I’ve been struggling with hope recently. I have two sick loved ones, democracy in America is crumbling before our eyes, healthcare coverage is in a shambles, many of my clients have been in crisis. I have been feeling the weight of this. I’m not going to go into details because, as a wise colleague of mine advises: don’t disclose a story until you can be the messenger of hope. Then it is medicine. Before that, it is spewing more unhealed shit into the world. (For the record: it is wise and helpful to disclose the story that is still in-process in your therapy! That is the place to spew it so you can get to the medicine!) One place I find refuge when cynicism, grief, and despair are fighting to take down hope, is to go to those who are carrying the torch. For me, one of those people is Marianne Williamson. In a Beautiful Writers podcast interview, here is what she had to say about hope:
“Hope is born of participation in hopeful solutions. So when your hope is intimately connected to your own sense of responsibility to provide hope for others, then it’s something beyond optimism. It’s knowledge.
If I want something down on the ground and I let it fall from my hands, gravity will take it there. I don’t just hope that gravity will work; I know that gravity will work.
If you’re an airline pilot and you can’t see the horizon because there is a strong cloud cover, you still know the horizon is there, you just know that today you can’t see it. So the pilot doesn’t just hope that the horizon is there, s/he just knows that s/he can’t see it right now so in that moment, you fly on instruments.”
What does it mean to fly on instruments in recovery?
It means acting as if the horizon is there. It means following your food plan. It means showing up for your support system: meetings or group, therapy, nutrition, doctor. If you are further along in recovery, it means providing service to the newcomer, your friends, or your clients. Tell them you’ve been there. Be a listening ear. Provide hope for them. Be the message that it is possible. Remind them of the horizon they can’t see.
And in Mommyhood?
Similarly, flying on instruments in motherhood means acting as if, even when you have lost sight of the horizon. Show up for the daily tasks: make breakfast for you and kid(s), pack the lunches, take a shower, get some sunshine and outdoors time, practice gratitude for what you can see in the present. Last night my little one expressed gratitude for the air.
“Thank you for the air, sunshine, mama and papa, and my hamster.”
It is good to be grateful for the air we breathe. It is god to listen to the little ones. They are the carriers of hope. It is good to practice gratitude for loved ones, air, sunshine. This is the fuel that will help us keep going when we can’t see the horizon.
Back to Marianne. She says:
“We are living in an extraordinary time…”
[I know – my pessimistic critic isn’t fully on board with this silver lining either, but let’s just act-as-if the horizon is there]
“…Blessed are those who have faith that cannot see. So hope in things unseen means knowledge of things unseen.”
May you find this knowledge in your daily actions today. May you breathe the air of hope, eat the food of hope, be the message of hope. Hope doesn’t mean pink icing on the garbage. Hope means traveling through the cloud cover, sure and steady, one tiny millimeter at a time.
PS As I was finishing this post, the American healthcare bill that would have taken coverage away from my sick loved one and many of my clients was withdrawn due to lack of support.
Carry on flying, people. Carry on. Revolutions are built on Hope.
The holidays can be hard. They can be especially difficult for people recovering from disordered eating, alcoholism, depression, or anxiety. The intention of this blog is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others. This is not a list to use to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect! May it be helpful, useful, and ease some of your suffering during this time.
Try not to let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Getting too tired, hungry/hypoglycemic, resentful, or isolating is a recipe for addictive behaviors and/or depression. Imagine yourself to be a little one (this will not be hard for you parents to imagine) who needs regular meals and snacks, regular emotional understanding, and regular sleep. If little ones get too tired/hungry/emotionally not heard, there will be meltdowns. Be a kind parent to yourself. Pack a self-care bag with protein snacks, water, get to bed on time, make plans with friends and/or providers that “get” you so you can feel nourished and grounded. Practice what a friend of mine calls “aggressive self-care.”
2. Keep 1 Thing Constant
Choose one thing – morning meditation, weekly support group, your meal plan, sobriety, journaling, daily inspirational reading… To read more, go to EDBlogs
Just as a reminder, the intention here is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others… not to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect.
Stay tuned for part two next week!
I recently gave a talk for parents on Eating Disorders and what parents wanted to know most was: How do I prevent my child from developing an eating disorder?
