The Things People Say

My sweetheart and I were in a restaurant this weekend on our (isn’t this so cute?) Sunday night dinner date. I was eating my food, had recently checked in with myself to find out if I was feeling full, which I wasn’t yet, but was aware that given my level of impending satiation, I would probably be done before I had finished the portion on the plate. So far, so good. Just then, however, the waiter appeared, announced “There’s no shame in quitting, so if you need a to-go box, just let me know,” and zoomed off again on a water glass refilling mission.

I froze. A series of alluringly distorted thoughts flashed through my head, giving rise to a familiar dull ache in my chest that signals the arrival of shame, self-doubt and fear. Am I eating too much, so much that the waiter thinks I’m bad? Should I be full? Am I reading my appetite wrong? Does that mean I’ve been reading my appetite wrong for years and overeating without knowing it? AM I BAD!?!

Had I been alone, it would have been up to me to catch these thoughts and feelings in my mindfulness net, check them out, identify them as distorted and challenge them, but this time I got lucky. My partner took one look at me and my sad eyes, and said “Honey, he doesn’t know your history, he isn’t criticizing you, and everything is ok”. I calmed down, re-inhabited my body and reaffirmed my willingness to trust myself. With or without the support of an outside mind, I’ve been through that cycle more times than choose your cute saying.

But that’s all it takes. The wrong comment at the wrong moment and our little mind gerbils go galloping (do gerbils gallop?) down the paths of our particular brand of crazy. For me, some early physical trauma left me with the belief that my body is inherently bad and untrustworthy and inspires people to hurt me. I’ve sorted that one out, but if you believe something for long enough, even if it turns out it was wrong, it’s unfortunately easy to fall off the right thinking wagon if you read a person or event to be confirming the old belief. Which is why people should really try to avoid traumatizing other humans and teaching them sad thoughts about themselves, but I can’t fix that particular problem right now.

I’m telling you this whole restaurant story because I get the impression sometimes that the people I work with have the wrong idea about what “recovered” looks like. Folks don’t always come right out and say this, but it’s pretty clear that when I say I have recovered from my disordered eating and living patterns, they imagine me skipping down a sunny dirt road singing odes to my positive body image and picking strawberries. Which sounds pretty ok, although there might be a bunch of mosquitos, but is not a true truth.

What recovered means to me is that I actively, in real time and fairly accurately, can identify when a thought that I’m thinking is whole, and when it is distorted by the lens of history or culture or that thing that girl said to me that time in high school. And because I can identify it (I’m circling a theme here), I then have the power to challenge it, and to ease my way out of the uncomfortable emotions the distorted thought gave rise to. A previous therapist of mine noted that engaging in this process, over time, was much like a river flowing over rocks that have the distortions carved on them: the marks are still there, but they grow fainter with time and practice. I have also learned that I can stack the decks towards having more or fewer of these distorted thoughts emerge depending on the choices I make about what to let into my sphere in terms of toxic or empathic people, media, and how I treat myself.

Now. There is a whole huge controversy in the recovery world (eating disorders, substance abuse, other addictions) about if anyone is ever recovered, or if recovery is a process that’s always ongoing but has no stamp of “now you’re recovered, please exit stage left” available. So where do I fit into that debate? Depends on your definition. To me, recovered means not acting on the crazy anymore, and working your work to erode the crazy so it doesn’t pop up as frequently because as great as it feels to be all mindful and challenge your stuff and win, it can get a little old after awhile if it’s a main course at every meal. There are some who suggest that you’re not recovered until you don’t think the thoughts ever again anymore. Why that doesn’t work for me is that I have never, not once, met or read about or heard about or witnessed in any way a person who doesn’t ever think the thoughts anymore, but I have interacted with many people who are living whole and well lives who occasionally trip on their histories and then get back up with verve and aplomb.

My concern with the skipping down a sunny path carefree idea about “recovered” is that it’s totally bogus and gives people a false goal which is eventually very discouraging. Really, no one lives like that and no matter how well we become, our minds and hearts and bodies carry our history. There’s nothing more powerful, though, than becoming more powerful than your history. No matter what people say to you in restaurants.




Hey, look, a present!

No, not the present like mindfully be aware of the present moment without judgement. More like, sweet, dude, let’s get to unwrapping, shall we? If you can’t wait, here ya go:, but allow me to explain.

It has been my experience that one of the (many) super challenging parts of living your way into the shape that your body finds when you heal your eating (which might be larger or smaller than the present shape you’re in) is the totes.

You know, those totes down in the basement, or in that closet or attic or where ever? The ones that are filled with clothes that are now too small or too large, but all might fit again someday maybe, and maybe let’s try them all on to measure the goodness of our souls or punish ourselves with mean failure thoughts.

