Josh's Journey

josh novak

By: Josh Novak, 25, Project HEAL Utah Chapter

About me: I grew up in a Dutch Community on the south side of Chicago. My family consists of my parents, two older sisters, and a younger brother. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around the nation for my education, as I have completed my Bachelor’s in Psychology from Anderson University in Indiana, my Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from Texas Tech University, and am currently working on my Doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy at Brigham Young University. I love doing anything outdoors (camping, hiking, climbing mountains, etc.), enjoy cooking, and love music and the arts. I am passionate about people and love stories.


I am extremely honored to be writing for Project HEAL. I appreciate the opportunity to write and share my thoughts for a company that is helping so many people and spreading awareness. My own personal journey has taken many years and lots of tears in order to understand what I was and am facing. I’ve been fortunate enough to have many opportunities to help me grow. In some ways, my education has been selfish, as it has allowed me to study and understand myself. I’d like to take some time to share what I’ve learned, as sharing my own story helps me, and I thank you for taking the time to read it.

1. EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE, has to negotiate his or her relationship with food and exercise. Struggling with weight/image/exercise is not just for those with said ‘clinical’ eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating). Many people go on diets, weight loss plans, or the newest exercise plan. Many feel guilty after eating or after missing a day at the gym. We are bombarded with images and messages of how to look and feel. Looking a certain way is associated with certain emotions—it is built into our society. Every billboard, ad, magazine, or commercial with someone working out or eating is associated with positive emotions, conjuring thoughts and images of, “Wow, look how happy he or she is. They have a great life,” and eventually “I want to be happy like that,” and “I’m going to do what they are doing to be happy.” We begin to chase the dream. The problem is that there is no end goal, no plan to get there, and everyone’s body responds differently to each and every stimuli. For those who may struggle with alcohol, drugs, porn or sex, dysfunctional relationships, spending money, compulsive lying, etc., the end goal is abstinence, and giving up the behavior/thought patterns that accompany it. This is NOT the case with food. You have to eat to live, thereby making eating disorders/weight/body image one of the hardest of struggles to overcome. Know that you are not alone, but it may certainly feel that way. People may disguise their struggles as “I’m just paying attention to what I eat,” yet there is an internal world of rigid eating patterns and hyper-consciousness, recently termed Orthorexia Nervosa. You can read about it here:

2. Eating disorders and negative emotions go hand-in-hand and occur in isolation. Most of the time, negative emotions and mood states are experienced in isolation. When negative emotions arise (about image/weight/shape), one may engage in weight/image controlling behaviors to relieve those feelings. The individual may feel better afterward as the negative feelings are replaced by positive feelings of accomplishment. Then, failing to meet a desired outcome or being reminded about how/where you fail once again perpetuates negative emotions. This cyclical recurring pattern characterizes most who struggle with image/weight/shape. I struggled with pretty severe depression—it was the underlying mechanism through which I developed an eating disorder. My feelings of loneliness went unexpressed and unacknowledged, which led me to find other ways to deal with them. All people experience difficult emotions, and all have to relieve them in some way. There is NO exception. For me, weightlifting became that outlet, which increased my self-esteem. As I began to put more and more time in the gym, I noticed my body changing and with it my confidence grew. Little did I realize, however, that this newfound ‘habit’ would take me down a different path—one that wasn’t very pretty. I got into some nasty cycles of binge eating, purging by exercise, and then restricting my intake. This cycle lasted days, and then would restart again. My binges included an astronomical amount of calories. I would go to the local 24-hour grocery store late at night so that no one would see me. I’d haul back a half a dozen bags full of mostly junk food and consume almost all of it. Fullness was irrelevant. Afterward, the guilt would set in. I’d look around the room and feel terrible about what I just did, as wrappers and boxes were below. A few times I ran to the bathroom and would make myself throw up, but most of the time I’d go exercise excessively. I remember running 15 miles after one of my binges. Often times, I’d spend up to 5 hours in the gym a day. It was the guilt that consumed me, to the point of not eating for days, so that I could ‘make up’ for all of the calories I consumed. Then it would start over. My body was craving food so badly. So I binged again. This cycle lasted for years. One of the biggest issues is that no one knew, or if they did, we didn’t talk about it. No one made it an important topic, especially myself. Isolation drives the eating disorder. We isolate because we feel no one may understand or because we will become forever labeled. It’s scary to be vulnerable and equally as scary to hear someone else be vulnerable.

