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Woman with shining water behind herThis coming Sunday, August 8th, is my birthday. I will turn 44, which officially places me in my mid-forties.   There’s no denying it at this point; I’m now “middle-aged.” I don’t like the imagery evoked by that term, but I know intuitively that the term has no real intrinsic meaning. 

The labels we place on ourselves are what we make them, much like life itself. To quote an old Talk Talk song from the 80s (I don’t have to worry about “dating” myself since I already gave my age away!), “Baby, life’s what you make it.  Celebrate it!”

Embracing the Aging Process

Instead of fearing the aging process or denying it, I choose to embrace it and face it head-on. Although I have the requisite wrinkles and grey hairs which inevitably accompany middle-age, I feel that the positive points of having reached this milestone far outweigh the negatives.

I’ve decided to dedicate this post to my reflections at mid-life. What have I learned about myself and about life over the years?  What would I tell my younger self if I could be transported back in time to talk with her? What wisdom could I impart to her to help make her journey a bit less troubled and fraught with difficulties?

Key Points of Wisdom at Mid-Life

I can encapsulate my key words of wisdom into three main points, which I will address in detail below:

  1. Feeling good is more important than looking good.
  2. Life is more than accomplishments.
  3. Strive for balance in all things.

Feeling Good is More Important Than Looking Good

When I was in my teens and twenties (heck, even a large portion of my thirties), looking good was of the utmost importance. I risked my health in countless ways, all in the pursuit of my image of beauty and perfection.  I starved myself, exercised obsessively, binged and purged, and abused diet pills and other substances in order to achieve the unrealistic and unhealthy level of thinness that I felt was attractive.  My eating disorders pushed me to the brink of death on multiple occasions and I am extremely lucky to have survived and to be alive today.

My younger self lived for the moment and didn’t consider the potential lasting repercussions of her actions. I didn’t realize at the time that I would still be feeling the effects of my misguided behavior many years down the road, yet I am convinced that many of the health concerns which continue to plague me are rooted in the self-destructive behaviors of my earlier years.

Sadly, it is only in the absence of good health that many people come to value their physical well-being. It is all too true that vibrant health and vitality is our greatest blessing and that it is difficult to experience life happiness without it.  The old adage that without our health, we don’t really have anything is painfully true.

If I were granted the ability to speak with my young and troubled self, I would do my best to convince her just how important health is and that feeling good is more important than looking good. I would also strive to expand her view of beauty to include body types other than extreme thinness and to highlight the value of inner beauty.

I am not sure how much of an impact my pleas would have on the young me, as I was extremely depressed and devoid of any real sense of self-worth at the time, but perhaps my words will have a positive effect on some of my young readers.  If I could turn back the clock, I would embrace my youthful health and strive to be strong, vibrant and athletic instead of thin and unhealthy.

Life is More Than Accomplishments

When I was younger, my life was all about achievement. I wanted to graduate college with honors, do the same with graduate school, and climb the corporate ladder to what I thought was “success.”  As I’ve matured, my perspective on success and accomplishment has changed. The things that I thought would lead me to feel happy and satisfied did not produce that result.  I came to realize that true success consists of inner peace and being able to look in the mirror and be happy with the person you see staring back at you.

If you ask a person in his twenties or thirties about his goals for life, it’s likely he will speak about career aspirations and the “American Dream” of owning a home. Of course, he might also mention his dreams of marrying and starting a family, but chances are his initial statements will be career-related. 

If you ask a person in his fifties or sixties to share his goals, the response will generally be focused in a different direction. He will likely speak of spending more time with his family, pursuing a hobby, or traveling to other areas of the world.  The older person typically values experiences over accomplishments. This doesn’t invalidate career pursuits, but it does highlight the importance of balance in life.

A few years ago, I was out with a small group and we got to talking about success.  When I lamented my lack of success, I was met with surprise from my companions, who stated that they considered me to be quite successful. When I tried to argue with them, one woman enumerated the facets of my success:  a happy marriage, living in an area I love, my educational accomplishments, my freedom to set my own schedule and pursue passions, and my continued path toward self-improvement.  When I thought about it, I realized she was right.  Although I didn’t necessarily fit the societal definition of success, my life was quite successful indeed!