Here are five things you can do (and some you can be conscious of NOT doing) to assist with preventing your child from developing an eating disorder:
- 1. DON’T Diet.
Diets don’t work. This has been proven again and again. Here are a few scary statistics:
*95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years (Grodstein, Levine, Spencer, Colditz, & Stampfer, 1996; Neumark-Sztainer, Haines, Wall, & Eisenberg, 2007).
*80% of 10-year-old girls in America have dieted to lose weight. (Bates, 2016)
Women who were put on diets as young girls are more likely to struggle with obesity, alcohol abuse and disordered eating as adults. (Keel, 2014).
*35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. (Shisslak, Crago, & Estes, 1995).
- 2. DO eat intuitively.
Intuitive eating can be summarized by: relying on internal cues for hunger and satiety, eating for physiological rather than emotional reasons, having no dietary restrictions/unconditional permission to eat, and body size acceptance (Tribole, and Resche, Intuitive Eating A Revolutionary program that Works, 1995, 2012). Listen to your own hunger and don’t restrict. Give yourself permission to enjoy eating!
- 3. Take care of your own body image.
Be mindful that you are your child’s mirror. You may be tempted, as I saw in a humourous newspaper wear a “Mom’s Bathing Suit as One Giant, Body-Ecclipsing Ruffle.” You many gaze disgustedly in the mirror at your postpartum muffin top. Postpartum body image and ageing can be brutal. However, don’t allow yourself to buy into the culture’s message around self-worth being tied to “getting your postbaby body back in shape.”
A) Your postpartum body will never be the same shape. You grew a baby in there.
B) Your worth is bigger now. You have been changed by life. Try and embrace and radically accept that. Be proud of your tummy like your child is proud of theirs. You are beautiful because of the life you have lived and your body reflects that: all the scars, stretches, and wrinkles. A wizened tree does not Botox itself to look like a skinny leaf-sprout. Be the tree that you are proudly (or, on a bad day, good-enough).
- 4. Follow the “Division of Responsibility” when feeding your child.
Briefly, the division of responsibility is: The parent is responsible for What, When, and Where you eat. The child is responsible for How much and Whether they eat. This is based on Ellen Sattyr’s work. To see a handout on this, click here
I know it can be hard to trust that your child WILL choose to eat vegetables. But it CAN and DOES happen. See this amazing transformation in my own little one, who used to only eat anything soft and white. Notice how one carrot and two bits of pepper have grown into a plate almost entirely filled with vegetables!
(By the way, DO respect sensory sensitivities. If your child prefers soft texture, make soft texture food and gradually without a fight and making it fun introduce other textures.) And, remember: there are no bad foods. Kids need carbs and fat, and so do you. They help you have enough energy, they feed your brain.
- 5. Allow all feelings in your family (especially uncomfortable ones like anger, fear, and shame).
Low tolerance for negative affect has been shown to be one of the factors contributing to eating disorders. What does this mean? It means, in order to create an environment where your child will not feel they have to hide or stuff parts of themselves in order to be loved, you have to allow discomfort. Anger is a tough one. Most people error in one direction (rage at others) or the other (blame self and stuff into depression). Work on expressing anger at the level of irritation before it gets too overwhelmingly big. Have weekly family meetings. If you get in a fight with your partner, make up and show your child you have made up so they can see people re-unite after being mad at each other. When your child is mad, don’t withdraw your affection. Notice: “I see you are mad. I’m going to help you. I love you even when you are mad. You can hit the pillow, but not me. I’m going to stay with you until we work this out.” Allow fear. Allow insecurity, embrace imperfection. When someone makes a mistake in our house, we say “Yay! I made a mistake!” This is not my natural inclination. The natural inclination with shame is to hide it. Sweep it under the rug quickly! Pretend-like-you-know-what-you-are-doing-before-you-get-in-trouble-or-someone-sees-that-you-are-a-fraud! Don’t do this. Turn toward your own and your child’s imperfections and growth edges. Growing requires failing, and failing, and failing before succeeding. Support your child in practicing new skills. When your little one is learning to walk and falls down, you say “Hooray! Try again!” Continue to do this with yourself and your little one. Again and again.
It is possible to prevent eating disorders. And it is also possible to build a strong protective factors so that if your child develops one, they can recover with more ease. Do what you can. Eating Disorders are complex and develop from a unique and individual interplay of many factors. Eating disorders are no-one’s fault, but everyone’s responsibility. Prevention and recovery are possible.
