I was just a few months into dating my now fiancé and we were returning from a day trip.
I was tired.
He was all of the sudden excited. “Oh! I want to take you some place!” he exclaimed.
“I’m pretty tired” I replied, struggling to find my clear “No thank you. Take me home please.”
It’s called the Warehouse Cafe though it’s much more warehouse than cafe.
Walking into this dive bar, so dark that it took more than a minute for our eyes to adjust from the afternoon light, I immediately felt awash in sadness. Not my own sadness, but the sadness of the people there. Hunched over the bar, nursing a drink that was far from their first of the day. They were sad. Not even outwardly sad, but emanating sadness nonetheless, and I could feel it.
It washed over me like a cloud of cigarette smoke and made it just as hard to breathe.
Returning with drinks for us Justin beamed with that ‘Isn’t this place cool!’ look in his eyes.
“I need to get out of here” I responded as tears welled up in my eyes and my breath got short.
Wandering out back amidst a crowd of rowdy bikers we found a place to sit and I started to cry.
Needless to say he was perplexed.
Why had walking into a bar—a bar he was excited to take me to—made me cry?
I tried to explain.“The people in there.” Wiping away tears. “They are so sad. I can feel it.”
Now he was annoyed. I seemed crazy to him and his mind flashed forward to what life might be like with me, unable to ever set foot in a cool dive bar, too sensitive to have any fun. Or so he feared.
Underneath it all he was disappointed. I had popped his balloon.
Nothing I could say in the moment helped me make sense to him.
He was annoyed and I was outraged.
How could he not understand?! How could his first reaction to my upset not be compassion?!
No one spoke on the drive home and when he pulled up in front my apartment I got out, slammed the door, and he sped off.
We’d had our first big fight.
In the years since then I’ve come to understand several important things about myself, sensitivity, and relationships.
First, I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and I was born this way.
Just like dogs can pick up on sounds and smells that humans cannot detect, HSPs can pick up on a whole range of stimuli that non-HSPs are often oblivious to. This makes us powerful. This temperament is a form of intelligence. We’re also the target of messages that we’re weak and too sensitive. Not so. Being an HSP is an asset despite the fact that our dominant culture doesn’t see it that way.
In my masterclass Feast we spend an entire week focusing on high sensitivity because it’s such an important cornerstone in the journey to make peace with food. Often a student will tell me they are an “emotional eater” but what they describe is an overstimulated highly sensitive person using food to calm their nervous system. The more my students understand what it means to be an HSP, shake off any shame of their sensitivities, and take care of their unique needs, the faster the choppy waters of eating stills.
The three aspects of self-care for HSPs are prevention, mitigation, and recovery. Prevention looks like making choices to avoid or modify situations in advance that are overwhelming to our nervous systems. Mitigation looks like being in the middle of an overstimulating situation and doing what you can to make it better. Recovery looks like preparing for and acknowledging that after an overstimulating event our nervous systems are asking us to actively participate in self-soothing.
As an HSP our role in relationship is that of educator. It is our task to teach others about our temperament, our needs, and importantly, about the myths and stigma surrounding sensitivity. It’s just fact that most people aren’t yet familiar with the term or definition of HSP. It’s on us to teach them both directly through words and indirectly by role-modeling how we treat our own sensitivities.
Four years after that tearful trip, Justin has a deep understanding of my sensitivities and a respect for the gifts they bring. Yes, he has moments of frustration but they are minimal and assuaged by all he knows now.
Recently Feast students asked about dating as an HSP, afraid that they would always be perceived as “too much” by any suitor. Rather than speak for him I asked Justin to share a little bit of his experience and this is what he had to say:
What would you tell a guy friend who said he was dating a someone who is an HSP? What advice would you give him?
Learn to be patient. It’s easy to overwhelm an HSP, and you need to slow down and most of the time, lower your voice.
Sometimes what triggers Rachel doesn’t make sense to me, and you just need to understand that it’s her own experience, and you just need to accept and respect it.
What would you tell a single female friend who was trying to navigate finding a partner as an HSP? She feels ashamed and afraid any partner would find her sensitivity a burden. What would you tell her?
