The Emotional Aspect of Eating and Obesity featuring Roni Maislish, MSW, MBA (interviewed by Laurie Watter, APN Lodge’s Director of Family Relations)
Laurie Watter: Hi, I’m Laurie Watter – the Director of Family Relations at All Points North Lodge in Edwards, Colorado. And I’m excited to have my guest today, Roni Maislish, a clinician from Israel. Roni and I met through LinkedIn, and I think he’s got a great topic that he’s here with us today to speak about – which is called the emotional aspect of obesity and overweight. So welcome, Roni.
Roni Maislish: Thank you very much. It’s great being here.
Laurie Watter: You feel so close, which is really nice. COVID has helped us reconnect with people outside of our immediate area, and there are no limits through social media.
Roni Maislish: Maybe that was the purpose of all of that.
Laurie Watter: Right. I do question what the purpose of all of this was. There are many good things that have come from it. We have to look for that continuously.
So I know that you have this area of expertise – looking at the emotional aspect of overeating or obesity. I think you’ve got a really interesting approach. This is an opportunity for you to share more about the work that you’re doing and leave us yearning to hear more.
Roni Maislish: Yeah, what are you really hungry for. This is one of the questions and something I’m asking in my workshop. This emotional hunger – what are you really hungry for? Change or the healing process.
There are so many directions I can go. I’m very excited to have this conversation and to get to so many people in America. I’m grateful to do that.
In my professional life, I’m a clinical social worker and psychotherapist. And in the last 15 years, I’ve been working with patients who are struggling with all kinds of issues with their relationship with food and eating. I’m calling that the relationship between food and eating because sometimes in my work, we’re examining the difference between the relationship with food and relationship with other things like money, spirituality, or quality time. Maybe later I’ll share more about that.
I want to start by saying that I was a fat child myself. I struggled with that. Until I was 29, I was doing all sorts of dieting. Losing 30 pounds and gaining those pounds back.
Laurie Watter: Yoyo.
Roni Maislish: Exactly, yoyoing. So as we spoke before, I was addicted to food. So what is the feeling of being addicted to something? From a very early age (six or seven, I think), I was addicted to my father’s food. It was excellent food. I was a fat child and a fat teenager. I think I was very depressed. I was very isolated. When I was 25, I met my first girlfriend, and I more than fell in love with her. I became addicted to her. So what is the meaning of becoming addicted to a person? And what is the connection between becoming addicted to a person and addicted to food? I know both of them. So it was a very hard relationship. So I was actually reborn and started my new life when this relationship finished after four years, four very, very long years. Back then, about 21 years ago, I was working in marketing and software. I never imagined that I would become a therapist or an emotional eating therapist.
But when this relationship stopped, I needed to actually learn how to live again, actually how to raise myself again from the beginning. And part of this process was how I stopped dieting at the age of 29. So I stopped trying to make war with my body and make war by struggling with food and eating. What happened very gradually and slowly was that I started to lose weight – maybe two pounds one year and another two pounds the next.
So what I tell people is that sometimes, if you want to lose two pounds of your weight, you need to lose 2000 pounds of something else. It can be an emotion, a memory, or I don’t know what, it doesn’t matter. I started to lose thousands of pounds of my childhood trauma. We spoke about trauma before. So, it’s not like my parents punched me or sent me to I don’t know where at the age of eight. It was like normal, but it wasn’t normal.Sometimes in my work, I talk about emotional neglect. I had a roof. I had money. I had everything I needed, but I lacked emotional nourishment. Nobody saw life through my eyes. I’m talking a lot in my work about empathy. Empathy is not sympathy, and it’s not compassion. It’s the ability to look through the other person’s eyes. There’s a song named “Walking in My Shoes.” So no one walked in my shoes and understood what I felt. I felt deserted and neglected. Sometimes, I didn’t understand what I was doing there, in that house. And I started to gain weight day by day.
So part of the process to heal myself was to become a therapist. In the first few years as a therapist, I studied social work for my first degree. Then for my master’s, I did a three-year psychotherapy program. I tried to help people become more aware of their feelings. I tried to help people become more aware of the sequence between the event and the feeling or emotion and the behavior of emotional eating. After a few years, I realized that for most of my patients, it doesn’t help them to understand this sequence. They need something else, but I didn’t know what they needed.