I’m so excited to have a guest blog today by By Andrea Wachter, LMFT, co-author of The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook and the new children’s book Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell. I have followed her work for years (since I got into recovery nineteen years ago!) and am honored to share her words of wisdom.
Breaking the Bad Body Image Legacy
I was raised by a mom who was extremely dissatisfied with her body. Sadly, and statistically, there is a good chance that you were too. It’s nobody’s fault. Most of our mothers were handed the same bad body image baton that we were, leaving far too many of us competing in the never ending race of trying to eat a certain way, exercise a certain way and look a certain way in order to feel attractive and loveable.
Fortunately, there is a movement toward health and healing. My hope is that someday, a woman who dislikes or despises her body will be as rare as one who thinks that washing her child’s mouth out with soap is a wise parenting tool. As a culture, we need a massive update on our body image programming and if you are reading this blog, there is a good chance that you are up for the task.
Whether someone inherits a bad body image from their family, or learned it from our crazy culture, it is possible to heal. In my therapy practice, I have worked with women of all ages and from all walks of life and I have found that if there is desire and willingness, there is hope to break the legacy of bad body image.
My earliest memory of body image awareness was when I was about eight years old. I innocently walked into the bathroom and saw my mom soaking in the tub. While I don’t remember her exact words, I do recall her saying something negative and unkind about her body. I silently wondered why she didn’t like her body. And the programming went on from there: negative comments she made about feeling or being fat; certain foods being deemed “good” or “bad;” needing to diet or exercise to make up for what she ate.
Then came the painfully memorable shift when the focus turned to my body: Being told I was “getting a little chubby;” getting served the tasteless diet foods that were kept in a special freezer in the garage, while my dad and brother ate the regular foods from the kitchen; my dad telling me I have “such a pretty face,” if only I would “lose a few pounds;” paying my sister and me to lose weight.
I harbor not an ounce of blame or resentment toward these precious people. They received the same mixed-up messages we all have: If you lose weight, you will be more attractive and loveable. If you exercise, eat lean proteins, vegetables and fruits, you will be “good.” If you eat what have been deemed “bad” foods, you will be out of control and lose the praise and love you so hunger for.
Being a sensitive child who was desperately eager to please, I took my parents’ early teachings to heart. My dieting turned to sneak eating which led to periods of serious restricting which led to major binges which eventually morphed into a hard core case of bulimia. I added massive amounts of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes into the mix and spent decades completely lost in food, weight and body obsession. My self-worth, my social life, my love life, my health and my schooling were all greatly and negatively impacted by my painful and insidious relationship with food and my constant attempts to lose weight. And even when I did manage (countless times) to lose weight, it never once brought the peace of mind and happiness that I was told it would. Instead, my weight losses came with terror of weight gain and the animal-like hunger that accompanies and follows starvation.
I once asked my mom how she became so obsessed with dieting and so unhappy with her body. She told me that her mom and grandmother were both heavy but really didn’t seem to give it a second thought. It was only when she moved out of her poor Brooklyn neighborhood and into a “nice neighborhood filled with thin women” that she began to diet. She said, “I think I learned it from friends and it probably came from watching TV. Plus, your father was always so obsessed with my being thin.”
I then asked my dad how he came to be so obsessed with thinness. His answer was honest and it actually made sense to me. My dad ran a ladies clothing company in Manhattan. He worked tirelessly in the factory and he explained, “I guess I saw that the sewers in the factory were all fat and poor and seemed pretty unhappy. They had hard lives. The models who worked for us in the showroom were all thin, rich and glamourous and they seemed to be so happy.” Seemed being the operative word here. My precious papa took a small segment of the population, made some big assumptions, and based on his profound love for me, led me down a road he thought would bring me goodness. As did my mom. We were all given the same faulty programs.
The great news is that I eventually found my way out. And even better news is that I made a career out of it. My life’s work is now about helping others overcome their battles with food, weight and body issues as well as doing early prevention for kids who are showing signs of body dissatisfaction. Much like drugs, the earlier you intervene, the less entrenched the patterns are and all the more hope there is to change.
