“How do we end suffering? By accepting everything, exactly as it is. Hearing that is like a knife in the heart. Inside we shriek, no! … In fact, there is no choice other than accepting everything exactly as it is, because everything is exactly as it is. It is as simple as that. There is nowhere else to go.” –Cheri Huber
Now, you may be tempted to stop reading right there. Accept everything as it is, including all that is unacceptable? “No way,” you might think. “I definitely need to change things about myself before practicing acceptance.” Or perhaps you believe your partner needs to change. Or your boss. Or your mother. Maybe even the world needs to change! There is so much to be fixed: global warming, war, the US presidential race.
Here’s the paradox- there is no room for change until we see what IS. The resistance to seeing what it is, the desire for it to be different, takes up so much energy it creates a smokescreen of fog thick with suffering. There is no room for change through that smokescreen. Have you noticed how, now that there is acceptance of the reality of global warming instead of the debate about whether it exists or not, there is incredible movement around what we can DO to alleviate the suffering it is causing? The same could be true for you.
Since I work with people recovering from disordered eating or body hatred, many of my clients initially say they want to “be thin” or “not be obsessed with food.” When I ask how they will know they’ve arrived, it often translates into “free from fear.” To which I answer: When you find that person, let me know. It’s not actually about the fear. Nor is it about the food (the right body, money, career, relationship, sex, or whatever else it is to which your mind obsessively attaches).
It’s not about the Food (Money, Sex)…
…and it is!
We can actually gather interesting information by looking at food, money, sex, and other areas of your life. Let’s look at an example. If someone who is restricting their food comes to see me, we might also see restriction in other areas of their life:
Sex: I don’t do that.
Money: I earn just enough to cover rent.
Play: Not allowed
Rest: Just enough- or sometimes I don’t get enough due to work.
Work: I’m always there. It feels like I never get it all done, so I just end up living there.
Aha! We often find this. When there is restricting in many areas, there is often at least one that is bingeing (which keeps all the other areas restricted). Let’s keep going with this example of a person who restricts food.
Sex: “I hate my body so I don’t want anyone to see me naked, so I never go there.”
Money: “I don’t deserve to earn more than my basic needs. I shouldn’t spend any money on things that are non-essential.”
Play: “I’m a grown up, so I shouldn’t need to play.”
Rest: “Sleeping seems like it’s such a waste of time when I’m not getting anything done. I shouldn’t need very much sleep.”
Work: “I’m never done, so it’s never good enough. I should do more/better.”
You can start to unpack the similarities underlying these behaviors and thoughts even further once we get to the feelings.
Sex: Insecure, ashamed
Are you starting to see the anything/everything experience of Not enough-ness? It is no wonder that this person is restricting their food! On a very deep level, they don’t feel worthy or good-enough to nourish themselves. Their whole experience of being human becomes restricted as a result. Where are the other feelings? Where is the anger, sadness, pleasure and joy that is part of being human? All of this gets restricted by the constant binge of anxious not-enough-ness.
You may find that your pattern tends more towards bingeing in areas other than work or anxiety. Maybe you binge on food, shopping, or procrastination. Maybe you alternate between overworking, over-drinking, and over-exercising. Maybe you restrict on sleep during the week and binge sleep on the weekends. Or maybe, if you are a parent, you alternate between being infinitely patient (“Let’s play a game while we brush our teeth. Yes, you can have a glass of water, Sure, you can bring that stuffie to bed…and that one…and that one.”) with frustratingly angry (“Bedtime stories are done. NOW. Go the F to sleep”).
The Gap Between Who You Are and Who You Want to Be
And now we get to the million dollar question: So if this is all just about noticing without changing, what do I do if I’m not happy with my patterns? You notice as an act of change. The act of noticing, with curious and fiercely objective compassion, is a deep level of change. The act of noticing, NOT judging, brings about the freedom to change. In the above example, it creates the space of considering that she IS enough and that she doesn’t need to believe the voice of anxiety.
“When we make decisions about eating or anything else, with an attitude of kindness and acceptance toward ourselves, with awareness of what is involved in our choices, the conflict between deprivation and indulgence ceases to exist. ” –Cheri Huber
Geneen Roth, a well-known author in the field of disordered eating recovery warns you can’t hate and starve yourself by dieting down to a certain size and expect to arrive at a place of loving yourself. And yet that is the Great Palace Lie of dieting: If I were thinner, then I would love myself. You need to be willing to accept the truth that the self-acceptance you are looking for in the “right” weight is not in there. It’s not in any diet or food plan; it’s not in having a certain kind of stomach or thighs or wrinkle-stretch-mark-free body. It IS in noticing your patterns with curiosity, compassion, and willingness. It is in asking questions such as: Where am I restricting myself? Where am I depriving myself? What am I really hungry for? Who is the person I want to be? And then getting very specific about what you notice. Note I say notice, not judge, not shame yourself, not berate yourself. Notice.
One assignment I often give my therapy clients is to keep a food journal. This is different than a diet. It is scribing: not judging, not shaming. So when you eat 12 cookies in a sitting, you simply write “12 cookies.” Not: “I am such a loser. I can’t write that down.” You may, however, write “shame” for the feeling, if that is what you notice. And then you bring the compassionate awareness that you are developing to the shame. You say to the shame:
I see you. I notice that you are there. I’m not going to ignore you any more. You are allowed to be here. I may not love you, but I accept you. I know that I ate those cookies because I was trying to squash you and you didn’t go away. So I want you to know you are allowed to be here. I’m not going to get swallowed up by you, but I do accept that you are here.
This kind of accepting relationship is very different than trying to get rid of the parts of ourselves, others and the world that we would rather go away and be rid of. It makes space for the complexity of our experience and the world. It gives us permission to be ourselves, more fully. In the words of Cheri Huber:
“Be just the way you have always been, with this difference: do not believe any of it, and pay close attention to all of it.”