Truth be told, I still wrestle with my personal definition of success and grapple with feelings of failure and inadequacy.  However, my view of success has become more expansive in recent years.  It now includes more facets of my life besides career and money and is centered more on living a happy and balanced life.

The mid-life me knows that at the end of my life journey, I won’t be wishing I spent more time at the office or engaged in the pursuit of career accolades or the financial trappings of success.  If I could, I would tell the younger me that she should invest as much energy in her relationships and passions as in her education and jobs and that she would be happier for this.

Strive for Balance in All Things

I touched on this point above, but it is worthy of repeating.  A balanced life is a happier and more fulfilling life. The young me would often focus on one aspect of life (such as career) to the exclusion of all other areas.   I would often work very long hours and sacrifice my relationships and health in my steadfast striving to reach certain milestones. 

The more mature me knows that it isn’t wise to allow any one area of life to occupy all or most of my time and attention. I now make sure to devote energy to all key facets of my life.  I don’t necessarily dedicate the same amount of time to all areas, but I no longer neglect any area completely.

There is a lot more that I would say to my younger self if I were given the chance.  I would speak to her about the importance of gratitude, self-awareness, growth, self-respect, kindness, and many other values and traits. I would also illuminate the subject of balance further, which will be the topic of a future post.  For now, I will simply state that I am extremely grateful to be reaching my 44th birthday and to be on the important and rewarding path toward healing my life!

My next post will mark the halfway point in my journey to heal myself and my life in one year.  In this post, I will share what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown during the first half of the Healing Project.  Until then, I thank those who are accompanying me on my journey and I wish you happiness, joy, and peace!

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I had intended to post much earlier in the week, but you know what they say about good intentions… This has been a difficult week for me, which probably means I should have been devoting more attention to my healing project, instead of virtually ignoring it for a number of days. In getting back on track today, I searched for an exercise from “You Can Heal Your Life” to complete and write about.  I was quickly drawn to the most appropriate exercise for me at this particularly point in time, the “Mirror Exercise” on page 35.

Simple Yet Not Easy…

The Mirror Exercise is extremely simple, yet not at all easy.  The straightforward instructions are:  look in a mirror and into your own eyes, speak your name, and say, “I love and accept you exactly as you are.”

Louise Hay asks each of her clients to do this exercise during their initial session with her.   She states that she has rarely had a calm reaction to her simple request.  On the contrary, some clients were brought to tears, while others became angry and refused to do the exercise.  One client even threw the mirror across the room!  Needless to say, it isn’t easy to proclaim love and acceptance for ourselves.

My Experience with the Mirror Exercise

During the height of beating myself up for what I felt was an unproductive week and an overall stagnation in my life, I decided to do this powerful exercise.  As I walked up to the mirror, I felt my heart pound loudly and a tingling sensation crawled up the sides of my body.  I also felt flushed despite the relatively cool temperature in the room.  My eyes welled up with tears before I even opened my mouth to speak the requisite words.   However, when I actually spoke the words, I did not feel sad or angry.  Instead, I felt a sense of peace and calm wash over my body.

It was a relief to affirm my acceptance and love for myself today and it really felt good for me to do it.  I know that in the past, it would have been very difficult for me to speak Louise Hay’s simple statement. I used to be far more invested in making myself wrong than in wanting to feel good about myself and my life. Although I still have a long way to go in terms of self-esteem and acceptance, I have made some definite progress in these areas.  It’s taken a lot of hard work and self-examination for me to get to the point where I am ready to accept and love myself.

Self-Acceptance is Empowering

Why is it empowering to declare love and acceptance toward ourselves?  Louise Hay asserts that the root of all human problems lies in not loving ourselves. Even if we can give ourselves a tiny bit of love during a brief mirror exercise, this can go a long way toward counteracting the negative messages we send ourselves on a regular basis. 

Positive messages are far more powerful than negative messages, and even irregular empowering messages can serve to inoculate us against an onslaught of self-effacing thoughts.  I know this is true because I’ve been inwardly affirming “I approve of myself” as often as I remember to do so in recent months.  This simple action has helped me to become stronger and I am finding myself less compromised by sadness and depression than before I began this practice.

Acceptance Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Want to Change

To clarify, stating that we love and accept ourselves exactly as we are in a given moment does not mean that we don’t want to change anything about our circumstances. We may have a number of things we wish to change, as well as some powerful goals for the future.  The truth is that we are far more likely to achieve our goals and make successful changes when we begin from a space of self-acceptance.