I was not a light weight dieter, binger and body hater. (Pardon the pun!) I went hard core. Fortunately, I dove hard core into healing too. It takes hard core dedication to break the legacy that so many of us have been handed: to eat exactly what we want in moderate amounts; to say “no” to food, even when others are pushing us to eat; to say “yes” to moving our bodies in ways we love; to say “yes” to rest when we are tired; to say “yes” to tears and compassion when we are sad, mad or scared; to speak our truth rather than stuff it with excess food; to say “no” to unachievable perfection; to accept and appreciate the size and shape of the bodies we were given, the age we are, the aging process.
Healing from food and body issues is not for the faint of heart, but then neither is starving ourselves, overeating, bingeing, body hatred or constant comparing. Both paths are challenging but thankfully one road leads to freedom and peace. I wish this for you.
Click here to check out Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell by Andrea Wachter and Marsea Marcus.
Andrea Wachter is a psychotherapist and co-author of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell as well as The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook. She is also au
thor of the upcoming book, Getting Over Overeating for Teens. Andrea is an inspirational counselor,
author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others. For more information on her books, blogs and other services, please visit innersolutions
Recently I observed a 3-year-old girl with her family in a restaurant. She
was having difficulty walking due to the heels on her sandals. I actually understand her desire to be “more grown up.” However, I did feel sad and curious about a cultural paradigm that promotes preschoolers to be hobbling in order to look thinner.
You might be saying “But she wasn’t trying to look thinner. She was just copying Mommy, or wanting to play dress up.” To which I would say “And why was Mommy wearing high heels?” I was at a [dress up] event for parents of young children recently and one of the dads curiously asked “why DO women wear high heels?” To which I heard a mom reply:
“To enhance their legs or look thinner.”
I myself have worn high heels (though much less after becoming a mom as walking/running/getting shoes dirty and protecting my back have become more important). There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel and look attractive. However, I do question certain underlying values including
- Looking-thin-or-smaller-is-more-important-than-being-able-to-walk; or
- A woman’s-value-is-in-their-appearance-rather-than-their-skills, abilities, or being.
The comedian Jim Gaffigan (Dad is Fat, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2013) riffs on the ridiculous-ness of this strange cultural phenomena when he talks about the obsessive interest in his newborn baby girl’s weight:
The masses of family and friends want to …get information on the baby. For some reason, it’s really important for people to know how much the baby weighs. This always baffled me. ‘How much does she weigh?’ That’s rude. She’s not even a day old, and people seem to be obsessed with my daughter’s weight? She was nine pounds, but I remember telling friends, ‘She was eight pounds, sixteen ounces’ because it sounded thinner. Either way, she carried the weight very well, but we put her on the Atkins diet anyway…
My latest celebrity hero is Adele: not because I like her music or even follow celebrities much. But because she is one voice of opposition within the airbrushed media culture challenging lies such as:
- Looking Good= You will Not Suffer or Die and
- You can never be too rich or too thin.
She is speaking out, modeling for women and mothers, that is it okay to be yourself, in the size that you are. There are more valuable compasses from which to steer your life than appearance. Though admitting to some body image problems, she states:
“I think I remind everyone of themselves…I’m not perfect. I don’t let [body image problems] rule my life…I’m motivated by … a legacy that I’m leaving for my child.”*
Amen to that.
*Us Weekly, “Adele Choosing Family Over Fame,” Issue 1086, December 7, 2015.
Before recovery, everybody knows there is a problem except you. After recovery, no-one knows there is a problem except you, and it is your job to live in the solution. It is the challenge and opportunity of every recovering person to acknowledge the problem and live the solution.
It is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In my mind, that means all the people still struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating are putting their heads in the sand and pretending everything is ok. They don’t want to talk about it, everything is “fine,” let’s get on with the business of being perfect, trying to be perfect, or at least look ok so nobody knows what’s really going on. And all the people who have recovered, are willingly trying to recover, or work assisting people to recover are running around like Chicken Little saying “Hey! Everything is NOT ok and that is ok! Let’s celebrate imperfection! Let’s talk about what’s really going on! Let’s raise awareness! Let’s get our heads out of the sand!”
I never thought I would have an eating disorder. Eating Disorders were for models, popular girls, adolescents or athletes. I was none of these. I was a feminist. I was going to join the peace-corps and go to Africa and save the mountain gorillas from extinction. I was 20 years old and ready to save the world. Except I couldn’t pass the physical exam to apply to the peace-corps due to complications from my eating disorder.
