Trust Your Gut
For ignoring you, my highest voices
For smiling when my strife was all too obvious
For being so disassociated from my body
And not letting go when it would’ve been the kindest thing
To whom do I owe the biggest apology?
No one’s been crueler than I’ve been to me
And I’m sorry to myself
My apologies begin here before everybody else
I’m sorry to myself
For treating me worse than I would anybody else
I’m sorry to myself
I decided that my body wasn’t good enough when I was about ten years old. I don’t know exactly how or why it happened; it suddenly seemed like The Truth and continued to be that way for many, many years. Diary entries from the fifth grade depict a relatively happy, carefree girl with an awareness of an unnamed, unspoken code among females: thinness = beauty. Alongside entries with lists of best friends and crushes at the time are references, seemingly out of nowhere, to the number on the scale and fears that it was too high.
I started ballet lessons at the age of six. I loved the way dancing made my body feel, and the movement felt natural to me, as though I was made to do it. I would entertain myself for hours by twirling around in my grandparents’ guest room to tunes played on their antique music boxes. My instructor once made a comment to my parents that it was not possible to teach children to dance the way I did; it was something innate. I couldn’t remember a time when my body didn’t just seem to “know” how to do it. I liked the way that I could lose myself in the movement. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was therapeutic to express myself with my body. It felt good to get outside of my mind, feeling only muscles tensing, arms stretching, toes pointing. It felt good to sweat and accelerate my heart rate, then sense it coming down. I liked the structure and predictable routine of the classes—starting at the barre and later moving on the floor. It began to feel like a second home to me, and eventually became my passion.
I began reading books about professional dancers and idolized my older cousin who also loved it. I attended classes several times a week and fully embraced the rules of performing, developing a close group of friends that shared my interest. We had found a way to combine healthy physical exertion, artistry and socialization. Around the sixth grade, however, I noticed that what used to be a fun outlet for creative expression had become something else. “How serious are you?” Was the implied question. “Where is this going to go? Are you willing to dedicate yourself to it? How much time are you willing to commit?” Jeez, I hadn’t thought of that. I was just enjoying moving my body.
For the first time in my life, I started to look at my body as separate from me. As if “I” existed in my head, and my “body” existed from the neck-down. My body became something to analyze, criticize, see through the world’s eyes. I became aware of how different we all looked in our leotards, some of us curvier than others (bad) and some straight as an arrow and hipless (good.) During one dance class, soon after I had started my first period, my teacher (meaning well, I’m sure) commented, “Look at you! Skinny today!” Yes, I thought. This is what we are going for. The skinnier, the better. This separation—this “me vs my body” was the beginning of my learning not to trust. The moment that we stop listening to our bodies and start trusting outside sources more than we do our inner wisdom, we are on a path to heartache. Unfortunately, this disconnect also typically happens around the same time that we are asked to start sharing our bodies with others—first kisses and wandering hands. Whose body is this person touching? It was mine, but now it feels like it’s not: another step away from ourselves.
My dieting started during the “fat free” craze of the 90’s. We bought fat free crackers in green boxes and fat free yogurt with a sickeningly sweet aftertaste. When you were done eating such things, it didn’t really feel like you had eaten at all, so you reached for more. No worries—it was fat free! In high school, I ate salads with fat free dressing every day for lunch. I ate carrots with mustard (yum) and caramel flavored rice cakes. By Friday, my body was starving, so I would allow myself a lone cinnamon raisin bagel for lunch, which I would eat slowly during class, surreptitiously sneaking tiny bites from my hands hidden under my desk. I remember feeling my belly fill up with the bagel and the sense of dread it created: to be full was to mean you had gone too far.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I never wanted to see another rice cake for the rest of my life. And so began the inevitable push-pull of what my body desired, and denying that desire. The fact that this was a pivotal time in my life, when I would be deciding what college to attend, moving away to that college, thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, separating from my family—that was all background. In the forefront of my mind, what seemed to need to be “taken care of” first, was the problem of weight. I just had too much of it. If I could just deal with that—fix this problem that I had—then I could think about the other stuff.
