How to let go of unhealthy crutches

Do you use excess food, alcohol, drugs, sex or work to avoid your feelings or get you through the day? Read on if you want to break free.

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Food was my first crutch and I picked it up when I was very young. I discovered the soothing and numbing affects of excess sweets, crisps and bread before I hit my teens and I continued to overeat into my 30s.

Alcohol came next. I was 14 when I had my first encounter with booze and it didn't end well. Drink gave me confidence and changed how I felt, numbing the feelings of sadness, grief, loss and fear that lay beneath the surface. But I always overdid it.

My compulsion to overwork began around the same time. My achievements and accolades bolstered my shaky self-esteem, while my perpetual busyness occupied my mind so I never had to stop and feel. Again, I took things too far, burning out and breaking down in my 30s.

I used men as a crutch from a young age too. I felt better about myself when I knew that a guy fancied me - the feeling of being wanted soothed my inner pain. I got high on the sensation of 'falling in love' - it took me away from myself and helped me to avoid what was really going on inside. This behaviour kept me single for years.

These were my main crutches but I've probably used others over the years.

How about you? Have you used crutches in the past? Are you using any crutches today to avoid your feelings, soothe your pain, or to get through the day?

If you can answer these questions honestly, and I mean honestly, then you're on the path to change.

I was in denial for many years about my crutches. Take food, for example. I couldn't understand why I was overweight. I thought I ate healthily - and I definitely did in public, always choosing salads in front of family or friends. Once I got home, though, the bingeing began. I ate bags of crisps, chocolate and countless bowls of muesli. But I did so in a daze. I was barely aware of what I was doing to myself.

In my early 30s, something shifted and I began to acknowledge to myself that I had a problem with food. As I did so, I slowly emerged from denial.

So self-awareness is the first step on the road to change. How often do you eat in secret? How many glasses of wine do you drink each night? Are you dating a man or woman who you know isn't good for you?

I then began to talk to friends about my crazy eating habits, sharing the late-night cereal binges and owning the fact I'd eaten three chocolate bars in a row. They didn't believe me at first. I was a little overweight but I wasn't obese. You couldn't tell anything was wrong from the outside.

But I persisted in speaking my truth to people I trusted and gradually, my secret wasn't a secret anymore.

So the next step is to get honest. Tell someone you trust. Tell your truth to those who care about you. If someone won't listen, find someone else. Being authentic and vulnerable in this way breaks the bond of shame. And shame, from my experience, keeps us stuck in a cycle of secret self-harm.

Once you have brought your issue out of the darkness and into the light, you can start to examine and understand it. Why do you overeat? Why do you drink so much? Why do you sleep around when you feel worthless afterwards? Why do you take drugs? Why do you work until you feel exhausted and depressed?

What purpose is your crutch serving? What feelings are you running away from or trying to numb? Is your crutch giving you confidence, a self-esteem boost, or companionship? Is it keeping you adrenalised, high or busy so that you don't have to feel your feelings? What is it replacing in your life - love, a friend, a genuine sense of self-esteem, missing inner strength?

Once you understand the feelings you are trying to avoid, you can start the process of feeling them - slowly, gently, gradually, knowing that the feelings are inside you anyway and if you stuff them down or numb them, they'll come out sideways eventually, jeopardising your life and relationships.

And once you know what your crutch is replacing, you can start to find healthier ways to meet that need you've identified. How else can you get companionship, support, love, a huge, strength, or a sense of self-esteem?

This is not a quick or easy process and you'll likely need some support. I'd been using crutches for decades and it took years to let them go. And by no means have I got it all sorted. I don't binge eat or drink to excess anymore. My weight has been stable for 10 years and I only sip Prosecco on special occasions. I'm also in love and engaged to be married, having let go of many dysfunctional relationship patterns.

In all truthfulness, though, I'm still in the process of letting go of my compulsion to overwork, overachieve and stay busy. These are the last crutches to go. But I have the awareness, I'm being honest with myself and with you, right now, and, most of the time, I'm in tune with the feelings I'm trying to run away from.

Nobody ever said it would be easy. We're all on a journey, trying to become more healthy and whole. There will inevitably be some bumps in the road. We might take two steps forwards, only to take one back. We might feel stuck for a while.

But if you are reading this, I have some good news for you. You are searching. You are growing. And you are changing. How good is that? You're doing great.

*** Upcoming Events ***

Stop emotional overeating and lose weight for life. Four week online live video course with 1-1 and group coaching starts Nov 5. Evening London workshops on same topic on Nov 6 & Jan 16. Use code PSYCHOLOGIES for 10 percent discount.

Fall in love with yourself, with your life and with another. One-day workshop. London. Nov 17. Use code PSYCHOLOGIES for 10 percent discount.

For How to Fall in Love retreats in Dorset, Spain and Turkey in 2019, click here

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Katherine Baldwin

Midlife Mentor, Dating & Relationships Coach, Author of 'How to Fall in Love'

I work with women and men who are ready to change their lives or careers and with those who want to find love. I guide people on a journey of inner transformation, similar to the journey I've been on. I know how it feels to be stuck in life and to be reluctantly single, and I know what it takes to change and find love. My book 'How to Fall in Love - A 10-Step Journey to the Heart' describes how I went from being a single woman, living in London, bored with my work and longing for a more fulfilling life to a woman in love, engaged to be married, living on the Dorset coast and doing work that makes my heart sing. I have been in recovery from an eating disorder, workaholism and dysfunctional relationship patterns for 14 years, during which time I've mentored and coached others on their journey to a healthier, happier life. I have a Diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy Skills from the Westminster Pastoral Foundation. In my former life as a news journalist, I reported for Reuters from the Houses of Parliament and travelled with the prime minister. I climbed high but despite my external success, I felt empty inside. Since then, I've turned my life upside down in the best possible way. I work 1-2-1 and in groups, run workshops, courses and seaside retreats. I write for the national media and have appeared on radio and TV, most recently on Woman's Hour. I also speak to business leaders, students and school children about the importance of authenticity and of sharing our internal battles. I'm an advocate of wholehearted living. I do my best to walk the walk.