As a slightly chubby 9-year-old, I swam on my local team, and regularly won blue ribbons.
But I didn’t feel like a winner.
Despite my swimming ability, one morning the swim coach singled me out to do exercises in front of the team, because he thought I was fat.
The kids teased me, calling me “tank,” and I was humiliated beyond belief.
After practice that day, I waited until the swim coach went into the snack bar, and I followed him.
He was not the boss of me.
While he waited for his cheeseburger, I loudly ordered five candy bars. Then, I sat and ate them defiantly, while I scowled at the coach, daring him to say anything.
Really, I was scared.
While that incident had a horrible effect on my self-esteem, it also did something more insidious. It stirred up fear in me – fear that I would have to give up my beloved treats. And the feeling of deprivation took root.
Mom put me on a diet.
My coach wasn’t the only one concerned about my weight. My mother was worried, too. She put me on my first diet soon after I turned 10. It was called the “all protein” diet.
Unfortunately for me, my sister was not put on a diet, and so my mother continued to buy her Scooter Pies. I felt so much shame when I secretly ate them all. I envied my sister and felt profoundly ugly, unworthy, and deprived.
I tell this story because that little deprived girl still lives in me. And for many years I let her make my food choices.
I simply couldn’t say no to her.
I didn’t want this little girl in me to hurt anymore, but until recently the only way I knew to soothe her sadness and rage was to feed her whatever she wanted.
But she was killing me.
When I became morbidly obese, that little girl was in full control of me, and her food and lifestyle choices were obviously detrimental to my health.
After my weight loss surgery, I knew I would have to make peace with that girl, or I would not succeed.
So, I am learning to say no to her with compassion.
Saying no to that little girl is not easy, even now. But I know that to let her control my food choices is crazy. I remind myself all the time that children are not meant to parent themselves.
So, I have created an image of an adult in my head, who talks to that little child and keeps her in check. It helps me when I remember to do it. And it might help you.
Here are some other tips to help you learn to say no to yourself (and your own hungry inner child).
1) Understand the connection to your past. Spend 15 minutes identifying a few experiences from your childhood that shaped how you behave with food today. Get a clear picture in your mind of the little child you were.
Then, get out some crayons and draw a picture of the little child in you who is defiant and hurting — and hungry.
2) Reassure your inner child. Visualize a conversation with your inner child. Let her know you are going to take care of her now by setting loving limits, instead of by overfeeding her to keep her quiet.
In your visualization, hold her hand, chuckle warmly at her objections, and feel the power of knowing you won’t let her hurt herself through destructive eating.
3) Start small. Saying no to yourself is a habit you will need to develop. So, start saying no to yourself with small things. Maybe say no to staying up late, or to adding a dollop of sour cream to your chili. Even saying no to a larger quantity, by measuring your portions with a food scale, is a great experiment.
Practice having the adult in you reassure your inner child. That inner dialog is critical to changing your thinking — and ending overeating.
Some of you may think these suggestions are silly. Maybe they are. But the reality is if you are overeating, your current strategies are not working.
Do something different.
Sometimes doing something different – even making a crayon drawing – will give you a new perspective and new motivation.
Don’t let that inner child be in charge of your life. Develop your adult persona. Your adult self will steer you away from self-destructive behavior, like ordering five candy bars. Your adult self can set a loving limit and say NO!