Of course, the other stuff happened whether I was paying attention or not. The making of new friends, establishing a major, meeting the man I would later marry, thinking about a career. I just wasn’t able to tune into it as if it were real. Before I knew it, this life I had (the only one, that I know of, that I’ll ever get) was consumed by a fantasy, and this fantasy was called, “when I get thin.” It was a way to live my life without really living it. A way to move my body through various activities and adventures while simultaneously telling myself that I didn’t really get to experience them, because of the body I was in. That same body, the one that I had used to dance around my grandmother’s guest room, had become an appendage. Something to manipulate, starve, stuff, judge, critique and admonish.
When I look at pictures from my life, I don’t so much remember the event where a photograph was taken, how I felt at the time, or the joy of that moment. I remember what diet was beginning, what diet I was on, or what diet I had failed. Each of those represented, in that order: hope, willpower, or defeat and self-hatred. I see the eggs and bacon of Atkins, vanilla extract and ricotta cheese of South Beach, days of vegetable soup, fatbombs, black coffee, bulletproof coffee, protein shakes, fasting, points, “cleansing,” pink pills, black pills, grapefruit, Diet Coke, don’t eat in the morning, don’t eat at night, no alcohol, alcohol but only wine, alcohol but only tequila, alcohol but only on weekends, running, spinning, kickboxing, boot camp, Jazzercise, yoga, free weights, weight machines, trainers, experts, doctors, nutritionists, the latest craze, old crazes that just keep coming back…something just had to be The Answer.
In my twenties, I came upon the work of Geneen Roth. I don’t remember how I came about her books—probably in a google search about feeling lost around food. In reading her story, and learning about what she helps her students to understand at her retreats, I immediately felt less alone, and somewhere in the back of my mind, a tiny voice told me that she was right. These diets—they weren’t really about my weight. It seemed like they were, of course, on the surface. I just want to feel good in a pair of jeans, not hate myself in photographs, be able to shop where I want to shop. But upon closer examination, it became clear that the diets were a symptom—a symptom of a story that I had been telling myself for years: that I wasn’t worthy enough at my core. Sure, I had a lot of good qualities. I was kind, hard working, empathic, generous, funny. But the real me, the one only I really knew about, was not good enough. I put Geneen’s books away in a drawer and continued on my dieting path. Every few years, I would read them again, nod, say, yes, that’s exactly what it is, and return to the safety of dieting.
When you no longer trust yourself and your instincts, arbitrary diet rules make complete sense. After all, who are you to know what to put into your own body? Do you really think that, unchecked, you could know when something is too sweet for you? When you’ve had one bite too much? When you need more? When you want something warm and filling, like tomato soup, or when you want something light and crunchy, like a cucumber? Something salty like a pickle, or something sweet, like chocolate? That sounds complicated and too individualized and not nutritionally sound. If that were the case, then none of us could tell anyone else what is right for them and their body, because none of us has the same body!
It turns out that we knew what was best for us all along, but we got separated from it very early on, and now the idea of it seems far-fetched, radical, even silly. Plus, we tell ourselves, it’s too hard to really think about what my body wants or doesn’t want, when my belly is full or not full enough. I need to be told what to do, otherwise, I’d “go crazy.” I’d eat mindlessly, we say. When I know I have to be accountable for a diet, I pay attention. Maybe that’s true. Maybe you prefer to live life through the popular lens of “good” vs “bad” and have someone else tell you what food falls into each of those categories and how much of it to have. I think that’s fine, but I would argue that it isn’t necessary.
You already have a built-in mechanism that you were born with that has the wisdom to know exactly when something is too much or not enough, or too artificial tasting or too bland, too heavy or not filling enough. You know it like you know whether or not you have to scratch an itch: you just know. But because for many years, you have been told, encouraged even, to ignore this knowing, you have forgotten it is there.
I believe that our forgetting is a combination of things. One: We haven’t listened to it in a while. When you don’t practice something, you lose the skill. Two: If and when we try to listen to it, we are given the message from everyone around us and our critical inner voice that it is foolish and “won’t work.” Three: We are afraid that without food as comfort, our unwanted feelings will destroy us.
This is what being afraid of unwanted feelings sometimes looks like:
“I don’t want to stop, even though I’m full. This food tastes and feels good and I’m going to keep eating it. If I stop, I won’t have that pleasure anymore and I’ll be left with (fill in whatever reality you are trying to avoid.)”
“Something embarrassing/hurtful/triggering just happened to me (or happened to me a long time ago) and eating this makes me feel better. Thinking about that event is too much for me to handle.”
