Many troubled eaters believe that they have to struggle alone. They think it’s silly to join a group of folks who’ve yet to figure out how to be normal eaters. ‘How can they help me’, they wonder, ‘if they still have food problems?’ Or they’re embarrassed to share their vulnerabilities about food, weight and body image, fearing to be shamed or not taken seriously. The truth is that if you’re having difficulty improving your eating on your own, a group might be the very thing that gets you unstuck and helps you reach your goals.
All groups are not created equal, however, so when you’re support group shopping, consider this advice.
Look for a group that meets at a time that’s convenient for you. You might not consider time important, but it is. You don’t want to give yourself any opportunities to say you can’t make group because it interferes with some other aspect of your life like work or family obligations. Think long and hard about whether a group fits well with your schedule.
Seek a group that’s in a convenient location. Again, you want to avoid any barriers that will prevent you from going to meetings regularly. If you have to travel far out of your way to get to a support group—no matter how great it is when you get there—you’ll be less likely to attend in bad weather or when you’re tired or extremely busy.
Check out what members have to say about the group. Ask if you can talk with a few of them to get a sense of what they like and dislike about meetings and how much they’ve been helped. Get a wide sampling and feel free to ask any questions that would help you make the best decision for yourself. Know what your criteria are ahead of time, so you can ask the right questions.
Expect that it will take a bit of time to feel comfortable in the group. If you join assuming that people are going to be your instant best buds, you’ll probably be disappointed. Recognize that it may take awhile for members to accept you as the new kid on the block, especially if they’ve been meeting for a long time. Be patient getting to know them and having them get to know you.
Look for a group which has a leader and learn about her or his credentials beforehand. Having lost weight is not a great criteria for leadership. Look for someone who has excellent interpersonal and group skills, understands the psychology of eating and weight loss, and recognizes that what worked for her or him might not work for other people. Inquire about a leader’s background, training, education, and years of experience running similar groups.
Select a group that focuses on empowering, not shaming you. Ask if you can sit in on a meeting to get a feel for it and be sure to read the rules or guidelines of the group if there are any. Pay attention to how members talk to each other and how the group is run. Ask yourself, ‘Would I feel comfortable talking about my food, weight or body image problems here?’
Recognize that merely attending a group isn’t going to change your eating, but that the work you do in it will make the difference. If you’re shy, take this into account and consider how much you’ll be willing to share. If you always like to be center stage and have an audience, realize that this dynamic is frowned on in well run groups. Make sure you’re up for the challenge of stretching yourself.
Seek a psycho-educational group which will both give you support and teach you new skills. Understanding the psychological underpinnings of your eating will teach you how to sustain motivation, why you make the food choices you do, how to manage your emotions without heading for the fridge, and ways to manage life problems which are standing in the way of your becoming a normal eater.
Rushing into signing a long-term contract and paying a lot of money upfront is not in your long-term best interest. Inquire if there’s a probationary period for you to give the group a trial run so you can find out if it’s a good fit. Of course, not all groups will allow this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Don’t talk yourself out of joining a group because you might be uncomfortable. Bulletin: there is no change without discomfort. Keep an open mind and give it a fair shot (several sessions) before deciding that it’s not your cup of tea. And remember, just because one group isn’t right for you, doesn’t mean another one won’t be.
It’s okay for a session or two to sit back and get the lay of the land—notice the dynamics and the informal group structure, check out who’s who and how people talk about problems and solutions. Notice how much is shared and how much isn’t. Once you get the hang of sharing, jump in.
Avoid helping group members and ignoring your own reasons for being there. Many people with eating problems are wonderful helpers to others because they’re more comfortable in this role than in discussing their own problems. Sure, you want to give support to others, but your goal in the group is to resolve your eating problems.
In any group, feathers will get ruffled. In a well run group, a leader knows how to handle these situations so that members learn from them. Moreover, it’s often the times you get upset about what someone says to or about you that you learn the most about yourself. Make an effort to be open to advice and suggestions even when someone is offering honest feedback about your eating that is painful to hear.
Avoid groups that are composed of rah-rah cheerleaders who don’t talk about eating, weight, and body image struggles in any meaningful way. These groups are a waste of time and money. Instead, find a group that has some depth and can balance discussion of triumphs and challenges and discuss emotional issues.
Avoid groups that sounds like a bunch of whiners. Nothing is more of a downer than being with people who act like victims when you’re there to acquire new skills and ideas and are all about change. Bow out of any group which involves ongoing venting and isn’t clearly focused on learning to improve your relationship with food and your body. Look for a group that’s solution focused.
Be careful not to get seduced into groups that focus on weight rather than eating. You don’t have a weight problem; you have an eating problem. In fact, I highly recommend joining a support group that doesn’t focus on weight very much if at all and, instead, helps you understand and change your non-hunger eating and unhealthy food habits. Weight-oriented groups feel good in the moment, but teach you very little about yourself or how to eat normally.
I’ve run many support groups for people with eating problems and find them a terrific asset for troubled eaters. They offer camaraderie, a sense of being understood and validated, and useful advice and suggestions. Most importantly, they offer ongoing hope, which is just what is needed in the difficult struggle to eat normally. Trying to improve eating on your own is a lonely, frustrating task. A group that’s the right fit for you will make achieving your goals so much easier.
More expert advice about Weight Loss Clinics
Photo Credits: smiles by Flickr: eflon; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com