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A Message from Carol H. Munter and Jane R. Hirschmann

Dear Reader,

Many of you report that after your initial excitement about using the Overcoming Overeating approach you notice yourself feeling resentful about having to pay so much attention to your eating. You don't want to pack a food bag, you are annoyed at having to ask yourself whether your desire to eat is mouth hunger or stomach hunger, you are tired of having to monitor your bad body thoughts and you just can't be bothered figuring out exactly what your stomach wants to eat. In fact, the whole project begins to seem like another diet with yet another set of rules.

We'd like to share some thoughts we have about this ubiquitous problem. Let's call it the conflict between the freedom fighter—the rebel who binges out of diets—and the rule maker—the one who turns a non-diet into a diet.

As you know, in Overcoming Overeating we describe an approach to curing compulsive eating. In effect we say, if you find that you desperately reach for food when you are not hungry, then, legalizing food, stopping your negative body talk, moving toward size acceptance and enjoyment and feeding yourself on demand will, over time, decrease your need to use food as a tranquilizer. We see ourselves as offering suggestions or guidelines. For many of you, however, these guidelines quickly become another set of rules for you to live by or defy. You find yourself saying, "I should eat only when I'm hungry," or "I should stop each bad body thought" or "I should be gentle with myself." In other words, before long, each element of this non-diet approach—stocking the house, carrying a food bag, doing mirror work, dressing yourself with pleasure, differentiating between stomach hunger and mouth hunger—feels like a diet-like instruction which inspires your resentment, rebellion and resistance.

Are our "guidelines" simply another set of rules in disguise? We prefer to think that we are presenting an argument or a way of seeing a problem and that our "guidelines" are jumping-off points that flow from our understanding of your situation. If you agree with us that compulsive eating is the result of dieting, then probably you will also agree that stopping dieting is the first step toward non-compulsive eating. If you agree with us that years of food restrictions have made food "special" and thus more of a tranquilizer than a fuel, then you will probably also agree that food needs to be de-mystified or legalized. If you agree that once you do away with dieting your remaining mouth hunger eating is the result of anxiety, then you will probably also agree that it makes sense to lessen your anxiety by reconnecting food and stomach hunger and by replacing self-contempt with self-acceptance.

In other words, if our argument makes sense to you, you go on to adopt certain measures in order to make inroads on your problem with compulsive eating. So how did these measures—which initially delighted you—become oppressive rules? How did the Overcoming Overeating approach become another diet, the very thing it was intended to counter?

When you are feeling oppressed and constrained by elements of this approach, the chances are that you are confronting within yourself what is, in fact, a very human tendency to make rules. This tendency—which permeates many aspects of our lives and not simply our relationship to food—turns growth-enhancing actions into stifling rules. Self-defeating as it may seem, rule making serves some surprising functions.

First, rules—even if we rebel against them—keep us company and make us feel secure. Rules imply the existence of another person, namely the rulegiver/authority/ultimate caretaker. "I should eat in response to stomach hunger" implies that someone has told me to do so. On the other hand saying, "I want to eat from stomach hunger because I understand that in the long run it will make me feel more psychologically grounded" implies that "I and I alone desire to do so." You may resent the "company" of rules, but you may feel alone and insecure without them.

Second, rules give us hope. We live in a "Pull yourself up by the bootstraps," "You can do it if you try hard enough" culture. When you tell yourself "I should eat from stomach hunger all the time" or "I should do mirror work," you are not only trying to force yourself into some new behavior but you are also suggesting that, with enough willpower, change is possible. When on the other hand you give up the word "should," you give up the hope that things are going to change overnight or change by command. If, for example, you are not commanding yourself to eat in response to stomach hunger but are simply trying to become a more attuned demand feeder, you accept the fact that, in the process, some of the time you will be able to wait for stomach hunger and at other times you will still be governed by mouth hunger. The process of real and lasting change is slow and uneven.

Third, we set up rules for ourselves because following them makes us feel worthy. When you take our suggestions and turn them into rules, you can then feel "good" if you follow them and "bad" if you disobey. It is difficult to give up the hope of finally becoming someone's "good girl;" it is difficult to live a life without the teacher's gold stars. You may be very pleased to discover that you are having less mouth hunger or fewer bad body thoughts, for example, but in a world without shoulds, you must grant yourself acceptance irrespective of what you are or are not able to do on any given day.

What is the solution to this quite understandable rule-making tendency that so many of us struggle with? In our New York workshop one evening, participants had some ideas.

"I was making myself crazy about mirror work," said Bettina. "I know I'm supposed to look at myself without making negative comments, but I just couldn't do that. So I gave myself permission to say as many negative things about my body as I wanted for as long as I wanted. You could say that I 'legalized' my bad body thoughts and eventually they became less compelling."

"I've had that same experience about the food bag," said Leslie. "I saw that the more I kept telling myself that I should be carrying a food bag, the more I resisted. I've decided not to give myself such a hard time about it, cut myself some slack and maybe I'll want to carry one eventually."

"I can see that I'm really tied into getting those gold stars," said Sue. "As soon as I notice that I've had a day when I've been eating solely in response to stomach hunger, I find myself making a rule about how, from now on, I'm always going to eat only in response to stomach hunger. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that very soon after making such a promise to myself, I have an irresistible need to eat even though I'm not hungry. I think I just love having the sense that, if I worked at it, I could be 'perfect' and completely 'good.'" Sue suddenly started laughing. "I was just about to say that I should stop making those promises. Clearly, just going with the flow or accepting myself as is doesn't come easily to me. Living without rules feels like a loss."

Sue is not alone. We are all so used to living with shoulds that it can be extremely difficult to let them go and come up with new ways of talking to ourselves and keeping ourselves company. We asked the group for some suggestions about how aspiring freedom fighters might talk to themselves:

"I'd like to eat from stomach hunger as often as I can."

"I'm interested in learning what triggers my mouth hunger."

"I'd like to give myself an appealing food bag."

"I don't want to hurt myself with bad body thoughts."

"I understand that this is going to be a gradual process."

We'd love to hear from you about how you've grappled with your rule-making tendency. The fact that freedom is frightening as well as exhilarating is clearly central to every aspect of this approach.

Hearty appetite!

Carol and Jane

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