WEIGHT A MINUTE! A 30-pound love note from my soul

For most of my life I’ve thought I was bigger and heavier than I actually am. I can look at pictures from each of the last five decades and see now that I was never the size I thought I was. In fact, I was considerably smaller. Now that I am heavier than I have ever been in my life, I’ve finally had a breakthrough in understanding.

I know I cannot depend on how I see myself in the mirror or the plate glass store windows. I finally recognize the fickle unreliability of my own perceptions. I know I cannot use my physical self-image as a motivation for change because it will always tell me I have missed the mark.

I know for a fact I felt fat when this picture was taken in the early 1980s.

I know for a fact I felt fat when this picture was taken in the early 1980s.

Like many others, I have tried a variety of diet and fitness programs over the years to whip myself into shape after I crossed a certain line known only by me, an arbitrarily-shifting standard. There’s no question I can control my weight. I’ve lost the same pounds over and over again through calorie counting, portion control, exercise, herbs, even amphetamines. I have starved, denied, punished and shamed myself. When I finally paused to wonder why the weight always returns, I realized my body was asking me for something. Like maybe—at the very least—a willingness to listen and a little kindness and appreciation.

My body started changing more dramatically than usual about four years ago. Many persons in the second half of life will understand, especially women who, like me, quit smoking in their 40s and are now post-menopausal. Anyone who has suddenly gone from active to sedentary or experienced a season of loss and grief will know what I’m talking about. Persons who are trauma survivors and utilized food or other substances to self-soothe will also relate. For me, all of these factors combined and conspired simultaneously to translate themselves into a 30-pound love note from my soul.

For the first time in my life, I responded with compassion. I stopped punitively weighing myself. I ceased self-denial and revisited my beliefs about food. I didn’t swing into action to take control. I started observing how my perception of my body could change quite markedly from day to day or even between morning and evening. I asked why I was never satisfied with myself and what impact that might have on my physical container.

From the outside I’m guessing it may have looked like I had indulged in that folly we whisper about behind our hands: oh, my! She’s really let herself go. Or so I imagine in my insecure, judging, body-shaming mode. But in a newly-emerging aspect of my psyche, I was literally embodying something quite different: I was challenging myself to accept my form exactly as it was, precisely as it had expressed itself.

As I sat with that idea—and sat and sat and sat, seemingly immobilized in some way I can’t explain, a formerly super-active person suddenly shockingly sedentary, sitting still, and uncomfortably, at that—I began to wonder. I watched my feelings arise with as much mindfulness as possible. I appreciate Dr. Daniel Siegel’s acronym for the kind of mindfulness I was led to practice about my body—COAL—curiosity, openness, acceptance and love.

Acronym by Dan Siegel, watercolor by Elizabeth Winterbone

Acronym by Dan Siegel, watercolor by Elizabeth Winterbone

This process of raising awareness and aiming toward self-acceptance has lasted close to two years, 700+ days of unpredictable emotional rollercoasters and perceptual funhouse mirrors—days of love and days of loathing—until finally I realized what I’d been missing. Those pounds kept coming back over the years to ask for acceptance. They wanted me to stop throwing myself under the bus of external opinion and impossible ideals. They invited me to love my softness and roundedness. They offered repeated chances to embrace myself unconditionally. They asked me to surrender into a full trust of my whole self.

Instead of obsessing with external standards of physical beauty and acceptability, I began offering my body gratitude for its amazing resilience and service over the last 56 years. I began looking at myself in the mirror and saying I love you.

The eventual reward for my willingness to listen to my body and offer it unconditional acceptance came suddenly as a clearer awareness of how I was feeling physically. I could notice that my several years of sitting still had affected my fitness. I suddenly wanted to feel better, more lively and energetic. I felt the urge to move. A high school friend inspired me to get a fitness tracker. I’ve always loved biofeedback and friendly competition with myself. Suddenly I was running up the stairs to my apartment multiple times a day to get my heart rate into the cardio zone, walking instead of driving to the grocery store, and finding reasons to run errands on foot. I am doing this with great joy and playfulness.

Here is the radical difference from past self-improvement efforts. There will be no before and after pictures; this is not about how I look. I am not weighing or measuring myself, counting calories or measuring portions. I am listening to my body’s intuitive guidance. I am trusting its wisdom. Finally. I am not hating, rejecting, or punitively trying to control any part of myself, I am filled with a deep and radiant desire to be my best self.

