One of the themes that I see coming up for people in their relationship with food is the mind’s fight against what we need.
Whether it’s needing certain habits to support us in our daily lives, or needing to follow a way of eating, when we think we “shouldn’t” need what we’re needing, we feel caught in a double bind.
While we feel the effects of this unmet need, at the same time, we don’t feel free to act – to honor and meet it. We feel trapped in pain and powerlessness, which is a pretty good description of suffering.
This internal tug of war leads to a lack of consistency in our behavior, where we go back and forth between honoring what we know is true and honoring what we wish were true. Our hearts may feel discouraged; our bodies, ungrounded; our will, frustrated.
We may feel torn between these two opposing factions – between the part of us saying – “but you shouldn’t need XYZ” – and another part of us that’s literally crying out for this need to be met. Oh, ouch.
Fighting against our needs
Let me make this concrete with some examples:
- To heal an overeating habit, you recognize that you need both structure – like regular meal times – and softness – gentleness towards your needs, feelings, and in how you enact your structures. (I use this example intentionally: I hear from so many of you who have this need for what may appear to be opposing things – structure and softness.) And yet there’s a part of you that thinks “structure is bad or wrong.” Or perhaps this part of you believes, “I should just be able to wing it everyday with food – to go with the flow.” So even though structure supports you, giving yourself this structure brings up shame – and so you don’t do it.
- You recognize that you have a sensitive nervous system. And yet you fight against your nervous system and the limits it brings up in your life. You try to do as everyone else does – only you can’t. The result? Your nervous system, and you, suffer. You may even use food to care for your now overstimulated, overwhelmed nervous system – which only adds to the self blame.
- You have an ideal way of eating in your mind – what you think you “should” follow. And yet your physical body needs something different – perhaps it needs animal foods, more frequent meals, less sugar, or less processed foods. Perhaps your body is intolerant towards a food, and yet you don’t want to accept this. So you continue to try and eat the way you think you “should,” only to feel terrible. You hold onto this ideal in your mind – but I should be able to follow XYZ – even though, in practice, this doesn’t work for you.
Can you relate?
Unpacking the “shoulds”
Before we dig into solutions, let’s unpack these beliefs a bit to see what’s going on underneath these “shoulds.” When I listen deeply to these shoulds in myself and others, here’s what I uncover:
- We typically think there’s a “right” or “highest” way of doing something. Whether that’s a higher, best way to eat, or a higher, best way to live, or a higher, best way to be, we feel tremendous pressure to follow these ideals. We believe these ideals are absolutely true – and we twist ourselves into knots to try to conform to them.
- We work really, really hard in trying to meet these ideals. But it’s impossible. So when we can’t meet our own ideals, we feel bad, like we’re not measuring up.
- Worse, we feel ashamed – that our needs are bad, and that we’re bad for needing. We attack ourselves or attack our very neediness itself. We feel hollow, icky, hot, empty, cast out, unlovable. Ouch.
- When we feel ashamed about needing something, we don’t feel safe – or allow ourselves – to follow through and act to meet our need. Instead we try to minimize it. Or we drive ourselves nuts trying to change ourselves to manage without the need. Or we live in denial – denying what we need. No matter what our strategy – gutting it out, denying our needs, minimizing our needs, or our frantic attempt to change ourselves so we can eliminate the need – the need goes unfulfilled. These unmet needs build and become a deficit.
- This is when most of us turn to “false refuges” – like food – to care for the deficit.
In mapping this out, I see how our fight against what we “should” need leads to both painful habits and suffering in our hearts. Does this reflect your experience?
So how do we find our way out? What do we do when the reality of our experience is different than our expectations – what we think should be or what we think we should need?
In her poem, Wild Geese, Mary Oliver writes:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Ah, let that sink in: to let yourself love what you love. Or to say it another way, to let yourself need what you need. If we let ourselves need what we need – without judging or labeling those needs as bad or wrong – how might we respond differently to the need itself?
The origins of shame about our needs
Our mind is just the mind. It likes to believe things are absolutely true – as dense and real as solid rock. But those thoughts of, “I should” or “I shouldn’t” are just that: thoughts. They’re not real, and not true, even though they may feel true.
When we notice a need, and notice the internal “I shouldn’t” or “I should” – we can question those assumptions. We can recognize that those shoulds are just thoughts, and not necessarily true.
They may be expectations or beliefs that we’ve carried from a younger time in our lives. For example, if you grew up in a household where needing was shamed, you may have internalized those outer voices – now you hear them in your self talk to yourself. The shame has crystallized into a belief.
Or you may have reached out to mommy or daddy when you were hurting, only to feel your parents irritation or to have them snap at you in frustration. As a result of this experience, you may have internalized a belief that says, “My needing is wrong. My needing pushes people away. If I need, I won’t be loved.”
That belief may pop up today every time you feel a need. Needs may feel dangerous. So to soothe the anxiety of, “Oh, no, I won’t be loved if I honor this need!” you may choose to stuff the need and turn to food instead.
