Moana’s Archetypal Message Offers Hope and Healing… Lava Monster and All
I was very excited to see the movie Moana. But it took a long time. Life got in the way…my little one and I went to the theater twice and it was sold out…and then, finally, we saw it. I entered expecting it to be good, but by the end I was sobbing. Like many archetypal stories, this one reaches right onto your heart. And with this one, the hero is a girl. A girl who has nothing but a canoe, a friend in the ocean, and a grandmother who believed in her.
Everybody has a canoe, whatever your “canoe” is: the vehicle that carries you on your journey to awakening. For some it is writing, or art. For some it is meditation, 12 step, or yoga. And everyone has someone who believed or believes in him or her. (More on that later). And every one of us, no matter how far gone, disconnected, unworthy, or unforgivable we think we are, knows the truth about themselves deep down. Not the Demigod complex of trying-to-rule-the-world-because-he-feels-unworthy-so-he-is-constantly-trying-to-make-up-for-it-by-acting-bigger-than-he-is. Not that part. (Although Heaven knows there is a lot of that energy going around, and that part definitely needs both compassion and fierce confrontation). But I’m not talking about that part here. I’m talking about the deeply-humble, but most powerful intuition-heart-knowing.
In Moana, the Goddess Te Fiti is the one who held the “greatest power ever known,” who creates Life. And she shared it with the world! And yet, without her heart she began to crumble, and a terrible darkness was born.
What is this power of creation?
Women have long-held the power of creation in their bodies. It’s not an accident that women with disordered eating hate or try to starve away parts of themselves that reflect this power of fertility: their hips, their stomachs (wombs), their butts. The power of fertility is profound but, in the current culture, relationship with this power is ambivalent at best. This fertile power is not just literal, it is symbolic. Archetypally, the feminine includes the Great Mother, the Earth Mother that holds the power of creation. Long ago the Venus De Willendorf embodied fertility. Hindu goddesses such as Aditi and Aitimmavaru are the mothers of the deities and laid the egg that hatched the gods Brahma, Siva, and Vishnu. In the Wiccan tradition, the Mother Goddess is sometimes identified as the Triple Goddess, composed of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Another name for the mother goddess is Gaia, Earth Mother.
The feminine goddess archetype also holds the power of destruction, as seen in the Hindu goddesses Durga and Kali dancing on her dead consort, Siva. In Moana, this destructive force is embodied in Te Ka, the lava monster. A similar goddess in Hawaii is Pele, the goddess of the volcanoes. She is also the creator of the Hawaiian islands. This points to how interrelated these forces of creation and destruction can be.
Creation or Destruction?
Any woman with disordered eating knows, in her body, when this force of feeding life turns into a force of destroying or hurting. When eating an enjoyable bowl of ice-cream turns into frantically stuffing the entire carton in, shoveling it down so quickly so it can be violently thrown back up, that is the destroyer. That is where feeding your own life-body turns against the self. There are many reasons for this: trauma and abuse, a family or larger culture that tells women “nice girls don’t get angry,” ambivalence and fear of becoming a women in a culture that does not celebrate the power of the feminine, and many more. We do not have rituals to celebrate becoming a woman in American culture, and so it is a time when many girls start to implode. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls writes: “Adolescent girls discover that it is impossible to be both feminine and adult.” And so menstruation, having a woman’s body, and speaking from the place of your inner truth become submerged, hidden, hated, and cut off.
Back To Moana
So Moana, from her childhood has this connection with herself and the world. She connects with the ocean; it “calls her.” She connects with the turtles; she connects her Grandmother’s sense of knowing something bigger than what her family and culture are telling her to be the truth. And, like many women struggling with disordered eating, wanting to be good girls, and finding their voice, she wrestles with it. She sings:
“See the light where the sky meets the sea/ It calls me/ No one knows how far it goes”*
“The voice inside is a different song/ What’s wrong with me?” *
This questioning part, this part that doesn’t match up with cultural expectations needs mirroring and validation. Without it, self-destruction (disordered eating, depression, anxiety, etc) runs rampant. We all have, if we look far and deep enough, this person or Being that mirrors our inner truth in our life. It may be a teacher who “got” your art. Or it may have been an aunt who had travelled her own healing journey and was in recovery from alcoholism. If you are lucky, it was a parent. For many of us, we find this mirroring understanding in a therapist. For Moana, this was her Grandmother. Her Grandmother is the self-described “village crazy,” who doesn’t have to answer to Moana’s father (the Village Chief).
“I’m his mother – I don’t have to tell him anything!” *
This Grandmother is what Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call a “Wild Woman,” one who has power in her body. In the Hopi tradition there is a butterfly dancer. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD writes in Women Who Run With The Wolves, (Ballentine Books: New York, 1992)
The butterfly dancer must be old because she represents the soul that is old. She is wide of thigh and broad of rump because she carries much. Her gray hair certifies…[that] the Butterfly Woman can touch everyone…This is her power. Hers is the body of La Mariposa, the butterfly.
It is not about what her body looks like – it is about listening to her feeling within:
The wilder woman will not be easily swayed…For her the questions are not how to form, but how to feel. The breast in all its shapes has the function of feeling and feeding…Does it feel? It is a good breast.
