If I had to describe the men and women that I talk to, those who are trying to gently heal from food stuff, I would describe them in this way: incredibly kind. Conscientious. Earnest. Sincere. Tender hearted. Sensitive. Empathetic. Spiritual. People with deep values who try to live them out. Often high achieving/setting high expectations for themselves.
Like everything, these traits bring wonderful gifts – a kind heart, for starters. And like everything, these traits bring challenges – the flip sides of our strengths, what we may call our weaknesses. This is true for everyone.
In our case, the flip side of conscientiousness is perfectionism, a belief that we have to be perfect to be loveable. Our very desire not to hurt – to not hurt others, to not hurt ourselves – becomes a drive towards self perfection, a zeal towards some enlightened state. We think, “If only I meditated enough, prayed enough, was sincere enough, did enough inner work…and on, and on….I can eradicate my messy humanity.” We think we can become perfect.
So even though we’re healing, unraveling some of the kinks in our armor, the fact that, yes, we’re still human, and yes, we’re still imperfect, and yes, we still hurt (and hurt others) feels like a giant stain against us, proof that we’re falling short.
We focus on this feeling of “not enough” and feel terrible. We notice all our mistakes and discount all the many things we do well. We look back at our choices and our life and feel dismay, like we’ve failed. We walk around with a giant ache in our hearts, a tension in our gut (those “not enough” feelings feel terrible in the body), a hole that sucks out our energy, our joy, our peace. We feel terrified that others will uncover our secret, just how bad we feel about ourselves. We feel guilty, ashamed, flawed.
Instead of looking at our weaknesses as, “Oh, I’m human,” we see them as, “Oh, I’m failing the spiritual test.” We personalize them and think there’s something wrong with us. We feel bad that we aren’t this completely together person who never loses it with her kids, or loses it with her spouse, or loses it with food, or loses it with herself.
If we look closely at these feelings, we can see some core beliefs – expectations – that are tripping us up. These expectations include beliefs that say:
1. We have to be perfect to be lovable.
2. Pain is bad, something to be ashamed about. If we’re hurting, it’s a sign that we did something wrong and are being punished or that it’s all our fault.
3. We should be able to reach a state of perfection.
When these beliefs are unconscious, (and many of our beliefs are – it’s only when we become aware of them that we can shift them) they rule our behavior, they seep into our thoughts, and they affect our feelings. They cause us so much suffering.
Here’s how this plays out in our lives – if we think that pain is bad, basicly all our fault, when we’re hurting, we hide. We isolate. We feel like we’ll be judged or shamed for being in pain. So we keep ourselves separate from the very support that can help us when we’re bingeing out of control or feeling depressed.
We hide from friends, family, loved ones. We stop seeing our counselors, doctors, therapists, and more, or we bounce from healer to healer. We stop taking our medication or supplements. We stop doing the very things that help us. We hide from ourselves. (We can’t even look at ourselves in the mirror.) We hide from the Divine and stop praying, meditating, studying – all our spiritual practices. We stop doing the very things that help us cope, those things that support ourselves and help us feel better because doing them is a shame trigger, a reminder that we are less than perfect and that we need help to get by.
We will do anything to avoid feeling this feeling of “I’m not enough,” which is why we do things that, on the surface, make no sense. (Like hiding out.)
If we think that we have to be perfect to be lovable, we feel terrible shame every time we make a mistake or every time we see something about ourselves that is less than pretty. So we don’t look inside at what we’d like to shift, because to do so means feeling the tight, terrible squeeze of, “I’m such a bad person.”
Or, we give up altogether. We use our very imperfection as proof that we’re hopeless and helpless and discount all the work we’ve done. We can be so hard on ourselves.
We don’t learn, we don’t grow, we isolate, we suffer, we feel badly about ourselves. Oh, such pain.
Beloved, I gently invite you to bring these beliefs up to the light of day. To gently ask yourself, Is this true? Is it true that I have to be perfect to be lovable?
We can use the practice of acceptance to soften how we see ourselves. I find tremendous freedom, over and over, when I let go – when I accept that I may not be able to change certain aspects of myself. When I accept my imperfections and weaknesses.
