Why Reward-Based Systems Don't Work For Me As a Food Addict
The other day I treated myself to a much-needed and long-awaited massage (obviously with the masseuse wearing a mask). While I was lying there, I thought about why I’d put this off for so long. My first thought was my finances, as I’ve never made much money. But as pondered the whys, I realized there was also something else much more thought-provoking.
I love touch. It’s my main “love language.” I remember crying at my first massage after my prolonged separation/divorce because I had so little touch in my life after my ex left. I didn’t date much because I wanted to focus on my daughter and my career, so massages were the only lengthy times I got to experience that craved touch. So at first, I easily justified the expense.
Then money got much tighter — and as time passed it got even tighter. My ex stopped paying child support. My daughter and I both had a lot of medical expenses. Massages were now considered a luxury. Even though they still fulfilled a basic need in my book, I wouldn’t schedule them due to other needs I felt had much higher priority.
Several times through the years when I decided to try once again to lose weight, I decided I could kill two birds with one stone — making that desired massage a reward for losing x-number of pounds.
But the thing was… I was never able to get that reward.
Not once, over the course of many years.
Even though it was one of my most enjoyed self-care elements and it fulfilled a need that nothing else could at the time, it never happened. I wanted a massage so badly. So why could I accomplish so much in life, but never could make myself lose even a little weight in order to get something I so desperately desired?
Since then, I’ve learned so much about why. I realized I’m a food addict/compulsive overeater. One of the main tenets of addiction is that no amount of willpower and no punishment/reward in and of itself will provide lasting change. So that was one reason why I could never get to that place.
But somehow I felt there was more involved.
Fast forward to this past weekend… lying on that table, thinking about all this. I recognized there was more involved in this issue that just being an addict didn’t include. Then I had the thought, “I’m glad I did this, even though I haven’t lost weight or done anything to deserve it.”
The lightbulb went off — I didn’t “need” to do anything to “deserve” it.
The real reason I didn’t get a massage during those lean years was I didn’t feel worthy of spending time and money on myself. I could have come up with the money to pay for it if I really wanted. I thought I had to perform (which, in this situation, meant losing weight) to justify the time and expense… to make myself “worthy.”
One huge struggle during my addiction recovery journey is I’m loved the way I am. Though I am trying to recognize that who I am isn’t defined by what I do, I still don’t believe it in my heart.
Every time I fail, there’s more shame… there’s more heartache… there’s more confirmation I’ll never be able to do this (recover and reach a reasonable weight). Every time I lose a reward I set up for myself these feelings are magnified and flood over me — and I feel even less worthy.
In fact, using punishment when I fail doesn’t help because it’s what I already think I deserve… all the time. I am so full of ever-present shame because I got myself into this mess that I punish myself daily — even when I’m experiencing success in my recovery battle. That punishment takes many forms, but mostly it’s by things like not buying clothes that look good on me because I feel I don’t deserve to have them. (I also feel I don’t deserve to be happy — possibly one reason for my overwhelming depression — but that’s something to ponder more later.)
However, what I realized is maybe I need to do those types of activities because I already am worthy… even if I’m not able to obtain one full day of abstinence from my eating addiction, even if I’m not successful at my career at the moment and even if I feel like no matter how hard I try, I’ll never make a difference in this world.
I am worth spending time and money and effort on myself because I am me… and I don’t need another reason.
Another awareness from this idea is that maybe I’ve had it wrong all these years (actually, I know I’ve had it all wrong all these years — this is what got me into this mess). I’ve had it backward.
Part of the reason I am so overweight is due to not feeling I am worth enough to put the time, effort and money into eating in a healthy way and exercising regularly. So feeling worthy enough to treat myself to a massage when I need it could be a big reminder that I’m also worthy enough to work the 12-steps and do everything else included in eating disorder recovery.
Then one day, chances are good that abstinence will come — not because I used rewards when I lost a few pounds or punished myself by not allowing myself nice things (like good clothes) when I didn’t. But because I learned my worthiness doesn’t come from performance.
And though my plan is to continue on this lifelong journey of recovery, I must remember that even if I never reach my goal weight… I am worthy no matter what.
Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash