Fifteen years ago, I rang in 2006 with a group of friends in Chicago. We had tickets to an event that included a four course meal followed by a night of drinking and club-hopping.
Early in the second course of our dinner, I started to feel sick. I managed to finish most of my meal anyway. Eating through discomfort—physical or emotional—was very familiar to me then.
I was also very used to chaining myself to the pictures my mind created for how things “should” turn out, rather than let things be what they were. My mind had painted a picture of a late night with good food and good friends, so that’s what I was determined to make happen.
I pushed through, eating and drinking with everyone else, completely ignoring my own common sense. But by the end of the meal, I couldn’t fool myself anymore—I was sick and it was clear that I had to get home. My friends guessed at the cause of my sudden illness. Food poisoning? Too many pre-drinks? I let them guess, even though I knew the truth.
My now-husband stood outside in blowing snow and below zero temps for 45 minutes trying to hail a cab (it was 10pm on New Year’s Eve, downtown Chicago in an arctic freeze, 10 years pre-Uber). He took me home early, held my hair back when I needed it, tucked me into bed and watched tv with me until midnight.
He guessed the stomach flu or one too many martinis too, and I lied by omission to him as well. No one had any idea that I was sick because I had spent the entire day binge eating.
Earlier that day, I nearly polished off a 1lb. bag of M&M’s that my mom put in my Christmas stocking. I remember being angry at that bag of candy as it screamed at me to be opened, and then eaten, and then almost finished.
It felt like that innocent bag of chocolate was there to remind me that I wasn’t okay. A “normal” person would lose track of it; find it pushed to the back of the pantry in March and end up throwing it away. But not me. I felt forced to eat until it was gone, by some mysterious force that seems way bigger than me. So I ate the candy with a resentful, “I’ll show you” attitude. The M&M’s were just the beginning.
I ate all day as I cleaned my apartment and prepared for the night out. I tried to lie myself the entire time. With each fistful of whatever unhealthy food I could find, I told myself it was okay. Everyone goes overboard around the holidays, right? The thousands of calories I was eating wouldn’t show up right away; my dress for tonight would still fit, right? It was New Year’s Eve! Tomorrow promised a fresh start so today didn’t matter. I tried to comfort myself with promises of a New Year detox and a week of nonstop cardio.
But the thing about lying to yourself is that you always know better. You are lying to you. Even if you are temporarily duped, you find yourself hit with waves of truth over time as soon as your mind quiets down.
New Year’s Day 2006 I woke up with a food + guilt + shame + self-hatred hangover. What was wrong with me? Why did M&M’s scream at me, while they seemed to leave everyone else alone? Why did it feel so compelling to eat all day, knowing that it was likely to ruin my night? If this was ever going to end, how?
Over the next few years, I continued to try to think my way out of my habit with mantras and affirmations and turnarounds that felt like lies.
I tried to effort my way out of my habit with discipline and willpower, detoxes, frequent 20-mile bike rides, and hours on the elliptical machine.
I tried to scare myself out of my habit with images of permanently damaging my health and my relationship.
I tried to talk and analyze my way out of my habit through years of therapy that rehashed and dissected my feelings about pretty much everything.
But none of those were the way out for me. They aren’t for most people. They are the things we all try, but they usually aren’t the permanent way out.
Nearly 5 years after that New Year’s Eve, I did change for good. I finally realized the freedom I had been working so hard for, and it was only after I became free that I saw hard work had nothing to do with it. The deep change I eventually experienced came by insight, not effort.
I gained insight into who I am beneath the coming and going thoughts, feelings, obsessions, and cravings that moved through me.
I thought food was screaming at me, or “my disorder” was screaming at me, but I was actually feeling my own healthy-yet-conditioned brain just doing what healthy, conditioned brains do.
The problem never was that my brain was demanding food; it was that I was misidentifying with those demands. I misunderstood what my suffering and my habit were showing me.
I didn’t see my experience as something that was separate from me, moving through me. I didn’t have a sense of the healthy, wise ‘me’ beneath the noise and drama.
I had no idea that my suffering was trying to wake me up to the fact that I was caught up in my own fleeting experience rather than relaxing into the peace that was there before my fleeting experience.
It all felt so deep and personally meaningful. Like this habit was life’s way of showing me that I was weak and flawed, that I needed to do better. But the complete opposite is true. Suffering is life’s way of showing us that we are not what we think we are. We are not what we think.
I was focused on doing the right things. But when we don’t understand how our experience works, our behavioral options are limited.
When we insightfully see that “me” and “my brain” are two very different things, we are able to not take our thoughts, feelings, and cravings so seriously.
From what I saw and understood about myself, my mind, and my habit, I was doing the absolute best I could. When I learned better, I could do better. But before I learned better, I really couldn’t.
If you are doing your best but it’s not helping, there’s something you don’t yet see. It’s not that you aren’t trying hard enough, it’s that you don’t fully see. When you see better, your behavior always, naturally improves.
The best I knew to do—given how things looked to me—was to keep trying new resolutions, therapies, and vows to myself; with new accountability partners and plans and behavioral fixes. But those things couldn’t be effective long term unless I had insight along with them. It wasn’t what I did, but what I insightfully understood that mattered.
You don’t have to be in that place of frantically rushing around, trying to do the right thing to end your habits feel like yourself again. If you are there—and I know many people are right now—looking for the right behavioral steps, the right mantras, the right diet…slow down. Stop, even.
Look toward a bigger truth about where your experience comes from.
Choose to turn on the light this year and finally see something deeply transformative, rather than continue to shoot around in the dark.
The light is available to everyone.
If you want to see more about the insights that freed me, and that have freed thousands of people from habits and anxiety, The Little School of Big Change is the place to be. The ONLY class being offered in 2021 begins March 1, 2021.