Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin Psy.D, psychoanalyst, author and speaker is specialized in weight, body image and disordered eating, with a successful clinical practice in Los Angeles.
We had an interview with this remarkable lady also available in New York !
Dr Nina, how can a psychoanalyst help you overcome eating issues?
As strange as it may seem, eating issues are not about food. People turn to food for many reasons: for comfort, distraction, to fill an empty space, for celebration, and more.
As a psychoanalyst, I help people identify what is eating “at” them instead of focusing on what they are eating. Often, those reasons are hidden but powerful.
For example, my patient Jenna thought she was addicted to ice cream. She had been watching TV after a good day at work and suddenly Ben & Jerry’s was calling her name.
Nothing was wrong. Everything seemed fine. Yet she could not stop thinking about ice cream. Since she was not eating for emotional reasons, she thought this was proof that she was addicted to ice cream.
I asked her what TV show she had been watching. “Charmed,” she said, “my favorite show.”
When I inquired what the episode was about, she said, “Oh, it’s the one where the devil comes down and the sisters start fighting and everything gets very contentious—“
At that point she stopped abruptly. “Oh my gosh, I get it,” she said.
As it turned out, the TV show she was watching about sisters who were fighting had activated some painful and difficult feelings about her own sister. Before she realized she was anxious, she turned to ice cream for comfort and distraction.
If we had focused on her “addiction” to ice cream, we would have completely missed the real problem, which was her unresolved relationship to her sister.
When you understand what is going on inside, and cultivate new ways of responding to yourself, you create new habits that eventually feel as familiar and comfortable as the old ones.
If you automatically turn to food when you’re upset, you can learn new ways to comfort yourself. It takes time, but it is possible if you put your mind to it.
You have a personal experience of disordered eating yourself?
When I was five years old I developed an obsession with my thighs. I truly thought that if my legs were thinner, I’d be perfect. And I was a perfectly normal weight child.
And my obsession got worse as I grew older. Every night my last thought was, “What did I eat today?” I fell asleep counting calories and fat grams. I calculated every bite and sip, wondering if I’d lose weight by the next morning or gain it. The scale was my most welcome friend and my biggest enemy.
I kept a journal and every page was filled numbers of calories and my weight. When I hiked with friends, I focused on how many calories I was burning instead of how much fun I was having. I would stop eating, then eventually binge.
I was thin, but in a constant state of anxiety. Eventually I began therapy and I was open with my therapist about every aspect of my life – except one.
I never told her what was going on with food. I went once a week for three years and NEVER talked about my eating disorder. I was too ashamed to tell anyone, even my therapist.
As therapy progressed, I became more aware of my emotions. I learned to process those emotions, rather than deny them. I began talking to myself in a supportive way, instead of criticizing myself. By the time I left therapy, I no longer engaged in any eating disorder behavior. Not once did I reveal to my therapist what was going on with food.
How was this possible?
My disordered eating was a symptom of the actual problem, which was my harsh relationship with myself. When I changed that, everything with food changed, too.
You may be wondering why I suddenly wanted to be thinner at the age of five. When I was a child, I was told that I was too loud, too emotional, too sensitive, and generally too much to handle. That sense of being “too much” was unconsciously translated into being literally too much.
So, I know from experience what it’s like to struggle with this issue, and I also know that you can completely change your relationship to food, and there is hope.
You were very successful from the start of your practice?
Yes, I was. I was fortunate to have helpful mentors who helped me during my training. When I was in graduate school, I met a psychoanalyst who said that if you are doing something you do not want to do (such as eating too much) or not doing something you want to do (such as dieting), that there was a reason for that needed to be understood.
I was very drawn to this idea, which is actually a psychoanalytic principle. I find it very compelling because it takes away the shame. So many people who struggle with food also feel terrible about themselves, because they think they lack willpower, but it is not about that.
They have to figure out why they are eating, instead of focusing on food. This is what I help people to do.
When I first started out, I heard from many who told me that they had struggled with their weight for years, sometimes decades, and with my approach they finally were able to make changes.
This is what inspired me to reach a wider audience through my blog, podcast, web series and online program. I want to give that help and relief to as many people as I can.
Your method is very different from your colleagues?
I am a psychoanalyst and there are not too many analysts who specialize in food, weight and body image issues. In the field of eating disorders, there is a lot of attention on the brain, with researchers looking for some genetic cause for eating issues, or pointing to brain chemistry as proof that certain food is addictive. The problem is that this research leaves out the fact that in addition to our brains, we also have minds, and one impacts the other. I write about this a great deal in my upcoming book, titled Food For Thought.
Many types of therapy focus on symptom relief as the main goal. That’s fine, but such relief is often temporary. As a psychoanalyst, I certainly want people to feel better, but I also recognize that there is something deeper going on that needs to be recognized and worked through. As every gardener knows, pulling out a weed is not a permanent solution – you have to dig out the root to get rid of it for good. The problem is not the weed, but the root that grows it. Similarly the “weed” is the symptom that brings people into treatment, and can only be permanently relieved by getting to the root.
So, just as with my patient who thought she was addicted to ice cream, it is essential to figure out why people turn to food, instead of focusing on what they are eating.
Those roots might be thoughts and feelings that people do not want to think, but which get expressed in their behavior. For example, a person who is lonely and deprived might turn to food as a way of filling an empty heart. Alternatively, she may restrict food, depriving herself of food to express how deprived she feels of people and connection.
