles. Sounds miserable yes? It makes total sense that we’d give up! Yet some time later, we begin the exact same way! <insert forehead slap here>
Then there are what I call the “temporary win” hamster wheels:
Variation 1 is when we experience a temporary win, such as some amount of feeling the way we want to feel, actual weight loss, etc., and we think “wow, this is working! more more more!” and we double our efforts. This often leads to failure instead of more success. We’re puzzled as to why this is the case. We might try even harder, failing harder, or we might go back to square one, repeating the process.
Variation 2 is when we experience that same temporary win, and we think “yeah, I got this. I’m good now!” and we “let up” some of the control. This often also leads to failure. We recognize that clearly, it’s because we loosened up. Some time passes, and we get back on the program. Again, rinse and repeat. Or for fun, try Variation 1 every now and then!
This doesn’t sound like fun. And if you’re wondering where the self-confidence and self-esteem, where the living our lives to the fullest is in these hamster wheels, well, you won’t find it there because it isn’t there.
Sometimes we realize we’re caught in an endless loop of dieting, then binging or overeating, then dieting again; we may be frustrated with tracking and counting everything and depriving ourselves of pleasurable foods; yet control is the strategy we keep using. The more we practice being a hamster in these wheels, the more we train ourselves, the more we reinforce and cement our belief that control is the way to lose weight or get healthy, and that clearly the failure we experience is our bad, our lack of discipline.
You may have experienced that voice inside that knows on some other level–almost an intuitive level–that getting on the hamster wheel again is energy draining, stressful, and won’t be helpful to you long-term. My job as a coach is to show you there is a different way, and help you find the answers to why you have low confidence or self-esteem in the first place, why you turn to food to get it, why you think losing weight is the way to do it, and to help you find more productive ways of getting what you want.
The other paradox of this type of real work? Once you go out into the world and live your life fully and with purpose, your relationship with your body and with food may change, and you may lose weight without ever even looking at that wheel. The choice is yours.