Last week I met with a new client who struggles with perfectionism and she mentioned that she had recently decided to watch a movie late on a “school night”, even though she “knew better” and when she found herself tired at work the next day her logical conclusion was “I’m bad.” I’m bad as in, “I’m irresponsible, I’m not trustworthy, I make bad decisions” etc.
Hearing the order of events (watch a movie late → feel tired next day at work → conclude badness) it felt like she took a huge stratospheric leap between step A and C. And yet, this is a leap I hear women make all the time. Every week they lay their sins at my feet as evidence of their personal failings.
Here are just a few of the things that women I’ve worked with have told me is evidence of their personal, innate ‘badness’:
- I ate the second box of cookies even though I knew I wasn’t hungry
- I lashed out at my partner who was just trying to help me.
- I missed an important deadline at work.
- I’m fat.
- Unbeknownst to me, I used an offensive term that hurt someone.
- I talked down to a friend of mine.
- My kid hit another kid at school.
- I bought a new pair of shoes when I don’t really have the money for them.
- I went on a date with someone I really liked but then they didn’t want to go on a second date with me.
- I’m (insert age) years old and I still haven’t (insert life achievement) yet.
- I don’t know how to ask for what I want in bed.
- I didn’t speak up at my annual review and ask for the raise I know I deserve.
- I was sexually assaulted and didn’t report it.
- I just quit a well-paying job and don’t know what’s next for me.
- I don’t want kids.
- I didn’t vote in the last election.
- I haven’t saved for retirement.
- I’m, according to my doctor, ‘obese’
- I just had to buy a bigger pants size.
- I tried to do Whole30/Weight Watchers/Paleo and fell off the wagon.
- I laid on the couch all weekend watching reruns of Seinfeld.
- I have a partner who earns enough that I don’t have to work and so I don’t work.
- I had work to do but I took a nap instead.
- I slept with the guy on the first date even though I didn’t really want to.
- I have a to-list a mile long and instead of doing anything productive I went to the movies
- My house is filthy
And so it goes. On and on.
As you can see it’s pretty easy, by these measures, to be ‘bad’
So what’s wrong with labeling ourselves as bad?
It’s a dead-end.
It asks of us no curiosity or compassion. It leaves no room for nuance or humanity.
And importantly it doesn’t engender a different outcome, should you want that, next time.
There is nothing that inspires me less to make changes than feeling bad about myself. I have never and will never change my behavior in a lasting and wholesome way as a result of feeling like I’m not enough or because I berated myself.
Nevermind that it’s not true. “I am bad” is not an accurate description what’s going on and why we act the way we do.
So if we’re not bad then what are we? What’s the alternative?
We are human and the alternative is to look at ourselves through the lenses of compassion and curiosity.
When self-compassion has seeped into our bones and we’ve found ourselves nestled firmly amongst the family of bumbling humans something extraordinary happens: “because I’m bad” either ceases to be an option for explaining anything or it scarcely makes an appearance. (I’ll get into what replaces it down below.)
If “I’m bad” or some variation of it still show up on your list of possible explanations for your behavior, choices, life, experiences, or appearance then today I’m inviting you to, at least temporarily, in the name of experimentation, remove it. (Seriously, what if you couldn’t explain anything with that?!)
If you ask me what my work is about I will mention “hungers” and “women” and “feasting on your life”, but at the root, my work is really about how we relate to ourselves. When we are in an allied relationship with ourselves we trust our hungers and seek to feed them. When we are in an oppositional relationship to ourselves we mistrust our hungers and seek to numb, deny or minimize them.
This most essential relationship, the one we have with ourselves, also determines the lens through which we view all of our actions. If we’re not on the same team as ourselves, if on the inside we’re both the ‘good guy judge’ and the ‘flawed bad guy’ then “I’m bad” is a common conclusion to make.
When we’ve come to see that all parts of ourselves are welcome, that all parts of make sense, that there is no bad guy, and that we’re no better or worse (though equally special) than all humans we no longer find “I’m bad” on the list of ways to explain our actions.
So what happens when “I’m bad” isn’t an option?