“I feel relieved about something I was worried about. All the energy I was holding onto about it has now been released. The feeling of relief is too much for me to process.”
“I am bored and this food is a good distraction. If I allow myself to feel bored, I’ll go insane.”
“This is what I’ve always done and not doing it isn’t an option because I’ve never done it any differently. I have anxiety about changing the way I’ve always been because change is scary and new, and I don’t know who I am anymore if I am different.”
“Eating this is fun and I don’t want the fun to end. Fun ending reminds me of when I was a kid and I got to do fun things all the time, and now I’m an adult and I don’t get to have any fun. It hurts too much to know I’m not having any fun.”
“I have a lot of stress and expectations in my life, and even though I’m not hungry, I’m going to eat this because I at least deserve a little bit of happiness. I have given up a lot of things I wanted in my life, and if I think about that I’ll get too upset. At the very least I can have more flipping potatoes.”
“I am too busy to pay attention when I eat. I have to multitask. The time it takes me to think about what I want, prep it, make it, sit down and eat it, clean it up…forget it. I’ll just skip it. I don’t deserve to think about what I really want to eat. I don’t have the time. And if I took the time to sit and eat like a normal person, I would have to slow down enough to notice what else I’m really dissatisfied with. And that would open a whole can of worms. I couldn’t bear to feel what I really feel. It’s too painful.”
Please know that I have said all of these things. I have used food for emotional comfort, as we all have—it is normal human behavior. When a young baby cries because she is upset, she is often offered a bottle. It is soothing; the sucking is rhythmic and calming. She gets to be held while she drinks from it, which also feels good. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, studies have shown that it is more detrimental to beat ourselves up about looking to food for emotional comfort than to just do it.
It is true, however, that over time in our minds, we have made ourselves out to be a good deal more fragile than we actually are. And the years of “failed” diets haven’t exactly helped. We accepted with each one further proof that not only could we simply not be trusted, but we were weak. Yes, some of them we “stuck to” for years, but eventually, the pounds crept back on, and now look at us. Pathetic.
What was once as natural as anything to us is suddenly confusing and overwhelming. On the one hand, we feel that we just need someone to tell us what to do. But on the other hand, the idea of climbing back on that diet horse is about as appealing as having our gums scraped. We just can’t do it. We are trapped. So the self-loathing (or simple self-dissatisfaction) continues, and if someone gets us at the right time, we succumb again to yet another miracle plan.
Geneen Roth says, “…if you wait to respect yourself until you are at the weight you imagine you need to be to respect yourself, you will never respect yourself. To be given wings, you’ve got to be willing to believe that you were put on this Earth for more than your endless attempts to lose the same 30 pounds 300 times for 80 years. And that goodness and loveliness are possible, even in something as mundane as what you put in your mouth for breakfast.”
To really make lasting, sustainable change, we need to start with unconditional love. That means even with your tendency to make a mess, your awkward laugh, your hairy toes, your trouble with math, your irritability, sadness, and sameness day after day—you are okay. You are just, exactly, how you are supposed to be. No more, no less. This is very difficult to accept. I understand that. “Maybe for you,” you think, “but not for me.” Or maybe you’d rather not go there. “I like myself fine,” you think. And maybe that’s true.
But. There is unquestionably a connection between our being able to tolerate the feelings we believe will destroy us and our ability to live in a body that is satisfying to us. It will take some of us a lifetime to make this connection. But if we are willing to give ourselves just a little bit of credit, and trust that we have what we need now, no matter what has happened to us or what our story is, we will begin to see that it is possible. We will begin to see that we aren’t as fragile as we thought we were. That undesirable feeling, that will pass. All it wants is to be felt, acknowledged, heard. Sometimes, the fear surrounding a feeling comes from somewhere deep in our past (for example, loneliness is intolerable because it reminds you of being left to eat alone in the cafeteria.) Other times, it is based on a fear about the future (dissatisfaction reminds you of how you took that job you don’t really like, but you can’t tell your partner that because your family relies on that income and then what?)
This sounds like a complex, bear of an issue to address, and in some ways, it is. The way we eat, whether we want it to be or not, is often a representation of what our truest beliefs are about ourselves. No wonder it’s appealing to keep running back to dieting.
