“I can’t stop worrying!” “I keep doing [insert destructive habit here].” “I feel like I’m at my emotional limit!” At the end of our work together, my clients are often surprised to find that one of the tools they find most helpful looks a lot like doing absolutely nothing.
This is an exercise I created to help my clients have more meaningful holidays. Many of my clients, particularly those with a lot of family dysfunction, worry about and even dread the holidays. Use this exercise to create a meaningful vision of your holiday, to clarify your values, and to stay focused on what matters most.
The holidays are a time filled with family events and togetherness. Without appropriate boundaries, this time of year could lead to more tears than cheer. Here is a list of 10 ways to set healthy boundaries this holiday season.
- If you tend to be a people pleaser, remind yourself that it is okay to say "no" even if you feel guilty doing so. Before saying "yes" to anything, ask yourself how you feel when you imagine committing to this. If you feel depleted just thinking about it, that's your cue to say no.
- Politely change the topic or leave a conversation that makes you uncomfortable.
- Don't try to control what anyone else does, says, eats, or drinks.
- Pay close attention to your emotions and use them as warning signals. Are you feeling resentful or overwhelmed? These emotions may be trying to tell you that you aren't enforcing appropriate boundaries.
- Remember that you are not responsible for other people's happiness. Everyone needs support from loved ones, but when you feel personally responsible for another person’s emotions, you deny that person the opportunity to create his/her own well-being.
- Express your needs or emotions in an assertive and respectful way. Avoid passive-aggressive behavior.
- Reduce your emotional vulnerability by adhering to your PLEASE skills.
- Spend the most time with people who are supportive.
- Take responsibility for your own actions and joy.
- Know the difference between selfishness and self care. Putting your self-care first is like putting your oxygen mask on the plane before helping others. The more you take care of yourself, the more you will be present and available for others.
I have worked with hundreds of women who struggle with disordered eating and poor body image. Some clients obsessively track calories or Weight Watcher’s points. Some try to restrict their food intake all day then order large quantities of food to binge on at night. Some purge after meals or excessively exercise. Others restrict entire food groups. Some have tried every fad diet. Some say mean things to themselves when they look in the mirror, in hopes that this will motivate change. Some have found a community—in weight watchers or Overeaters Anonymous-- to hold them accountable or to reinforce their guilt after a weekly weigh in. Some have convinced themselves that a juice cleanse is necessary for detox. Some only eat “clean” foods. Some only eat purple foods. Some never eat purple foods…. (Those last two I haven’t come across, but I imagine someday I will).
The form of an eating disorder varies from person to person; but I’ve identified a common desire, which magnifies or underlies, many of my clients’ obsessions and compulsions around food and their bodies. The desire is for deeper, more authentic, wholehearted connection.
I often ask my clients who struggle with disordered eating and poor body image, “What will happen if you change your body?” Usually I hear “I would just look better and feel better.” Then my client and I might give each other a knowing glance. She and I both know it doesn’t stop there.
“So what would it say about you, what would it mean if you were to look and feel better?”
My client tells me, hesitantly, “I might be more likable...?” Now we are getting somewhere. Now we are talking about the desire to belong.
“What would people like more about you?”
For one woman, this exploration led us to a deeper understanding of how gender norms, her childhood history and even religion have played into her struggles with food and body image. She described how she’s always felt like her personality is “too big.” She goes on to describe Jewish women on TV whose personalities, she thinks, are depicted in an unappealing way. “I don’t want people to see me that way. I feel like If I take up less physical space, maybe that would balance out my personality."
My client is as surprised and saddened by this narrative as I am. “I never recognized that how I feel about my personality had anything to do with how I feel about my body.”
She also didn’t realize how so much of her behavior was geared at wanting to be accepted.
Decades of research has shown that social connections are as important to our survival and wellbeing as the need for food, safety, and shelter. It makes perfect sense that we are motivated to do whatever we can to fulfill our need to belong.
In fact, recent studies have shown that our brains process physical pain and social pain in the same way. Matthew D. Lieberman, author of Why our Brains are Wired to Connect speaks to this idea: “A broken leg and a broken heart seem like very different forms of pain. But there are evolutionary reasons why our brains process social pain the way they process physical pain. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. Social pain signals that we are all alone—that we are vulnerable—and need to either form new connections or rekindle old ones to protect ourselves against the many threats that are out there.”
The irony is this: eating disorders breed disconnection. Food takes precedence over people. Celebrations and social events come second to diet and exercise. One client said she used to tally Weight Watcher’s points in her head over dinner with friends and would completely lose track of the conversation. Another client described fights with her boyfriend each time she refused to go out with him after trying on clothes and not liking the way they fit. They eventually broke up over this. People with eating disorders are disconnected relationally as well as from themselves. Mind and body are not on the same page; rather, energy is spent using one’s mind to control the body rather than allowing the body to inform the mind.
The quest for connection according to researcher Brené Brown, begins with this:
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone. True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are. True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. ”
Perhaps the key to connection has nothing to do with changing our bodies or what we eat. Perhaps the key to connection begins with giving ourselves permission to be who we really are and allowing our true selves to be seen.
If you have a problematic relationship with food or your body, here are some questions to consider/discuss with your therapist:
· What do you think will happen if you change your body? What are you hoping to achieve?
· Are there other ways that you can achieve this same outcome without changing yourself physically?
· Are you craving deeper connections or a different type of connection with people in your life?
· Are your mind and body aligned? Do you listen to your hunger and satiety cues or does your mind get in the way?
· What would your life be like if eating and body image were no longer an issue?
