The thing about building the life you really, really want — a Big, Bold, Creative Life — is that progress is never a straight line.
As my wise pop once said, years ago, “The tapestry of life is rarely linear.” Often it feels more like three steps forward, two steps back.
That’s how the past few weeks have felt to me.
Perhaps it all started with my dive into the Creative Cave to create and launch my Get Sparked! ecourse several weeks ago. There were certainly a couple of weeks when my days were topsy-turvy, and the life-sustaining habits I’ve been working on developing (such as getting to bed at a reasonable hour) went right out the window.
Ahem. Yep, major stumble, folks.
But that wasn’t the most troubling part.
When one life pattern falls off course, the lovely ripple effect often sends others tumbling as well.
In my case here, the ripple effect was that the weeks of stress and anxiety to get Get Sparked! off the ground also impacted my eating habits, and I found myself pulled back into a familiar — and very unwelcome — pattern.
Unless you’re a pretty regular reader, what you may not know about me is that I have a history of pretty severe eating disorders. For close to ten years I struggled with bulimia.
Although it’s been well over a decade, maybe two, since I intentionally vomited up my food, I consider myself still to be recovering. You know the saying, “Once an alchoholic, always an alchoholic”? Well, for years I’ve said, “Once a bulimic, always a bulimic.”
I don’t say this because I’m afraid I’ll start puking my guts out again (in fact, that doesn’t worry me anymore), but because successfully overcoming one part of the vicious cycle of bulimia has by no means given me immunity to the rest of it.
Most of the time my relationship to food is comfortable and healthy. I eat whatever I want, in whatever quantities sate me. But occasionally I’ll be hit with a “fat attack,” when a moment of feeling uncomfortably full from eating too much triggers a cascade of negative emotions: panic, fear that I’m going to get fat, that everything is spiraling out of control.
In the past, the psychic pain of all these panicky fears made me desperate for solace and comfort, which I would attempt to find in — you guessed it — food.
Needless to say, this never helped matters one whit.
Instead, it kept the whole vicious cycle rolling forward, like a Catherine Wheel that I’d unwittingly chained myself to, and couldn’t figure out how to stop.
Of course, I was also the one wielding the bludgeon.
During the depths of my eating disorder, I would try to control the situation by imposing severe restrictions on what, where, and how much I could eat going forward.
Starvation rations. Forbidden foods. Fasting regimens. That sort of thing.
But guess what? This kind of harsh treatment always backfires. In fact, scientific researchers actually have a name for it: the “What the Hell Effect.”
Rigid rules are invariably broken. You stumble, and then the flood of bad feelings that follows leads you to seek comfort in the very thing you’re trying to avoid: “Oops… Smoked a cigarette/ate a donut… What the hell! Might as well smoke the entire pack/eat the entire bag now…”
Then, chastened by your binge, you resolve to follow an even stricter regimen the next day, in order to make up for it. And this, of course, only sets the entire sequence in motion once again.
This, in a nutshell, is a snapshot of my life as a bulimic. It was a classic shame spiral:
Harsh rules → stumble → shame → rebellion/comfort-seeking/bingeing → “purging” → shame → even harsher rules… Etcetera, ad infinitum.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
One of the things that helped me break this cycle and heal from my eating disorder was my decision to lift all bans and restrictions, and treat myself more compassionately.
If I had nothing to rebel against, no shame from breaking harsh rules (my thinking went), I’d be less likely to gorge myself in an attempt to make myself feel better! If I didn’t beat myself up (my thinking went), maybe I wouldn’t turn to food to try to console myself!
Although it took years to fully end the bulimic cycle, my thinking was right on the nose.
Scientific studies have since proven that people who score high on tests measuring self-compassion achieve more and have lower rates of depression and anxiety. One study in particular, cited in Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, showed that women dieters who were given a very small self-compassion intervention after being asked to eat a donut (hence breaking their diet) ate almost one third the amount of candy afterwards, compared to women dieters who did not receive the intervention.
It turns out that a simple reminder that, hey, you’re human, you’re fallible, and you still deserve to be treated with kindness, makes all the difference in the world.
Which, as it happens, is entirely consistent with my Golden Formula:
Self-awareness + self-compassion = the key to everything good.
So far so good, right?
But obviously my Golden Formula hasn’t eliminated my fat attacks. I felt the shame spiral (minus the purging part and the harsh rules) heating up again in the past few weeks, as I overate once or twice, then couldn’t seem to stop overeating.
Ack! What to do?
What I did was take a page from my own book.
First, I paid attention (self-awareness):
I noticed that, hey, I really didn’t like this sensation of being overfull all the time. I didn’t like the constant worry that I was going to outgrow my clothes.
I noticed I was feeling more and more anxious about food and my body, and that did not feel good at all.
Then I reacted not with beatings, but with compassion:
“Dear one,” I said to my scared and hurting self, “everyone stumbles. Everyone overeats. It’s okay.”
“Sweetheart,” I said, “I know you’re suffering here.”
“Darling,” I said, “you are completely good. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
Rather than slamming myself with rigid eating rules (which I know from experience always backfires), I focused on letting go.
Instead of chaining myself up in crazyass dietary rules, I simply focused on my true goal for my self-food relationship:
“Eat when you’re hungry; stop when you’re sated.” Plus one corollary, from my brilliant friend, Sue Ann, “Eat only what you can savor.”
A couple of days went by when I still overate despite all of this. I’d finish a delicious dinner, savored slowly, then find myself mindlessly munching granola right out of the bag while reading a novel. I knew I wasn’t really hungry, and yet I kept eating, seemingly oblivious to how full I was.
So I doubled up on the self-compassion, reminding myself multiple times a day that these “fat attacks” always resolve eventually. My body always returns to its great wisdom when I let it take the lead.
Then it occurred to me to add one more thing to the formula:
I asked myself, “What are you truly hungry for?”
I kind of knew the answer, but resistance can be a powerful foe, acting like blinders to our self-awareness. It wasn’t until I spontaneously “binged” on making art at my drafting table that I knew for sure that this was the nourishment I was really seeking. Not food, but soul food.
It’s amazing what happens when we feed our true hungers.
The past few days have been such a relief. I feel back on track, and recharged, as well, with the powerful understanding that exercising my muscles of creation is essential to my well-being.
I’m under no illusion that episodes of distorted eating are gone from my life forever. However, every time I practice responding with my Golden Formula of self-awareness + self-compassion, I strengthen my deep understanding that I can return to health and balance.
And every time I feel that rush of energy from playing in my Creative Sandbox, I strengthen my resolve to keep putting my precious creative passions at the top of my priority list.
Or I should say, to keep putting them back at the top of my priority list.
Yep. I have no doubt I’ll keep stumbling, but I’ll keep getting right back up. Really, I can wish for nothing else.
It’s what I wish for you, too.
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!