The hips, they are wide for a reason…they are portals, the handholds for love, a place for children to hide behind…
There is no “supposed to be” in bodies. The question is not size of shape or years of age, or even having two of everything, for some do not. But the wild issue is, does this body feel, does it have right connection to pleasure, to heart to soul, to the wild?…Can it in its own way move, dance, jiggle, sway? Nothing else matters.
Her “Wild Woman” Grandmother mirrors and nurtures listening-to-her-inner voice inside her body for Moana. She sings:
“You may hear a voice inside/ And if the voice starts to whisper/ To follow the farthest star/ Moana, that voice inside is/ Who you are” *
And this is the truth that guides Moana on the hero’s journey that every recovering woman must travel: Who are you?
Who You Really Are
This is the work that I engage with my clients every week: Who are you? How can you listen to your values? What does your inner Wise self have to say? How can I help you separate enough from the critical voices telling you “Stay small” or “Art is not for grown ups” or “You should do something more practical” rather than follow your dream of becoming a Nutritionist/Healer/Artist/Yoga Teacher/Environmental Educator/Women’s Advocate. This process involves separating enough from the cultural dictates and negative messages enough to hear the quiet voice inside. It is the moment when Moana, abandoned by Maui on the boat and despairing, is visited by her Grandmother’s spirit. And her Grandmother asks the question: Moana, Who are you? This is the point at which she discovers “the call isn’t out there at all – it’s inside me.”
You might be thinking “But how is this going to help in my recovery and in the world we are living right now?” Well, there certainly are a lot of “lava monsters” whose hearts have been stolen in the world right now. Where do we start? Where do I start? Where can you start? We start with ourselves. I start with myself. You start with yourself.
The cartoonist Walt Kelly stated, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Moana, in looking for the place to return the heart of Te Fiti suddenly realizes it is in her worst fear. The heart of Te Fit is inside the lava monster. But she is not afraid. Because she knows that fear, that addiction/eating disorder/lava monster/war/global warming/misogyny (as just a few examples J) are not outside her: They are inside her. And the call to awaken was always inside her as well. The call to find her true self. There is nothing to fear.
One of my favorite quotes from A Course In Miracles, A Self-Study in Spiritual Thought says:
The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence, which is your natural inheritance. The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.
In Moana, the, still voice of never-ending, powerful, and all-encompassing love emerges as she sings to the Lava Monster Te Ka:
“I have crossed the horizon to find you, I know your name / They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this is not who you are / You know who you are, who you truly are.” *
*Lyrics from Soundtrack to Moana (2016)
All original art work copyright Linda Shanti Mccabe
Some addiction counselors recommend getting a pet after going through treatment (for alcoholism, eating disorders, depression) before you start dating. The thought being that first you learn how to tend to an animal that has a body and feelings, isn’t ashamed of them, doesn’t abandon them, and lets you know when you do (abandon them). It’s a metaphor for self-care, responsibility, and tending: tending to recovery, tending to relationship, tending to health.
Plants are harder. They don’t bark at you, jump on you, or snuggle up to you. They don’t beg for food or scratch on the door. They just sit there, in their pot, very quietly, thriving. Or not thriving. For someone with a black thumb, it’s hard to tell.
This orchid plant has been in my office for two years. It has never bloomed until this past week.
At one point it had sticky gunk covering its leaves and I thought it might die. Orchids are particularly challenging. With orchids, there are long periods of just sitting there, mostly looking ok, but not blooming. For two years, I watered it. Just a little, because I have heard they don’t like being flooded. Sometimes I put it on the sunlit windowsill, but not for very long, as I have heard that they don’t like too much light, either. As one gardening site states:
“Insufficient light results in poor flowering. However, too much light can lead to leaf scorch.” *
Well, I don’t know what leaf scorch is, but I certainly don’t want that for my orchid! And I certainly don’t want my clients coming into an office with a leaf-scorched plant! That would not represent hopefulness or health in the recovery process!
Orchids are what some might call “high maintenance” plants. They require very specific conditions or they will not flourish. “High maintenance” is not always a description that is welcomed. I prefer sensitive. Like orchids, many recovering people have orchid-like temperaments: sensitive and requiring certain conditions to flourish. Without these conditions, they may “go dormant” (depression) or become sick (eating disordered, addicted) in order to survive.
Many of my clients are what might be characterized as “orchids.” (No, not all of them, and everyone has some degree of orchid-ness and dandelion-ness in them). Orchids are a sensitive lot. They need just the right amount of light and water or they don’t bloom. They’re often the ones, as children, that stay on the edge of the playground until the conditions are exactly right for them to jump in and play. I often use this analogy with my clients: If you go to a playground and one person runs right to the slide to go down it, and one person pauses before deciding where they would most feel comfortable playing, who is better? They often either look at me puzzled, or give me an exasperated:
“Well obviously, neither, on the playground. But real life isn’t like that, Dr. Linda. I should be able to go right to the slide (share confidently in class, jump right into a leadership role at a new job, know whether I am going to marry this person on a first date, be Supermom the day after labor and delivery).”
When I ask “Why?,” the answer that comes is:
“Because other people do.”
To which I respond “Hmmm…who are these ‘other people’ and did you do any double-blind research studies before comparing and despairing?”