According to Forbes.com, 40% of Americans make resolutions each year, but only 8% follow through on them. In working with my clients, I've found that there are five primary factors that get in the way of people following through on what they say they want to do or change. When we don’t achieve a goal, usually one or more of the following barriers have gotten in the way
Last week I was facilitating a weekly group for six of my clients—all very high-functioning 20 and 30 something women. All of these women have successful careers, multi-faceted interests, and numerous accomplishments. All of them tell themselves they are not good enough.
“I’m so lazy.” Heads move up and down in knowing nods around the circle—not in judgment but in recognition. “I’m not good enough.” More nods. As each of the group members shared the voice of their inner critic, the other group members heard the familiar chatter of their own critical voice echoing back.
We all know that listening to and fueling our inner critic is unhelpful and counter-productive. So why do we do it? Some of my clients say that they’ve always talked to themselves this way…they don’t know how to muffle that inner voice. Others say they use self-criticism in order to motivate themselves. They are afraid that if they let go of their negative self-talk, they will engage in overindulgent behavior or become complacent. However, research shows just the opposite effect—self-criticism takes the wind out of our sails.
Peterson (2014) explains: “To the extent that self-criticism does work to direct and motivate behavior, it’s because we’re driven by the desire to avoid self- judgment when we fall short of expectations and standards; however, when we know that failure will be met with a barrage of self-criticism, sometimes it can be too frightening to even try.” The bottom line? The self-criticism you think will motivate you to take action is, in reality, stopping you from even trying.
Think about the people that inspire you most in your life—perhaps a supervisor you’ve admired. How did this person motivate you? I would bet that they encouraged you, recognized your strengths, and celebrated your successes. That person probably also gave you constructive feedback when things weren’t going so well, and supported you in getting back on track. What if every day when your supervisor walked past your desk she yelled “you idiot. You can’t do anything right.” Would this motivate you to work harder? Would you even stick around? I hope not. Most of us wouldn’t dream of speaking to someone else the way we speak to ourselves.
When someone repeatedly criticizes us, our physiology is negatively affected. In fact, research shows that harsh words have a very damaging effect on our body, and this phenomenon holds true whether the criticism comes from someone else—or our own minds.
When we experience a threatening situation, our fight-or-flight response is triggered and adrenaline and cortisol (aptly referred to as the “stress hormone”) are released. Throughout evolution, this response has allowed humans to respond quickly to predators or other threats in the environment. Interestingly, research shows that our physiology responds similarly to physical as well as emotional attacks.
So what is the antidote to self-criticism? Self-compassion. Tender touch such as hugs and back rubs and soothing words actually decrease our cortisol levels (Rockliff et al.) and engender oxytocin (widely referred to as the “love hormone”) in our system. And studies have linked the release of oxytocin with a decrease in cardiovascular inflammation. So when you are compassionate, it is literally good for your heart!
Researcher Kristin Neff echoes, “When we soothe our painful feelings with the healing balm of self-compassion, not only are we changing our mental and emotional experience, we’re also changing our body chemistry.”
The women in my group were not surprised to hear other women speaking so negatively about themselves. Unfortunately, we hear comments like these every day, and it’s only natural to internalize the comments we hear others make about themselves. “If she thinks she’s disgusting…then I must be…” To quiet the inner critic and to become more self-compassionate takes practice. If you’re having trouble with the concept of being kind to yourself, one way to begin this process is to change how you talk about yourself in front of others. If we are compassionate toward ourselves, we give others permission to do the same.
For more ways to practice self-compassion, click here.
Most people enter therapy with the goal of feeling better. Many of my clients tell me, “I just want to be happy.” Makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to feel happy? But what if I told you, that in order to feel happy, we also need to be willing to feel pain. In other words—we can’t “feel better” without first getting better at feeling.
We all have an innate tendency to want to avoid uncomfortable experiences including painful thoughts, distressing feelings, memories and uncomfortable physical sensations. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we use the term “experiential avoidance” for behavioral strategies that are used in the service of avoiding an aversive experience. Most of us have engaged in strategies that help us to avoid unpleasant internal or what we refer to in ACT as “private experiences.” For many, having a glass of wine to relax after a long day at work or zoning out in front of the TV is a harmless form of experiential avoidance. But for others, what used to be an occasional buffer to distress (e.g. drinking wine, binging on ice cream, isolating) has now become a secondary or even the primary source of distress.
Oftentimes experiential avoidance strategies work in the short term. Think about someone who experiences tremendous anxiety in social settings. She becomes increasingly anxious throughout the day leading up to her friend’s party—right up until the time she makes the decision not to attend. At this point, as you can imagine, her anxiety melts away and, in that moment, she feels calm for the first time all day. But what happens when the next social event comes along? This time she doesn’t wait until the day of the event to cancel, instead, she decides as soon as she receives the invite that she won’t go. Soon she engages in this avoidance strategy every weekend, and, as you can imagine, eventually people stop inviting her to events and her relationships suffer. Suffice it to say, it is not uncommon for people with social anxiety to also experience depression.
Every person who steps into my office has made valiant attempts at reducing their distress, and yet, it turns out that the experiential avoidance strategies they’ve used to avoid distress, are what ultimately serve to maintain and even exacerbate their distress. Unfortunately, many therapists unknowingly contribute to this same unworkable agenda by engaging their clients in similar avoidance strategies.
Clearly, pursuing happiness by avoiding pain is getting us no where. So what is the alternative? Rather than avoiding pain, we can learn strategies that will help us to accept all elements of our experience, and we can approach our lives more fully by sticking to commitments made in the service of our values. So let’s start by pursuing meaning, and if happiness is a byproduct of living a meaningful life, we’ll take that too.