What you find is a whole host of doors open up. You find immense compassion not just for yourself but for every human who is also wading through the muck of life.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a get out of jail free card. This isn’t how we justify behaving badly. This is how we see nuance. This is how we get to the root of what’s going on and what it means to be human. This is how we gain deeper insight into our own patterns and increase our sense of choice.
So, you might be wondering: “If I’m not bad then what’s going on?”
The most common answer, in my experience, is nothing.
Nothing is going on because the action is something any normal, imperfect human might do. Try it on for size: “I did X because I’m human. The end.” In these cases the only thing that needs to change is us embracing our own humanness, seeing ourselves within the family of humans, and holding ourselves to more human standards.
This one most often comes up around productivity and rest. The need for more sleep.The never-ending to-do list. The dirty house and unfolded laundry. All of these are typical areas for women to label themselves as lacking, when in fact, they are just human. Regular human, not superhuman. Join the club.
Other ways you might explain or interpret your behavior that don’t assign core not-enoughness include:
- Because…I’m hurting and I didn’t know a better way to cope with it. (humans hurt sometimes and we don’t always use or have a robust coping toolkit)
- Because I’m scared. (humans get scared)
- Because I was checked out. (humans do that sometimes)
- Because I wasn’t informed/awake. (humans have blind spots)
- Because I was/am struggling to balance two or more competing needs. (humans have a lot of layers and often our needs rub against each other)
- Because I was caught in my own illusions. (being human = egoic illusions that need to be worked through)
- Because I was chasing love/safety and part of me thought I could find it if I did X (humans need love and safety and will do a lot of stuff to get any semblance of it.)
- Because I was trying to live up to an unrealistic, inhumane standard. (humans, especially women humans, are expected to live up to a lot of impossible stuff)
- Because I goofed. (humans goof up)
- Because I was triggered (humans get triggered)
- Because I was tired (humans get tired)
- Because I behaved badly. (humans do that sometimes)
I’m not saying that given a do-over you wouldn’t, sometimes, go back and do some things differently. I am saying that there needs to be room for you to be human and for your very human actions not to be interpreted as you being deficient, bad, lacking, or not enough in any way.
Who you are is not what you do. What you do is a result of being an imperfect human with the level of consciousness, connection and healing you have at a given moment.
This means I can reject your behavior and not be rejecting you.
This means you can behave ‘badly’ and not be ‘bad’
This shift in lenses also means, again, that we can have a better understanding of why we behaved in a certain way and then have more space, thanks to compassion, to either accept ourselves or make a different choice next time.
There is no part of you that’s the enemy, that can’t be trusted, or that’s out to get you. There are just parts of you to be understood better, listened to more deeply, possibly healed, and ultimately, and always, loved.
If you want to know where to find these unwelcomed parts of yourself, here are a few places to look:
- Where do you feel less than other people or commonly compare yourself only to find most often that you rank below others?
- If I asked you to tell me all the ways you’re not living up to where you should be, what would you say? Where would you say you fall short? (I hope it’s clear I would never seriously ask you this question)
- Straight up: in what areas are you a bad mother, wife, friend, daughter, employee, etc.? (again, not a question I would ask because I disagree with the premise, but a good one to spark your awareness)
Your answers to all three of these questions will shed light on places you might offer some more compassion towards, you might let go of superhuman expectations, find a loving motivation to make changes, or simply seek to understand before you condemn.
I highly recommend the following books if this is a topic that feels alive for you:
I have a practice called Wild Writing. I learned it from the inimitable Laurie Wagner and I attend a Wild Writing group with her most Friday mornings. The group practice goes something like this:
1. Laurie reads a poem. A good poem. A grounded poem. Not an abstract, hard to deconstruct poem. A poem about dirty dishes in the sink or a poetic list of life regrets. Then she pulls one or two lines from that poem and offers it up as our prompt.
2. We use the prompt, or not if we don’t feel like it, and we write for fifteen minutes without stopping. The pen never stops. We write too fast for the inner critic or to sound smart. We just go. We try to find the vein of what really wants to be said. No performing. Just truth.
3. Then we go around the table and we share what we wrote. No one responds. We are just witnessed. Then the next person reads.