Lasting transformation cannot be accomplished through brow-beating and self-effacement. A good example of this relates to weight loss.  I can remember many times when I would look at myself in the mirror, pinch my stomach and thighs, and use colorful adjectives like disgusting, ugly, and weak to describe myself. These debasements only served to make me feel much worse about myself and propel me to comfort myself with food, an action that was counterproductive for my weight loss goals.

I have had far better luck when I’ve treated myself with kindness.  If I start with self-acceptance and then move forward toward change, I am much more likely to be successful. If, instead of beating myself up and calling myself awful names, I dress in flattering clothing and do my best to look and feel attractive, the likelihood of my exercising and making good food choices is much greater.

Power in the Present Moment

One of the key principles of Louise Hay and many other spiritual teachers is that the point of power is always in the present moment.  In the here and now, we have a choice.  We can criticize ourselves or we can love and accept ourselves. One choice will lead us to feel weak and dis-empowered; the other choice will uplift and empower us.

As I stared into my eyes in the mirror and proclaimed my acceptance of myself, I experienced an energetic boost.  I was infused with power and strength to face the challenges of the day, along with a sense of calm and assurance that I can accomplish my goals for the future. This is far better than the metaphorical “air out of the tires” feeling I encountered each time I criticized myself for not meeting my impossibly high standards for acceptability.

My Challenge Moving Forward

My challenge now is to show myself more love and compassion than disdain and criticism. My task is to stop myself mid-criticism and switch to affirming self- acceptance and love.  My commitment is to know that I am enough, that I don’t have to be perfect in order to be loved by others – or by myself.

I close with a portion of a “spiritual treatment” from Louise Hay:

“In the infinity of life where I am, all is perfect, whole and complete.  I am always divinely protected and guided… It is safe for me to enlarge my viewpoint of life.  I am far more than my personality – past, present, or future.  I now choose to rise above my personality problems to recognize the magnificence of my being.  I am totally willing to learn to love myself.  All is well in my world.”

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I am a long-time fan of the reality show, “The Biggest Loser.”  I’ve watched all but one of its nine seasons and I frequently find myself in tears as I watch this truly inspiring show.  Last night, as I watched the penultimate episode of the ninth season, I was moved to write about my appreciation for this show I’ve come to love.

The four remaining contestants all went home for a month, where they trained to run a marathon while continuing to focus on losing weight to vie for the title of “The Biggest Loser” (and the accompanying quarter million dollar prize).  Two of the contestants were still close to a hundred pounds overweight when they left the Biggest Loser Ranch.  Yet, they all returned and finished the marathon!  The final two marathon finishers ran across the finish line hand in hand, and I bawled like a baby while watching this touching moment.

Moved to Tears

Why was I brought to tears last night?  Why am I brought to tears by this show virtually every week?  Because “The Biggest Loser” exemplifies the power of the human spirit, the power we all have within us to overcome our greatest challenges and triumph over adversity.  The shear fact that four individuals who were close to death’s door from the side effects of obesity only six months ago were able to finish a full marathon is inspiration at its best.

I have always been a champion of human change and an advocate of the sentiment that change is possible for all who seek it out.  Here were four people who had veered extremely far off the path of health and well-being.  I’m sure there were many people who knew them who had written them off as “lost causes.”  It wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch to write off 31 year-old Michael, who tipped the scales at 526 pounds at the age of 31.  Likewise, who would have thought that 27 year-old Ashley, who smoked and drank heavily and weighed in at 374 pounds, would have turned her life around?  Yet, both of them did, as did their co-finalists Koli and Daris.

Lessons from “The Biggest Loser”

Why am I writing about “The Biggest Loser” in The Healing Project?  Well, some of you may feel that it’s too hard for you to change.  After all, you’ve been the way you are for many years and you may feel too far gone to turn it around.  You’re stuck in your ways and you feel little hope of becoming unstuck.

I know how that feels, as I’ve felt that way myself many times over the years.  I may not be obese, but I’ve certainly had my share of struggles around weight and food, plus I’ve grappled with a number of other addictive issues in my life.  Yet, as I watched those four formerly obese people cross the finish line after running a marathon, I was filled with hope and inspiration.  If they can overcome their challenges, why can’t I?  Why can’t all of us?