Orchids are sensitive to their conditions and often “slow to warm up” in temperament. Dandelions, however, bloom in many different kinds of environments. Dandelions go right to the playground slide. Or the swings. Or hang out with their orchid friend in the quiet zone of the playground. They can grow in soil full of organic compost or they can thrive in dirt under a concrete sidewalk. If you suggest:
“Let’s eat here (Pizza, Bar-on-the Corner, 5-Star Restaurant),”
a dandelion will say:
If you suggest:
“Let’s eat here (Pizza, Bar-on-the Corner, 5-Star Restaurant),”
an orchid will say:
“Do they have gluten-free or vegetarian options, how loud is it, have the chickens been free-ranging?” (Except usually they won’t say this because they are worried about being too “high maintenance,” so they’ll go to the pizza place and get a stomach/headache from the noise, inability to digest the food, and concern about if the chicken was ranging free.)
You might be thinking “But those ARE the high maintenance people. That’s Sally in When Harry Met Sally when she takes ten minutes to order a sandwich.”
To which I would reply:
No, those are the people who are going to be deeply affected by the food they ingest, the company they keep, and their external environment. Those are the canaries in the mineshaft. Coal miners they used to take a canary with them into the mine because, when the canary died, they knew the air was toxic and they needed to get out. The sensitivity of the canary was their awareness of their own mortality. Canaries (Orchids) can offer wisdom as to how to honor sensitivity and diversity.
IF you are an orchid, your work is to stop pathologizing your sensitivity. Get yourself to an environment where you can thrive. Surround yourself with people who embrace your sensitivity. Give yourself the right amount of water and sunlight. Visit nature. Make art, music, or write. If you are an introvert, create quiet introversion recovery time in your schedule. If you have learned how to tend to your own sensitivities, then be of service advocating for other orchids and educate the dandelions. Many (but not all) dandelions are open to helping support orchids. Many (but not all) orchids are open to helping support dandelions. They can thrive together in the right conditions.
If you are an orchid, take very good care of yourself, even when you don’t see immediate results. Remember it took my orchid two years before it trusted me enough to bloom. But, in the famous words of Anais Nin:
“the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
[i] I borrowed the metaphor of orchids and dandelions from an esteemed colleague, Vivette Glover, who is a British professor of Perinatal PsychoBiology at Imperial College of London. Dr. Glover cites the article below as one that explores the “Orchid/Dandelion hypothesis.” This hypothesis explores how twins with short 5-HTT (“orchid”) alleles have different environmental susceptibility to depression.
Conely, Dalton, Rauscher, Emily, and Siegal, Mark L., “Beyond orchids and dandelions: Testing the 5HTT ‘risky’ allele for evidence of phenotypic capacitance and frequency dependent selection” Biodemography Soc Biot. 2013; 59(1): 37-56.
[ii] Part of this post originally appeared on Recovery warriors blog https://www.recoverywarriors.com/lessons-recovery-life-little-one/ “Lessons About Recovery and Life I’ve Learned From My Little One,” November 8, 2016
Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood. –Gloria Steinem
In honor of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I am writing a series on Eating Disorders and Feminism. The first is a guest blog, “Full Women Have Full Feelings,” published on Psyched in San Francisco magazine.
Have you ever been afraid of being called “The B word” (something that rhymes with
witch)? I know I have. As someone who is attuned to relational dynamics, asserting my own voice, when…
To continue reading Full Women Have Full Feelings, click HERE
Part two continues the topic of sexual assault followed by an exploration of how eating disorders do not only affect straight, white adolescent women. Stay tuned!
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. Whatever it is, just keep coming back to this.
A Word About Kindness and Self-Compassion
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. So if you HAVEN’T kept one thing constant, just restart it. And when you notice you haven’t kept your thing – whatever your thing is that keeps you grounded and sane – constant (We all fall off the wagon on this. It is part of being included in humanity.), notice with kindness and compassion. Imagine you are a puppy. Gently pick yourself up from the place where you are being unkind to yourself and bring yourself back to the place where you are being kind. Gently bring yourself back to the thing that helps you. Just keep coming back.
This month’s theme is Honoring Sensitivity, and I’m going to jump right in with what I hear on a weekly basis in my therapy practice working with recovering women:
- “You’re too sensitive.”
My adult clients often say, when entering eating disorder recovery, “I’m too sensitive,” as if it were a curse, or something that needs to be gotten rid of in the recovery process. Often they received this “too sensitive” message as children. Maybe when they
cried, felt things deeply, were highly intuitive, or were sensitive to stimuli such as noise, textures, or smells,
they were told: “Get over it,” Don’t be a crybaby,” “If you feel scared or ashamed don’t show it” or (covertly)”Don’t talk about feelings. They are weak and we don’t have room for them here.” Your Eating Disorder (ED voice) is the one that judges (and then tries to hide, numb or cut off from) your sensitivities because they were not embraced and/or too painful to experience as a child.
I tell these adults that, even though it may be the opposite to what they want to hear,
Recovery is an invitation to embrace what wisdom your sensitivity has to offer.
