Basic mammal maintenance, or How to be nice to yourself.

Continuing on the theme of childhood neglect, my nonscientific gut-check tells me that if people were mean or indifferent or unable to care for you while you were a kid, you might lack the skills to care for yourself as an adult.

This can lead to a place of acute suffering. It can also make you feel like something is fundamentally wrong with you, instead of understanding that your suffering is the result of something that happened (or didn’t happen when you needed it to), and not something you are.

Which can obscure the fact that these skills are, in fact, learned — people aren’t just born with them.

When you’re suffering, and you suspect that something is fundamentally wrong with you, it can be very difficult to find effective help. If you struggle to find effective help, and you also don’t know the basics of how to care for yourself, it can feel like falling into a very deep pit where every attempt to dig yourself out crashes in on you.

The thing that lifts you out of the pit is taking care of yourself, first, and understanding that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you, second. Your experiences are proof of your humanness, not your brokenness.

Even when you’re in pain, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.

Even when you’re sick, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.

Humans get sick and feel pain.

Guess what you are? I’ll give you one guess.

Even if you didn’t learn to take care of yourself as a kid, it is something you can easily learn as an adult. At the same time, being nice to yourself can be surprisingly difficult to master, thanks in large part to our weird and often dysfunctional culture. But I have some thoughts.

First of all, you won’t suddenly become a molten sloth if you start being nice to yourself. That’s a myth, and it’s part of that thing I just said about our dysfunctional culture. If anything, learning to be nice to yourself helps you to build resilience, so the next time some crappy thing happens in life, you have a bit more stamina to get through it. It makes life a tiny bit less scary since you know that, even if things get really bad, you’ve got yourself in your corner, doing nice things for you.

Second, being nice to yourself involves both doing things that you want, and doing things that you need to do. It is not all one or the other. In fact, the quickest way to be super mean to yourself is to pick one and avoid the other.

Only doing the things that need to be done ends in a super clean house, glowing reports from your boss, and all your bills paid on time…but also burnout, sadness, and no time for yourself.

Only doing the things you want to do feels really, really good…for a while. It also ends in sadness, feeling sick or groggy, and often having waaaaaay too much time on your hands.

So how do you start this incredibly, strangely difficult process of being nice to yourself? I’ll give you some pointers.

Take Breaks

You would be shocked at the number of people I talk to who simply…don’t…ever…take breaks. It actually boggles my mind. Sure, a lot of them goof off, at some point, sneaking stolen moments of time to look at Facebook, or guiltily wresting an hour to do something other than work-work. All of them collapse, at some point, in the evening when they are incapable of doing any more.

In my mind, none of that really counts as a proper break. First of all, it’s usually not planned or intentional — it often only happens once the person is up against the wall of their own exhaustion and has no other choice but to stop for a while. Or it’s completely spoiled by guilt. Too little, too late.

What I’m suggesting, instead, is that you plan, on purpose, to take regular, restorative breaks throughout the day. For me, a fully restorative break requires: knowing what time it’s coming, getting up from my desk (not just sitting in the same spot and looking at the same screen), and preferably having a change of scenery, even if just means the next room or a different part of the room. And then some kind of reward, whether it’s a snack, a beverage, a book, music, doodling, or petting a cat.

Most jurisdictions have some law on the books about legal break times. If you possibly can, find out what breaks you’re entitled to and take them. On purpose.

Comfort Yourself

Do small physical things that are comforting and distracting. Especially when stressed, this can be very useful. Doing small physical things helps to keep your mind occupied while feels (of any variety) run their course.

Small physical things I like to do can depend on which emotion I’m feeling (sad vs. angry, for example.) If I’m anxious or angry, sometimes a small bit of exercise, like even a few wall pushups or a brief walk, followed by taking a break is the key. When I’m sad, usually something very comforting, like a very hot shower, fuzzy pajamas, and then getting in bed early with a heating pad and a book and a cat, is the most helpful. Sometimes I’ll eat a particularly nice snack while paying close attention to how it tastes.

For some people, music is helpful, or something nice-smelling. Think of each of the five senses and try to make a list of things you find comforting. Hand lotion? Cuticle oil? Warm socks? Pretty pictures? Perfume? Videos of people jumping off a rope swing at the place where you used to go camping as a kid (warning: heights)?

Get Some Rest

Set yourself up to get enough rest. Even if you’re having trouble sleeping, lying down to rest can be useful. I read somewhere that you receive 70% of the benefit of sleeping just from laying down, awake. I have no idea whether this is true, and I don’t want to verify it because it is such a useful fiction when I’m lying there, fretting about not sleeping.

I also find that when I do all of my get-ready-for-bed tasks right after dinner, instead of waiting for Late O’Clock, it’s easier to fall in bed when I’m tired and actually sleep. When I’m particularly stressed, letting myself lie in bed early, even when I have no intention of sleeping yet, helps me wind down until I just fall asleep on my own, usually at an earlier time than I otherwise would. A Kindle loaded with a bunch of extremely silly books is indispensable for this.

And if I really can’t sleep, getting up to read in a comfy chair until I’m sleepy helps too. I know this breaks a lot of sleep hygiene rules, but you can experiment.

Give Your Feelings Some Credit

When you feel sad or anxious or angry, don’t try to talk yourself out of it. Acknowledge that your feelings make sense, even if the thoughts that go with them don’t always. Feelings are allowed to be there, even when you don’t act on them. The best way of acting on them is usually by taking care of yourself, not by acting out.

