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Your childhood is where it started

Why don’t they sell willpower?

Boy, wouldn’t the person who could figure out how to bottle willpower and sell it be Bill Gates rich? Willpower is the strength to carryout one’s decisions or plans. Sounds pretty simple. We exert willpower every day.

Sometimes carrying out my decisions are easy. I am going to shower today.

Sometimes they are hard. I will go to the gym after work but I really want to go home.

Sometimes they are downright impossible. I will go grocery shopping and not buy my favorite donuts even though they are buy one get one free this week.

For some people making decisions about healthy eating comes easily. They exhibit great self-control when ordering off a menu or shopping at the grocery store. They seem to be just as happy ordering a salad as they would order prime rib and smashed potatoes. My guess is you hate these people. My guess is you marvel at their willpower. Guess what? You shouldn’t. Most of them have a totally different way of looking and thinking about food than you do. It’s not that hard for them to eat healthy the majority of the time. Let’s start with one question.

Do you know why your willpower seems to be on vacation when it comes to food?

I had a very successful client one time. She was an architect for the city of Charlotte and had been instrumental in developing our new AAA ballpark located uptown. She had a successful marriage and three grown independent, well adjusted, educated children. Was I supposed to think she could be successful in her career, marriage, motherhood, friendships, etc. but she was powerless over a potato chip? If you look at your life and you are successful and able to illicit willpower in other areas of your life then you need to figure out what it is about food that makes it different.

To get started let’s go back – WAY back. Back to birth.

My childhood and food

When babies are born no one has to teach them to signal that they are hungry. They feel this strange, unsettling sensation and they are born with the innate ability to communicate this to others by crying. Parents know a crying baby is oftentimes hungry and milk will quickly turn a cry into a smile. On the other end of the spectrum how do we know babies are full? They pierce their lips, spit the milk out, fall asleep, etc. Babies eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. They use food exactly for what it was invented – fuel for the body.

But very quickly we, as children, are taught that food is this magical wonder that holds some special power.

Food is a reward.You made an A, let’s go out for ice cream.

Food is comfort. You skinned your knee. Here’s a popsicle to make it all better.

Food is love. I brought your mom some chocolates for Valentine’s Day.

Food is stress relief. You had a rough day at school. Let me make you a snack and we’ll talk about it.

Food is not to be wasted. You eat all those beets or else…

Food can be withheld as punishmentYou didn’t do your chores so I’m not making you french toast.

Food is used as a bribe.If you take your bath you can have a brownie before bed.

Food is used as control.You cannot get up from the table until you finish those peas.

Take a moment and think about your childhood. Which of these messages did you receive? Do these messages affect you today? One common one I see is people rewarding themselves with food. No one rewards themselves with grilled salmon and asparagus. They reward themselves with a 2,000 calorie meal from Outback. This is a self-sabatoging behavior that many learned in childhood and find it incredibly hard to break.

Next think about your parents or parent-figures in the home. What examples did they set for a healthy lifestyle?

Did they exercise? Did they eat healthy? Did they fat shame themselves? Each other? Did you dad make rude comments to your mom about her body? Did your mom skip meals or was she always on a diet? Did your dad take pride in being “a big guy”? Did he take pride in how far he could run or how much he could bench press? Did they encourage you to eat healthy and exercise? Was it never talked about in your house?

As a kid you absorb these messages. What kind of an example was set forth for you? How does that affect you today? Really take some time and think about this.

Did your parents or parent figures comment on other’s bodies? Did they make comments about overweight kids at your school? Comments about other relatives? Comments about you and your body?

By the time you leave your parents’ home around age 18 you have developed a philosophy about exercise, food, healthy eating, body image, etc. I suspect your lack of willpower around food dates back to days when you lived with your parents. I find that when people fully understand how they were scarred during childhood they are then able to forgive themselves more easily for all their failed diets. They think they just lack willpower and are lazy. But when they reflect back to childhood and the messages they received they understand their behavior more. That is the first step in changing course.

Here is more food for thought. Did you use food as a coping mechanism for a childhood trauma?

Children do not have coping mechanisms in place to deal with difficult life events like death, divorce, addiction, illness, abandonment, bullying, etc. Adults who face these unfortunate events are typically better equipped to deal with the stress. However, adults sometimes use alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and the like to cope. Oftentimes children cope with food because they don’t have access to drugs or other self-destructing vices. Feeling sad? Mashed potatoes and fried chicken do the trick. Feeling like you have no control over your life? You can control what you eat. Rebelling against your parent? You can make them mad if you overeat.

Take a moment and think about the history of your weight. Do you see a correlation between any events in the home and your weight gain? If you gained your weight as adult ask yourself the same question. What was going on in your life when you starting packing on pounds?

This can be a very eye opening moment for some people. For the first time they are able to start seeing that they overate in response to a traumatic event. For me, it was the sudden death of my father when I was 13. I didn’t even realize it but I turned to food for comfort. My mom was in such shock she could barely take care of herself, much less be concerned over my feelings. I was 18 before a counselor in college helped me identify the connection. That’s when my hard work began.

Reflect on what you gained from your childhood that was POSITIVE in regards to food and exercise. Here’s one example:

My parents taught me that desserts were only for special occasions. My mom taught me that cooking meals was fun and would save money. Eating out was expensive and since you couldn’t control the ingredients it could be pretty unhealthy.

Reflect on what you gained from your childhood that was NEGATIVE. These are the things we need to rethink, revisit and change. Here’s one example:

My dad was always making comments about my mom’s weight if she got over 120#. Once when I asked for a second piece of cake he said to me, “you don’t want to be like your mom, do you?” I never forgot that. My mom was always on a diet and would always lose weight and then gain it back. She was also obsessive about exercise or not exercising at all. There was no moderation with her diet or exercise. The message I got was being fat is very unattractive and no man will want me if I am fat.

When I was twelve I tried out for cheerleading and didn’t make it. I have always wondered if it was because I was a little overweight. It made me not want to try out for anything physical like volleyball or swim team.

If you haven’t already done so get yourself a journal or notebook to record your thoughts as you go through these lessons. In the first entry of your journal answer the above questions. It helps to see why we developed bad eating habits. When you are ready, go on to lesson 2.