I also never thought I would become a therapist. But life takes us in interesting directions, not always the places we plan. Ad here I am, 17 years recovered, 15 years working in recovery, still at it. I turned my passion for advocacy to helping all of the actual people suffering with eating disorders, not just the models and athletes, but the feminists, the environmentalists, the men secretly struggling with “a women’s disease,” and the middle aged moms. Because in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). That means either you or someone you know.
People suffering with eating disorders come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Emaciated, overweight, “normal” weight, men, women, adolescents, people of all skin colors, children ALL suffer from eating disorders. Though it may seem like it, eating disorders are not about food or weight. Eating disorders are hidden diseases that are not “a superficial problem with dieting” but deadly and complex diseases that deserve to be treated and eradicated. I’m speaking up for those who are still hiding, who are still suffering, who are not yet ready to “be in the solution” of freedom from shame, but want to know that it is possible. It is possible. You are not alone. Come out when you are ready. We are here for you, in a long lineage of healing, those of us who have recovered, who are recovering, who assist others to recover.
For More information on National eating Disorders Awareness Week and how to get involved: http://nedawareness.org/social
Grapefruit, Atkins, Paleo, Pooh: When is it a diet, when is it a disorder, and what is it really about?
Many years ago, when I was in 10th grade, we had to do a “pig lab” in which we dissected a baby pig. As a sensitive 13 year old, this horrified me and I spoke with my Biology teacher about how I would rather not participate. To which he replied, “Do you eat bacon?” The next day I became a vegetarian. By the time I went to college, 4 years later, I became actively anorexic. My concern for others had tipped into self-destruction. I had to spend the next few years sorting out what was helpful and what was not helpful for my recovery in the midst of the concerns I had for others, the world, and the difficult life transitions through which I was travelling. As we say in eating disorder treatment recovery, “it’s about the food and it’s not about the food.”
I recently gave a talk on eating disorders at a bay area hospital and one of the doctors asked me “What do you think of the Paleo diet?” To which I responded:
“I am not a fan of any diet.”
Or, as two of my eating disorder therapist colleagues say, “This is not a die-t; this is a live-it.”
Paleo, Atkins, Vegan
I have spent the past decade and a half working in eating disorder recovery programs and I cannot tell you how common it is for people with eating disorders to be vegan, vegetarian, “Paleo,” “Atkins,” or sugar/gluten free. For the record, there is nothing “wrong” with any of these. And people with sensitive temperaments, physically, psychologically, emotionally, tend to be strongly affected by what they eat. Neuroscience is now showing what we have intuitively known: what, how much, and in what way we eat changes our brain chemistry. Sometimes there are also medical reasons for special food needs. People with celiac disease need to eat gluten free; women with gestational diabetes need to eat in a particular way during pregnancy as a health necessity. However, that being said, from a clinical standpoint, I have noticed a few things:
- 1) Western culture is obsessed with “good” and “bad” foods as well as diets. The trend changes from Grapefruit, to Atkins, from “juicing,” to Paleo, but there is always one that has the attention of people and the media as the “right” way to eat. Usually this includes moral judgments about how some foods are “good” and some foods are “bad” (with the subtext of how you as a person are “good” or “bad” according to how you are eating.)
- 2) This same culture of diet-obsession is also obsessed with body sizes/shapes, and how the current “diet” will provide the right body size/shape/weight. Let’s be honest, there is an undercurrent of “The Thin Ideal.” In one 2004 study “Exposure to thin-ideal magazine images increased body dissatisfaction, negative mood states, and eating disorder symptoms and decreased self-esteem, on women.” (Hawkins et al 2004)
- The thin ideal assumes that thinner is “better” (more attractive, successful, intelligent, young, and on a deeper existential level, provides “freedom” from mortality).
- 3) People who have a temperamental risk toward internalizing stress, being over-achieving oriented, struggle with anxiety or depression, and are caring toward others (often at the expense of themselves) often obsess about food as a way to resolve complex life problems and issues.