I know this sounds like giving up or even a license to be self indulgent, to dump on people. (I can’t change, I’ll just accept myself as I am.) But I find the opposite to be true. When I accept things that are difficult about myself – like my sensitive nervous system, insecurity, and tendencies towards depression and anxiety – I can relate to my needs and feelings with greater wisdom. Instead of hiding out, I reach out. Rather than shame/control, I care for my anxiety or depression. Because I am honest, open and accepting, I move to care, rather than stay mired in shame. I don’t take the fact that I suffer from low self esteem or anxiety as proof that I’m a horrible person. Instead, I try to love it.
I feel that this loving relatedness is the key. When I look at my weaknesses as an opportunity to practice love – unconditional, tender love for every part of myself – especially the hurting parts – I feel so much better. In other words, I feel better when I don’t take my pain so personally. I recognize, yep, this is the shared human condition. Not personal to me. We all have it, even though it may come in different forms, shapes and sizes. Whew, and I thought it was just me!
It’s not easy to be a human being. Life is so complicated and nuanced – can any of us ever get it right, have all the answers so that we never make a mistake? I don’t think so.
The healing journey is not about achieving a state of perfection. Of arriving somewhere. Rather, it’s going within to practice unconditional love, to forgive ourselves and others. To go within and to love what we find. To be open to it. To accept it. To accept it knowing that it says nothing about our worth or inherent loveability.
When we let go of these shoulds, these expectations of perfection, we hit our vulnerability right smack in the face. Why do we try to be perfect? So we won’t hurt. What do we have to feel when we stop pursuing perfection? Our hurt.
Our family kitty died yesterday, and we’re grieving her loss. It’s very sad, and came suddenly – a painful reality on top of a year of many losses. I was spinning yesterday with thoughts of, “If only I had taken her to the vet sooner, if only we hadn’t moved and given her this trauma of relocating, if only we hadn’t gone away for Christmas (we might have noticed that she was starting to slow down), if only, if only, if only….I could’ve prevented this from happening.”
Then I started spiraling into feelings of guilt – did I love her enough when she was alive? Did I appreciate her? I should’ve done more for her. I should’ve held her more…I should’ve done taken more pictures….and on and on…..
All these thoughts, at the most basic level, were believing 2 things to be true: If only I had done more, I could’ve prevented her from dying. I should’ve been able to control it. I’m bad/not enough because I couldn’t stop her from dying. I’m bad/not enough because I can’t stop the pain in life.
And I’m bad/not enough because I’m human and I don’t have time for everything. I’m bad because I sometimes forget to sit with my kitty because I’m caught in my to do list and the hubub of life or trying to pay the rent.
As I saw these beliefs I realized – oh, my goodness – they’ve been running my life. Running my life and causing me to doubt my goodness at every turn.
So I let go. I started with grieving. I felt very sad to lose a family member – sad for myself and sad for my family. I let myself feel my grief without the layers of, “The grief is my fault.” I felt my powerlessness – the hopelessness of losing something I dearly loved. I released the self blame, the guilt, because those are subtle ways to try and grab power, to try and control what is uncontrollable – the randomness of life, of losing kitties (and more than kitties.)
And I felt my raw grief, my raw powerlenessness and I wept. I wept and accepted, this hurts. I surrendered to it. And in my surrender, I let go of this idea that it was my fault she died.
So much of life is out of our control. We would rather feel guilty and beat ourselves up about how we should’ve done more than to feel this truth and surrender. And yet as long as we feel like we should be able to control life, we’ll suffer.
My friend Deidre Combs uses this phrase to practice surrender – “It couldn’t have happened any other way.” Try that on. When I say it to myself, my whole being softens and relaxes. My heart unclenches and I feel relief. I let go. I come home.
Dear one, I gently invite you – please come home. What can you let go of today? What can you bow to? What is asking for your surrender?
I bow with you on this path.
For more help with shame, I offer practices, tools and exercises in sessions 11 and 12 of Heal Overeating: Untangled, a program to heal the emotional roots of overeating.