Softening high expectations
In response, we may turn to perfectionism. We may strike a bargain with ourselves: well, if I don’t need, then I won’t have to feel the vulnerability of needing. I won’t have to feel this pain of needing, the pain of needing and feeling powerless to meet those needs.
I turned to perfectionism in my own life. I felt so vulnerable about needing – and so ashamed of being so sensitive and needing and feeling so much in the first place – that I tried to improve myself so that I wouldn’t need.
I thought that if I only meditated enough, did enough therapy and inner work, prayed enough, became good enough in God’s eyes, studied enough, and tried hard enough, then I could change my inherently needy nature. I thought I could erase the shame about being so….needy. So human.
Finding our vulnerability
To honor our needs, and to heal this wound, we turn towards our shame and vulnerability. We soften our expectations for ourselves, and release the grip of perfectionism. I know: this asks much of us.
The pursuit of perfectionism can feel addictive. That’s because it temporarily soothes the internal anxiety of, “I’m not enough.” We feel better because we’re busy trying to make a self that is less needy and more “together.” Temporarily is key here – the soothing doesn’t last.
Turning towards our vulnerability can feel dangerous, because in doing so, we take down some of the armor around our heart. We feel fully. We feel those tender needs and our tender humanity. It can break us open.
My fight against my needs
My biggest fight with my needs has been my shame about my sensitive nervous system and my tendency towards depression and anxiety – and all the shoulds about what I should or shouldn’t need to care for it.
When my depression and anxiety worsened in my 20s and early 30s, I had very fixed rules inside my head about what was or wasn’t okay for me to do to feel better. Therapy, was okay – to a point. And then my inner critic started telling me, “Why aren’t you fixed yet?”
Yoga, meditation, spirituality – even shamanism: all okay.
Vitamins, supplements, every sort of alternative medicine: okay.
But taking medication? Seeing a psychiatrist? Definitely not okay. Medication was bad, from the dark side. I’d read all the studies and books that said medication was dangerous, medication would ruin my brain, medication doesn’t work. I was scared to try.
Vulnerability and shame
I was scared to admit I needed medication, because needing medication meant accepting that I was chronically depressed and anxious. And being chronically depressed and anxious was a badge of shame – a sign that somehow I wasn’t enough. I looked at needing to take medication as a sign that I had somehow failed to fix myself “naturally.”
I read stories of people who had healed their depression with yoga, with diet, or with supplements. And since I had tried all those things, and they didn’t work for me, I felt deficient: there’s something wrong with me. Not, perhaps I need a different solution.
And so I suffered, and continued to suffer, because in my mind I had these giant shoulds that said “I shouldn’t need medication to feel better” and another that said, “It’s my fault that I haven’t fixed my depression.”
Ouch, ouch, ouch.
My point of surrender
It wasn’t until I hit a very, very low, dark place last year that I surrendered. Going to see a psychiatrist was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, for it meant accepting: I’m hurting. It meant accepting my hubris: that I couldn’t fix my depression by myself. It meant accepting my vulnerability: I can hurt and need just like everybody else.
So, yes, today, I take a little blue and green pill. Everyday. It has been a lifeline for me. (I love how novelist Tim Farrington puts it: he refers to medication as “biochemical grace.”) Yes, I wish I didn’t have to. Yes, I can feel the stigma of taking it. Yes, I have felt criticized by others because of my struggles with mental illness. (I have this dream to create a t-shirt that says, “This is what mental illness looks like” and to wear it. Proudly.)
And, yes I accept that I absolutely need that medication. And it is not bad or good – it just is. And it’s okay.
Trusting the truth of our experience
Opening to needs is a form of surrender: of bowing to life as it is, to who we are, and not how we want ourselves or life to be. It’s saying this is how it is now. And just for now – it’s not forever.
Carl Rogers put it this way: do we listen to our thoughts, our shoulds? Or do we trust the truth of our own experience?
Trusting the truth of our own experience is setting aside the shoulds and honoring the truth. In my case, the truth of my experience said this: dear one, you are hurting. I’ll never forget what my psychiatrist said at our first appointment: “It looks like you’ve tried everything but medication. You’ve suffered enough.”
With that statement, I felt myself drop that load I had been carrying for so long about how I shouldn’t need medication. What relief.
Taking ourselves out of the “should” box
Living with “shoulds” is like we’ve put ourselves into a tiny box, framed by all the expectations and shoulds of what we need to do in order to be loved, accepted and okay.
Acceptance, vulnerability, surrender, honesty is taking ourselves out of the box.
The box can feel safe. It’s familiar, contained. Being out of the box can feel terrifying: will I be safe? Will I be okay? Will I be loved?
What helps us come out of the box is the hand next to us. The sweet, human being alongside us, who has also come out of their box. We reach out and hold their hand. In doing so, we affirm: we are all loveable, with our many needs, with our many differences.
We affirm: we are all in this human life together. In our shared vulnerability, our shared humanity, we are free: we can open to our neediness. We come home.