4. We repeats this two more times.
5. We go home cleansed.
Today was my first day back at the Wild Writing table in a long while. The holidays, a wedding, and political upheaval had pulled me away. I returned, as I often do, doubting whether I have anything to say or if I will even remember how to do this (despite it being so simple). Below are two of the pieces I wrote this morning. Unfiltered.
May they inspire you to get it out, write it out, speak it out. May they call forth the messy truth, the contradictions, and the part inside of you that knows what’s needed now.
Advice to Myself
Go the flea market. Spend $8 on clip-on earrings of mini bingo cards. Spend $3 on poster board for protest signs — have a wardrobe of signs at the ready.
Sew like your life depended on it. Sew like the world will come apart at the seams if you don’t stitch it up.
Measure the pillow insert and remeasure and remeasure and even though it says 19”, ignore it. Pretend it’s 20” in a world where facts are debatable. You can decide it’s 20” if you don’t mind a slightly oversized pillow case.
Pray to the light of cute babies and dinner parties where you pull animal spirit cards and share whose husbands have trouble getting naked and whose have trouble staying clothed. Pray to the light of French onion soup and a life free from wedding planning.
Pray to the light because you have no choice but to bury your fingers—no, your arms—in the blackest of dirst and dig. Dig like a chain gang. Each of us sentenced to hard labor for the foreseeable future. If you sit this out completely you’re a traitor.
Make granola. Toast the oats and the coconut and use the last bits of crystallized ginger, the sesame seeds, the sour cherries—the ones you bought in Germany for plane snacks but never ate.
Advice to myself: get on your fucking yoga mat. Your neck and shoulders and hips are a few of the most trustworthy sources of information there are right now.
Go out for thai food, slurp noodles in between glances of the basketball game.
Roll lettuce cups while too-calmly explaining that you’re just at the “impeachment” stage.
[This writing was inspired by Lousie Erdrich’s Advice to Myself poem]
What kind of times are these?
These are times of picking battles. These are times where so much that used to ruffle feathers falls insignificantly, weightlessly by the wayside.
It doesn’t matter that he needed one typewriter ribbon but ordered four to get the free shipping. Or that she’ll have to take a cab because you’re running late. Your weight doesn’t matter, it didn’t then and it really doesn’t now. It doesn’t matter that you have two turnips in your vegetable drawer that have been there since October.
Kellyanne Conway’s frizzy hair, the President’s tiny orange hands, or Mike Pence’s repressed homosexuality don’t matter.
No, we have to keep our eyes on the prize, eyes on the bloody Syrian baby, eyes on The Constitution, eyes on our community, eyes on what our dollars support, eyes on the times that we blindly checked the box for the incumbent or didn’t check the box at all.
What doesn’t matter is if the cleaning lady sees your vibrator or you forgot to eat a vegetable today, or this week. It doesn’t matter if you called your grandmother out of obligation or if you haven’t cancelled that unused gym membership yet.
No, what matters is the friend with seizures who may lose his health insurance. What matters is the sixteen year old who, like you, had sex with her boyfriend, and unlike you got pregnant. What matters is the life she wants to live. What matters is that, as painful as it is, we read the news every day. What matters is that nice white ladies put their bodies visibly out there in support of black bodies.
It doesn’t matter if people call you radical or you make a mistake. It doesn’t matter if the NSA taps your phone and hears you saying almost daily how comfortable you are with someone committing assassination.
No, this is a time of stark contrast and we must pick our battles. If we’re not fighting to protect what we hold dear, we don’t deserve it. We might not deserve it.
Is this boring? All this call to arms? Are we already jaded, already too overwhelmed, already too confused about what’s happening and who’s in charge and “How could he say that?” and “How could he not know that?!” Are we there yet?
What matters is that’s what they want: to exhaust, confuse, and lull us.
What kind of times are these?
[This writing was inspired by Adrienne Rich’s What Kind of Times Are These poem]
During extremely stressful times, our internal challenges can become magnified.
The current political crisis in America has lead everyone I know to react in a different way. Some are channeling their anxiety into activism. Others are burying their head in the sand — or the refrigerator. Some are circling their community for comfort — others are putting themselves on punishing exercise plans.