But then “accidentally” (but there’s no accident), eight years ago, I changed my supervision. I started to go to another psychologist, where she practiced self-psychology psychotherapy. In this, awareness is not the center of the healing. So what is the center?
It’s more about how to strengthen your patient – the empathy, mirroring, how you can understand this patient from inside of him, how you let him lean on you. How can you make him feel that you are very, very close to him? So most of my patients for the last eight years, they will not tell me that they understand or are more aware. But they will say it in other ways like, “I have a more centered feeling of myself.” Or “I feel my emotional independence now, after many years.” They will use the word “anchored” for how they are more grounded to the surface. They will use all those kind of words. Sometimes they will feel that there is something changing in them, but it will be very hard for them to understand the process. So they will just feel more strong, they will feel quieter inside, and they will be living with more joy.
Joy is very important. Joy is not happiness. They are not laughing and making jokes all the time. But they have this kind of purpose in their lives. They are going in the right direction. And if they are having all these changes, we can understand that we did something very valuable. So if I can summarize self-psychology in one word, it would be “mother” or “father”. Or it’s a good uncle or good aunt. It’s actually to help the patient or help people to restore their vitality, to restore their self, and to restore their nature. Kohut, the father of self-psychology, called his second book The Restoration of the Self. So we want to continue the good parts of our patients and go from there. We are not fixing anything because we believe that people are good inside. They are not fixing and changing. It’s like a starting of the car, you know, now we have those buttons to start the car, but back then, it was a starter. So we are trying to restart the process of growing in our patients.
There is a lot of crossover in my work. To become an emotional eating therapist, in 2008, I participated in a workshop in California of Geneen Roth. She wrote the book When Food is Love. After visiting her, I realized that my goal in life is to help not just the eating disorder patients. When we use the word eating disorder, sometimes it’s anorexia or bulimia. But I’m asking the question, “Who works with the chubby? Who helps the chubby? Who helps the 99% that are not anorexic or bulimic and are not 600 pounds?” Most people are quite in the middle and don’t have enough emotional support.
Talking about addiction and food, I think there is not enough understanding of what addiction is all about. So I’m very interested in that topic. There is a psychotherapist – in our last conversation, I mentioned Michael Igen from New York. Michael Eigen wrote some very interesting books and chapters about this area. One of them is Emotional Storm. The other is Toxic Nourishment. He believed that beneath all of our addiction (it doesn’t matter if that was to food or sex or alcohol or drugs) is our addiction to toxic love. So we try to heal our relationships in those areas. Of course, it’s all about trauma and our very early trauma in relationships, sometimes with our parents or other people.
I’ll stop right here for now. Maybe you have some other questions.
Laurie Watter: Yeah, I think it’s all so interesting, and I really like it when you talk about “a hunger for what?” It’s not necessarily a hunger for food, so what are you really feeling hungry for? What’s lacking? I think that is awareness. I think that’s where change starts when there is an awareness. But yes, I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about that piece of it – the analogy of the relationship to food with the relationship to other people or to love.
Roni Maislish: Yeah, so I’ll tell you this. In the Geneen Roth retreat 12 years ago, I started to think about this topic of emotional hunger. We worked with food. In the morning and at lunchtime, Geneen Roth was giving us questions during the meal. But in the evening, we just asked the questions of ourselves. I remember on the fourth or fifth night, I took a full plate, and I was sitting down. There were about 60 people, and I was the only man of course, in this kind of retreat.
I asked myself, “So Roni, how much are you hungry?” I said, “Hmm, I’m not that hungry.” So then I asked myself, “So why did you take this large plate full of all of that food.” I said, “I don’t know.” So then, this question came naturally from inside of me, “So Roni, what are you really hungry for?” Then I received an answer – my brother. “My god, what do you mean that you are hungry for your brother?” I had never thought about it in this way. On that particular night, I remember that instead of eating, I wrote him a letter.