Diets don’t work
This has been proven, again and again. Diets do not work. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA):
- 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years (Grodstein, Levine, Spencer, Colditz, &Stampfer, 1996; Neumark-Sztainer, Haines, Wall, & Eisenberg, 2007)
- 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders (Shisslak, Crago, & Estes, 1995)
- Even among clearly non-overweight girls, over 1/3 report dieting (Wertheim et al., 2009)
- Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005)
Geneen Roth, who has been writing and teaching about the connections between emotions, food, and spirituality for decades, came up with a beautiful fourth law of Physics, which states “Every diet has an equal and opposite binge.”
Diets don’t work. They are a set up for deprivation that inevitably has a backlash. And obsessing about food is never about food.
Canaries in the Coal Mine:
So if diets don’t work and disordered eating is not about the food, what IS it about? That is the (hopefully less than) 10 million dollar therapy question that takes rigorous and compassionately curious work. I often think of people with eating disorders or people practicing disordered eating (including dieting) as canaries in the coal-mine. They are the ones that are extra sensitive to family, cultural, and environmental toxicity. If there is something not right in the family system, in the environment in terms of treatment of other sentient beings, or in the balance of power culturally (Have you ever wondered why women and GLBTQ people often struggle more with body image distress than straight men? And what they do and do not have access to?), then the person who develops the eating disorder is going to be the one saying (or acting out) “Something’s not right here! There is suffering! We’re not all going to survive!” They are the ones that are showing things are out of balance.
I share with my clients recovering from compulsive eating that putting a sign on their fridge stating “Its not in there” can be helpful. If you are looking for something in the food or a diet that’s not in the food, I invite you to ask the question what are you truly looking for? Is it kindness toward yourself and others? A feeling of well being? Is it to be seen or feel loved? Is it comfort or companionship? Relief from disappointment, embarrassment, resentment, jealousy? Is it a friend to be with you during grief? Connection with your family or community? Food can’t provide any of these. It’s not in there. I want to invite you, the next time you are considering going on a diet or eating ice cream in order to resolve any of these, to turn toward the discomfort of what is going on within you. Try not to fill it up with the distraction of food. Imagine
“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This… [how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart] is the perfect teacher.”
―Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart
The Don’t Diet Live it workbook, Wachter and Marcus, 1999
Scott E. Moseman, MD Medical Director, Laureate Eating Disorders Program Investigator, Laureate Institute for Brain Research, “Neurobiology for Clinicians” 2014 International Association of Professionals Treating Eating Disorders (IADEP) conference
The Thin Ideal:
Your Dieting Daughter (Chapter 7 “The Thin Commandments”) By Carolyn Costin
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website
Identifying, Naming, and Taming the inner critic
Many women compare themselves to others. Women recovering from food, weight, and body image issues and, often, new mothers, have often honed this skill to an excruciatingly sharp pointed edge that goes right back into the self. As a colleague of mine has put it “an eating disorder is an over-developed superego,” and “Supermom doesn’t exist, but we all keep desperately trying to be her.”
Some common self-judgments for women in eating disorder recovery that I often hear include:
- If [insert body part such as stomach, thighs, or arms here] was different, I would be more successful in my career, lovable in romantic relationships, and not have these feelings (ex: anxiety, depression, anger, sadness, shame).
- If I were not eating this [insert “bad food” here], then I would be “better,” “good,” not feel this way (see above list).
- “She’s thinner, and therefore more attractive, lovable, worthy, than me.”
- “She’s sicker than me, and therefore deserves treatment/to get better more than me.”
- “She has a real/valid reason for an eating disorder (ex history of abuse) and I don’t.”
- “There is something wrong with me that can never be fixed or healed.”
- “She’s in a romantic relationship and therefore more lovable than me.”
- “None of my romantic relationships have worked, so none will ever work.”
- Her eating disorder (whether it be starving, bingeing, or purging) is more dangerous than mine. I don’t deserve to tend to my recovery and self-care because it’s not that dire or important.
- I’ll never be a Mom if I can’t even take care of myself.
OUCH! Obviously they all fall into the categories of Great-Palace-Lies and Cognitive Distortions such as personalizing, emotional reasoning, and globalizing. New moms, like women in early eating disorder recovery, are also in the terrain of developing a new self identity. Growth periods such as these are often when the critical voice is loudest. Below, I have named a few of the many critics that attack many moms internally:
- The ecological critic: That mom has never used any kind of plastic in her child’s lunch, even if it is BPA free. All her food has been made from scratch and the vegetables have been grown in her organic backyard garden. If I use plastic, have anything not made from scratch in my child’s lunch, I suck as a Mom.