3. Society doesn’t know how to respond to those who struggle with body image. Educate them!!! People do not know how to talk about weight/body image/eating habits. Our society doesn’t do well with praising effort, but instead praises results. This sets up a double bind and a lose-lose situation: (a) If someone compliments you, it reinforces your goals to keep losing weight or workout harder, and (b) if someone teases you, it creates negative feelings that can only be relieved by working harder to reach a desired weight or goal, and finally (c) if people don’t say anything at all, you take it as “they don’t say anything about it because they don’t want to hurt my feelings”. No matter which way you look at it, people respond by putting more pressure on themselves. For me, people would compliment me, which only reinforced my desire to keep at it, look better, and become more extreme. It became my identity. It was how I got attention, and I craved it. Furthermore, stigmas create huge chasms, which we feel we cannot cross. Stigmas are powerful, but they are not insurmountable. Society creates shame and guilt, which trickles down to the individual. As individuals, we need to rise up and return the favor. It starts with awareness and advocacy. If something someone says something that offends you or reinforces your eating disorder, speak out and speak up. Give them feedback and let them know how they affect you.

4. Body image/weight/exercise should NOT be the only way through which you feel good about yourself. It became problematic for me when this was the only way I felt good about myself. I invested so much time into how I looked. When you invest your life and time into something, others notice that and may see you through that lens too—either because they feel you want to be seen that way, or don’t know much else about you. In some ways, my pursuit of muscularity and a fit body only limited myself to others knowing me for that reason. For part of me, it was exactly what I wanted. My core self however, began to be frustrated with people only knowing me for how I looked. I was upset with those who would come to me and ask how they could get bigger biceps or more toned. I felt like people only saw me as worthwhile for that reason. Didn’t they want to know anything else about me? It was like I had a sign over my head that read, “Come to me for all your workout needs.” And it felt like that was the only reason people wanted to get to know me. My frustration grew to push me to be involved in other things, and I strove to find ways to be a better-rounded person. I had to develop other passions, interests, and hobbies that enhanced and gave my life meaning. I came to be confident through my identity in other areas. It was and still is a struggle sometimes, as that can be what I fall back to in order to feel better about myself. But I know that others now see me as valuable not by what I do or look like, but for who I am. That means more to me. I encourage you to develop those other areas of expertise and confidence. Don’t let your image be unidimensional. In addition, praise effort, not results, show appreciation to someone for who they are, not for what they do or look like. Ask others to do the same for you.

5. Exercise and nutrition should be used to be healthy, not for extreme purposes. Understanding that it was okay to miss a day at the gym or eat that yummy piece of chocolate I was craving was not an easy process. Listen to your body…and I mean really listen. I’m a huge fan of intuitive eating and exercising. Evelyn Tribole and colleagues wrote a great book entitled Intuitive Eating (2012, 3rd edition). I highly recommend it. Also, Geneen Roth (Breaking Free from Emotional Eating) puts it this way:

When you turn exercise into a “have-to” rather than a “want-to,” you take the strong and healthy part out, you take the joy out, you make it an endurance test, just another act in the long line of other grudgingly performed acts that you have to do because you have to be thin and you have to exercise to be thin. I feel that the link between fitness and thinness must be cut.  If you exercise to get thin, the implication is that the way you are now is not good enough.  This engenders a slew of critical judgments that eventually lead to frustration, hopelessness and a decision to forget the whole thing. Negative judgments almost never lead to long-lasting change. If you are exercising because it makes you feel healthy now, then you are not involved in any sort of Catch-22. You are moving because you like yourself.  It is the difference between punishing yourself and taking care of who you already are.

I’m not saying it will be easy—it will be a transition, one that will take time and effort. Hopefully your goal will become health, not numbers. You will fail sometimes and you will be exhausted from having to get back up. Find the motivation to begin again. Give yourself credit for trying, and try to not beat yourself up. When you do find yourself being hard on yourself, show grace. Practice patience. Express gratitude. Hope.