I am motivated by love instead of fear, and I believe that will make all the difference.

Aster

PART 3 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

Fifty-some years ago, I interpreted my childhood circumstances and the responses of my caregivers, teachers and peers to mean that it is dangerous to be vulnerable; my needs are a burden to others; I am not worthy of love and generosity; self-reliance is the safest course; and asking (or even wishing) is to be avoided if at all possible.

As I shared in Part 1, beliefs come into being as we assign meaning to events and actions. A belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. A different child in similar circumstances may not have made the same assumptions as I. For better or worse, these childhood beliefs unconsciously dictated many of my choices for decades without my notice (the art of belief-spotting is covered in Part 2). This final post in the series offers a glimpse into how I uncovered and began changing this particular set of distorted and dysfunctional beliefs.

I thought “you never need anybody for anything” was a compliment.

When a significant other told me 25 years ago, “You never need anybody for anything,” I at first took that as a compliment, and then was puzzled to discover it was actually intended as a lament. I thought I was keeping myself safe and being useful to others at the same time. Instead, I had unwittingly created one of the most abysmal and extreme examples of codependency I have ever witnessed, with toxic tendencies fueled by my low self-esteem and fear: people-pleasing, resentful care-taking, an extreme need for control and the anxiety that goes with it, defensive reactivity, poor boundaries, painful feelings like shame and despair, and great difficulties with trust and emotional intimacy.

Sadness surges from my heart to my throat—and my eyes flood with compassionate tears—as I think of how I flogged myself onward with my impossibly high expectations and rigid to-do lists, never quite measuring up to my own performance standards and rarely accepting help, all for the sake of an illusion of control and a belief that I was keeping myself safe.

Inch by inch, insight by insight, and belief by belief, I have gradually come to understand that the “safe zone” in which I believed I was holding myself and my unspoken needs was actually a high-walled emotional prison that kept others locked out and me locked away from the interdependence that leads to thriving. In other words, the strategy was utterly self-defeating.

This recognition is what first helped me uncover these hidden beliefs. They exhibited two of the belief-spotting clues mentioned in Part 2: (1) they created intense feelings of discomfort, despair and unhappiness, and (2) they produced repeating patterns of failure and dissatisfaction in relationships.

Over recent weeks I have been on an interesting journey to change this particular cluster of longstanding, self-defeating beliefs. Here’s a recap of milestones in the process.

My Steps for Changing Beliefs

  1. I put the obsolete beliefs into words in my journal and began gently and compassionately exploring their origins.
  2. I processed aloud with a trusted friend, telling the stories upon which the beliefs were founded.
  3. As I processed verbally, I felt strong emotions that I honored by allowing them to move through me. This included using lots of Kleenex!
  4. I flipped the old beliefs and restated them as new affirmations: my willingness to be vulnerable is a great gift to the world; others appreciate my willingness to acknowledge my needs; I am worthy of love and generosity; it is healthy and rewarding to be interdependent; asking is the most effective method of getting needs met; and finally, wishing is a wonderful way to imagine what might happen.
  5. I took action based on the new beliefs, and not just some tiny little candyass step. I wrote a letter to 25 friends to make the most taboo of all requests in my old belief system: I asked for money to help get Insight peer support off the ground.
  6. My ego kicked up a hell of a fuss for several days, trying all kinds of old antics and flooding me with negative messages and feelings of unworthiness, insecurity, self-doubt, etc. Thanks to other belief-changing experiments in recent years, I knew to simply outwait the ego storm. New beliefs take time to integrate!
  7. When the first check showed up in the mail in response to my request, shame reared its ugly head again and dumped a familiar flood of stress chemicals into my entire body. I sat down in tears and asked to speak to the little girl who concluded so long ago that it is weak, shameful and even dangerous to ask for what she needs. I told her that the person who sent us the big check was loving and generous. I kissed the check and held it to my heart in a gesture of receptivity. I waved and twirled it in the air to demonstrate there were no strings attached. Together my inner child and I sat down and wrote a deeply-felt thank you note. I kept saying, as often as necessary, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s gonna be okay. People believe in us and what we’re doing.

As it turns out, wishes ARE horses—in their way—and beggars DO ride and CAN be choosers. I wished that I could break out of the paralysis of my fear and reluctance to depend on others. I wished that I could build a safe place where people could come to heal their hearts alongside me. I wished I had the courage to ask for the help I needed to make that happen. All of those wishes became the horses I am riding into a happier, more interdependent and satisfying future. I’ll even ask you if you’d like to help!