It may not be your goal to lose over a hundred pounds or run a marathon, but I’m guessing you have your own challenges that are equally as daunting.  I know that when I think about overcoming my laundry list of health issues, I feel overwhelmed and discouraged.  But if Michael, Ashley, Koli, and Daris can run a marathon, I can restore myself to full and vibrant health, as well as overcome the other challenges included in my healing project.

Be Inspired, Believe in Yourself!

Let yourselves be inspired!  Believe in yourselves. There is hope for all of us to heal all of our ailments within and without.  Let the chorus of “The Biggest Loser” theme song guide you…  “What have you done today to make you feel proud?” Do one thing, however small, each day to inspire yourself, to move yourself forward toward your goals, and you will get there!

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Fear is a normal emotion and a natural part of life.  We all have things which we’re afraid of, and many of our fears are actually healthy and adaptive.  Fear can help us to steer clear of dangerous situations and it can help us to navigate safely through treacherous encounters.  While some fears can be healthy and helpful, other fears are actually detrimental to our happiness and well-being.

Irrational Fears…

Most of us have fears which could be considered irrational.  We can be deathly afraid of things which really cannot hurt us.  Some of these fears impact us in fairly minor ways.  For example, if you’re afraid of clowns, you may avoid the circus, but this fear likely won’t impact you to any large degree.  Likewise, if you are terrified of thunder but live in an area where it rarely even rains, you won’t have to face your fear on a regular basis.

Fear Makes Our Lives Smaller

Other fears really do have the effect of greatly limiting our life experience.  Our lives can become dramatically smaller as a result of our fears, whether rational or irrational.  Many people are horrified at the thought of public speaking.  In fact, this fear often places above the fear of death in many surveys.   There was a ring of truth to Jerry Seinfeld’s joke that most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy at a funeral!  While it’s true that we can all flub a presentation and appear foolish as a result, is this really a fate worse than death?

I’ve been a member of Toastmasters for six years and I have seen the look of abject terror on the faces of guests and new members when they have to get up and speak for the first time, even to just say their names and answer a simple opening question.  Some of these people are able to overcome their speaking fears, while others let those worries stop them and we no longer see them at meetings.

I used to work with a woman who remained stuck in a dead-end job because moving to the next level would involve her giving presentations.  She was so terrified at the thought of speaking in front of others that she preferred to remain in a job which gave her little joy or fulfillment.

Lying to Ourselves

We often tell ourselves that our fears aren’t that big of a deal.  We lie to ourselves and say that these worries aren’t really limiting our lives.  Yet if we really look within, we may realize that we are indeed avoiding situations and opportunities so that we don’t have to face that which we fear.

Facing My Irrational Fear

I recently decided to face a fear which is not only irrational; it’s so ridiculous that I am embarrassed to write about it and thus “out” myself for being so silly.  Yet this blog is about healing myself and helping others to heal, so I will banish my embarrassment in service of the lesson!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I suffered from eating disorders for much of my life and was dangerously underweight on and off for a number of years. I used to be victim to the tyranny of the scale and would weigh myself on a daily basis (or even several times a day).  I would allow the number revealed by this electronic device to dictate my moods and emotions and would make it mean significant things about my character.  If the number was low, I was a strong, disciplined, and acceptable person.  If the number was high, I was weak and disgusting by comparison.

How a Win Became a Fear

standing on a scaleAs I recovered from anorexia, I gave up weighing myself because I found it difficult not to attribute meaning to the three digit number displayed by the scale.  I considered my abandonment of scales to be a great win and a powerful sign of my healing.  However, over the years, I actually developed a deep fear of the scale and would steer clear of weighing myself at virtually all costs.  I would even avoid going to the doctor for fear that I would be asked to step on the dreaded scale.  When I absolutely needed to visit a physician, I would either ask not to be weighed or I’d weigh backwards and request that they not tell me the number.