If you are struggling right now with your relationship to food and your body Feast will give you the tools you need to navigate this particularly uncertain moment in history: self-compassion, intuitive eating, effective emotional coping, and self-trust.
Every cell of my body is screaming “leave!” this morning. There is no where I want to be less than here. But I stay.
When I heard the news I ran to the toilet to throw up. I sat on the floor of the bathroom rocking back and forth, tremoring, breath shallow wanting so intensely to leave this moment, this world. But I stay.
My mind grips and grasps for me to run away to the future. To the what ifs. To the terror. To the tracing of all the steps in history that lead me and us to this moment. To the search for blame. To the desperation for salvation. My mind implores and beckons me to leave. But I stay.
As a woman, my body has rarely felt like home. For too long I didn’t live here. Here was not a place to trust. Here was not a place that I thought I could handle with my eyes open. But I found my way back and I stay.
Today the invitation I have for you may not be easy: stay.
Stay in your body. Stay with the tremors and the shaking. Stay with the pit in your stomach. Stay even as you notice yourself bobbing in and out. These feelings. This trauma. This fear and anger and sadness and confusion and despair cannot kill us. In fact staying is our salvation.
Stay in your body. Just sidle up next to whatever sensation is coursing through your flesh. Feel the pain. Notice the quality of your breath. Are you hungry? Cold? Perhaps the best way to describe here is ‘numb’? That’s all welcome.
The body knows and it has evolved over millennia to process trauma like many of us are experiencing. These processes require little effort on our part other than loving presence…other than staying with kindness.
In staying we can receive our bodies wise requests. Is it aching for companionship? Asking for quiet? Nudging us to put away the screens or put on a sweater? Now is the time to heed our body’s requests. Now is the time to stay.
There may not yet be answers to the questions in our mind but we can answer the requests of the body.
There will be a time in the near future that we act boldly, consistently, together and with steadfast determination but right now the impact has just happened, the car has just rolled, the fire just ravaged through, leaving our skin raw and our being bewildered. So right now our best action is to simply stay. Stay and tend. Stay and feel. Stay and listen.
Here is my call: let our response to this moment be deeper embodiment.
Why embodiment? What can embodiment do in the face such real-life practical threats?
Embodied women are resourced.
Embodied women are awake.
Embodied women are rooted.
If there were ever a time for women to be resourced, awake, and rooted this is it.
Let our commitment be to stay and to feel and then to act on behalf of those whose bodies are most threatened. And it’s all a threat to bodies isn’t it?
Marriage equality and LGBTQ rights? Human bodies.
Racial justice? Bodies.
Reproductive rights? Bodies.
War? ISIS? Bodies.
Affordable and accessible healthcare? Bodies.
Responsible gun control? Bodies.
The disembodied cannot support and protect the physically vulnerable nearly as effectively as an army of the deeply embodied.
Don’t move to Canada.
Don’t check out.
Don’t give up.
Don’t turn to your escape of choice.
Stay. Just here. Just now. In this hurting, reeling body.
All you need to is stay and when you leave, come back as soon as you are aware.
When all you want to do is leave.
When hopelessness nips at your toes.
When you don’t know where to go or what to think or how to proceed.
Just stay here in your powerful, vulnerable, sacred flesh.
The way forward will be found here and together, in our bodies, we will rise.
Before you read any further, head over to Facebook and follow Charlie Shipley’s The No-Diet Notebook where he shares the simplest hand drawn words in support of living a diet-free, body-loving life. They’re pure, bite-sized brilliance.
Here is this week’s entry from The No-Diet Notebook:
I shared this image with my current Feast cohort and one student replied: “I think having a fit body is an accomplishment. What am I getting wrong here?”
Her question is apropos given that the Olympics just kicked off and much of the world is celebrating the super-human feats of these athletes.
But is a fit body an accomplishment?
Let’s take a deeper look.
The first thing we need to do is separate out a fit body as defined by abilities (endurance, flexibility, strength, balance, etc.) and a fit body as defined by appearance standards.
The latter, a fit-appearing body, is not an accomplishment at all. There is nothing superior about a body that conforms to society’s narrow and incorrect standard of what a fit body looks like. Athletes of the highest caliber come in all forms. It’s a myth that you have to have a flat stomach or thighs that don’t touch or low body fat percentage.