Would you like to give the Gift of Insight?

The Magic Horse, Houseman

The Magic Horse by Laurence Houseman

PART 1 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

I am unlovable. There is something wrong with me. My needs are a burden to others. I am never good enough. My body is big and ungainly. I will never be pretty. I’m stupid at math. Thinking is better than feeling. The world is an unsafe and unpredictable place. It is dangerous to express anger. I can compensate for my flaws by making myself useful. Money and other resources are scarce. My wishes and dreams are unrealistic and annoying. It is not safe to ask for what I need or want. 

Do any of these sound familiar? They are all beliefs I formed in childhood and relied upon regularly as part of my primary interpretive framework. For the first four decades of my life, I was scarcely aware that these were the distorted filters through which I screened life. Such is the nature of belief programs. They run unchallenged in the 90% of your mind that operates below the surface of conscious awareness

To be fair, there were also positive beliefs. I am smart. I am good with reading, writing and spelling. I can figure most anything out by following instructions. I am strong and able. I know how to take care of myself.

By 1966, most of my self-esteem beliefs were already formed

By 1966, most of my self-esteem beliefs were already formed

A belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. Beliefs come into being as you assign meaning to events and behaviors. Most self-esteem-related beliefs are formed during the first 6 or 7 years of life and are the result of interactions with your parents and—most significantly—how you interpret those interactions. There are always multiple ways to interpret any experience, and this is key to understanding how beliefs are formed and how they can be changed.

Beliefs usually take time to form and are reinforced through repetition of similar circumstances and conclusions. One cross word from a parent on a bad day when you make an ill-timed request will not create a belief. Repeated episodes, however, of eliciting a parent’s annoyance or anger when you express a need will do the trick. I think perhaps it’s also possible that a single event of sufficient trauma can sear a belief into the brain in a day.

Once integrated into your worldview, a belief becomes a bias for interpreting future events. In other words, beliefs are self-reinforcing. The brain selectively collects data that support beliefs and just as preferentially overlooks contradictions. Beliefs quite literally alter your experience of reality.

The subconscious is unable to differentiate between real and unreal, true and false; it takes its cues from what you believe to be true and creates your version of reality out of that. It even uses the filter of beliefs to screen out memories that don’t fit your beliefs, which explains how five family members will remember different versions of the same event.

If Wishes Were Horses by Casey Craig

“If Wishes Were Horses,” mixed media painting by Casey Craig

I have no way of knowing how many times I had to hear if wishes were horses, beggars would ride before I learned to stop expressing my wishes. Although I didn’t understand exactly what the old saying meant, I eventually responded by ceasing to put my imaginative desires into words. Wishing is an innocent pastime and an important building block for a child’s future ability to dream, envision and set strategic goals, but to a parent trying to raise a family on a tight budget, a child’s wish may be a trigger for frustration. By adulthood, I had become a person easily irritated by anyone articulating a wish. Hidden beneath my intolerance was my own suppressed ability to dream, wish and express.

Since I know my parents are among my blog readers, I want to clarify these important points with love!

  1. I do not blame my parents for my distorted beliefs, although it was indeed my experiences with them that helped build my beliefs.
  2. I take responsibility for drawing my own conclusions about what their words and actions meant.
  3. Beliefs are not necessarily logical, sensible or true, and we can easily hold contradictory beliefs.
  4. Beliefs can be changed at any time! I am not crippled by my childhood!
Me and my folks in 1963

Me and my folks in 1963

What’s helpful to understand is that, in the period during which a child’s beliefs around self-esteem are being formed, there is a fundamental conundrum in the family: children are developmentally unable to consistently meet their parents’ needs and expectations for skills like self-control, quietness, neatness, and following rules. What this implies, then, is that unless parents are extraordinarily patient, self-aware, getting their own needs met, and in possession of a healthy self-image, they will unwittingly perpetuate what is often a multi-generational pattern.

The discomfort and depression that came of interpreting life through the filter of my negative self-beliefs for over three decades finally started me on a path to uncover and transform those self-defeating beliefs. In Part 2 I will share some tips, steps and outcomes from my adventures in belief-spotting, including the joyous realization that beggars can and DO ride!