This week I got several questions from people about compassion and permissiveness. Many people shared how, after working with me, or after doing other programs, they feel softer towards themselves about their overeating or binge eating, and are feeling more compassionate towards themselves.
But they find themselves stuck, where being compassionate with themselves feels as if it’s leading to permissiveness, a “what the hell” attitude towards food.
This can be so frustrating! It’s a common scenario, and a great question, and one I hear often. Here are some thoughts that can help.
The ‘gates of healing’
On an emotional/developmental level, there are a few key ‘gates of healing’ that are necessary for you to walk through in order to grow out of food compulsions like overeating, sugar obsessing, or binge eating.
One of these gates of healing is healing your relationship with strength – your relationship to your inner power, inner authority, your inner no’s, and honoring limits.
Likewise, another gate of healing is healing your relationship with your human vulnerability – your relationship to your emotions, needs, tenderness, human neediness and desires.
Developing and playing with two inner capacities – strengthening and softening – are how you walk through these ‘gates of healing.’
Strengthening and softening are how you:
- set limits with food, and know what kinds of limits to set
- feel the vulnerable emotions, needs, and selves under cravings rather than eating them
- shift your desires, where the types of foods you want and crave start to change
- soften feelings of shame, guilt, blame and self judgment towards your weight or food habits
Both of these inner capacities are components of resilience – one is an upshift, and one is a downshift. Both help you feel more capable, competent, and confident in your relationship with food. Both will help you heal and grow out of the emotional dynamics that feed things like overeating, binge eating, and sugar obsessing.
Growing your internal capacity
I use the words “grow out of” intentionally. For both are inner capacities that are grown and developed.
Even if you feel as if you aren’t very good at them, or like a beginner, the seeds are within you, as they are within everyone. With support, encouragement, and compassion, these capacities can be grown, step by step. And step by step, you can build self trust about your capacity to respond to binges, the urge to overeat, and sugar cravings.
Here are some ways that softening and strengthening arise in your relationship with food:
You grow your capacity to soften when you:
- soften the heart to feel the more vulnerable feelings underneath cravings
- soften defenses, habits, and habitual ways of responding or being
- soften feelings of wanting – the seeking after sugar or food that never fulfills
- and soften blame, guilt, shame, and self judgment
You grow your capacity to strengthen when you:
- set limits and sit with the discomfort that arises
- challenge yourself with something outside of your comfort zone
- go after something and move through obstacles
- and move into the vulnerable territory of growing new capacities (doing what you’re bad at)
Softening vs. collapse
In my experience, most people have an easier time with one or the other. Heart centered, highly sensitive, intuitive, and deep feeling people – and often, people who tend to overeat – tend to more easily move towards softening than strengthening. So for heart centered people, their primary work is growing their capacity for strength.
Likewise, many people confuse softening with collapse, which is a different energy. Collapse is a form of despair and hopelessness, and has a different feel, tone, and emotional tenor.
By contrast, when you soften, yes, you’re opening or ‘going down’ to feel vulnerability. This can be painful, and takes courage. But on the other side of this vulnerablity, you ‘come up.’
Something is born or grown through this softening, starting with an increased capacity to feel and ‘hold’ vulnerable feelings and needs.
Use play to grow these capacities
I invite you to play with these two capacities, both in your relationship with food, and in your daily life. In fact, you don’t have to work directly on your relationship with food to grow them!
Because my approach is about development, not habit change, when you grow these capacities, they show up in every area of your life.
For example, when I wanted to develop my capacity for strength, I joined a gym where they have very challenging fitness classes. Boxing, interval training, and pull ups were a playful way for me to develop strength. As I grew this capacity and quality physically, I could feel it emerging in other areas. It helped me embody my strongest self more in my daily life.
The wonder of growth
It’s beautiful to watch these capacities develop in yourself, like watching a seed take root and grow into a plant.
You can use softening to:
- soften expectations and give yourself more support, compassion, or connection
- soften mental shoulds about how you should weigh or eat
- soften harsh inner dialogue about food
You can use strengthening to:
- set limits, with yourself or others
- try something challenging, and to expand your self definitions
- grow those parts of you that feel less developed – take a class or a new hobby
You can use them together to:
- set a limit and then bring in a soft, caring empathetic response to all the vulnerable emotions, objections, pain and fear that arise in the face of it. My mentor in developmental psychology, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, calls this being both ‘the agent of futility’ and ‘the angel of comfort.’
The next time you find yourself in a difficult situation with food – perhaps you’re feeling strong cravings or urges to overeat or binge; you’re obsessing about sugar; or you’re feeling a lot of shame or self disgust after a binge – try leaning into strength, or softness.
Ask yourself – is this situation needing strength, softness, or both? And what’s a playful way you can experiment with these qualities?