Being sensitive means that your are strongly in touch with the part of you that knows, intuitively, what is right for you and what isn’t. It is the part of you that gets, on a gut level and often immediately, (even if it’s not what you want to know) whether someone is a good or bad fit for you in dating. It is the part of you that feels a palpable rise in anxiety before you engage in disordered eating behaviors, because it knows that you are about to act violently toward your sensitivity, trying to numb it rather than listen to it. It is the part of you that senses when a friend is feeling sad or mad, even when they try to mask it. It is the part of you that easily connects with nature or animals or young children being themselves. It is the part of you that knows when someone needs help or is not being treated fairly and feels a protective and empathic response toward them. People who struggle with disordered eating often are highly attuned to other’s feelings. However, they can be insensitive toward their own feelings, judging them as “bad” or “wrong.”
2. If I’m having a feeling, it is bad and I should make it go away.
Closely related to being sensitive is having feelings. The voice of the Eating Disorder (ED) does not like to have feelings. It really doesn’t matter which feeling – sadness, anger, shame, joy, happiness ED doesn’t like it. However, as Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, states:
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
We have to go toward the feelings we’ve left behind in childhood in order to reclaim those parts of ourselves nd become full human beings again. We have to go toward, not away, from the feelings that scare us. I often give clients a feeling wheel to look at and identify which areas they are comfortable and which areas they are not. Some people like to hang out in “purple,” some in “red,” some in “yellow.” You may be very comfortable with sadness, but terrified of anger – or vice versa. Instead of judging this, recovery involves getting curious about it and learning to inhabit all the different colors. Because if you don’t feel, you can’t heal.
3. Needs are bad/weak/not okay unless you are taking care of someone else’s.
It’s so interesting how sensitive people can be fabulous caretakers but – how shall I say this – absolutely and completely suck at identifying, asking for support, and receiving care for their own needs. It’s called codependency in recovery lingo. The underlying unconscious assumption is: If I take care of you, you won’t be uncomfortable. And then I’ll be okay, because I’ll just match all of my needs to yours! But people have different needs.
And people who develop eating disorders usually haven’t been allowed to identify their own needs separate from others. There are many good reasons for this, often stemming from family of origin dynamics. Being a chameleon pretending you don’t have any of your own needs certainly has some benefits: you can blend in to many environments and “fit in,” You are not going to be singled out as “the scapegoat,” you can get along with many different kinds of people and work environments without being offensive.
However, at some point, a person recovering from an eating disorder will need to start risking the vulnerability of identifying their own needs. And this can be uncomfortable because, as a wise friend of mine says, “When you stop people pleasing, people aren’t pleased.” However, you WILL most likely, as you identify and start risking having some of your needs seen and met, feel less anxious, more at peace, and less concerned with the necessity of pleasing others.
4. If I just get the RIGHT food plan then I won’t have these uncomfortable feelings or needs anymore.
This ED belief can actually hang on for a long time. Because, even in recovery, it morphs and becomes clever, saying things like “I’m just trying to help you be healthy. You felt so much better when you were eating (fill in your own ED’s version of no sugar/whole grain/not wholegrain/gluten/fat-free/high-or-low protein obsession here).”
You are most likely to need a food plan in the beginning of your recovery. That is appropriate. If you have been skipping breakfast and lunch and bingeing on ice-cream for dinner, you are going to need to add the first two meals back into your day as well as get some vegetables, protein and carbs in there. If you have been avoiding “fear foods” such as cookies, bread, or salad dressing with fat, then you will need to practice having salad dressing (on the salad not the side), dessert, or scary snacks, in order to know you can tolerate the anxiety and be okay. Your food plan may be more structured or less structured during different parts of your recovery. It will change, just as you will. But finding the exact “right” food plan in order to not have uncomfortable feelings is a lie. Your food plan should support you having feelings rather than restricting or numbing them.
If you are sensitive, you are going to feel. Therefore you are going to feel the food you eat. If you have an allergy, are celiac, or have another medically related issue regarding food choices, then you need to tend to this. Otherwise, we need to look at the feelings not the foods. Because the feelings are what your ED is trying to avoid by obsessing on whatever food plan you are convinced will make you “right” or “better.”
Here is one of my favorite quotes from Cheri Huber, a zen writer and teacher:
“There is nothing wrong with you.”
Really. There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing to fix around you being you. Be YOU and consider there is nothing wrong with that. That is the work of a lifetime and not fixed with any food plan.
5. And the number one lie I hear from ED in my office every week is: Once I’m recovered, I will be “thin” (which means…)
And then we work on filling in the dots for the associations with what “thin” symbolizes. Some of them include:
- I will feel confidant/comfortable in my skin.
- I can dance, wear a bathing suit, do the-thing-I-won’t-let-myself-do-at-this-size.
- I will be worthy of a romantic relationship.
- I will be worthy.
- I can go back to work (postpartum) or
- I can get or go after the job that I really want.
- People will love me.
- People I love won’t leave.
- People I love won’t die.
- I won’t have to feel grief, sadness, anger or shame.
- I won’t be sensitive anymore.
The list can go on, but the important piece here is calling ED out on the lie: if you are human, you are not always going to feel confidant, you are going to be imperfect, regardless of the size of your body. You are going to experience loss. You are going to die. What are you going to do before that? Because that is what ED is doing its darndest to prevent you from experiencing and engaging in: your LIFE.