- The Body-image critic: She lost the baby weight sooner (or at all) and is therefore a more attractive, functional, lovable successful career woman/mom/wife.
- The stay-at-home-mom critic: I am mommy-tracked and my skills are not valuable/outdated/my sleep-deprived brain-body doesn’t remember how to have a career. I can’t move ahead with my career, because people won’t take me seriously anymore.
- The work-outside-the-home-mom critic: My kid(s) are more attached to the nanny than me. I should start saving for therapy now, as I’ve probably already damaged them with abandonment issues/insecure attachment.
- The Attachment-parenting critic: I stopped wearing and co-sleeping with my baby, and therefore they feel traumatized and insecure. I should breastfeed at all costs for the first three years. Moms who leave their kids in daycare are bad.
- The Feminist Mom critic: I should be able to bring home the (vegan organic) bacon, fry it up in a pan, while simultaneously playing with my non-screen watching child after writing an updated introduction and research study on The Second Shift and presenting it to the National Association of Feminist Sociology conference.
OK, so I have an overdeveloped Superego (Critic). What do I DO about it?
Here are some strategies for combatting the critic and assist yourself in arresting the Compare and Despair Trap.
- NOTICE IT.
In eating disorder treatment, it is often encouraged to notice “ED” (the voice of the eating disorder). You can also think of this as “Inner Critic.” Although this can be painful (it is not a kind voice), it is important to notice that this part of your self is just that- PART of you, not all of you. And as you start to notice it is not all of you, you can then begin to cultivate other parts of you that are more fiercely kind and compassionate rather than shaming and harmful toward you.
- NAME IT.
Naming the “ED” or “Critic” voice can be helpful in continuing to separate and dis-identify from it. It can be fun to make a collage, picture, or funny character name for it. Though this may sound silly, it can actually help take some of the power away from it. Sometimes I think of my critic as a Spikey haired teenager: it looks fierce, but really it is a soft mollusk inside and the spikes are trying to protect its vulnerability. This allows me to invite the scary-looking critic back into my larger Self rather than try to cut off from it.
- GET SUPPORT
It can be hard to develop a fiercely compassionate voice within yourself to assist in combatting the critical voice and making peace with/tolerating distressing emotions. Sometimes a wise therapist, person further along in recovery or motherhood can be helpful to verbalize kind, discerning support until you can cultivate strengthening this voice within yourself.
- IF YOU ARE GOING TO COMPARE, BE FAIR.
For example, if you are a newly postpartum mom, when you wear a bathing suit, it is NOT fair to compare yourself to an airbrushed image in a magazine or even a woman’s body who hasn’t given birth. Your body is different. If you MUST compare, then compare to another newly postpartum mom (though my recommendation would be to talk about what is really going on regarding the stress of being a new mom!)
- FIND AND CULTIVATE A REGULAR CREATIVE AND/OR OR SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
Fighting the critic needs to include rather than cuting off from your feelings and your body. This can be sitting meditation, moving meditation, writing, collage-ing, art-making. It is usually an activity that includes the right (creative) brain and somatic (body) awareness such as movement or following the breath. You will know that you have found a practice that works for you when you discover (usually after the fact when it returns) that your inner critic was quiet for a time. Cultivate that activity, whatever it is for you. Keep returning to that Big Mind, Big Self, Coonected-ness again and again. Your critic will start to lose its power when it is invited into a larger, more spacious creative and enticing place to be. I will end with an affirmation borrowed from 12-step program reading: Just for today, I will not compare myself to others. I will accept myself and live to the best of my ability. Don’t compare—identify. Don’t intellectualize—utilize. To keep it, you have to give it away. You can’t give away what you don’t have. May the growth continue!
Self-Help: Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way By Rick Carson 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder By Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb Creativity and Spiritual Practice: Women, Food and God By Geneen Roth The Artists’ Way and The Artist’s Way for Parents By Julia Cameron Soulcollage Evolving: An Intuitive Collage Process for Self Discovery and Community By Seena Frost Sweat Your Prayers By Gabriel Roth Buddha Mom: The Path of Mindful Mothering By Jacqueline Kramer Humour: Shitty Mom: The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us By Laurie Kilmartin, Karen Moline, Alicia Ybarbo and Mary Ann Zoellner Ketchup is a vegetable and other lies moms tell themselves Robin O’Bryant
Body image can be a source of distress and/or relapse trigger for recovering women. This is not a superficial issue, but a deeper question around identity transition and transformations that happen for moms-to-be. For more on body image during pregnancy and postpartum, see “Does being a mom make me look fat?”
