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.
Ah beloved Karly sister, you are such a beacon of sanity and serenity in this often dark, stormy and difficult world we live in. I love your truly inspired way of communicating essential truths, that some of us (and I am one of them)have trouble remembering from time to time. You are ever my personal reminder to write myself a big fat permission slip to BE ME. My most authentic me. Not the me that the control freak within, thinks I “should” be. For so long I’ve been pushing myself to be the kind of human that thrives on loads of green juices and masses of raw vegetables and salads – lots of quick and instant food. But the reality is that right now my body is craving slow, looooong cooked food filled with lots of animal meat, bones, gristle, gelatin and slow, low cooked vegetables with lots of tubers and fat. When I eat these foods I no longer find myself prowling the kitchen in a fit of desperate, ineffable hungering. Some part of me has felt shamed by my need to travel with endless amounts of “stuff”, including the crock pot! But no more. I shall balance my crock pot upon my head, like a crown. Announcing to the world that I am the Slow Cook Queen and proud of it!
Karly, you are so beautiful and insightful. Thank you.
Thanks for this powerful post Karly. Like you, a sensitive nervous system and a tendency towards depression have been some of my greatest inner teachers, in the direction of true healing and self Love.
It's incredibly soothing to our nervous system to simply accept the way we are. This practice melts layers and layers of self judgment and reveals the Love shining at our core, where it's always been.
We're all on a journey home, to know we are Love, and it never ceases to amaze me how healing and powerful is the choice to be gentle and compassionate.
Thank you Karly for your tender , heartfelt honesty . I feel very nourished by your words , my sensitive nervous system can settle in the spaciousness of your grounded wisdom of personal experience .
Well, as I do, I ignore your posts for a few, but then that little voice says to go read Karly. I did. I'm here. And WOW! That was an incredible post. Boy howdy, I needed that!
When I first started reading I saw the photo of the monkey and thought how I don't like monkey and that the photo was gross. Hahahaha! By the time I read the post and scrolled back up to the top, I saw the picture again, and it made me weep. Oh, the hard inner/outer critic was silenced.
Thank you, Karly. I, too, tried it all to cure my own depression. And I was sure if I tried it all again, JUST ONE MORE TIME, it was going to work. But it didn't. I felt like a failure on top of failure…on top of failure… Medication was what I needed. It was my biochemical grace. Glory be.
Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for the hairy monkey hug 🙂
Those last two sentences had me in stitches!
Thanks for discussing what our needs our, because, now that I am in my late 30's I'm learning to discern the difference between a want and a need, sometimes they are the same but usually polar opposites. For example, I "want" to eat, although I'm not hungry, I "need" to go cry or just go to sleep. Thank you for helping us hear the right voice in our heads a little clearer, and learn which ones to obey, through post like these.
Thank you for this honest post. I also love the poem you included. How beautiful. I forgot how healing poetry is !!!
I felt the same – the ultimate failure. I'm so grateful to finally be escaping the prison of that lie.
Karly, your words were so incredibly healing and life-giving today and reinforced by all the comments here. I can't tell you how grateful I am. Blessings to you, dear sister.
Karly, your words are such a life-giving gift to me today along with all the wonderfully affirmative comments. Thank you and blessings to you sweet sister.
Sorry, didn't mean to post twice! Didn't think my first one went through. Double blessings!
Ah, I have to remind myself of these truths over and over, too. I love that you’re giving yourself a permission slip to be you, and I hear the vulnerability of thinking that you should be different. I, too, wanted to be one of those people who could eat raw vegetables and greens alone and be fine. Like you, I need the meat and the fat, and I have felt ashamed by that in the past. Shoulds are so pesky, aren’t they?
A friend of mine travels with a box of supplements, and she also feel vulnerable about the teasing she can get from family about “needing” so much. It’s so easy to defend against our vulnerability – and then to dislike others’ vulnerability and subtly shame or attack them for it. In my own life, I’ve seen that whatever vulnerability I feel uncomfortable with about myself I will attack in others. It’s a humbling lesson for me, for the key is always opening to my vulnerability instead of defending myself against it.
I love that you will wear your crock pot on your head, like a queen. Amen!
PS – I thought of you the other day when I went to Whole Foods to buy beef bones for making stock. In fact, I was thinking of you just about the time you were writing this comment…
I love poetry, too, and Mary Oliver is one of my favorite living poets. Here's the poem in full. Enjoy! Love, Karly
It's such a delicate balance, isn't it? Discerning needs from wants (and surface needs from my deeper needs) is a daily listening exercise for me, too. Yes, I often want to eat when I need sleep or a good cry. Thank you for sharing your story with us here. Love, Karly
You're so welcome, Michelle! Love, Karly
You're welcome Chase!
