Learning to Live Without the Structure of a Diet: What’s the Plan When There is No Plan?
By Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC
Learning to live without the prescribed structure of a diet is a necessary part of working to heal your relationship with food and body. “Planning to not make a plan” is our most basic, bottom line advice for trying to change the well-worn cycle of an ingrained pattern of body-hating behavior. It makes logical sense but in practice, it’s a really tall order. Frankly, letting go of a plan you have been using to keep yourself in line feels sketchy. Unmoored. At times irresponsible. It is certainly in direct conflict with our dieting culture (and maybe conflict isn’t your bag).
We do need some trust-building time for ourselves, free of food prescription, to begin to move towards our own wisdom and away from the outside voices. The dieting mind is full of deprivation and fear based thoughts and it takes some time to sort through all those beliefs that were probably not even yours to begin with. You can trust your own voice. Letting go of dieting is a major pendulum swing – at first. But, over time, it can settle into something with a lot more ease and predictability.
In a group session recently, we talked about this. What do you DO when you aren’t planning to measure, weigh or otherwise judge your own goodness based on your behavior with food anymore? How do you build trust with a body (and a self) that has swallowed a lot of blame and “failure” messages over the years? The people in our group were pretty scared about letting go of the plan that diets have provided, especially when sticking to the rules was the thing that had reassured them they were doing okay (even if it was always short-lived & temporary).
Why is the plan such a problem?
It is the thing you are using to try to save you from your flawed, imperfect self. And you are not the problem. It instills artificial, false hope when you think you aren’t adequate enough. You deserve to know who you are without the plan.
What feels bad is the story that you aren’t good enough to live up to your own expectations, your own dreams for your life, your own desire to feel more like yourself. It feels bad to not know how to care for yourself EXACTLY how you would like to be cared for. There is no diet plan or strategy that can give you that. Being able to pull off a plan is not going to heal your tired, distrustful relationship with your body. Nobody else can prescribe a set of rules that will allow you to show up with yourself in a way that builds trust, self-love and tolerance for your own flawed, imperfect humanity.
In fact, the only “plan” that will really sink into you and make sense is your own, sourced from your wisest inner voice. Radical self-care is what we call it. You can call it whatever you want.
Letting go can feel like stepping off into an abyss, with great distrust about where you will land. Will I gain weight without a plan? Maybe. Will I be able to loosen myself from the bullying inner critic that will be unleashed in the absence of a plan? Yes, it’s certainly possible. Will I like myself on the other side of this struggle? Yes, we think so (because we already do.)
The thing is, there is discomfort either way you turn. Hating your body all the time while cycling in and out of hope that it will get better if you do better is exhausting and full of conditions instead of self-love. Learning to sit in the anxiety that usually has you running scared and numbing is daunting but is not more pain than you have already born. Trust that underneath the anxiety and distrust, you are knowledgeable about how to take good care of yourself. You have a wise inner voice. It is waiting to be heard. It is wants to lead.
I want to share what my own radical self-care practices look like right now (and they change all the time). They happen “most of the time”, but not “all of the time”. They stick because I am committed to not going back to striving and distrust of my very being. I change it up all the time, based on what my body needs.
Trigger warning: These are my commitments to myself to fend off body shame and obsession, to heal my relationship with my self and my body, and to enjoy my life. This is not a recommendation to follow my plan, but an example of how to turn radical self-care into a practice, based on my unique life circumstances.
- I remind myself it’s not going to be pretty. My commitment is to no longer have my sense of self-worth inflated because I’m sticking to a plan.
- I find a minimum of one minute to go inward once a day and see how I feel. Some days are delicious and I get way more time. Some days, one minute is a major win.
- I go to bed earlier than I want to.
- I trust what my body wants to eat and try to meet the truth it presents as often as possible. For my appetite, this means making time to access and prepare foods that aren’t always convenient. This is my devotion and my practice. This means I am frequently disappointed by the truth of what I really want or how much hunger I have. I believe my body is wiser than my head most of the time regarding nourishment.
- I watch my reactions to social media and move away from it when the scarcity thinking in our culture invades my own thought process (ex. comparison, not good enough, jealousy).
- I make time to read books (which has been one of the loves of my life). I laugh a lot.
- When I want to shut down, I try to say something to someone. Even if it pains my introverted nature.
- I do not expect to go it alone. I rely on my therapist, naturopath, and energy workers to help me care for my body in its complex manifestation of my story. I look for and listen to wise, brave truth tellers because it is medicinal for me.
- I accept that I am tougher on myself than the world is, often times. Thus, I don’t believe everything I think.
- I practice boundaries (imperfectly) that allow me to not give my life-energy away.
- I move my body a few times a week. I make sure it’s pleasant because I have resistance to doing it almost every time. And I like it a lot.
- I challenge the internalized shame that keeps me from doing all of this for myself by showing up, allowing for vulnerability and taking risks. I accept fear as part of the process. I let go of expectations all the time.
When I am not doing these things I do more striving and hustling for my own sense of worthiness. Numbing, anger and shame take over. No plan or diet is going to help these feelings; in fact they are more likely to amplify them. This structure is one that I made for myself, after letting dieting die and allowing my own truth to guide the making of the structure.
So, this is my plan, right now, as a mama to a three and six year old, the inhabitant of this body, the co-founder of this business, as a life-partner, as a woman approaching 40. It’s not pretty, and I don’t think it was meant to be. I am not my own project anymore. I don’t want someone else’s plan. I have passion projects that feed me instead. I am my own companion, my own intimate partner. My plan now is to treat myself with the interest and gentleness I would a child. I want to communicate this to myself:
You are imperfect. You are unreplicable. You are on a small and deeply meaningful human journey. And that, my dear, is enough.
Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC is a therapist and co-founder of Be Nourished. She encourages conscious and authentic living, with the courage to love yourself anyway.