Stop believing the lies and keep taking tiny (or huge, this can change day-to-day, moment to moment) steps toward fear: your recovery is there, as is your life. Because FEAR can mean many things:
F*ck Everything And Run (in the land of ED);
Face Everything And Recover; or
False Evidence Appearing Real.
I hope you choose to walk right into and through that false evidence that appears real according to ED. It is worth it. Love is on the other side of this false evidence. You are worth it. You always were.
In introducing this month’s Butterfy Effect theme of CONNECTING, I am honored to share an interview by the founder of Recovery Warriors, Jessica Raymond, MS. Recovery Warriors is a multimedia resource hub for hope and healing from an eating disorder. Here is a link to the podcast: RecoverywarriorsPodcast
The desire to become a mom can be a motivating factor in eating disorder recovery. However,the challenges of pregnancy and the postpartum period mirror the early stages of recovery. Both pregnant and new mothers and women recovering from eating disorders experience anxiety, body image distress, difficulty sleeping, hormonal changes, appetite changes, and ambivalence/excitement/distress around cultivating a new identity. In this episode of The Recovery Warrior Show, expert Dr. Linda Shanti shares personal and professional stories of recovering from an eating disorder and entering into motherhood. Listen in regardless of where you are at in the biological cycle because there is much to learn.
What You’ll Learn
- Why people don’t talk about miscarriages
- How pregnancy is similar to early stages of recovery
- Why you need to be proactive in seeking professional help before having a baby?
- Why how a mother eats affects her child
- Is there a right time to have a kid
The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new. -Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Advice to Former Self
You’ll get through this honey, you will. It’s going to change you and it is changing you and that’s ok; that’s the way it’s supposed to be. There’s no parallel life that you’re supposed to be leading; this is it, this is not a detour. Just because you’re suffering doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong path; you’re absolutely on the right path. Keep going.
Definition of Recovery
Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Not engaging in behaviors that hurt me. Moving toward growth edges. Accepting my body as it is. Allowing and inviting all feelings. Lowering the bar on perfectionism. Thinking in the rainbow between black and white. Listening to my heart and connecting with a larger purpose.
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.
Are you a salsa dancer? Free form? Do you watch from the side and “don’t do dancing”? All family systems have a dance and all family members play a role. There is nothing wrong with this, unless you find yourself square dancing when you prefer salsa or if you are being called to lead a partner dance with your parent and you are 5-years-old.
My preschooler recently was at the “small manipulatives” table at preschool and made this:
He called it “Trapped faces.” Though I am 95% sure this was not his intent or interpretation, it did remind me of what can happen in family systems when individual members carry certain emotions, roles, or characteristics for the family. When everyone is not allowed to have all aspects of their human experience, certain aspects of being human can become trapped in individuals. Some of these may include being: the responsible-one, the one-who-is-depressed, the angry-raging-one, the one-who-takes-care-of-everyone–else, the-one-who-is-creative, or the one-who-achieves or-looks-good-for-the-family.
Below is a list of family roles that children often adopt (based on the work of clinicians Virginia Satir, Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider) summarized beautifully by Laura Doughty, LMHC:[i]
The hero is the responsible, accomplished one. She gets good grades in school, is goal oriented and self-disciplined. Externally, she appears successful and together; internally, however, she bears the burden of making the family look good. She holds the belief that if she is perfect enough, the family problems will go away or be solved.
The People Pleaser
The people pleaser tries to ease and prevent any trouble in the family. She is caring, compassionate and sensitive. She also denies her own needs, and, as a result is anxious and hypervigilant.
The scapegoat is the family member who is blamed for the trouble in the family. She acts out her anger at any family dysfunction and rebels by drawing negative attention to herself. While she is more in touch with her feelings than the other roles and is often creative, in school she gets poor grades and is often in trouble.
The Mascot is the class clown with the uncanny ability to relieve stress and pain for others. But there’s something missing that he won’t find until he looks beneath the humor façade and faces his own pain.
The Lost Child
The Lost Child is quiet, withdrawn, lonely and depressed. She doesn’t draw attention to herself because she doesn’t want to be a burden. But what she wants most is to be seen and loved, and to be healthy, she must allow herself to be visible.
Many family systems “roles” also include the Alcoholic/Addict and the Caretaker/Codependent. The Codependent often tries to prevent the alcoholic from experiencing consequences of their behavior and cares for others at the expense of themselves.
In my clinical practice, I often see aspects of all of these family roles and “trapped faces” in adults. Many recovering anorexics identify with the hero child or the people pleaser, many bulimics or alcoholics can see the mascot or the scapegoat in themselves. Adult children of alcoholics may see the lost child in themselves. In the process of recovering from an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, codependence, or alcoholism, there needs to be room to include allowing ALL aspects of yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to act it out all of these roles. If you’ve never expressed anger, it doesn’t mean you need to start raging. However, it does mean that you allow yourself to own parts of yourself that may not have been able to develop in the “trapped-ness” of your family system.