So we have to start small. For me, this looked like little, tiny changes. Bit by bit, just noticing. Hmm, I had that emotional phone call and then somehow I have eaten an entire bag of brioche buns with butter. Hmmm…I was really nervous about how that meeting was going to go, and it went great, and as soon as I was finished, what appeared to be my hand was shoveling fistfuls of tortilla chips into my mouth. Or, Hmm…I think when I went out to dinner, I was full, but everyone else was still eating/talking and I felt awkward just sitting there. So I kept eating. Each moment is an opportunity to notice certain patterns, certain easy triggers. Sometimes, it is all you can do to just notice something that happened surrounding food. But with practice, we can start to step back and think about whether we have any old, cobwebbed, stubborn beliefs that keep us from wanting us to take action when it makes sense to.
I have a veritable carnival of old, handy beliefs that help me to believe I’m not capable of handling the pain that food is supposedly protecting me from. Some favorites are, “I can’t handle confrontation,” and “being bored around my kids makes me a bad mom,” and, “I’m not strong enough to ask for what I want.” I could go on and on. The point is, if you can slow down enough in the moment and get curious about what you’re about to do, you can begin to invite in some of the feelings that you have been so afraid of. Geneen calls this inquiry. Ultimately, you will find that when challenged, these beliefs fall apart; disintegrate. They have nothing to stand on—they have just always been there, like ugly wallpaper that was up when you moved into a house that you never bothered to take down. And because they’ve always been there, we haven’t ever thought to stop and ask what the hell they are doing there in the first place.
It starts with noticing whatever feeling is in your body, and describing it with as much detail as possible. Really get into it. “I feel shame over what just happened. It feels like thick, red lava coating my whole face and running down the inside of my body, all over my organs.” It sounds strange, but this helps you to identify with what is happening to your body in real time as you experience whatever emotion you are experiencing. Then, you begin to question that feeling. It looks like this:
Why are you feeling ashamed? Because I shouldn’t feel this way. I should feel lucky. I have two beautiful kids who are happy and healthy. Good moms don’t feel bored when they’re with their kids. Are you sure that’s true? Ummmm…yes. Really? There are no other moms in the world that sometimes feel bored when they’re with their kids? Okay, fine. I guess. Yes, other moms sometimes feel bored when they’re with their kids. And do you think that makes them bad moms? No, obviously not. Okay, so what do you want to do? I want to run away. I want to disappear. Hence my hand in this bag of Entenmann’s mini freaking doughnuts. Okay, but just so you know, you will still be here when you’re done with those. Hmph. Is there anything else you could do in this moment? Well. I guess I could go upstairs for a minute and take a break. Okay. Or I could do something more engaging with the kids so we have something to talk about, like play Heads Up or something. Okay. Or I could just sit with the bored feeling until it passes. Yes.
The good news is that you have lots of opportunities to practice, as we have to eat every day, and we have to have feelings every day. Over time, you will notice when a favorite false belief is hanging out, and what tends to trigger it. Eventually, you will be able to anticipate their showing up (by the feeling that triggers them) and gently, but assertively, challenge them. This is a process, and not something that happens overnight. It takes patience and trust, and you have to feel safe to do it. Believe it or not, we have very good reasons that we eat (or don’t eat) the way that we do. And you will know whether or not you are ready to slowly begin to examine them.
Sometimes, our loyalty to certain beliefs is connected to people from our past. People whom we trusted and adored. Letting go of these beliefs can feel like letting go of someone that we loved, or still love. It can feel like letting them down, like saying, “you were wrong and I was right.” I am here to tell you that letting go of a faulty belief to honor your true self is not the same as abandoning someone you love. As much as that person means to you, your relationship to yourself is more important. As an adult, you have the right to create your own beliefs that are in alignment with who you truly are.