I recently realized that I had become just as much a victim of the scale by fearing it than when I used to step on it habitually.  I had again let this otherwise benign device dictate my moods and my behavior!  I had let a number – or the fear of a number – mean something about my worth as a human being.   Rationally, I know that I am so much more than a number, that I am a person of infinite worth, as we all are.  I also know that my weight is my weight regardless of whether or not I know the number.  Avoiding what’s so doesn’t make it not so…

A Powerful Decision

I decided a little over a week ago that this had to stop!   I decided to face my fear and weigh myself, something I hadn’t done in close to 2.5 years… As I prepared to step on the scale last week, I found myself shaking and filled with trepidation.  But you know what?  Even though I wasn’t thrilled with the number, the experience wasn’t as horrible as I thought it would be.  I actually felt much better about myself for facing a fear and my life expanded a bit from the act of doing something which scared me. I know that the next time I weigh myself, it will be easier, and eventually it will hold no more fear for me than brushing my teeth!

Do That Which You Fear

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

  • How much more aliveness would we experience if we heeded the words of this wise woman?
  • How much bigger would our lives be if we no longer allowed our fears, rational or irrational, to stop us?

Here’s something to try… Make a list of everything that scares you.  Write down the big things and the small things, the significant and the trivial.  Then decide which fears you are ready to wipe out.  If tackling one fear each day seems like too much, how about one per week or one per month?

By starting “The Healing Project,” I set the intention to heal myself and my life in one year.  I now understand that a big part of my healing lies in facing my fears, in exercising my strength and my power. I am stronger than I think I am – we are all stronger than we think we are!

Closing Quotes

I will close this post with three powerful quotes, the first of which I’m sure you’ve seen before (but which bears repeating!):

  • “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Marianne Williamson
  • “Ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is freedom.” Marilyn Ferguson
  • “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it.  I want to have lived the width of it as well.” Diane Ackerman

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Woman on beach at sunsetIf someone were to ask you if you love yourself, how many of you would reply with an enthusiastic “Yes”?  How about if you were asked if you love your body?  I know that for most of my life, I would have found both questions absurd.  I definitely and unequivocally did not love myself or my body.

For years, I was my own worst critic.  I would unleash a torrent of criticism upon myself on a daily basis that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.  In fact, I was my own worst enemy.  Nothing I could do was ever good enough for me; my standards were impossibly high and there was no way I could reach them.  While my targets for accomplishment and success were virtually unachievable, my standards for my body and physical appearance surpassed them by leaps and bounds.

Specter in the Mirror

I would look in the mirror and pick myself apart mercilessly.  My hair was frizzy, my face was blotchy, my nose was too big, my hips were huge, and my thighs were completely unacceptable!  These are just a few of the criticisms that would play like a broken record inside my mind.  My self-criticism and overall negative attitude toward my body propelled me into a long battle with anorexia and bulimia, a struggle which almost killed me during my teens and twenties.  Even after I managed to pull myself out of the depths of that battle, the criticism did not end.  I was ruthless in the way that I’d pick myself apart, and all compliments from others would be quickly negated inside my mind.  I just wasn’t pretty enough, thin enough, firm enough, or anything enough…

The Toll of Self-Abuse

The years of criticizing my body have taken a toll on my psyche and my health.  Although I have become decidedly more kind toward myself and my body in recent months (partly as a result of my healing project), the damage has been done. I am convinced that the laundry list of health issues from which I suffer can be attributed to the years of self-flagellation.

Think about it… How would you respond to a person who continuously berates you?  Would you thrive and shine in that person’s presence, or would you wither and fade?  The way in which my body has responded to my abuse is no surprise to me.  As Louise Hay and other wise spiritual teachers have written, our thoughts create our reality.  The reality of my physical body has been shaped by what I have continually thought over the years.

My husband has frequently commented on how mean I was to myself in my words.  Sadly, my unkind words paled in comparison to the ferocity of my internal dialogue.   I have created my poor health of the present time.  I take responsibility for that, as sad and defeated as it makes me feel today.

Learning to Love Myself

I am not an unkind person.  In fact, I believe I have a good and kind heart.  It is time for me to direct that kindness and compassion toward myself.  It is time for me to treat myself the way I would treat a person I deeply love.  In truth, I have learned to love myself in recent years.  I have learned to appreciate my uniqueness and my good qualities.  I am finally able to say – and mean – those simple but difficult words, “I love myself.”  I can even speak those words while staring into my own eyes in the mirror, yet tears always well up in those same eyes.   Likewise, I find myself becoming tearful as I express these sentiments today…

Ending the War with Self

The tears are for the years of self-hatred, for the wasted time during which I was at war with myself and my body. Although I would love to recapture those lost years and circumvent my current health challenges, I can only live in the moment and move forward.   Hopefully, I have many years ahead of me during which I can live peacefully with myself and my miraculous body which has survived despite years and years of punishing abuse.