Be yourself, and be honest with your partners. Either they get it, or they don’t. Don’t hide those feelings just to spare yourself embarrassment.
What’s been the best thing about dating an HSP?
Letting me tap into my own sensitivities, and knowing that you (Rachel) understand me and can empathize, no matter how odd or off-kilter my feelings might seem.
What’s been the hardest?
Missing out on going out to clubs, loud bars, dancing, drinking. Crowded places are hard, places that most of the time I wouldn’t have a hard time with.
What do you see me (Rachel) doing in terms of my own HSP tendencies that make dating me easier?
I see you try hard and put up with things you might not have been comfortable with before, like sometimes putting yourself in crowded/loud social situations you might have avoided in the past.
What do you do to make dating me (Rachel), an HSP, easier?
Accept the fact that you’re special and that I should treat you unlike any other woman I’ve been with before in my life.
Relationships don’t come built straight out of the box. They come as a pile of incomplete pieces that you, with your combined strengths and challenges, work to put together and when you need a missing part you have to work as a team to find it. As an HSP a few things make it easier to assemble a truly great partnership:
- Learn about your unique temperament
- Exorcise any internalized shame you might have about being an HSP
- Develop your own personalized ways of preventing, mitigating, and recovering from overstimulation
- Respect your boundaries
- Assume the role of educator in relationships
Photo Credit: Rachelle Derouin
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.
If you’re interested in learning more about Tara Mohr’s teachings on unhooking from praise and criticism check out her book Playing Big. It’s a game-changer.
You are not the bad guy in the story of your life.
If you read a novel and the main character made all the same, moment by moment, choices that you have, in the context of a life identical to yours, the result, I’m sure, would be compassion and empathy for that character—not judgement.
At every turn of your life from the day you were born you have first acted to keep yourself safe and soothed. This is primal. This makes sense. You make sense.
We don’t always have access to resources within ourselves that might steer us toward less harmful actions. Sometimes our actions hurt ourselves or others. And still this doesn’t make us the bad guy.
If you are carrying around a thousand pound boulder of guilt and shame, of belief that you failed in some way or should have done better I implore you to put the boulder down. Forgive yourself!
You are not the bad guy in the story of your life.
You have always always always been trying to survive.
That might mean that for thirty years you came home from work and binged on food you didn’t taste or enjoy.
That might mean that for a while you lived beyond your means, regularly buying shoes and other empty impulse purchases
That might mean that you’ve acted poorly, childlike perhaps, toward a friend or family member. Lashed out. Been selfish. Held a grudge.
No matter the scenario: you are still not the bad guy in the story of your life.
You are just the human—good, fallible, sacred—finding your way.
Forgive yourself. Please.
Your unnecessary self-judgement and shame only builds walls: between you and I, between you and your self, between you and life.
As you read back over the book of you, notice that it makes perfect sense why the protagonist made that choice and then, as they say, take heart that when you know better you will do better.
Related post: Doing your best.
Even though we live in a relatively free world and women’s independence is increasingly celebrated, too often we still go along with the crowd at times when it doesn’t serve us and, more importantly, when we don’t have to.
Participation is optional.
Today I invite you to opt out.
Opt out of being weighed at the doctor’s office. Did you know it’s optional? You can simply say “I pass” and if they pressure you, and you don’t feel you have a choice, you can step on the scale backwards and say “I don’t want to know the number, it’s not useful to me.”
Opt out of allowing your child to have their BMI measured at school. Seriously. Let’s stop this early weight stigmatization and use of this most meaningless measurement.
Opt of out the pervasive “I’m so bad, I ate a piece of bread” conversations. If the people around you are gib gabbing about their latest diet, weight loss success or failure you can: change the topic, explain that you don’t partake in ‘diet culture’, or even say “You know how some people don’t talk about religion or politics because it causes conflict, well, I don’t talk dieting.” And leave it at that. You do not have to participate in or respond to every conversation you’re invited to.