Fertility and secondary infertility can be challenging for women with histories of disordered eating or drug/alcohol use. Many women have damaged their fertility due to the eating disorder and can be challenged at becoming or unable to become pregnant. According to one study (Sterwart et al, 1990) “a total of 16.7% of infertility patients were found to suffer from an eating disorder. Among infertile women with amenorrhea or oligomenorrhea 58% had eating disorders. Because women often fail to disclose eating disorders to their gynecologists and may appear to be of normal weight, it is recommended that a nutritional and eating disorder history be taken in infertility patients, particulary those with menstrual abnormalities. It has previously been shown that disordered eating and nutrition can affect menstruation, fertility, maternal weight gain, and fetal well-being.” (1)
Along with the choice about whether to and if so, how long and to what extent do fertility treatment is the often grueling process of trying successfully or unsuccessfully to become pregnant. Therapy can be helpful in this process in dealing with all the complicated issues and feelings this can include. One recent blog resource by Susan Allen, who is a LMFT in San Francisco, is: coping skills to center yourself through infertility
Family of origin attachment patterns can be deeply imprinted in the way we parent. This is something to be mindful of in not repeating past traumas and being conscious of what patterns we would like to keep and which we would like to change. Therapy is the most helpful resource in this regard.
Childcare Support from their families may be closer geographically or more emotionally available to women from families without eating disorders, alcoholism, or depression/anxiety. Building an “attachment village” of fellow mom friends and/or professional childcare support like nannies, babysitters, daycare, preschool can be an important part of keeping recovering moms sane and supported if the grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc aren’t available to help. One local mom resource is: Golden Gate Mother’s Group
Self care practices like getting enough sleep, the right kind of food, and not using/abusing substances such as alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs that can be difficult to maintain become excruciatingly during pregnancy and postpartum. Night doulas can be a helpful support resource for some moms. In the bay area, one such resource is bay area night doulas.
Many 12 step meetings also have phone support meetings for those people (like new moms) who are having trouble getting out of the house. Here is a link to phone meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous: aa phone meetings, and here is one to eating disorder anonymous phone meetings.
Perinatal mood disorders (ex Postpartum Depressiona and Anxiety) are common for women in recovery, as these are often what were beneath the disordered eating or alcoholism. Having a treatment team (Psychiatrist, Psychologist, support group specializing in perinatal mood disorders) ready and in place can be a crucial part of prevention and treatment for ongoing recovery. Postpartum Support International is a wonderful resource for moms and families struggling with perinatal mood disorders.
Survivors of abuse are often triggered at many points during the labor and delivery as well as breast feeding process. Many aspects of feeling one’s body is not your own or physical experiences that mimic what happened in abuse can be confusing for mothers who have abuse in their history. When Survivors Give Birth is a book published this past year that provides survivors and their maternity caregivers with extensive information on the prevalence and short- and long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse, emphasizing its possible impact on childbearing women. For more information: Penny Simpkin’s website
Being “Advanced Maternal Age” (or over 35 years old) is becoming more common for many women during pregnancy, especially those that have chosen to solidify their own recovery and/or career path prior to having a child/children. Being an older mom brings with it potential medical challenges and choices during pregnancy as well as postpartum. The “advanced maternal age” project is a resource of information and stories: advanced maternal age project
1. Stewart, Donna, Robinsonm Erlick, Goldbloom, David, Wright, Charlene, 1990, “Infertility and Eating Disorders,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Volume 163, Issue 4, 1196–1199.
This blog is not to be used to diagnose or treat eating disorders, alcohol use problems, or psychological illness. If you would like to schedule an assessment for treatment, including a perinatal mood disorder, you are welcome to contact Dr Linda Shanti at Linda@DrLindaShanti.com.
For immediate assistance/crisis, call 911 and for a National Suicide Prevention Hotline and Website: 1-800-273-8255 www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org