If you were the scapegoat as a child, you can now see, embrace and practice as an adult that you have hero responsible, leadership qualities as well. You have skills that are valuable and you are not the problem. If you played the role of the hero as a child, you can consider getting a B+ or even failing a class as an adult, just to practice imperfection and seeing the world doesn’t fall apart if you don’t get an A. It means you allow yourself to have aspects of being angry, sad, happy, carefree, irresponsible, responsible, pleasing, rebellious, and creative.
The Past and the Present
My clients often ask me: “But what if my mother/father/family member boss/husband doesn’t change? How can I?” The answer is that YOU can embrace all of your human experience, whether or not your mother/father/other family member does or does not. That can be challenging and difficult, especially if they want to trap you into staying in the role that is most comfortable for them to be playing within the family system. As a child, you didn’t have much of a choice. Your survival depended on fitting into your family system to have your needs get met. As an adult you have other choices. That is where recovery is simple but not easy. Emotionally, it feels like you don’t have choices and you need to continue being the Hero/Scapegoat/People Pleaser/Mascot/Lost Child. Time does not exist in the emotional world, so your inner child will feel as if it needs to keep playing that role.
That is where you can bring your newly growing conscious adult self in and practice differently. You may need to risk shaking up the family system in practicing a new dance. If your family system is used to a precise salsa or ballet dance and you start practicing a chaotic free form dance, it may not be welcomed. Nobody in your family knows the steps to that dance. Do not be surprised if you encounter resistance.
The Gift of Resistance
I recently heard a Zen teaching about a master and a bird. The master was holding the bird on his finger and the bird was learning how to fly. If the master dropped his finger down quickly, the bird would fall, and need to be caught. If the master held his finger still, the bird could practice jumping off his finger and flapping its wings in order to develop strength. This allowed the bird to fly.
Externalizing Parts of Yourself to get free of them
One way to release feeling trapped/stuck in playing only one role regardless of whether members of your family system change is to externalize them through art, writing, or drama and see what wisdom they have to share. These parts of yourself are often “protecting” vulnerabilities that were too scary to be seen as a child but can now offer wisdom as an adult. They also hold strengths that can offer you help in your life currently. The “Lost Child” part of myself is the one that makes art and studied to become an expressive arts therapist. Here are some examples of my own and some of my clients’ soulcollage® card collaged images (shared with permission). Soulcollage® is a process of making a whole deck of collaged cards, each card representing one aspect of your multifaceted Self.
I am your addiction. No matter what it is: food, pills, worry, it will never be enough. Feed me and I will want more.
Listen to me; believe me and I will take over. Listen to me, but know that there is fear underneath that needs tending, and I will get smaller and not run your life.
Body image stomach in knots.
I am one who has pain internally and believes all others can see it. The wisdom I have to offer you is that this pain is not something you can avoid or run away from. There will always be pressure. If you accept that I am here, I can offer you ways to own your power and listen to your gut.
I look like I have it, all but there is part of me lying on the couch hiding all the time. I want to go to sleep. I can’t be perfect. Not even going to try.
The wisdom I have to offer is that you can no longer overachieve. This is the ultimate experience of practicing imperfection and asking for help. Let someone see me and you may find you are not alone.
Creating Recovery Families
Last but not least, many recovering people find they need to create a “recovery family” to help them practice new roles. This can be a collection of recovering friends, your therapist/treatment team, a 12-step sponsor or other people who embrace and welcome all the parts of you and themselves. These are people who want to help you practice new roles, want to help you learn how to practice imperfection if you are recovering from perfectionism or playing the hero or practice taking leadership steps if you are more familiar with being a scapegoat or lost child.
Where in your personal relationships, work life, home life currently are you playing the same role over and over? Where can you embrace the strengths that some of your more familiar roles offer? Where can you risk bringing in another part of you?
[i] “The Effect of Family Roles on Life’s Choices” Laura Doughty, LMHC, Thriving, A Journal of Well being, Spring 2010.
The short answer? “It’s complicated.”
The longer answer: Genetics and temperament both play a strong role in the possibility of Depression or an Eating Disorder developing, but do not determine it.
The hopeful answer: Even if your child develops an Eating Disorder or Depression, it is possible to recover.
In this post, I will look at some of the risk factors that can lead to an Eating Disorder or Depression.
Eating Disorders: Are they inherited?
Eating Disorders develop as a combination of genetic vulnerability combined with temperamental traits and a facilitating environment. Some (but not all) risk factors named in Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb’s book 8 Keys to recovery from an Eating Disorder (W.W. Norton, 2012) that can contribute to developing an eating disorder include:
- being overweight or dieting as a child
- having a mother who diets or has an eating disorder
- early menstruation
- being bullied or teased
- engaging in sports or activities with a focus on appearance or weight (for example ballet, cheerleading, ice skating, wrestling, gymnastics, modeling)
- a history of childhood abuse
In a 2000 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, results showed that anorexia nervosa has a heritability of 58%, but the authors were unable to rule out the contribution of environment. However, they did conclude that genetic factors influence anorexia and contribute to comorbidity of anorexia and depression.