At the height of my anorexia, strangers would openly comment on my body making it clear that they equated my thinness with health and fitness. “You must work out” they’d say when my reality was days spent in bed too weak to move from severe starvation.
My partner has a sturdy build, broad shoulders, and strong arms. He doesn’t lift weights ever. He’s of Polish descent and this is simply the body shape his genetics produce. Nevertheless, people make assumptions about him based on his appearance all the time.
Fit people come in all shapes and sizes. They have round bellies and thighs that touch. Strong people can come in bodies that look weak. Likewise, unfit people come in bodies that appear fit.
Bottom line: we simply cannot know from looking at someone if they are healthy or not and as such, appearing in a fit body is not an accomplishment.
Now if we’re talking about a fit body in terms of performance, it all depends on one’s personal values. It depends on personal values because physical fitness is not objectively (or universally) an accomplishment. It depends on what is important is to you and what your motivation is.
Personally, it’s not important to me that I can swim fast or lift large amounts of weight. It is important to me that I feel good in my body, am able to enjoy and live my life (go hiking, swim in the ocean, carry my groceries up my six floor walk up, etc). These are my values. Michael Phelps, Misty Copeland, and possibly the student who asked the question, have different values when it comes to fitness. That’s okay. It’s personal. If I don’t value these things I’m not less accomplished. I am likely accomplished in different ways.
Remember: all bodies are good bodies.
ALL BODIES ARE GOOD BODIES.
We rank bodies for sport in our culture, but we don’t need to and doing so is violent. It’s okay to opt out of the body comparison game, as it’s a game that ultimately hurts us all.
It’s also important to explore our motivations for pursuing fitness. As I tell my student WHAT we’re doing doesn’t matter so much as WHY we’re doing it. Whether leaving food on our plate or asking for a second helping, running a 5K, or napping on the couch–why are we doing it? Are we doing it because it feels good to us and brings us joy? Are we doing it because we feel like we’re not enough? Are we acting out of fear? Are we doing what we want or what we think you should do?
I strive to act from a “wholesome” why. To move in response to self-awareness, embodiment, kindness, self-compassion, sustainability, a personal desire to feel alive, connected, and of service.
We could be the fittest person in the world, but if we got there because being fit is a way to compensate for feeling like we’re not enough or to be accepted, loved, or approved of–I question the blanket awarding of the label “accomplished”.
We also need to be careful when using a word like “accomplished” as there is an implication that one who is not accomplished is lacking, failing, and unfinished or incomplete. We want our language to make room for celebrating individual success while not shaming those who define success differently.
A final note: there are real life circumstances that can impede traditional fitness pursuits or results. They include but are not limited to poverty, mental illness, physical illness, physical disability, and serving as a caretaker. Having the time and resources to devote to fitness is often a luxury and privilege.
So is a fit body an accomplishment?
No, unless it’s important to you, available to you, and supportive of you. And even then, you very well might not look like the picture of fitness and that’s just fine.
“There’s No Morality in Exercise: I’m a Fat Person and Made a Successful Fitness App”
Ragen Chastain of Dances with Fat (In particular this post and this post)
“Dear Virgie: ‘Why Does Exercising Feel So Complicated?'”
“How To Exercise Out Of Self-Love — Not Due To Fat-Shaming”
In the early months of my anorexia the praise I received about my appearance and weight loss served as fuel for a dangerous fire.
“You look great!”
“What are you doing? You look awesome.”
“I wish I had your willpower.”
“Wow, you have a great body.”
Friends, strangers, and even my parents, in the early days, doled out praise for what appeared to be a newly discovered commitment to health and the smaller pants I could fit into.
Approval was like a drug. It felt good, really good, when it started and it served as a motivation later on. When I didn’t want to go to the gym or I wanted to eat something beyond my ultra restricted diet all I did was think about what people would say if I gained weight and that was enough to keep me in line.
In a lot of ways I was addicted to praise. The high I got from others celebrating my physical form (and how it conformed) was palpable. The panic I felt when (I projected that) others judged my body negatively was crushing.
