In our continuing series of interviews of people we admire for their work to help women who struggle with eating, exercise and body image, I’m happy to present Ellen Shuman, founder and director of A Weigh Out Life Coaching Programs, Acoria Eating Disorder Treatment, and WellCentered Life Coaching.
Welcome to A Weight Lifted. We’re so pleased to feature you in an e-interview. Let’s start with explaining the type of work you do.
Thanks for asking. As a longtime admirer of the work you do at Green Mountain, I was honored to be included in this series!
For the past 20 years I’ve been working one-to-one with people as an Emotional and Binge Eating Recovery Coach. I do that work with people worldwide, by telephone. From 1993 to 2005 I was also the director and program developer for an outpatient treatment center that I started in Ohio. We specialized in treating Binge Eating Disorder.
That was back before people knew much about Binge Eating as an eating disorder separate from Bulimia. Those of us in the trenches back then had to be creative; we did research, collaborated with other clinicians, experimented, and learned as we went along.
I also run an online membership program for people struggling with emotional eating issues.
Who are your “typical clients”? What are the common threads that contribute to the struggle with eating that your clients experience? Is it one thing in particular, or lots of things?
While I discovered long ago that there is “no one-size-fits-all” experience or background for people who struggle with emotional eating, there are some common themes I see. My clients use food:
- to self-soothe; often it is their only strategy for self-soothing.
- to disconnect from the moments in their lives they’d rather not tolerate. Most know they’re using “food thoughts”…and then the food… to go “mindless”, whenever they don’t want to be mindful; when they don’t want to think about something, or feel uncomfortable feelings, or follow through with a task they’d rather put off or avoid altogether. But they don’t know what to do instead; what to do to stop the old, well-worn patterns.
- as reward, for example, “I deserve to binge because…”
- Sometimes, food provides the only excitement, or fun, or adventure in their lives today; the only thing they have to look forward to…
- Many of my clients experience “high interpersonal sensitivity”; for example, while a comment or challenging interaction with someone might roll off another person’s back, the person with emotional or binge eating has trouble letting it go. They play it over and over in their head…and then they eat over it.
- People who struggle with emotional or binge eating are often hyper-vigilant in other areas of their lives. So, what feels to them like an inability to “fix” their overeating problem is especially frustrating, confusing, and painful.
- Many have been fighting this all-consuming eating battle for so long, they have lost touch with other wants and needs in life.
Why were you drawn to this work? What is it like working in this area?
I love working with my clients! I consider myself incredibly blessed to get to do the work I do because this work is very personal to me. I started binge eating when I was 5 or 6 years old. My mother had our pediatrician put me on diet pills when I was eight. (My mom had her own body shame issues and no emotional regulation skills whatsoever!)
My tall skinny brother publicly bullied me with fat nicknames, even encouraged his friends to use them, too, until I was about 17.
For a few decades, I cycled between yo-yo dieting and binge eating and went from therapist to therapist before coming to understand what was missing. I didn’t lack willpower or self-control. Holy cow, I had survived my dysfunctional family. I put myself through college. I sent out 188 resumes for my first real job out of college. I was a Peabody and Emmy Award winning journalist. I didn’t lack stick-to-it-iveness! I lacked emotional management tools and I had a brain that had been conditioned to believe that when I had a food thought, I had no choice but to act on it.
But that was not true…it took years before I came to understand that.
What people who habitually turn to food actually need are new emotional management skills, what I call “emotional handrails”, coupled with a better understanding of how the “Emotion-Action Systems” in the brain keep us feeling STUCK. People need tools to help them override that FIGHT, FLIGHT, or FREEZE feeling that comes over them; when their brain tells them they MUST eat or they won’t survive the moment.
In years past, the role of the brain in those stressful moments was not fully understood. So, when a person sought professional help, instead of getting useful emotional handrails, they got simplistic old advice like “rather than eat the cookies, why not take a walk around the block or relax in a hot bubble bath?” (Attention all Health Care Professionals: such advice infuriates most emotional eaters!)
Today, I get to help people understand why they’re struggling. I get to teach them what’s happening in the brain. I can shorten that learning curve and help curtail their pain sooner. What a gift that is…and, to be honest, when I look back it makes all I went through with my own binge eating disorder more tolerable. My struggle served a purpose and led me to a calling today…
Is there anything in your work that consistently “turns on the light” for people you work with in regard to eating? In other words, is there anything that you hear regularly that indicates that your clients are truly “getting it”?