Along with genetic links being discovered with both anorexia and binge eating, certain temperamental traits tend to foster the birth of an Eating Disorder. Ovidio Bermudez, in presenting at Eating Disorder Recovery Services conference* this past year discussed the following temperament traits as those at risk of developing an Eating Disorder:
- Anxiety, Depression, or OCD
- Low stress tolerance
- Low distress tolerance
- Sensitivity to real or perceived injury
So in other words, if you have a sensitive child who struggles with tolerating “distressing” feelings such as sadness, anger, or shame and you (or a family member) struggle with Depression, Anxiety or OCD, the ground is fertile for the seed of an Eating Disorder to sprout.
What about Depression?
At least 10% of people in the U.S. will experience Major Depressive Disorder at some point in their lives. According to statistics, two times as many women as men experience major depression. (There is a lot to be said there in terms of mis-diagnosis of symptoms, gender bias, and who reaches out for support to mental health professionals, that can affect these statistics, but that is for another blog.)
According to two Stanford doctors writing about genetics and brain function, genetics play a strong role in causing Major Depression (Levinson, Douglas F. M.D. and Nichols, Walter E. M.D., Professor in the School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, 2015). They write:
- The heritability (or percentage of the cause due to genes) is probably 40-50%, and might be higher for severe depression.
- The situation is a little different if the parent or sibling has had depression more than once (“recurrent depression”), and if the depression started relatively early in life… the siblings and children of people with this form of depression probably develop it at a rate that is 4 or 5 times greater than the average person.
What else contributes to Depression? And what about Postpartum Depression?
Stressful life events (trauma, loss of a loved one, moving/loss of support, having a baby) can lead to depression in and of themselves. When combined with a genetic risk, there is a stronger possibility of developing depression. And having one (or more) episode of depression increases the risk of having future episodes. (Kendler, Thornton, and Gardner, 2001)
While many women experience some mild mood change or “the blues” during or after the birth of a child, 1 in 7 women (and some recent research says 1 in 5) experience more significant symptoms of depression or anxiety. 1 in 10 Dads become depressed during the first year. (Postpartum Support International)
Risk factors for Postpartum Depression
Some women are more likely than others to develop Postpartum depression. The following factors put you at an increased risk:
- Previous history of depression
- History of severe PMS or premenstrual dysphoric disorder
- Medical complications for you or your baby
- Lack of support from family or friends
- A family history of depression or another mental illness
- Anxiety or negative feelings about the pregnancy
- Problems with a previous pregnancy or birth
- Marriage, Relationship, or money problems
- Stressful life events
- Substance abuse
How does Postpartum Depression impact children?
Postpartum Depression and other Perinatal Disorders (Anxiety, OCD, Psychosis) can affect children in the following ways:
- Behavioral Problems
- Delays in Cognitive Development
- Emotional Problems and/or Depression
According to Zero To Three, a research-based resource for federal and state policymakers and advocates on the unique developmental needs of infants and toddlers, untreated Depression can have detrimental effects on children’s functioning and future outcomes (2009).
The mental health of parents can affect young children… infants of clinically depressed mothers often withdraw from caregivers, which ultimately affects their language skills, as well as their physical and cognitive development. Older children of depressed mothers show poor self-control, aggression, poor peer relationships, and difficulty in school.
Unlike adults, babies and toddlers have a fairly limited repertoire of responses to stress and trauma. Mental health disorders in infants and toddlers might be reflected in physical symptoms (poor weight gain, slow growth, and constipation), overall delayed development, inconsolable crying, sleep problems, or aggressive or impulsive behavior and paralyzing fears. Early attachment disorders predict subsequent aggressive behavior. Some early mental health disorders have lasting effects and may appear to be precursors of mental health problems in later life, including withdrawal, sleeplessness, or lack of appetite due to depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress reactions.
So, if you have had or are currently suffering with and through (because it is possible to recover and get through it) an Eating Disorder or Depression, your child does have risk. But that does not mean they are doomed. It means, even more important than ever, that you get treatment and recovery yourself! When I attended Postpartum Support International’s training on Perinatal Mood Disorders, the message that they gave was: There is Hope and You are not alone. It is possible to recover and in recovering yourself, you help build a more protected base from which your child can thrive and grow.
Wade, Tracey D, Ph.D., Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., Michael Neale, Ph.D., and Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., “Genetic and Environmental Risk Factors Anorexia Nervosa and Major Depression: Shared Risk Factors,” Am J Psychiatry 2000; 157:469–471.
Eating Disorder Recovery Services The mission of EDRS (Eating Disorder Recovery Support), Inc. is to promote recovery and wellness for those impacted by eating disorders by providing support, information, and education to individuals, families, professionals, and the community at large regarding eating disorders and recovery resources. EDRS.net
Ovidio Bermudez, MD Dr. Bermudez has lectured nationally and internationally on eating pathology across the lifespan, obesity and other topics related to pediatric and adult healthcare, and has been repeatedly recognized for his dedication and advocacy in the field of eating disorders. eatingrecoverycenter.com
“Major Depression and Genetics” Douglas F. Levinson, M.D. and Walter E. Nichols, M.D., Professor in the School of Medicine
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (2015) Depression and Genetics
Zero To Three The Zero To Three policy Center is a nonpartisan, research-based resource for federal and state policymakers and advocates on the unique developmental needs of infants and toddlers. zerotothree.org
Link to Depression during and after Pregnancy Fact Sheet
Link to study on teaching sleep with infants to prevent Postpartum Depression:
Link to study on effects of Lexipro on treatment of Postpartum Depression:
Once upon a time, I thought parenthood was a fairly straightforward and linear process. I thought if the child was slow at something like completing potty training or letting go of their pacifier, it was basically because the parent wasn’t doing what they were supposed to be doing, usually according to the timeline some expert had written in a book.
