"I am overwhelmed with anxiety right now. My heart is racing; I’m pretty panicky, actually…” Jeannie, a beautiful and brilliant college student, had been in therapy with me for the past year.“When did you start feeling this way?”“About three days ago I did something really stupid. I’m not sure what possessed me; I knew it was probably a bad idea…”
So I know what you’re thinking: she got really drunk or high. She had sex with some random bad boy. She did one of any number of regrettable activities that give college students the haunts.
But you’d be wrong.
In fact, she did something recommended by trusted medical professionals. She engaged in an activity that serves as a daily morning ritual for millions of Americans.
She stepped on a scale.
In her anorexic days, Jeannie’s secret fear was that if she ate just one extra bite, she’d never stop. Sure enough, that’s what happened. Like many who battle with anorexia, her extreme weight loss was followed by a rapid re-bound up the scale to a weight past where her body felt happy.
Binge eating and rapid weight gain often result from extreme dieting. On average when a person loses five pounds on a diet, they gain back six. The sad part is that they continue to believe the myth that their out-of-control eating is a sure sign that they cannot trust their bodies, so they continue trying to fix the problem by exerting more control over their appetites. They cannot believe that binge eating is the natural result of food restriction, and that more stringent efforts to restrict their food consumption will only lead to more immense and intense binges. “Like night follows the day,” I tell them.
This paradox reminds me of those Chinese Finger Traps, the little bamboo tubes where you plug the ends with your index fingers.The initial reaction of the victim is to pull the fingers outward, but this only tightens the trap… The solution to escaping the trap is to push the ends inward toward the middle, which enlarges the openings and frees the fingers.
In other words, you have to stop doing the thing that seems logical – letting go of your old notions of escape – while moving towards the center to be released.
Jeannie continued with her story: “I’d actually been feeling really good about my relationship with my body this past month. I’d been doing yoga and working out a few times a week. I’d been eating better, not denying myself food, and I’d almost completely stopped the bingeing. I’ve felt more clear-headed, had more energy and been sleeping sounder. My clothes even seemed to be fitting better.”
“I wonder why you didn’t just go with that…” I ask.
“I guess I thought that if I stepped on a scale, then I could have solid proof that I was making progress. But when I weighed myself, I’d only lost a few pounds. All that work and just a few pounds! So now my anxiety is through the roof, and I’ve been binge eating for three days. I probably gained back every pound I lost in a month.”
Many people find themselves in this predicament; attempting to trust their bodies after extreme weight fluctuations is an excruciating and daunting struggle. For those going through this process, the scale is not their friend. In fact, I encourage clients to bring in their scales and just hand them over to me (like when police departments offer folks $50 to buy back their guns!). I fantasize about tossing them off the top of a building (á la David Letterman), shattering them into a million pieces.
Sure, they can always buy another scale or hop on the one at the gym. So I ask: “What do you imagine would happen if you never weighed yourself again?” Having never even considered this (How very un-American!) the inquiry is often met with a gasp. “I’d weigh 400 pounds!”
“Seriously, has weighing yourself helped you arrive at your body’s healthy weight?”
The fact is, for someone recovering from disordered eating, there is little good that comes from weighing. If they weigh more than they anticipated, they figure, “What’s the point? I’m still fat so I might as well eat everything in sight.” If they weigh less, they think, “Woo Hoo! Celebrate!” and they eat everything in sight. Since weight can fluctuate by 2-5 pounds depending upon hydration, bowel movements, and menstrual cycles, the number upon which they are basing their worth, happiness (and “success”) is essentially meaningless.
Focusing on a number – an arbitrary external measurement – misses the point. Remember that Chinese Finger Trap where the way out is through the center?
Go into your center and ask yourself: how do you feel inside? Are you experiencing pleasure when you eat? Are you listening to and respecting your hunger and satiety signals? Do you have relationships that fill your heart? Are you honoring your gut by saying “No” when someone pushes, manipulates or guilts you? Are you speaking your truth? Are you moving your body in a way that is pleasurable and makes you feel good? Are you managing your stress? Are you living a life that is fulfilling?
If you are addressing these essential questions in your life, why would you allow a random number on the scale to trump the value of the things that actually matter?
So if you don’t feel like throwing out, donating or smashing your scale, try this. Paste a sign on it that reads:
“Your worth is not based on a number. Do not weigh your self-esteem! Listen to your body! Trust your gut! And have a nice day, gorgeous.”