- Dependence on, or addiction to praise – causing us to do only those things that are likely to get us gold stars and others’ approval
- Avoidance of praise – not wanting to stand out from the crowd – even for positive reasons, which causes us to self-sabotage, to not do our best work
- Fear of criticism – which causes us to not innovate, share controversial ideas, pursue interests where we’ll be fumbling beginners or fail along the way, or do anything that makes us visible enough to be criticized!
She makes the astute suggestion to “always look at feedback as giving you information about the person or people giving the feedback, rather than information about yourself.”
Tara’s writings explores this topic mostly in the context of our careers and I want to take it further and apply it to praise and criticism of our bodies and food choices.
And unhooking in this realm is not an easy thing to do because we all want to belong. We all want approval. When we are praised it feels great. When we are judged or rejected it can feel devastating.
And yet, living at the mercy of the approval of others, striving to conform in our appearance or diets to what others or “society” deems good is the definition of disempowerment.
Being able to live our lives and make basic choices like what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat without factoring in what other people will think is essential if we are to feel free and unmasked—if we are to stay connected to the immense wisdom of our bodies.
Feeding ourselves is one of the most basic acts of autonomy. No one else should have a say in what we put into our bodies and yet for too many women, with each bite, comes a cacophony of judgemental voices—some real, some projected.
This happens when we get dressed too. Our minds run off with thoughts of “Does this make me look fat?” “Does this show my belly/thighs/arms/butt, etc?” “Will so and so think I’ve gained weight?” “Will they think I’ve given up?” Too often we sit on the side lines, skip the party, or spend more than we can afford on clothing just to mitigate the judgement we fear others will have of how we look.
But, as Tara so eloquently explains “the goal…is not to become impervious to praise and criticism. That would be impossible. It would also be inhuman, and would force us to deny an important part of ourselves….The part of us that wants others to receive us with appreciation, with enthusiasm – the part that wants to be loved by those around us? I think that’s a very tender, real, part of us, a part to honor too. The point is not to become disconnected from feedback, to have such a thick skin that we can’t feel it or hear it, but rather, to become “unhooked” by it, to not be run by it. The point is to be run by our own wisdom…The goal is to not have others’ ideas about us distract us, silence us, or take us on an emotional roller coaster.”
I agree. In the end it comes down to what we each, as individuals, decide is important in a meaningful life. Unhooking from praise and criticism when it comes to our bodies and our food choices is a life long practice. Each of us has an ego that is ready and willing to lure us back to that to the roller coaster. Getting hooked isn’t a failure.
So what does it look like when we’re unhooked from body praise and criticism?
It looks like this:
- Eating what we want, not more or less based on what other people are eating or who we are eating with, or what social function we have coming up on our calendar.
- Allowing photos of us to be taken and seen, knowing that a moment captured in 2-D doesn’t define us or tell our whole story.
- Not hiding in the ways we dress or hiding what we are choosing to eat.
- Letting someone else’s comments about our appearance be about them.
- Dressing and adorning ourselves for ourselves, with pride, and the body we have today.
- Observing the hurt or fear that comes from criticism and looking inward to where we may be holding self-judgement. After all, it’s much harder to be hurt by criticism we don’t agree with.
- Doing our best to practice non-judgement when it comes to other people’s eating and appearance.
- Sometimes consciously giving up the SHORT-TERM high we know we’d get if we went on a crash diet. We unhook when we choose long-term, internally-based sustainable happiness instead of short-term, external hits of power. This happens in small moments.
- When necessary, reminding other people that our body, appearance, and food choices are entirely our own domain—no outside contributions needed or welcome.
Unhooking is a practice, but remember, what I think of you, or she thinks of you, or he thinks of you, or your inner critic thinks of you doesn’t much matter. You are in charge. Your body is yours. Your reasons behind your food choices are personal and multifaceted and no one’s business.
Go to the party. Take the photograph. Put on whatever size clothing fits your body today and feels comfortable. Eat what you want, in public, in front of people who are still entranced by diet culture.
Have no shame for struggling, getting hooked, bumbling toward finding your way, or being a human who feels deeply—this stuff isn’t easy.
Ultimately though, when you can, remember that what other people think about your body and food choices only has as much power as you give it.