As a psychoanalyst, my goal is to go beyond crisis resolution and do what I sometimes call “emotional gardening” to get rid of the true, underlying problem. When people make peace with themselves, they are able to make peace with food for good. And that is how they win the diet war.
We, in the USA, tend toward excess, whether it is eating too much, or shopping and spending too much. What drives people to compulsive behaviors?
It is different for each individual person, but these compulsive behaviors are all ways of trying to resolve problems or conflicts through behavior.
Sometimes, bingeing on food or spending too much money can express what is missing in your life. Many expressions utilize food metaphors to describe a feeling of yearning. Hungry for love. Starving for attention.
Loneliness can feel like emptiness, and food symbolically fills the void.
If you feel sad and in need of comfort but nobody is there to console you, you may turn to food to provide a feeling of comfort.
If you are in an unsatisfying relationship, you might turn to food to satisfy your unmet needs.
If you’re in a situation you can’t control, you may focus on your powerlessness over food instead of feeling powerless about the situation.
By getting in touch with what you want more of in your life, and working through those root issues, you will stop using food (or anything else) as a way of dealing with deprivation.
Why did you once tell your daughter she could eat as much Halloween candy as she wanted?
I allow my daughter to eat whatever candy she wants, which means she decides whether or not she really wants it. And you know what? Typically, she eats a couple of pieces, and throws the rest away a few days later.
How is this possible?
When you do not feel deprived, you are less likely over-do it. In contrast, if you are told you cannot have something, you will likely want more and more of it.
The day after Halloween, one of my daughter’s friends came over for a play date. Layla’s parents only allowed her to eat two pieces of Halloween candy a day, so that she would not eat too much sugar, which is bad for the teeth and creates hyperactivity.
All good reasons, this made Layla wish for what she could not have. So, when she came to our house, she ate way too much. Since she thought she would not be able to have it at home, she binged on candy at our house.
The anticipation of deprivation makes you want something more. This is why diets ultimately do not work, because they are about deprivation. Also, they put the focus on what you are eating, instead of why.
Tell us about your award-winning blog, podcast and videos.
My blog is called Make Peace With Food, my podcast is called Win The Diet War with Dr. Nina, and my web series is The Dr. Nina Show: Lose Weight Without Dieting.
All my online offerings help people deal with the underlying emotions, conflicts and issues that lead to having an unhealthy, unhappy relationship to food. I help readers, listeners and viewers to lose weight without dieting by identifying and changing what is causing them to overeat, rather than focusing on what they are eating.
Your online program is called “Kick The Diet Habit.” What is it about?
Kick The Diet Habit is a 30-day solution for people who want to lose weight without dieting. I offer five modules to help people crack the code to emotional eating.
There are 30 videos and most importantly, I offer action plans for each video. That way, subscribers are not just learning about something, they are actually taking action to make changes. Plus, they have access to me in my secret Facebook group just for my subscribers. In 30 days, you will:
• Spend less time counting calories, fat grams and carbs and more time doing the things you love
• Feel completely differently about your body
• Have all the tools you need to make sure that weight stays off for good
If you are fed up with dieting and ready for a new approach, Kick The Diet Habit will change your life.
What about the “7 Keys To Break Free From Binge Eating”?
Lots of people know there’s definitely more to weight loss than willpower, but they don’t know what else to do. That’s why I created “The 7 Keys To BREAK FREE
from Binge Eating.” It is a mini-program is designed specifically to help you discover and change what’s eating “at” you instead of focusing on what you’re eating.
When you unlock those seven keys, you will see changes in the way you eat, and even more importantly, the way you feel.
Each year in the spring people, particularly women, try to lose weight for the summer. What is your advice to them?
Summer means barbecues, pool parties, beach parties, and more. That translates into wearing a swimsuit and lots of food. This causes anxiety for many people, men as well as women. However, it is possible to get through the summer without obsessing about food, weight and body image.
As I noted earlier, the anticipation of deprivation only makes you want something more. So, if you’re trying to be “good” and not eat hamburgers, chips, ice cream or whatever, then you’re constantly thinking about food while you’re at parties, instead of connecting with people and having fun.
Keep in mind that there are two reasons that people eat too much – physical and psychological. If you do not eat enough, you will get so hungry that once you start eating, you cannot stop. That is why it is so important to eat regularly so that you do not get to the point of being ravenous.
Psychological eating is when you eat for comfort or distraction, and that serves as a form of self-soothing.
Make sure that you are not eating to get away from your own critical voice. Do you ever say things like:
“My thighs are huge.”
“Look at the flab on my stomach.”
If that’s familiar, you’re engaging in fat talk. The way you talk about yourself affects the way you feel about yourself, and that can lead to overeating or bingeing.
Remember that you’re so much more than what you look like. Put a moratorium on discussing body size and shape.
Stop talking about your size. Try it, just for today. If you couldn’t say anything bad about your body, what else would be on your mind?
Perhaps you’d think about problems with friends or be worried about your kids, your job, or something else. It is easier to worry about your weight than to feel anxious, dissatisfied or upset.
Fat talk keeps you turning on yourself and distracting from other difficult thoughts and emotions that need your attention.
Fat talk keeps you in a toxic and cruel relationship with yourself, and distracts you from your true self. Losing weight takes time, but you can drop the fat talk in no time! You can start today and you will feel better, and better about yourself.
You have a successful clinical practice in Los Angeles. Interested readers in New York can contact you?
I have followers and subscribers in 18 countries across the world, and I am thrilled to have people from New York to join my community. Interested readers can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.