The first of the many, many times various therapists, other treatment professionals and well-meaning friends suggested to me that my problem was “in my head” I was filled with rage. How dare they! To me, the suggestion invalidated my pain, and implied that not only was I making it up, but it was all my fault and I could just stop. Jerks. Nothing, NOTHING, was more real than the revulsion I felt when I looked at my body, the shame I felt about my own existence and my perception that I did everything somehow wrong no matter how hard I tried.
It’s been a long time since I first received that message. Twenty years, if I place the marker of my descent into distress and disordered eating at the magical age of thirteen (please don’t do the math). And, the awesome and revolutionary realization that became one of the keys that unlocked my prison was that “It’s all in your head” can be a deeply empowering, profoundly effective statement. Here’s why:
It’s all in your head does not mean that your pain is not real. From a purely biological perspective, your pain is in your brain, in a series of electrochemical impulses influenced by the beliefs and memories stored there. Those beliefs and memories have been impressed upon you by the course of your life and the patterns you perceive within your experiences. The problem is that, the farther along you go in life, the more your beliefs and memories become a filter through which all new experiences are processed, which means that we tend to accumulate “proof” that our beliefs (such as “I am bad“) are accurate in an often destructive cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies and misinterpretations of reality.
So! If you can embrace the idea that the way you are thinking your thoughts, the beliefs you have developed, and the meaning you have ascribed to your memories are the strands of a web that is holding you in suffering, then you suddenly have an enormous amount of power because you can craft a new story.
You don’t have to be the victim, the martyr, the sinner or whichever archetypal role you believe your history has cast you into. Your history and your beliefs do not have to be your prison because since it’s all in your head you can influence it. It’s really hard. You can’t just think a new thought once and magically redo years of programming, but with time, and patience, and assiduous care in challenging distortions as you see them emerge, the old ways can be eroded.
Here’s a very simple and accidental example of how this works, which is what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. I happen to be 9 weeks pregnant (wahoo!). When I look down at the beginnings of my satisfyingly round little protrusion of baby belly, I feel joy, excitement, hope, and a desire to parade around showing people the little bump. All of this is because of what I believe about my belly and what it represents and how I imagine other people will respond to it.
This is a rather shocking transformation, because 9 weeks ago when my head was operating from my non-pregnant belief set, challenging mean thoughts about any roundness I perceived in my stomach was a several-times-a-day task because as I entered puberty, I developed some really nasty beliefs, fueled by a trauma-stoked fear of becoming an adult with a sexuality and scary 90s commercials, which I have been working on reprogramming throughout my recovery.
My goal? To use this pregnancy as a time to work deeply with those beliefs in hopes of emerging from the experience with an ever freer mind.
After all, it’s all in my head.