Responsibility is Powerful

Some of you may identify with what I have written. I know that many people are tremendously hard on themselves and their bodies.  We can blame society and the unattainable standards that are set out for us by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.  But while society can and does play a role in our self-image and body image struggles, the ultimate responsibility falls upon us.  That is good news because it means that we have the power to transform our thoughts and attitudes.

Moving Forward…

How do we do that?  Let’s take some tips from Louise Hay (from “You Can Heal Your Life,” page 23):

“Loving the self, to me, begins with never ever criticizing ourselves for anything.  Criticism locks us into the very pattern we are trying to change. Understanding and being gentle with ourselves helps us to move out of it. Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked.  Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”

I Approve of Myself

I have been repeating the affirmation, “I approve of myself,” over and over inside my head for months now.  It is a simple affirmation that I think whenever it comes to mind.  I use this affirmation to cancel out self-criticism when I become aware that I am thinking negative thoughts about myself.  Although I know it will take time to undo the effects of my many years of self-abuse, affirming approval of myself is starting to have a positive effect on me.  I am beginning to notice my negative thoughts more readily and can more easily release them and replace them with more beneficial thoughts.  It is becoming easier for me to think kind and loving thoughts about myself.  I am experiencing small but noticeable “pockets” of inner peace in my days, and that gives me hope for the future.

Hope to Soldier On

The journey to heal my health and my life is a challenging and tumultuous road with many twists and turns.  I am humbled on a regular basis by the ebb and flow of my numerous health issues which only seem to crop up again just when I feel they may finally be behind me.  Yet I have hope and that allows me to soldier on with my healing project.

I believe that the key to healing is in self-acceptance.  In the spirit of hope, I close this post with another quote from Louise Hay, one which provides hope for us all for a peaceful and powerful future:

“I find that when we really love and accept and APPROVE OF OURSELVES EXACTLY AS WE ARE, then everything in life works.  It’s as if little miracles are everywhere.  Our health improves, we attract more money, our relationships become more fulfilling, and we begin to express ourselves in creatively fulfilling ways.  All this seems to happen without even trying.”

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Last week, I wrote the post “Overspending,” about a recent shopping trip that resulted in my spending too much money and feeling that I had acted in a compulsive manner.  Although there were important lessons inherent in that individual experience, it also raised the issue of compulsive behavior in general.  This post is geared toward examining compulsive behavior, getting to the root of why we engage in such destructive actions, and looking at what we can do to begin to turn it around.

Compulsiveness Takes Many Forms…

I shared about my shopping and spending issues, but these are far from the only forms of compulsive behaviors with which I’ve struggled.  I’ve also engaged in compulsive overeating, dieting, and exercising, and spending too much time working or surfing the internet, among other things.   You may have grappled with similar issues, or you may have had problems with drinking, drugs, gambling, sex, or any number of other maladaptive behaviors.  It doesn’t matter which of these behaviors has plagued you, the problem is usually rooted in the same causes.

Years ago, I wanted to write a book called “It’s Not About the Food,” about eating disorders and compulsive overeating.  Unfortunately, someone else used this brilliant title before I could, but that won’t stop me from sharing my thoughts on the issue.  From my early teens until the very recent past, I struggled with pretty much every eating disorder which a person could have.  I was anorexic, bulimic, an obsessive exerciser, and a compulsive overeater.  I have been seriously underweight, overweight, and every weight in between, yet my pain was always the same.  It was never about the number on the scale or what I did or didn’t do around food.  It was always about something else, and the same is true for all other forms of compulsive behavior.

Escaping Pain

My overeating, under eating, shopping, and other compulsive behaviors have served both as coping mechanisms and means of escape from the pain which I was experiencing in my life.  As much pain as these behaviors caused me, and that pain has been intense, the pain which was being masked by my compulsivity was far greater.  There was something, or multiple things, which I just didn’t want to look at, so I ate, dieted, or shopped.  I would then lament my weight gain, food obsession, or credit card bills instead of dealing with what was really wrong in my life.

  • What was it that I didn’t want to feel?
  • What is it that you don’t want to feel that is being buried under your compulsive behaviors? 

