A New Year’s Resolution is for life, not just for January.

In October of 2018, I started life coaching with Clare, a magazine publisher with a great turn of phrase. ‘I have issues with food,’ she told me, ‘and it has got to the time of year when I traditionally lose what little self-control I have. I need someone who will support and challenge me to make changes. I don’t have a relationship that can do this.”

The next twelve months had to be different for Clare – the period of time she had given herself. Despite a great deal of fear, she was amazed at being sat in front of someone like me. ‘This year can be different because I’ve never done this before.’

What had changed? ‘Boredom. I am so bored with who I am.’ Who Clare was, her identity, was inextricably bound up with food.

Identity Trap

I asked Clare if ‘Identity Trap’ captured something for her. The phrase clearly resonated. She asked me what I understood by the term and I talked about how our sense of self can define how we think, behave and feel. Identity Trap is a concept I use a lot, especially when it comes to food.

‘How does an identity trap happen?’ Clare asked. Any thoughts? I replied.

What unfolded was a family history that had food at the heart of it. Clare described an 80s upbringing of dinnertimes accompanied by judgemental stares about weight gain. ‘It was perverse. My clearly unhappy mother couldn’t wait for me and my sister to go to bed so she could stuff her face. But she couldn’t be the only one who got fat. You understand?’

Holiday periods were opportunities for ‘medieval feasting and self-abandonment’ especially at Christmas. ‘That’s when my father left,’ said Clare. ‘I was 7. He went through the motions of keeping in touch, but it didn’t last long. Food was how I coped.’

Refusing support: an epiphany

‘Do you know when I first attended Weight Watchers? When I was 14 years old!’ By this time, Clare’s mother had done a spectacular U-turn. ‘My mother became a fat-ist. It was judgement, just in a different form.’

The concept of ‘Identity Trap’ caused an epiphany for Clare. It helped her to see that who someone is and what they do are not always in harmony. ‘My behaviour goes to Weight Watchers, but I stay at home,’ sighed Clare with the type of relief that comes with greater understanding.

‘Is that why I resist my partner’s offer of support to lose weight?’ Clare elaborated on this insight. ‘The Weight Watchers queue,’ she said, ‘the humiliation. If I got fatter, I could continue to punish my mother. Her efforts to help – this is what I was punishing.’ Clare saw the pattern that had been established, a pattern that explained why she always dismissed her partner’s offers of support.

Fighting old food battles

In coaching, Clare learnt more about her resentment at having to invest in her health and wellbeing. Holidays were when she could truly rebel and stick two fingers up at those ‘making’ her eat sensibly. As Clare recalled in one coaching session: “When you asked me ‘Who are these people?’ it really hit me hard. Looking back, there were people who obsessed about my weight, especially my mother. The crazy thing is that while she is long gone in one sense, she is alive and kicking in another. In my imagination.”

Clare’s New Year’s Resolutions were taken on out of bitterness, their ‘inevitable abandonment celebrated with misplaced triumph.’ Realising that she was still fighting old battles proved to be a turning point.

It’s good to be challenged

Clare and I met once a month for a year. In between sessions, I gave her plenty of coaching activities to work through. The activities focused on changing Clare’s thoughts, behaviours and emotions connected to food. As a form of support, life coaching is deliberately challenging, and Clare really appreciated being challenged by me. “Mark was clear that it was a question of when I succeeded rather than if. I needed the challenge posed by his certainty.”

In our final coaching session on October 2rd 2019, Clare talked about the holiday she’d recently taken in Pembrokeshire. “I took my lifestyle into it without missing a step. I know now that as Christmas and the New Year approach, I will do the same. Last year, I am ashamed to admit, I bought two new suits for work because I ate so much. I can’t tell you how good it feels to know that I won’t ever do that again.”

My advice is talk to someone like a life coach, someone you don’t know and who won’t judge you. Find out why you neglect yourself using food because there will be a reason. And don’t divide your year into four dietary seasons. Winter for feasting; spring for denial; summer for wearing oversized clothing; and autumn dread as the Christmas holidays approach.

A New Year’s Resolution is for life, not just for January.”

Getting support

Every person has their own, unique relationship with food. At Conversations With Impact, using a variety of approaches tailored specifically to an individual’s eating problems, we help our clients like Clare to overcome issues, such as overeating, so they can improve the quality of both their life and health.

If you or someone you know would like to resolve their problem eating, then please get in touch. We have a lot of experience successfully with people to overcome their problem eating.

Read our other blogs: 6 Reasons Why You Still Have a Difficult Relationship With Food

You can also get more information on the relationship with food and mental health in this BBC Radio 5 Live programme