Healing from diet culture is a process, and many approaches to unlearning diet mentality may actually be doing more harm to our self-esteem than good. How do we heal from diet culture without berating ourselves for not getting it “right?” An ACT approach may help get you there.
One of the most challenging parts of the intuitive eating journey is grappling with old diet culture thoughts that just won’t seem to go away.
You may have had this experience: you decide you are ready to give up dieting and pursue intuitive eating and body acceptance. You tell yourself: “I now believe that all foods fit, and that all bodies are good bodies”. And you believe it. Or rather, you want to believe it. But you keep having all of these thoughts that show up, totally unwelcome, telling you about how your body is actually way too big, and you are eating way too much so you better just reign it in.
You may have tried all sorts of strategies to make these unhelpful thoughts go away. Perhaps you have challenged them, or replaced them with positive thoughts, or gathered evidence about why those old thoughts are simply not true. But they still keep coming back, and they make it feel impossible to give up diet mentality and truly allow yourself freedom with food. It might even start to begin to feel like dieting did: constant effort followed by confusion and feelings of failure. Clients that I have worked with have even started to beat themselves up about not being good enough at rejecting diet mentality.
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. And you have not failed! In fact, your mind is doing exactly what it is designed to do. It is not a simple task to change our thought patterns, especially thought patterns that were formed in an attempt to keep us safe. But that may offer little comfort if you are feeling like you are unable to get rid of these negative thoughts about eating and your body, and you are stuck in a cycle of disordered eating behaviors.
These classic approaches to challenging our diet-mentality thoughts might work for some, but time and again, I have seen it do more harm than healing. Does that mean that you’re destined to be at odds with food and your body forever? Definitely not! Over my years in clinical practice, I have pulled from various frameworks and developed an approach that offers a radically different way of dealing with these thoughts that are keeping you stuck. It is an approach that comes from a model called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT for short).
Though the entirety of ACT is a complex and diverse approach to behavior change, in my own work I have found it helpful to focus on these 3 parts of the model: acceptance, defusion, and committed action around your values. By processing through these three elements, I have found that my clients are much more able to move forward and compassionately engage with the thought processes that hold them back from recovery.
Clients often say – I can eat the cookie, but how do I stop myself from beating myself up about it afterwards? In an ACT approach, the path forward is one of acceptance of our thoughts.
Before we can get to acceptance though, we must begin to understand why the thought is so challenging in the first place. If you are feeling this way, chances are you fused with the thought that eating cookies is bad. What does this mean exactly? Imagine 2 pieces of metal fused together. They are so connected you can’t even tell where one ends and the next begins. This is essentially what can happen to us with our thoughts. We become so bought in, so fused with our thoughts, that we almost become them. In a state of fusion, we react to thoughts as if they are mandates, as though they are Truth. It is fusion with the thought that “cookies are bad” that brings on horrible guilt after eating one, and that sends you right back to “the diet starts tomorrow”.
Here’s the thing: we can’t get rid of our thoughts, at least not by force, or by reasoning them away. The best we can do is pretend they aren’t there, burying them under “better” thoughts that we wish we believed. And so we gaslight ourselves: we tell ourselves that our actual thoughts are no longer allowed or ok, and we set ourselves up to judge and shame ourselves if we “fail” at loving our bodies or having full permission to eat all foods.
In ACT, instead of trying to get the thoughts to go away, we practice acceptance. Acceptance is an often misunderstood concept– we might think of it as giving up or resigning ourselves to a painful reality that will never change or get better. Acceptance is actually simply an active and aware embrace of our internal events without struggling to change them. We acknowledge that our old thought patterns have been around for a really long time, and they likely developed for very good reasons. Attempting to wrestle them away is an exercise in futility – or worse – may serve to amplify them. If our thoughts, or avoidance of our thoughts, keep us stuck in patterns that don’t serve us, we need to deal with the thoughts in order to move forward… the ACTUAL thoughts – the ugly, pimply, unpleasant ones, not the ones we wish we had.
Counterintuitively, it is from a place of acceptance that we actually free up space to start to create meaningful change in our lives and move in the direction of our values. Acceptance is what allows for change to occur.
