Psychologists often use the metaphor “peeling the onion” to mean exploring a problem one layer at a time to fully understand what is causing it. I prefer to think of this process as peeling the petals of a rose to allow yourself to fully blossom!
Peeling back the layers
For as long as I can remember, my stepfather and mother have sent me flowers on my birthday and other special occasions. The gorgeous flowers come carefully packaged in a box delivered to my door. I always enjoy the experience of gently removing the flowers one-by-one and arranging them in a vase.
When the box contains roses, each rose has a foam sheath covering the bud to protect it. There’s also a note inside that says, “Remove the outer 2-3 petals which were left on to protect the rose during shipping.”
As I was arranging a beautiful bouquet of roses, I carefully removed each foam sheath. Beneath it, I could see that some of the outer rose petals were bruised or torn, and I quickly removed them.
However, other petals looked perfectly fine. I hesitated before pulling them off. It seemed counter-intuitive to “fix” something that wasn’t obviously “broken.”
However, I’ve learned from experience, if I don’t remove those outer petals, the rose won’t open up. It’s as if those protective petals restrain the healthy petals underneath from revealing their full beauty.
Peeling the onion
I often share this “peeling back the petals” metaphor when I’m talking about how important it is (however challenging) to uncover the issues that drive overeating and over-dieting.
My psychologist friends sometimes refer to this as “peeling the onion.” Although I can visualize the layers of an onion, the layers are all essentially the same after the first paper skin.
I like “removing the rose petals” metaphor better than peeling the onion because it helps us understand how our protective layers, even though they once served a purpose, can restrain our growth now. The rose petal metaphor hints at the potential for beauty that awaits us when we peel back the layers to understand our underlying issues or drivers of our behaviors.
Sometimes the first layer resolves the issue
Sometimes our triggers for eating when we’re not hungry (or continuing to eat when we’re full) are obvious and easily dealt with, like removing the foam around the rose bud.
For example, when we notice we clean our plate to avoid wasting food, we may remind ourselves that food is readily available now. We can choose to experiment with taking less to begin with and/or saving the extra for another meal when we’ll get to enjoy it all over again!
Sometimes we have to peel back a few layers to figure out what lies beneath the superficial or obvious triggers.
Those outer layers may have served as protection during our journey, like the outer rose petals. A helpful way to peel back the next layer to go a little deeper is to ask, What else?
For example, we might first realize we overeat certain holiday goodies because we think of them as a special treat this time of year.
What else? These holiday treats remind me of my childhood.
What else? They remind me of the comfort and joy of those simpler times.
What else? I wish I didn’t have so many adult obligations to deal with. The holidays just add more to my To Do list.
Ahhh. Now we’re getting somewhere. In addition to enjoying some of my favorite holiday treats, how else could I experience more comfort, joy, and balance in my life?
By peeling back the layers to understand our underlying needs, we are able to come up with more effective solutions. With awareness comes the opportunity to open to new possibilities.
Removing the protective layers
At times we resist peeling back the layers. We cling to them out of fear of what might happen when our protective layers are taken away.
Maybe we clean our plates because long ago, that’s how we got dessert, earned approval, or even prevented abuse.
When those layers no longer serve their purpose, they become a limitation. Now cleaning our plate leads to undesirable consequences, like feeling uncomfortable or causing a spike in blood sugar.
Without awareness that the underlying reasons once served a purpose that no longer serves us, we feel powerless to change the thoughts and feelings that are driving the unconscious habit.
But everything is fine!
Other times everything looks good on the outside, so it’s tempting to avoid disturbing the illusion that everything is fine. This is like seeing petals that look perfectly fine but will prevent our rose from blooming.
Until we’re willing to go a little deeper, we’ll stay stuck right where we are.
For example, many people are stuck in chronic dieting or their eat-repent-repeat cycle because although it eats up a lot of their attention, time, and energy, they believe it’s their only option. The idea of learning how to eat what they love and love what they eat seems too good to be true – so why risk giving up the strategies they’ve used for decades (even though they don’t really work)?
When you don’t trust how beautiful and full your life could be without the restrictive and consuming rules you’ve been taught to follow, you’ll cling to habitual thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions.
Letting go of the fear of change allows you to peel back and explore the underlying layers. You’ll discover the freedom, trust, and pleasure that come from allowing yourself to fully bloom!
Updated from a previously published version.
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