For those of you who are old(er 🙂 ), you may remember a television show titled “Fantasy island.” In it, there was a fictional character Mr. Roarke who ran an island that visitors flew into to fulfill their personal wishes. A mentor of mine calls this place in your mind “the island.” In this magical place, all of your “If____, then___’s” are accomplished, and you feel relief from whatever your particular form of suffering is. Some common versions of “fantasy island” type wishes include:
“If I lose weight, then_____”
“If I am out of debt, then______”
“If I earn (fill in amount of money), then______
“If I am in the right job/career/livelihood, then________”
The Alcoholic version:
“If I find exactly the right way to stay relaxed and socially confidant without blacking out, getting a hangover, or having any other negative consequences, then______”
The New Mom version:
“If I find the right formula for getting my baby to sleep and eat exactly right, have lost all the baby weight, and am not comparing myself to any other mothers, then_____________”
The Eating Disorder version:
“If I don’t eat any ‘bad’ foods, my stomach looks this way, my arms looks this way, my thighs look this way, then____________”
The Romantic Relationship version
“If I am in a relationship (in a married relationship, could change my partner, am no longer in a relationship) then ___________”
Note the irony of the last one. See how the mind creates suffering? As Oscar Wilde famously said:
There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
You can fill in your personal versions “Ifs” and “thens.” However, the “thens” are often harder to fill in, because they are usually more intangible, like “be happy” or “stop feeling anxious or not enough.” Apparently, even in the fantasy island tv series, Mr. Roarke attempted to teach the guests life lessons through assisting them in seeing errors in their thinking or living in their fantasies.
The Thin Ideal
Carolyn Costin, a leader in eating disorder treatment who recovered herself calls these illusions the thin ideal. The thin ideal goes something like this: of if I were thin, I would be (happy/accepted/worthy/not have uncomfortable feelings…) Many of my clients recovering from disordered eating or body image distress know, intellectually, these beliefs about body image to be not true. They know what they are really looking for is not in there. What they are seeking in the desire to be thin doesn’t provide what they are actually looking for. They know “being thin” is not really going to give them freedom from ever having feelings of anxiety or grief or anger. They know being thin is not really going to give them meaningful relationships. They know that being thin is not really going to give them confidence, contentment, or a sense of purpose in their life. However, this part of the mind gets attached to its beliefs and stories. And when one is challenged, it comes up with new scenarios of “if, then.”
When I was never-thin-enough in my eating disorder 17 years ago, I was unhappy. When I finished my Master’s degree, supposedly “accomplishing” worthiness, I felt disappointed. And when I finished my doctorate, mostly what I felt was tired! After having a baby, I did feel content (amidst the exhaustion). However, none of these experiences provided me with an ongoing and easily accessible “You have now arrived” stamp of approval, feeling of contentment, or belonging in life.
I joke with my mentor about this island not actually being an island, but a mountain. Once I have climbed the mountain, reached the top, I will have “arrived.” Another illusion. One of my favorite authors, Pema Chodron writes:
In the process of discovering our true nature,
the journey goes down, not up.
It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the
center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky.
Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures,
we move toward the turbulence and doubt.
We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it.
We move toward it however we can.
We explore the reality and unpredictability
of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.
If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes,
we will let it be as it is. At our own pace,
without speed or aggression,
we move down and down and down.
With us move millions of others,
our companions in awakening from fear.
At the bottom we discover water,
the healing water of compassion.
Right down there in the thick of things,
we discover the love that will not die.
It’s not about the island, it’s not about climbing anywhere, and it’s definitely not about going up a mountain. It’s about going down, right down into the thick of things, with your heart.
What provides the experience of “then” for me are:
Relationships with people who value the gifts I bring and with whom I value the gifts they bring
Being of Service helping others
Dancing or moving my body
Looking at things that scare me in a straightforward, nonavoidant way
I would love to say it IS about the product and there IS an endpoint! Here is where it is and here is how you get there! I have created a map! Just follow it and you will arrive at fantasy island! But the name kind of says it all, doesn’t it? This is not a fantasy. This is real in the trenches imperfect life, with all of its ups and downs every day throughout a nonlinear journey called your life. What provides the experience of “then” for you? I’d love to hear it!