If this is all feeling pretty discouraging (so you’re saying I’m just stuck with these thoughts??) – don’t despair just yet. Enter defusion, a powerful tool to help us change the way we relate to our thoughts. Remember that it is fusion with our thoughts that makes us feel as though we must act on them as if they are mandates. Defusion is a process of becoming unstuck and creating space and distance from our thoughts. Defusion is what allows us to see our thoughts for what they are: simply words and pictures generated by the mind.
So how does one go about defusing from unhelpful thoughts? I’ll give an example. I recently had a client who was really struggling with the thought: “everybody judges me when I eat”. Even though her rational mind knew this wasn’t necessarily true (and she had gathered plenty of evidence to “disprove” this thought), she had become so fused with the thought that every time she tried to eat socially she became incredibly distressed and only allowed herself to choose the lowest calorie item on the menu. This became a major barrier to her recovery.
I asked my client to try a simple exercise. I asked her to first call up the thought “everybody judges me when I eat,” and notice what it felt like in her body to really buy into that thought. She reported feeling very tense with a tightness in her chest and butterflies in her stomach. “I feel really panicky,” she told me. Then I asked her to add 2 little phrases in front of the thought:
I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that everybody judges me when I eat.
Feel the difference? The space that is created? Providing this distance is a form of defusion. My client was able to notice a real shift in her body as she repeated the phrase, a sense of ease and release as she was able to create space from the thought that was keeping her stuck. Once she got unstuck she was able to choose the foods she wanted to eat in social settings and move forward in recovery, something she deeply valued.
Any exercise that creates a sense of distance and allows us to take perspective on our thoughts–which creates space for behavior change–is defusion. I often recommend my clients check out the books The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris or Get out of Your Mind and Into Your life by Steven Hayes as resources for defusion exercises.
Committed Action Around Your Values
Something that differentiates ACT from many therapeutic approaches is that the goal is not necessarily to “feel better”–though, fortunately, feeling better is often a byproduct of using an ACT approach). Rather, the goal is to clarify personal, deeply held values that give your life meaning and purpose, and take committed action around behaviors that align with those values.
ACT acknowledges that discomfort, sadness, and pain are an inevitable part of the human experience. We don’t necessarily have control over that; we do have control over how much we struggle with those emotions and sensations, and how much we allow them to get in the way of doing the things that are important to us.
A disordered relationship with food can disrupt our ability to do the things we value. I often hear from clients, for example, that fear of eating in social situations keeps them isolated and lacking connection with others; or their rigid food rules keep them from modeling healthy eating behaviors for their kids; or lack of energy due to undernourishment keeps them from performing well in their job. In all of these cases, disordered eating has become a barrier to living a life of meaning and purpose.
So what does committed action around values look like in the nutrition counseling setting? For many of my clients, it’s a commitment to the intuitive eating process: rejecting diet mentality, learning skills to connect with physical sensations of hunger and fullness, facing things in life they have been using food to avoid, and permission to eat all foods.
Doing these things can feel scary, and trigger lots of uncomfortable thoughts and sensations! Connection to a greater purpose, doing these things in spite of the discomfort they elicit in order to allow us to live a life of meaning in alignment with our values, makes the discomfort worth tolerating.
Why An ACT Approach Matters
Too often, in the pursuit of attempting to heal our relationship with food and our body, we continue to replicate the very same shame, negativity, and self-doubt that characterized our struggle in the first place. To be clear, this isn’t our fault. We can only really do what we know how to do. This is why shifting to a new paradigm can be so transformative.
Rather than dig your heels in, become angry with yourself for thinking things you know aren’t true or helpful, and blame yourself for being unable to let go, we need to approach our own mind and thought process with compassion. By accepting our thoughts, practicing defusion, and aligning our actions with our values, we are able to gently allow ourselves to let go of the things that hurt us rather than heal us. It becomes less about wrestling negative thoughts away from us, and more about guiding ourselves away from the things that don’t serve us anymore. For many people struggling with their relationship with food and their bodies, this kind of approach offers a lot more opportunity for true transformation.