Yes. Those totes.

Well, I’m here to suggest that you set yourself free. It’s just not worth it. Sure, yes, you spent money on all those clothes, but that investment has become a torture device, like a giant albatross wearing a dress you starved yourself into or a pair of pants you bought at a time when binge eating spiraled out of control and everything else was too small. Like the scale, it is far too easy, and far too common, to assign value to which size one wears, and then to use fitting into that size, or finding that the size doesn’t fit anymore, as a measure of your worth as a person.

So, what’s a body to do? Let ’em go. My personal favorite method of setting this fleet of pain free is ThredUp, which is a forward thinking business that turns thrift shopping into a website full of awesome. You can order a “Clean Out Bag” from them, fill it up, send it in for free, and they either sell your clothes and give you cash or credits on new stuff, or donate them to one of their charitable partners. Many cities also have a brick and mortar version of this concept e.g. Buffalo Exchange in the Boston area, or Urban Exchange in my Pioneer Valley backyard.

In my rather bossy, but fairly informed opinion, the only clothes you should currently own are clothes that fit you as you are now. And by fit, I mean you don’t think about them. Fit, like, I can sit and stand and bend and move and my clothes aren’t mean to me.

If you’re living in a body in transition, then use my gift to you (hint: it’s worth $10) and dress yourself well, but without a major investment. If your size changes, let the old ones go, and re-fill your drawers with enough essentials to feel comfortable in your skin in the world. And I don’t mean a body in the cruel, unhealthy up and down cycle of the diet-binge-diet-binge cycle. I mean a body that is slowly changing over time as a part of a wellness project. 

You deserve to feel ok. So let the mean, mean totes go.


Good & Bad

My Dad likes to say “If I had a nickel for every time I (fill in the blank)”… Well, if I had a nickel for every time one of my clients said to me “I ate something “bad”, so the day was ruined, so I ate (fill in many blanks),” I would have many, many, many nickels. While we’re at it, I would also like a nickel for every time a client said “I was really good all week, but I was bad all weekend,” by which she or he is referencing food choices, not some kind of looting spree or a local bank heist.

Let’s unpack this black and white thinking a little. (Some of you will recognize the exercise of identifying distorted thinking and challenging it as CBT, short for cognitive behavioral therapy. I’m a pretty big fan.)

For my first victim, I’ll address the idea that a food can be bad. Or, for that matter, good. Thinking about foods in this way is at the heart of many people’s struggles with eating; in my experience this is due to two main factors. The first is that most people want to “be good” which usually means to be loved, or accepted, and is a pretty deep psychological need related to early attachment experiences that plays out across our lifetime. We do not want to “be bad”, in terms of being rejected or unworthy. It’s sadly far too easy to develop some psychological or emotional problems in the I-am-loved-or-not-loved realm, and that stuff is messy and painful.

What I’ve seen in my practice is that often people are playing out this psychodrama with food. Over time, they begin to think of foods as good and virtuous or bad and sinful, with plenty of help in making these judgements from advertisers and the diet industry, and in turn think of themselves as good and virtuous, or bad and sinful based on their choices. It’s simple: it’s black & white. It’s a lot easier to finally feel like you’re a good person because you ate salad today than to sit in therapy for 8 weeks or 8 years talking about how hurtful it was that your Mom got weird and distant and depressed when you hit puberty, but slowly come to see that as a result of her own insecurities and decide that you really are a good person after all, no matter what you had for lunch. Unfortunately, going the I’m good because I ate salad route often backfires into a pattern of disordered eating based on deprivation, binges, regret, rinse, repeat.

The second factor I see being really problematic with good food/bad food thinking is that it gives the food an enormous amount of power, which in turn completely disempowers the eater in question. When my clients talk, I see images of a battlefield spread across their days strewn with remnants of self esteem and bagels, cookies and pancakes looming overhead like zeppelins.

Do I believe that all food has equivalent concentrations of nutrients? Certainly not. Do I tend to choose some foods over others because of my preferences and beliefs about health? For sure. But, try this on for size. If I call a food “bad”, then I am awakening demons. All of my memories and beliefs about my goodness or unworthiness as a person are activated, and how I feel about myself now hinges on whether or not I eat this “bad” food. The food, in that way, becomes a larger than life arbiter of my worth as a person.

On the other hand, if the label I give to a food is “This is a food that tastes good in the first few bites, but that I prefer not to eat in this moment because I’ve noticed that after I eat it I feel a little nauseated and don’t have much energy and I’m at work so that’s not a feeling I’m interested in having right now” then I have all the power. I am an adult person mindfully making a choice dictated by a desire to care for myself. I am reinforcing a belief that I am good and deserve caring for. Woot.

And isn’t that kind of what we’re going for here?