Let’s just say zen would not be the first word I’d use to describe myself. I fall more into the high-strung, nervous-about-everything camp. So mindfulness—a mental state achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment—felt like a long shot for me. But living mindfully is having a major moment, billed as a cure-all for everything from anxiety to sleeplessness to obesity. At 42 and at my highest weight ever, I was willing to try anything.
Over the last two decades I rode our culture’s weight loss wave from Atkins to green juice detoxes. All to the same end: I was still fat. I finally got it that another diet was not the answer and made the decision to seek professional help. I started therapy with New York psychotherapist Alexis Conason, who specializes in mindful eating and body dissatisfaction.
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Conason describes mindful eating as being fully aware and present in your relationship with food and your body. “It’s based on mindful meditation and brings the same skills cultivated there, like non-judgmental observation, to our eating experiences,” she says. During my very first session, she explained to me that eating mindfully as a strategy to get thin negates the entire point of the practice and simply doesn't work. There’s always a catch, I remember thinking to myself back then, when I still hoped mindfulness could be a fix to help me lose weight.
A lifelong emotional eater
My troubled relationship with food and dieting went back decades. I tried my first diet my freshman year of college. After that, I was always either on a diet or planning to start one. All foods were labeled good or bad in my mind, and my behavior was categorized by the same measure. What I actually wanted to eat rarely crossed my mind. But this is where mindfulness comes in, Conason tells me in a separate conversation we had outside our therapy sessions.
“To truly eat mindfully, we have to trust our body, which for most of us is a major leap of faith," she explains. "It is nearly impossible to hear what our body is telling us when we are working against it to lose weight. We come equipped with an internal navigation system to guide our eating. The problem is that we spend so much of our lives trying to override this internal GPS that it becomes very hard to hear what our body is telling us.”
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She says most people, specifically those who have a history of yo-yo dieting, as I do, fight their bodies instead of tuning into its natural guidance. “When our body is craving a cupcake, we feed it kale. We deprive ourselves of what our body wants, fighting against our cravings until we finally 'cave' and devour a whole box of cupcakes, hardly tasting them, feeling out of control, and then berate ourselves for being so 'bad' and vow never to eat sweets again.”
Sound familiar? It’s basically the story of my life (minus the kale).
Even though I began therapy specifically for my food issues, I went week after week for a full six months before I even started to get to the root of my overeating. This was hardly my first my rodeo on the couch, but as I started the familiar unpacking of my life story, including an absent father and pretty crippling anxiety, I looked at things through the lens of my emotional attachment to food for the first time.
Making peace with food
At this point I also participated in Conason’s nine-week group class, The Anti-Diet Plan. The premise is that a person needs to make peace with food and their body before truly eating mindfully. So every Tuesday night I joined eight other skeptical New York women to basically re-learn how to eat.
Each meeting began with a meditation and included an eating exercise. We started by eating raisins. We smelled them and touched them and ate them one by one and finished them only if we wanted to. I distinctly recall one woman, shamefully saying, “Did you see how I just shoved them all in my mouth?” The self-consciousness you feel when you live with food shame runs so deep, it can even apply to raisins.
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From there we worked our way up to eating chocolate cake, going out to a restaurant together, and then finally conquering our individual albatross—whatever food made us feel our most out of control—and attempted to eat it mindfully. Some members struggled with what they would pick, but for me it was a no-brainer. I brought homemade chocolate brownies, which I used to devour until I was physically sick. My sugar cravings were so strong at that point, and I knew they were rooted in a million emotions other than hunger.
One thing that we repeatedly discussed was the idea of self-acceptance, which like so many other women who were always trying to lose weight, I rejected with every cell in my body. How could I ever accept myself this way? One group member said aloud what we were all thinking: “That would feel like such a defeat.”
Conason tells me this is a common point of resistance. “We have somehow come to believe that if we are really mean to ourselves, if we just bully and berate ourselves enough, then we will finally find the motivation to change. We view acceptance as defeat and think that if we accept ourselves that means that things will remain the same," she says. "Self-hatred immobilizes us. Long-lasting change comes from a place of compassion and nurturing. We have to let go of the struggle to move forward, and self-acceptance is the first step to releasing yourself.”
Outside of the course, I attempted this new practice with the same religious fervor I applied to every stab at weight loss. I would look at a slice of pizza like it was an equation to be solved, asking myself, Do I really want it? After inevitably eating it, I would apply the same obsessive attention the next time I was faced with a "bad" food. I felt puffed up pride when I didn't eat something—and the same old familiar shame when I did.
Self-acceptance—and silencing her inner bully
Finally, it occurred to me: I was treating mindfulness like another diet. That light bulb was truly the first step on my journey. Slowly, and paired with other positive changes like exercise, cutting down on alcohol, and ongoing therapy, I’m now able to make more authentic decisions based on what I really want. If I’m craving dessert, I have it. (Spoiler Alert: most nights I crave it.)
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But the most seismic shift is my newfound ability to silence my inner bully. Learning to accept myself just as I am is so much harder than counting calories—but right now, it’s my primary objective. I wish I could tell you that the size of my body is no longer an issue for me, but I'm not quite there yet. Learning to navigate my true hunger, I focus on progress not perfection. I have lost weight and continue to lose.
But just like with my obsession with food, monitoring the number on the scale becomes a slippery slope, so I try to shift my focus to my emotional well-being. Truly allowing myself to eat what I want when I want it has been so incredibly liberating, and feeling in control of my food choices has made me feel more in control of my life as a whole. While seeking happiness and self-contentment, I’ve finally (finally!) made room for goals that can’t be measured by a scale.