So 12 years passed, and still, our complex relationship is the same. But it doesn’t matter because I changed that night and really understood what emotional hunger was all about. In the workshop that I’m doing, it’s an exercise in couples. They are asking again and again and again, “What are you really hungry for?” Then answer, “What are you hungry for?” Maybe on your twentieth answer, some very delicate comes from inside of you. And maybe you can say, “I never understood that I’m hungry for quiet or vacation or for new meaning in my life.” It’s very interesting to do this. Most of my workshops are eight sessions. So one of those sessions is all about emotional hunger.
To your other question, I can give an example. I’m often asking about choosing food. I’m working with the buffet, and I’m asking about your choosing pattern for food. You choose fast or slow. Most of my patients are choosing very fast. I want, and they want to make it a little bit slower. Then I’m asking them about other relationships – let’s say shopping or money. So how do you spend your money? Most of them, it’s very interesting, they are going to be very accurate, calculated, and organized with money. They don’t understand why they don’t take this organized energy to food and eating. So I’m just giving them some kind of exercise, like maybe in the coming week, try to lose a little bit with the money. Maybe make it smoother with less control and just go with it. See if you can take this controlling energy and transfer it to the food and eating relationship. A lot of them succeed in this exercise, and they can change their relationship with food and eating because they are changing their habits and their choosing patterns. So this is just one example of something they can investigate in these dinners and choosing. I can talk about regret, controlling, or God. It doesn’t matter.
Laurie Watter: Right. Even after our conversation a couple of weeks ago, it definitely gave me pause to think about that. You know, “Do you want a cookie, or is there something else that would nourish your soul. What is that about?” I do think that a lot of what we need to do is to slow it down, be more cognizant, and have more awareness around our choices. Not just with food but with relationships and the things that we purchase. There are a lot of decisions that we make that are more emotional. I think food is certainly an area that I would say I choose my food slowly and I spend my money slowly too. But when I really want something, I choose it quickly. And when I really want to buy something, I buy it quickly. So I’m consistent. But no. It definitely gives me something more to think about. The workshops that you’re talking about are really interesting. I mean, we’re very aware of intuitive eating and actually really taking time to think about what it is that we want and need. Are you able to compare your model with what we call intuitive eating? It sounds like it’s somewhat aligned.
Roni Maislish: Yeah, I think intuitive eating is… it’s not like I’m condemning this technique…but as I see it, it stays in the food and eating relationship. So they’re doing some exercises with the food and with taste and smell. They stay in the physical part, as I understand it.
I call my workshop, “Mindfulness Meals” or “Mindfulness Eating” because I like to have those journeys between the relationship with food and eating and other relationships. It’s like journeys back and forth, alright? I’m using the relationship with food and eating as a door to go inside of other dimensions, so we can back and feel that we don’t need to go back to the food and eating because it’s more interesting to go to other relationships, you know, with God, with relationships, with love. You know, food is love. But all the time, it’s this journey back and forth. This is my work.
Laurie Watter: It’s very, very interesting. And I do find that we’re all on this journey, and I think it’s so interesting to learn about ourselves and the way in which we think and approach different areas of our lives and how so much of what we do is based on our past experiences. Pretty fascinating.
And I know that you’re going to be in the States. We’re hoping to get you out.
Roni Maislish: Hopefully, yeah. October or November.
Laurie Watter: And I appreciate you coming on today. Is there a way people can get in touch with you or see some of your work?
Roni Maislish: So again, some of my English material is on LinkedIn. That’s sharable. If there are any questions, you can share my email. They can ask me all sorts of questions, and I may offer more information. On my website, there are also some things in English. But a few months ago, I spoke with someone from America and told her that the English material on my website is about ten years old. She told me, “It’s still relevant, Roni.”
Laurie Watter: That’s good to know. So what is your website?
Roni Maislish: It’s just my name. RoniMaislish.com
Laurie Watter: Thank you so much for being with us today.
Roni Maislish: Absolutely. Hopefully, we’ll continue our cooperation.
Laurie Watter: That would be wonderful. Thank you, Roni. Take care.
Roni Maislish: Thank you, Laurie. You too. Bye.
Laurie Watter: Bye.