Fiona, your words are so beautiful and soothing. I love how you said it here – "how healing and powerful is the choice to be gentle and compassionate." And I love the image of melting layers of self judgment ….
Your words remind me of this bit from Max Ehrmann's Desiderata – "Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here."
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights!
Double blessings are wonderful. 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to write and share your thoughts with me!
I'm so glad that this post helped you release the belief of being a failure, and helped you find rest. That was my hope – that sharing my story could help all of us release the shame of "failing" or not being "enough."
We carry so much responsibility in our hearts for things that are not ours to carry. And the voice of love comes calling and says, "Dear one, let go."
I'm happy we're letting go together, and happy to take that medication with you each day.
Thank you Jessica. I've been thinking about you lately – I hope you're well.
Dear Karly, you wrote a beautiful story. Thank you.
I want to urge you to check out the site created by Monica Cassani. Or to read the book ‘Anatomy of an Epidemic’ by R. Whitaker. You may feel fine taking psychiatric meds in the short term but in the long run they harm your body and make your situation worse, not better. Please. Make sure you know the dangers of taking psychiatric drugs.
You may feel that you failed because yoga, meditation etc. did not help you with the depression. I’m sorry if you feel that shame. You can heal the flawed thinking that says there’s shame in being unable to solve a problem. Maybe you didn’t practice yoga long enough. Maybe yoga is not the way for you. There are many ways to heal.
But the pills aren’t one of them and really they aren’t going to save you from depression in the long run nor from those feelings of shame for using them. They will harm you in the end. I’m very sorry to say this.
Karly, I love love love this! It’s so honest! I love the holisic/new age community and I believe in many of the concepts of holistic health. But to depict all western medicine as bad/unhealthy or some kind of “cop-out” is, to me, just as ridiculous as saying all holistic health methods are useless, ineffective or even dangerous. Yes, I think probably too many people are automatically put on anti-depressant medications because of feeling down or depressed, without trying anything else. But there are some people – maybe more than some – that really benefit greatly from these types of drugs. I am taking a very low dose of an anti-depressant and have been for about six months. Before this, I have never taken any type of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication (thru a cancer diagnosis, two divorces, job loss, etc.) It has made a huge difference in my daily life and I personally feel that this is a good thing – a healthy thing. I don’t know if I will always be on this medication, but right now, it’s a huge help. Why can’t we have some balance in our views about these different modalities? By the way, love your blogs!
Although I respect your views must strongly state that it is very irresponsible to encourage anyone not to consider medicaton if they are experiencing a signifcant and ongoing depression (the emphasis is on significant and ongoing).
As a health care professional and someone who also has peroids of depression and anxiety myself (since childhood) I know we are all individuals and something that may help for you may not be helpful for me as its very dependent on numerous variables i.e environmental factors, current life situation, supports and very very importantly individual biochemistry.
I also do yoga regularily, exercise, meditate monitor my diet and have have a very strong support network but this does not mean I dont stll experience significant peroids of depression and anxiety. I cant take medication because of another health issue and truly wish at these times I could.
Again I stress I’m not advocating people do or dont take medication but for some people it is a necessary part of their recovery and management and lets not make those people feel bad about needing to take it (which was part of Karlys point about “shame”.
If you had diabetes you wouldnt expect to be shamed for taking insulin or be told by people that insulin wont “save you” or to just do more yoga !
Again I’m very against people just being handed out medication with no proper assessment and without other supports like counselling and lifestyle changes etc being established but both in my personal and professional life I have literally seen medicaton save people’s lives (from suicidial thoughts/behaviour) and give them a quality of life. However I have also know people for whom they dont work…. but again back to my point its an very individual case by case decision about how to manage mental health issues.
If you have found non drug methods have addressed your issues that great and I’m genuinely pleased for you (assuming you have experienced mental health issues) but dont make others feel negative about requiring medication.
Again I say this with respect even though in writing it might not sound like it !
Thank you for writing and sharing your thoughts and perspective on depression and medication. It sounds like you see the medication issue differently – and that’s okay.
In your words I sense a desire to protect me from something that you see as harmful, and I feel touched by your care and thoughtfulness.
At the same time, I recognize that medication is the right choice for me right now – and it’s okay if you see this differently.
I’m thinking of this Rumi quote right now:
“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. Ill meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesnt make any sense.”
There’s room here at First Ourselves for lots of feelings and perspectives – we don’t have to agree to share this space, and we don’t have to agree to find our common belonging. The heart is big enough for all of it.
In love and care,
It sounds like you've found acceptance about needing what you need – whether it's holistic medicine or medication. And it sounds like this freedom to use a variety of tools to support yourself has made a big difference in your life – I can feel your strength.
Thank you for sharing your story.
In love and care,