Well, I usually use my monthly article to make a confession because my mistakes or shortcomings are where I learn the most important lessons. Duh. This one is about how I made a bitchy (sort of joking) comment to my friend when she informed me that our homemade pizza dinner party was going to be gluten and dairy free. Ugh.
A little background: after years of hating my body and trying to impose all kinds of arbitrary rules on what I should and shouldn’t be eating leading to feelings of deprivation and overeating, I finally stopped and began allowing myself to eat what I want while learning intuitively what works and doesn’t work for me. Now I see clients in my private practice who are recovering from their own disordered eating and body image as well as patients in an intensive outpatient eating disorder program. I’ve worked hard to free myself from notions of “good” and “bad” when it comes to food and I continue to help others free themselves. But, alas, those inner demons still come out to play.
The demon is my inner critic. This is the voice that in trying to keep me “on track” and “lovable” as a matter of survival, brutally attacked me for every little flaw and used fear and shame to persuade me to be perfect, a torturously unattainable goal. She constantly compared me to others and used others’ outward appearance as a gauge of what I should try to be more like because I’m obviously shit, according to her. She still gets me sometimes, but I can usually catch her early in the process and I’ve developed ways to counteract her wrath like writing articles, reaching out for support, or even just telling her to fuck off.
So, she snuck up on me the other night when I was texting with my friend and she was working multiple angles simultaneously. She helped me interpret my friends’ dietary restrictions as a message that I shouldn’t be eating those foods either which brought up feelings of shame. “If you were ‘good’’’, she says, “you could have stuck to a more restricted diet and you’d be in perfect health and you’d be movie star skinny and maybe you’d have the things you want.” Also, the critic likes to think in black and white, so when faced with difference I felt the need to decide what I was doing was either good or bad and what my friend was doing was either good or bad. This came out as a kind of passive aggressive attack on her. But reality is more nuanced (which can feel threatening to the critic). I’m neither good or bad for choosing my current path – this path just feels intuitively right for me. My friend is doing what feels right for her.
Ultimately what you do or don’t do is up to you and requires some deep listening and feeling out. Because the critic can be so integrated into our everyday functioning and because every magazine on the rack in the grocery store is imposing outside messages that can feel shaming and confusing, here are some questions that might help you understand how you are relating to food and your body and to know if you may need help.
- Does your restricting of certain foods or portions feel like a punishment or do you feel like your choices are coming out of love for yourself and your body?
- Are you constantly comparing your eating, exercise, and body to others?
- Does your relationship to food, exercise, and your body get in the way of your relationships?
- Do you feel tremendous guilt/shame and need to compensate when you eat a food on your “bad” list or do you let it go?
- Do you look to others to tell you what you should and shouldn’t eat or do you let your body tell you? (Or maybe a little of both?)
When our choices are about trying to make the critic happy, we often feel deprived, depressed, anxious…well, pretty unhappy ourselves. And we worry a lot more what others are doing. So what (or who) is it all for? The rules I used to try to follow were designed to squeeze me into a form my critic (and culture) told me others would find lovable. Now I (imperfectly) try to listen to my body and make choices out of self-love. Also, I’ve realized that pleasure can be a part of health – “healthy” doesn’t have to mean flavorless, joyless, punishment.
Turns out, my screw-up helped make a somewhat surface-level friendship a little closer. After speaking in more depth with my friend and repairing from my remark, we know a lot more about each other. I got to learn that it’s tough for her having certain restrictions because she’s limited by a serious health condition (oops!) and she’s trying to enjoy food the best she can without making herself more sick. Sometimes she can’t stand the deprivation so she eats what she wants anyway. It’s a tricky balance. She’s not just following a fad or trying to make herself thin. And even if she were, she still deserves my compassion and non-judgment as best as I can give it.
And so do I. My process has been bumpy and I can still slip into black/white thinking and self-doubt as I challenge myself day after day to love myself no matter what I ate or what I see in the mirror. I see so clearly now that my work is ever evolving but even writing this has helped me feel more compassion for myself in a not so perfect moment.