Getting to the Root of Things

While I can’t possibly know the answer for anyone else, I can share what I believe it was – and is – for me.  I have always felt like an outsider and as if I didn’t really “belong.”  I never felt like I was “good enough,” but I thought that if I could somehow be thin enough, maybe I would measure up.  Or I thought that if I could be pretty enough (which relates to the hair obsession which I shared in my last post, “Perspective and Appreciation”) or dress well enough, maybe I would fit in and be on par with others.  That was part of it…

As I’ve shared in previous posts, I’ve long struggled to achieve the societal vision of success in terms of my career.  While I know that I am intelligent and capable, I have experienced only limited financial success over the course of my working life.  I have difficulty maintaining a passion for a single occupation and thus have switched careers a number of times over the years.  Now, at age 43, I feel insecure at my current career status and feel that I should be much farther along the path of success at this point in my life.  While I think about this often, I frequently feel stuck and powerless, and I sometimes plummet into feelings of despair and hopelessness when I find that I don’t have the answers.

Comfortably Numb?

What do people do when they feel desperate and hopeless?  They often do whatever they can to numb those feelings, using whatever they have at their disposal at the time.  I don’t consciously think, “I feel bad, so I think I’ll go shopping and numb myself out,” but that is virtually what I do.  The shopping gives me a high that serves to mitigate the lows I was feeling about my career woes or whatever else was troubling me.  I know this is true because the items which I buy often sit in my closet for weeks or even months with the tags still on them.

If it really was about my being greedy or truly wanting certain items of clothing, wouldn’t I be rushing to wear them?  The feeling I get from shopping and buying clothes is similar to what I used to feel when I would eat a pile of sweets.   The pain is numbed and replaced with a high, and I have escaped my negative feelings, albeit only temporarily.   That pain returns shortly thereafter and the feelings of guilt and shame resulting from my compulsive behavior add insult to injury and I end up feeling much worse.  It’s a vicious cycle and a very difficult one to stop, but there is hope…

The Place of Power

I’ve often heard it said that the place of power is in the space between stimulus and response.  Most people merely react to what’s going on in their lives; they do what they have always done even when it doesn’t serve them.  There is virtually no gap between their feelings (stimulus) and their compulsive behavior (response).  A person feels bad, and then they eat, drink, or do something else to numb the pain.  But there is another way -and it starts with awareness…  The awareness of your compulsive behavior and what it is costing you is what creates a small space between your negative feelings and what has become an automatic reaction.  That small space is the seat of powerful action, as opposed to disempowered reaction.

An Example & Key Questions to Ask

An example can help to illustrate this important point… Let’s say that I just checked my email and have learned that I didn’t get a much hoped for work project.  I feel anxious and that anxiety leads to some serious worries about my future career prospects, as well as fears that I may never have a “successful career.”  Without even thinking about it, I walk to the kitchen and start riffling through the cupboards for something sweet to eat.  In the past, I would have stuffed my face with food until I felt numb, but this time, I pause. I ask myself these key questions:

  1. Am I physically hungry?
  2. What do I really need in this moment?
  3. What small step can I take to give myself what I really need?

The pause that I have taken has allowed me to act instead of react.  Even if I still choose to eat, I have removed the automatic nature of this behavior, which is what makes it compulsive.   The same questions can be asked when faced with other types of compulsive behavior.  Simply construct an alternate first question (i.e. “Do I really need that pair of shoes?”) to fit your specific behavior challenge and use the same second and third questions as above.

There is Hope!

I am not promising that you will eliminate your compulsive behavior overnight, but if you are able to pause and allow yourself to examine what’s really going on beneath the behavior, you are on the path toward healing.  It often takes time to overcome long-term behaviors which have served as effective (albeit self-destructive) coping mechanisms.  As I’ve revealed, I still struggle with shopping and spending too much money, but it happens less often and I can more readily “course-correct,” as I did last week.   I was able to realize what was going on, turn it around (by returning the unnecessary purchases) and learn from the experience.  That is my hope for you as well…

I’m sure that the issue of compulsive behaviors will be addressed again in future posts.  If you have any questions or feedback regarding this post or suggestions for future topics, I would love to hear them.  Next week, we’ll start to look at belief systems and how they both help and hurt us.  If you’re following along in Louise Hay’s “You Can Heal Your Life Companion Book,” please read Chapter 2 and complete the exercises on pages 24-29.  Have a wonderful weekend!

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