Opt out of “Operation Get Bikini Body Ready”. You already have a bikini body, whether you want to wear one or not. This summer is not something to dread. The beach is not something to starve or slave for. Opt out.
Opt out of the hysteria over eating clean and of the diet fad (aka “lifestyle change”) of the moment. Just because “all the cool kinds are doing it” doesn’t mean it’s good for you (or them) and you have every right to opt out without any guilt.
Opt out of any yoga or exercise class that doesn’t feel welcoming to you and your body. As a wise friend of mine once said about bad yoga classes: “Treat them like a bad movie and walk out.” On that note, opt out of the “free” body fat scan that comes with your new gym membership. When it comes to movement, you and your body deserve to feel welcomed, accepted, and met. Anything less is a great opportunity to opt out.
Opt out of seeing any medical practitioner who brings weight stigma into their practice. Increasingly you have choice in this country and more and more there are medical professionals who understand the harm of weight-stigma and scientific validity of the Health at Every Size paradigm. Don’t like your doctor? Afraid to go see them because of the weight shaming comments they’ve made? Opt out.
Opt out of television shows (I’m looking at you Biggest Loser), magazines (I’m looking at you Shape Magazine), and other media that leave you feeling less than. Turn them off, unsubscribe, and go enjoy entertainment that respect you and everyone.
Bottom line: you’re free. You can say “No” and “No Thank You” and “No Fucking Way.”
Even if you feel like the odd one out, no one ever regrets doing what feels right and true to them.
Participation is truly optional.
For the past few years I’ve been unraveling my motherhood knot—the jumble of questions, fears, desires, and beliefs I have about having a child.
As you can imagine (or perhaps relate) this tangle has many layers but one in particular, while perhaps obvious, surprised me.
Or, as I’ve come to think of it: Perfection Coins.
Perfection Coins are what we amass the more in control and ‘perfect’ our life is. If our life somehow reflects a greater percentage of our personal preferences, with minimal compromise or vulnerability we are very rich in Perfection Coins.
When we want something that requires risk, or change, or giving up control we have to trade in our Perfection Coins.
And why would anyone trade them in?
Because the payoff is often living a life in greater alignment with yourself, deeper intimacy with other people, more meaning, and more happiness.
When we become a mother we have to trade in a lot of our Perfection Coins. For some women the cost is too high. For some women, the giving up of control, of order, of predictability is not worth it.
And yet most mothers would tell you that what they trade in Perfection Coins (sleep, a clean house, clothes without stains, etc.) is paid back ten times over in love, connection, and intangible magic.
And as I began to think about this in the context of motherhood it struck me that the same is true about the choice I made to give up my eating disorder and become a body-accepting intuitive eater. I traded in compliments from strangers who idealized by anorexic body, an ego high from eating ‘clean’, and so much more. Tons of Perfection Coins given away and in return I’ve received freedom, sanity, well being, joy, ease and pleasure.
Had I known ahead of time things would work out, I wouldn’t have hesitated. But we can’t know.
When we make the trade it’s done on faith.
It’s always a bet taken because something else becomes more valuable than Perfection Coins.
With each run of Feast my students arrive at this crossroads too. Which would they rather have:
Thighs that don’t touch or sanity around food?
The (false) sense of order delivered by a diet or feeling good in their own skin?
The approval of judgemental family members or freedom to take up space?
Being numb to life’s pain (but also numb to joy) or feeling joy, and all the other emotions too?
We can’t have both. We can’t hold life white-knuckled, gripping to the safety of what we know and also receive the good stuff.
There are simply times when we have to make a choice, or rather, we get to make a choice.
Times when we choose to stay in or leave the relationship. Times when we choose to quit or take the job. Times when we choose to tell the truth or bite our tongue.
Increasingly I choose to trade in my Perfection Coins for the messy, unknown, not-in-my-control, but deeply connected, vibrant life that calls to me.
And truthfully, at the end of life I imagine that Perfection Coins aren’t worth very much.
Oh, you want to know what I’ve decided about motherhood?
But for the first time in my adult life I do know that my decision won’t be based on a need for life to be so tightly ordered.