Eighteen years ago I also thought recovery from an eating disorder would be a straightforward journey. If I could just get a handle on the food-thing, and the body-thing, that would be the end of it. Poof! Everything all better! (More on that later.)
Then I had a child that was unbelievably attached to his pacifier. If there were a pacifier anywhere within a two-block radius, he would find it. No matter if it was waaaaaaay under a couch or say, a monster truck, he would find it and it would be in his mouth before anyone had time to say, “Wait (let me at least rinse it off…)!” Other children choose the breast, the bottle, potty training, sleeping through the night, talking… to take their own sweet time in learning or letting go of. And, as every parent discovers, the way to make this holding on stronger is to fight for control. (Have you ever tried to force a toddler to poop in the potty? As Dr Phil would say “How’s that working for you?”)
So all this to say, my child chose to hang onto the pacifier. Or, as he named it “nukey” (nooh-key). As a parent and Psychologist, I went through all kinds of fretting over whether I was teaching stuffing/”pacifying” his feelings, ruining his teeth, delaying his speech, ruining future capacity to empathize due to blunted affect (I’m not kidding- there is research on this), etc… I made space for him to cry or have angry feelings in transition times. I consulted Pediatricians, Developmental Psychologists, and Dentists. (They all had different opinions). I was ready to be the one to initiate letting-go-of-nukey process many times. My husband said, “Nobody goes to college with their pacifier.” I believed this around nobody going to college in diapers. However, I really wasn’t sure it was gong to happen with nukey. I thought, you know our child MIGHT actually bring his to college.
One day my boy woke up and, in the middle of playing, said, “I’m ready to say bye to nukey.”
I said ‘What?!”
He repeated himself.
I asked him if he knew that would mean: all the nukies would go away and he wouldn’t ever have them again. We talked about the binky fairy bringing his nukies to new babies.
He said he understood. He then proceeded to say how he needed a box. We decorated it. We put all of his nukies in the box. We wrote a letter. And then we left the box for the binky fairy and went to bed without any nuksies.
I was ready for meltdowns. I was ready for the fall out. I was ready to pull out the one I had hidden in reserve. But there was no need; he was ready to let it go. He was ready to let it go, and so he did (which, for the record, is what the Developmental Psychologist said). Life soon rushed in with new challenges and opportunities.
So what the heck does all this have to do with eating disorder recovery?
Early in my recovery from an eating disorder seventeen years ago I thought I needed my eating disorder and other obstacles (depression, darkness, isolation, loneliness) to be “deep” and “creative.” I was literally and emotionally trapped in the myth of the starving (and restricting and bingeing and purging) artist. And yet very few paintings emerged when I was in the midst of my eating disorder. Nonetheless, I continued to hang on. I held on even as I was trying to let go. I held on for as long as I needed to hold on. And then, when I was ready, (with my own support team ready with metaphorical binky fairy boxes) I let go. I didn’t need it anymore. I had other tools. Not surprisingly, that year was my most prolific period of painting. This healing expression led me directly into pursuing a Master’s degree with a focus in art-as-healing and beginning to assist others in their recovery process. Later I was called to earn a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Though my plan (with the eating disorder) was to be a suffering artist, that was not the plan life called me to live my way into. When I lived my way into letting go of “this food-and body thing,” being a suffering artist was no longer the goal. Assisting others in letting go of the suffering was. My eating disorder actually led me directly INTO the freedom of recovery and living a depthful and creative life of meaning. But not in the way I had originally planned.
What’s in the way IS the way
I often work with my clients on what purpose their eating disorder is serving. Until that need is met, they’re usually not ready to let go. If the eating disorder is helping manage anxiety, other tools need to be added and practiced. If it is postponing grief, or helping comfort loneliness, grief and loneliness need to be allowed in. If it is helping in a scary or difficult transition (adolescence, motherhood, loss of relationship, marriage or divorce), other ways to walk into and through the unknown of becoming this new person need to be welcomed. I once had a client use the metaphor of her eating disorder being a “blankie,” a comfort blanket that had grown thorns and barbs. It started out as comforting and then turned into something that repeatedly harmed her, even as she turned to it for comfort. Facing the loneliness she had been avoiding was no longer as painful as holding onto the “comfort” of the eating disorder.
As you begin to look at what goals, intentions, visions you have for 2015, I would encourage you to invite creating WITH your obstacles on the way to letting them go. What obstacles would you like to “go away”? Invite support for letting go of the obstacles and consider “What’s in the way IS the way.” Miracles await. As Carl Jung has been quoted as saying “God enters through the wound.”
Or as Glenda the Good Witch (the adult version of the binky fairy?) said to Dorothy in the Wizard of oz when she asked “Why didn’t you tell me all I had to do was click my heels three times and say there’s no place like home?”
Glenda responded “Because you wouldn’t have believed me.”
(As always, the purpose of this blog is to be inspirational toward recovery, and not serve as psychological treatment.)