Teaching and Practicing Flex-Ability: Wondering Questions about Eating Behaviors

Char WilkinsChar Wilkins, MSW, LCSW, is a mindfulness-based psychotherapist specializing in women’s issues. She is a certified MBSR instructor and trains professionals nationwide in mindfulness modalities,  and is a co-teacher for the upcoming 5-day professional training entitled “Mindful Eating, Conscious Living” offered through the UCSD Center for Mindfulness, October 2-7, 2012 in Petaluma, California at the EarthRise Retreat Center. She will be presenting a teleconference entitled "The Power of Mindfulness for Client and Clinician" through The Center for Mindful Eating on September 12, 2011. For more information, visit the TCME Training and Workshops page.

I hear the word “flexibility” and I think of backbends or Cirque du Soleil or a yoga pose no one should attempt unless it was the only way out of a burning building. When my yoga instructor says to put my right foot forward and left foot back, bend the knees, lift the pelvis and tighten the abs while lowering my chest to the ground as my mind remains relaxed and my hands are in pray position – all the neural connections in my  brain  needed to move my limbs suddenly and completely misfire. As a child I sailed through the Hokey Pokey. What happened?

Back then it was just a matter of flapping my arms and legs and wiggling around. It was fun. As I grew, so did the shoulds, musts and have-tos – as in “I have to get this right.” It all became work. My mind began to tighten around “right.” And if there was a right, there certainly was a wrong – along with good/bad, all/nothing, too much/not enough. “Rigid mortis” had set in.

This is the condition our clients with disordered eating patterns struggle with every day. As professionals we give this way of thinking a variety of names: depression, anxiety, bulimia, resistance, binge eating and so on. But what they tell us is that they feel “stuck” – caught in a seemingly endless cycle that flings them from one extreme to the other.

Of course when someone has their eating “under control” they want it to stay that way, worry that it might change, and are not interested in being flexible about their straight-and-narrow food plan. And when eating behaviors are out of control, patients want you to tell them what to do “right now” to change or stop these habituated patterns.

Those of us in the helping professions may feel we are being pulled, pummeled or manipulated by those we are trying to help, and that may trigger reactive thoughts and feelings for us. Nurturing the middle road is often a challenging practice, for both  clinician and patient. As professionals it is important that we embody flexibility so patients might see that there is life between the highs and lows that is neither unsafe nor dull; it’s simply different from what they’ve known. Flexibility is inherent in mindfulness practice, and just like other aspects of mindfulness, it can be cultivated.

There are many ways to encourage flexibility through the mind and the senses. One way is for the clinician to foster a non-judgmental curiosity about whatever the client brings to a session. Recently a client announced to me that she had failed again because she’d binged after two “good” weeks. She said she knew she was going to binge because work had been “just too awful.” As she drove home she was aware that she was ruminating about what, where and how she’d eat. When she got home she went straight to the freezer for her ice-cream stash. “Why, why, why do I do that?” she agonized.

As a clinician the temptation is to go with her question and wonder with her why she did do that. But the more I sit with people struggling with food, eating – any habit they don’t want – the more I hear The Critic in a “why” question. Why this, why that, why didn’t you, why did you? What I have found is that a question that starts with “why” is usually just a disguise for right or wrong.

I invited her to put both feet on the ground, take a breath in and out, and see if she could notice any sensation on the bottom of her right foot:  the feel of the shoe against her foot, the texture of her sock, a tingling warmth or coolness in her toes. This is a simple way to interrupt a runaway thought-train through the use of physical sensation. It creates a pause during which I can offer what I call a “wondering question.”

Wondering questions use the word “what” rather than “why.” Unlike a wooden yardstick, rigid in its measurements, “what” questions open the heart and help the mind feel more spaciousness in which to consider a more flexible approach.

Setting aside any agenda we might have to help clients see what we see as the best direction allows us to travel with the client rather than be a backseat driver.  In adopting a “what” stance we can inquire in many directions. We might ask what about work turned her mind towards this familiar pattern. What might have been the emotion that drove this behavior, and were there any physical sensations in her body that she noticed? We could wonder what she might have really needed in that moment. What is she experiencing now as she tells this story? What was  it in her that knew she was going to binge? In this way, we help point her to her own inherent wisdom.

Your client may or may not be able to answer these questions in the beginning, but just as a lens can go from a narrow focus to an expanded landscape, you are suggesting that there is another way to be with habitual patterns. You model and offer her the possibility of being curious rather than critical about reactive automatic behavior, and more flexible in responding to difficulty and disappointment.

It’s the all-or-nothing, good-or-bad, right-or-wrong thinking that keeps us and our clients feeling frustrated and helpless. When there are no bad foods, stupid choices or failings, and when compassionate curiosity replaces the critic, then every experience becomes useful rather than something to be ashamed of or gotten rid of. Our clients’ minds and hearts can open and are no longer rigid with fear, and neither are ours.

Char Wilkins, MSW, LCSW, is a mindfulness-based psychotherapist specializing in women’s issues. She is a certified MBSR instructor and trains professionals nationwide in mindfulness modalities. She can be contacted at info@amindfulpath.com.