Most of the time, we try to address the issue of weight from the outside-in. In reality, to even begin examining it, we need to start on the inside and work our way out. We live in a world of before and after pictures. Here she is before she lost the weight (unsatisfied, disgusted, lazy) and after she lost the weight (energetic! hard-working! happy!) How tempting it is to fall into that trap, again and again. The reason for this is that we love the idea of there being two of us—the “bad” us and the “good” us. It gives us something to do—a project. If we accept that there has only been one of us all along, and that one has flaws and a history of bad decisions and imperfections, we are left not with a shiny, new future but the same old present. But, it is only in this present that we can accept what we need to accept (all of us, even with our imperfections) in order to make the changes we really want to make. Many of us have lost weight before—maybe we’ve even met our “goal weight” and fit into the clothes we dreamed we’d fit into. But it hasn’t lasted. Not because we are gluttonous and full of sin, but because losing the weight didn’t give us what we imagined it would—a different life. After all of that hard work, all we had to show for it was new pants. We had the same gnawing self-doubt, problematic temper, or tendency to feel judged. Where was the new us? Before embarking on any change, we need to believe at our core that even this current version of ourselves is unquestionably worthy. Otherwise, when we finally obtain the dream body we have created for ourselves, it feels false—like it was made for someone else. Because, well—it was. And it doesn’t last.
In addition to inquiry, the key to letting go of the obsession with our physical bodies is, surprisingly, to remind ourselves that we have them. The very same activity that permitted you to leave your mind and find a place of stillness as a child is still available to you as an adult. No one tells us that, though. We are led to believe that the physical movement that children engage in (dance, soccer, gymnastics, sprinting after each other, etc) should be left to children. I’ll admit, it might look a bit silly for us to put on our pink leotards and play tag again, but we might not have to take it that far. Simply moving our bodies in a way that feels good and takes us out of our minds, without an agenda or focus on calories burnt or abs sculpted is enough. I hesitate to use the word “exercise” because it has been tainted. Even those who claim to like exercise seem to need to share how much they like it, and prove to others that they’ve done it. Which makes me wonder if it might be fulfilling another purpose. If you think about it, we don’t typically hear kids brag about how many times they skipped jump rope that day or how many miles they rode on their bike. They just do it. Every day. Without anyone even having to tell them to.
The other key to letting go of the obsession, in addition to remembering that we have bodies, is to forget about them. Not by going into our minds and indulging in thoughts as we usually do, but by taking time to notice the space in between our thoughts. Yes, I am talking about meditation: simply sitting and noticing our breath, noting thoughts as they come, and then letting them go. This simple process is life-changing, but we have to make time to do it. And in a world where we haven’t a moment to spare, sitting seemingly without “accomplishing something” can seem pointless and wasteful. I assure you that it isn’t. The practice of sitting and just being—brings us closer to the truth that we were born knowing, but forgot about; likely around age 10, when I did: We are not our thoughts. We are not our body either. What a relief.
Meditation is great for other reasons too (more on that later) but when it comes to eating, taking time to sit every day, even for 10 minutes, can alter our brains so that eventually, you won’t feel as attached to whatever it is you are drawn to eat, making it easier to actually appreciate the taste of it in the moment, and stop when you’ve had enough. Those automatic impulses that we seem to have no control over will feel less automatic. With meditation comes awareness—awareness of the reality that whatever stressful moment or difficult situation we are in is only temporary. The boredom, the pain, the frustration, the dissatisfaction—we will feel it and then it will dissipate. Feel it and then it will dissipate. Over time, meditation allows you to have a bird’s eye view of yourself in your life. Suddenly, things that seemed insurmountable can feel doable. A bag of Doritos looks to you like it would to an alien—like a bag of orange triangles. There is no charge to them, no allure. Putting them in your mouth when you aren’t hungry feels about as absurd as putting them up your nose. It just wouldn’t make sense.
When you are ready—really ready, you will know. You will know, because the idea of spending money on another diet book or plan will not appeal to you. It will for a moment, and then you will think better of it and remember that no one knows what your body needs better than you do. Try not to waste time lamenting the money lost, the years wasted, on prescribed plans that fell apart. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t at some point (or multiple points) get sucked into the approximately 70 billion dollar weight loss industry. I certainly have. But now, you know better. And as Maya Angelou says, when you know better, you do better.
It is easy to say that we want to lose weight; that it is as simple as that. It is harder to say that we want real peace when it comes to food. But that is what it comes down to. In the end, food is the same as it has always been, there to sustain us and give us pleasure. It is up to us to do what we need to do to internalize that which we have been fighting: we have what it takes now, not after we lose X number of pounds, but now, to face whatever it is we think we cannot face. Our body is ours, and always has been. It is ours to be lived in—if we are willing to let go of the fantasy of magical transformation—of something “out there” being better than what what we have right here. Actually, if we can allow ourselves to see it, there is more glitter and beauty in our own lives than we could ever find anywhere else.