“Don’t think about a pink elephant.”
You’re probably thinking about a pink elephant now, right? This is a classic example of how telling ourselves not to think about something is completely ineffective. Especially when it comes to food, trying to put too much emphasis on not doing something — whether that means not eating a certain type of food, not counting calories, or not worrying about the size/shape of our bodies — doesn’t help very much.
So, what does help?
Avoiding negative thoughts is impossible unless we replace them with positive, productive ones.
Important disclaimer: In the process of healing our relationship with food, we can’t simply “not ever think about food.” We do need to put in dedicated time and effort toward self-examination so we can understand what it is about our relationship with food that is harmful, what it is in our lives that led us to a harmful relationship with food, and which of our needs we were hoping to meet by focusing on food. This process is essential if we have any hope of true healing. However, this isn’t something that requires constant effort, and nor does it require 24/7 attention. There are times when we need to focus on food, and times when we benefit from not thinking about food. This post is about the latter.
A little background…
In Luke 11, Jesus shares a story about a house that was inhabited by demons. The owner realizes the problem, casts out the demons, cleans up the house, and leaves again. But he made a grave error in that he didn’t set up protections for the house, filling it instead with good things. His cleaning actually ended up creating an even more suitable environment for unwelcome spirits, who moved right back in. We read,
“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”Luke 11:24-26
When we are working on cleaning out the harmful behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs in our hearts and minds, it isn’t sufficient just to try to empty ourselves; we need to instead fill ourselves up with positive, productive things. The best way to effectively overcome a negative obsession is to replace it with something positive.
Choose A New Pursuit
If you’re struggling in your relationship with food, it probably consumes a huge portion of your waking consciousness. Obsessing over food is like a full-time job or a dedicated hobby. Except it’s not a job, because there’s zero payoff; and it’s not a hobby, because there’s nothing pleasurable about it. So the solution to losing valuable time and energy in harmful thoughts about food is to replace those thoughts with something else.
During my own recovery, music because a really important part of my life. It wasn’t just something fun to do, it was something that helped me heal. Music never became a professional pursuit, and I never gained a following for it. In fact, very few people know how much time I actually invested into it. However, I owe a huge part of who I am today to the fact that I once poured my whole heart into learning, writing, and playing music.
I started by teaching myself to play the guitar. I spent hours every day watching YouTube videos, looking up chords, and practicing until I felt like my fingers were going to fall off. Sometimes I wonder where I found the time to do that, as I was simultaneously a full-time college student. But honestly, I probably spent less time playing music than I had previously spent obsessing over food.
As I gained skill in music, I started to experiment with it. I began branching out creatively, writing my own songs and recording them on my phone — just for fun. I played at open mic nights. I met friends at those open mic nights and we started playing music together. I offered to lead worship on a mission trip to Nicaragua. I wrote and recorded an album that I sold to raise money for said mission work in Nicaragua. I joined the worship team at my church.
I accrued a long list of meaningful life experiences that were only made possible by cultivating this new hobby. These experiences gave me energy, enjoyment, and confidence in myself. It’s not that I thought I was especially talented or anything, because I’m really pretty amateur when it comes to my skill set. However, learning to play music gave me something worthwhile to invest in. It helped me replace obsessive food thoughts, gave me something to talk about with other people, fostered the development of close friendships, and inspired me to do something meaningful with my time and energy (mission work) rather than waste away alone in my bedroom, obsessing over food. I’m really, really grateful for that.
Eventually, the amount of time I spent writing and playing music dwindled away. I started medical school, I met and married my husband, and life just became all-around busier. But learning about who I was during the season of my life where I focused on music built a foundation for me to move forward into the next season of life in healthy ways.
Be Prepared for the Next Season of Life
Not every transition of my life has been smooth, however. Music wasn’t an end-all-be-all — obviously, as I rarely play anymore. There have been numerous “lulls” when I find myself bored, agitated, and looking for something to cling to as a safeguard. Sometimes I’m tempted to turn to food. But other times, I’m able to settle my heart down, pray through the tension, and consider where God might be calling me next. The hobby you choose today might not carry you through the rest of your life, but it can teach you the coping skills and foster the confidence that will.
Need a hobby? Try these…
- Try a new instrument.
- Pick up painting. Or drawing.
- Write poetry, or prose. Or a book. Or a memoir!
- Learn a new language (This isn’t as extreme as it sounds. I taught myself Spanish in 2015.)
- Hand lettering
- Redecorate your house
- Start a blog!
- Organize everything
- Take up gardening
- Experiment with a new sport
- Study history. This podcast is awesome. And free!
- Read the bible front-to-back. Or this book.
- Go back to school. (This also isn’t as extreme as it sounds. It’s never too late.)
- Join a book club.
- Origami. This is a major throwback to childhood, but it’s extremely cathartic!
- What else would you add to this list?