The light really turns on when people develop the skill that Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls “Mindsight”.
In his book of the same name, he writes, “Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our mind. It helps us be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them, enables us to get off the autopilot of ingrained behavior and habitual responses, and moves us beyond the reactive emotional loops we all have a tendency to get trapped in.”
He goes on to say that when we learn to step back and look at our own thoughts and feelings with curiosity and respect, rather than with fear and avoidance, we can learn from those thoughts and feelings and, “We can calm them without ignoring them; we can hear their wisdom without being terrified by their screaming voices…”
Couple that powerful awareness with new skills that make that mindsight possible and amazing things happen!
How has your work changed over the years? How do you see the “industry” of food, self-care, and exercise changing?
The field of neuroscience; our understanding of neurochemistry and experimental psychology, which deal with the structure and function of the nervous system and brain, has exploded in the last 10 years or so. We’re now beginning to understand how and why people get stuck in destructive habit loops and what to do to help them replace those old habits with new healthier ones.
This new knowledge has changed how I work with people. It has brought me new strategies and tools to help people get UNSTUCK. That applies to behavioral change with food, exercise, and self-care. I find these new discoveries very exciting!
Describe the most rewarding professional experience you’ve had in the past year.
It’s not one, it has been many. Nothing beats the feeling I get when a client wraps up our work together because they no longer need me. They have changed their lives; stop obsessing about food and weight, they’re living healthier lives; emotionally, physically, nutritionally, and spiritually.
They have decluttered their lives in more ways than one. Their relationships have improved.
They’re now in touch with their wants and needs and are out there getting those met. No more living life on the sidelines waiting to “fix” this problem. It’s very rewarding to see!
What are some of the unexpected challenges of your job?
Not really unexpected after doing this work for decades, but it’s still challenging to watch someone struggle to be present; struggle to tolerate their own thoughts and feelings.
I know it sounds dramatic, but in those moments when a person feels they MUST act on a food thought, their primitive brain is telling them that if they don’t eat immediately, if they stay present and FEEL, they won’t be able to tolerate the moment. Even when a person knows, intellectually, that nothing terrible will happen if they decide to pass on the donut, it feels intolerable to NOT turn to that food.
When that struggle continues, I sometimes see the person go back to believing weight loss, alone, will make them happy. Unconsciously, it’s as if they’re thinking, “If I don’t want to feel my feelings, I’ll shift my attention back to feeling fat instead…and then, I can just lose some weight and everything will be better. I’ll feel better.”
Really? What really changes in a person’s internal and external world with weight loss except that maybe it’s easier to buy clothes? Still, the weight loss fantasy prevails, “If I could just lose weight, I’d be happy.” And when the next new diet fails, the person ends up feeling even more defeated and desperate.
As a Coach, I have learned that, sometimes, a person just needs to diet one more time. That said, it is still challenging to watch…knowing the pain that lies ahead…
What do you wish everyone knew about food, exercise and self-care?
Resistance to healthier eating, regular exercise, and consistent self-care may have a common root.
Here’s what I mean. If I’m having difficulty tolerating feelings and I’m having trouble being present in the moments of my life, I’m going to find it tough to tolerate all the work that goes into buying and preparing healthy food. I may not want to be that connected and mindful.
It may feel threatening to exercise because when I move my body, I start to feel fully-alive, again…and I don’t want to feel, anything…
Self-care-wise, when I take good care of my teeth, and skin, and I keep up with my laundry, and clean my house, that’s a lot of work! In the past, I thought it was easier to just go numb; to ignore self-care and exercise and healthy food prep. I’d binge-watch movies and order a pizza, instead.
I was mistaken, of course. Taking good care of myself is so much easier than living with the pain of a binge eating disorder. I learned that, one small step at a time.
What do you want our readers to know about you and the work you do? Where else can our readers find you?
More than anything, I want people to know that they can overcome emotional eating and/or a binge eating disorder. While recovery work is most certainly focused and sometimes difficult work, it is so worth the rewards! Think about it. No one was born to be a binge eater. We practiced binge eating until we became good at it! Same can be said in regard to learning new emotional regulation skills and tools. People can practice those, too, and develop new ways to feel comfortable in their own skin!
My website is www.AWeighOut.com. I invite anyone who’s reading this to listen in to the Free Phone Seminar I offer all about recovery from emotional and binge eating. If interested, you’ll find upcoming dates and can register here, http://bit.ly/28PmQ6h.
If any of your readers have questions or think I can be of assistance, they are welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.