6. The best way to regulate emotions is through healthy relationships. The new field of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) studies how relationships impact the brain and vice versa. Daniel Siegel is the leading guru on IPNB, and says that “When two individuals’ states are brought into alignment, a form of what we call ‘mental state resonance’ can occur” (2012, p. 95) and that “the states being aligned are indeed psychobiological states of brain activity” (p. 116). In other words, when one can process his/her emotions with another person it is the fundamental way in which the brain activity of one person directly influences that of the other, often called co-regulation (Fosha et al., 2009; Ferber, 2008). Emotional regulation is best done in the context of a relationship with another person. You help each other regulate your emotions (validation, empathic listening, reflecting, etc.). For me, I tried many other unsuccessful ways of dealing with my own emotions that drove me into further isolation and shame. It wasn’t until I experienced close and healthy relationships that I could better express my thoughts and feelings. And it’s not just any relationship, but ones in which you feel safe to express, and where you feel the other person is available, responsive, and engaged (secure attachment behaviors). Some people may be available, but may not know how to meet your emotional needs, or aren’t responsive in the ways that you need. Others may be responsive to you, but they aren’t available when you need them the most. When both happen, it means they are engaged—that the find you important and all of your feelings are seen as legitimate. Where they don’t try to talk you out of your feelings, but let you express, explore, and help you to understand your feelings. I encourage you to develop or find these relationships. You may have to teach others to be what you need, and that can be difficult. Some may not be ready, may be too overwhelmed, and may get defensive about it. In that case, you have to decide if it’s worth it to pour into them, or if there may be another person whom you can confide in. In any case, be that person—who is available, responsive, and engaged—to other people. But make sure that you have those too. Respect yourself and your own feelings and others and their feelings. You deserve to have others listen to you and others deserve to have you listen to them.

7  Don’t isolate your experience, insulate and protect your recovery. The book Six Essentials to Achieve Lasting Recovery (Shumway & Kimball, 2012) has been influential to me in understanding what recovery can look like. I encourage you to check it out. It describes the key ingredients that can help recovery, some of which I’ve outlined above. Here they are: (1) Hope, (2) Coping, (3) Achievement, (4) Relationships, (5) Choice, and (6) Identity. Your own story is unique unlike anyone else’s. Your story can help others. It will allow you to attune to someone else and be present. Your experience makes you sensitive to others’ stories. Share it.


"Sailboat" by Ben Rector

I feel just like a sailboat

I don't know where I'm headed

But you can't make the wind blow

From a sailboat

I have seen the sun

Felt the rain on my skin

I've been lost and found

But mostly I've been waiting

Oh I'm out in the waves

And I'm hoping and praying

Please let this wind blow me home

Night after night there's and empty horizon

My God do I feel so alone

Sometimes life, and most times I…feel just like a sailboat

And I'm pretty sure I'm heard

At least I know I'm speaking

But I feel like a fool, yeah

Cause I can't hear you listening

But I'm not giving up, Oh no!

I’m gonna move on forward

I'm gonna raise my sail

God knows what I'm headed towards

Oh I'm out in the waves

I'm hoping and praying

Please let this wind blow me home

Night after night there's and empty horizon

And my God do I feel so alone

Sometimes life, and most times I…feel just like a sailboat

The only change I see,

Lost or found at sea

The only difference… is believing I'll make it in.






Raise your sail, look to the horizon, and don’t give up. Thanks for listening friends. You inspire me.


Ferber, S. G. (2008). The concept of coregulation between neurobehavioral subsystems: The logic interplay between excitatory and inhibitory ends. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31, 337-338.

Fosha, D., Siegel, D. J., & Solomon, M. F. (Eds.). (2009). The healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development and clinical practice. New York: Norton.

Shumway, S. T. & Kimball, T. G. (2012). Six essentials to achieve lasting recovery. Minnesota: Hazelden.

Siegel, D. J. (2012).  The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: The Guilford Press.

Tribole, E. & Resch, E. Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works. (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.