Get Out of the House

Especially if you work from home, or have an irregular schedule and a tendency to cocoon — get out of the house once per day. Even if it’s just to take out garbage or stand on your stoop for five minutes. On days when I am just slammed and have no time, I will often just stand on my balcony and stare, slack-jawed, at trees for five minutes. It helps. The fresh air, the change of scenery, getting out of your head for a bit…it helps.

Feed and Water Yourself

Offer yourself food and fluids at least three times a day. I had a period of time where I noticed, on weekends, I would often just abandon any pretense of structure with my eating. You know what happened? Rather than experiencing the joys of a free-wheeling, zero-responsibilities, foodless existence, I laid around and felt like death. It reliably destroyed my mood, my energy levels, and basically my entire weekend.

Once I realized what I was doing, I made a deal with myself: I didn’t have to eat meals AND regular snacks the way I often do on weekdays, when my schedule is more structured and I’m expending more energy and thus feel hungrier, but I was going to make an effort to put something breakfast-like, something lunch-like, and something dinner-like in front of myself three times a day.

When I got into the habit of doing it (it did require a bit of clock-watching at first), it became very natural. Now I get reliably hungry at those times, even on weekends, and it’s easy to remember. Plus I don’t feel like a zombie. My weekends are saved.

Get a Tiny Thing Done

Do one thing each day that makes you feel a sense of accomplishment. If you’re really in the hole, it can be something small, like unloading the dishwasher or opening one piece of mail. Once you’re somewhat out of the hole, it can be doing a few hours of work-work, or responding to emails, or cleaning the bathroom. Just one thing, each day, that gives you a sense of “I got something done.”

Your Brain Will Try to Talk You Out of It

What will get in the way? Mostly, a lot of internalized messages about how doing nice things for yourself is lazy or self-indulgent or frivolous or selfish. Which, yes, true, if you stopped to do any of these things while a house was on fire in front of you, they might be. But most of us are not in such urgent situations, at least not all of the time. Somewhere, at some point in the day, most of us do have time that could be devoted to the care and feeding of ourselves.

It is tempting to think of all of this as optional, nice-to-have-but-not-necessary, to which I respectfully say — especially if you’re dealing with any symptoms of depression or anxiety or going through a stressful time — bullshit. This stuff is not optional. It is basic maintenance to remain a functional human being. If you don’t want to function at all, that’s your call, because I promise that will eventually happen if you don’t start taking a tiny sliver of time to reward yourself for not imploding.

Another thing that will get in the way is feeling that you don’t deserve it. That other people, sure, should take breaks and eat food and sleep as part of basic mammal maintenance, but that you, you, are set apart from them in a special category reserved for the most intense self-loathing and the least pressing creature needs.

I mean, if people treated you like you didn’t deserve basic care as a child, that none of your needs were valid, why wouldn’t you go on to believe that and treat yourself that was as an adult? You would! It’s perfectly understandable!

It’s just completely wrong.

You are just as valuable as anyone else, and you deserve just as much care-taking as anyone else. This is how you should have been cared for all along. You can’t go back in time and erase the past, but you can make the effort to place your feet on a different path right now.

Even if your past involved neglect, your future doesn’t have to. You need care, and you deserve it. You can do this.

break50

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Posted in eating, Liking Yourself, Moving | 10 Responses

It’s okay to love food.

Last time, I wrote about sometimes when people have been abused or neglected around food, it makes sense that they might grow up to dislike feeding themselves. But what is equally true is that, sometimes, when people are deprived of food, their inborn love of food does not desert them, or they go on to develop an intense love of food they didn’t have before.

They might become interested in cooking and baking, or they might hoard food. At one point in history, researchers assumed these thoughts and behaviours — termed “food preoccupation” — were part of the pathology of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. But as Kelsey Miller’s excellent recent article on the Minnesota Starvation Study illustrates, these behaviours are now well-known as hallmarks of simple starvation.

I remember once discussing this with a client who had recovered from an eating disorder, who had gone on to cook professionally. She said she found it very troubling, because it made her wonder whether her passion for cooking were just one more manifestation of her eating disorder, rather than an expression of her personality and love of food. It was a few years ago, but I still think about our conversation to this day.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, North American culture is currently experiencing a renaissance of home cooking and gourmand-like devotion to food. Even our dieting trends have shifted to become more focused on the quality of food, ever more sophisticated nutritional theories, and scratch cooking. This comes on the heels of a mid-century epoch that was very focused on pre-packaged convenience foods, where the dieting trends centred almost entirely on calories, nutrition came a distant second, and quality of the food was not even on the radar.

The mid- to late 20th century was the era of dieting that called for half a grapefruit, dry white toast, and a cup of black coffee for breakfast. Or two powdered shakes for breakfast and lunch, followed by an impossibly “sensible” dinner. Or fully-branded, entirely pre-packaged, calorie-controlled diet meals and snacks, often leaning heavily on artificial sweeteners for flavour.

In contrast, the 21st century diet breakfast (though we rarely call it that; “diet” as a word has lost some of its power to invoke purity, status, and leanness) is more likely to be a green smoothie, chia seed pudding, or steel-cut oats — something made at home from raw, whole ingredients that reek of freshness, wholesomeness, and a new sort of crunchy purity.

There is, to me, a definite tang of food preoccupation in this resurgence of home cooking, and our growing concern for food quality, even while dieting. But rather than thinking this is a bad thing, it actually gives me a lot of hope.

I only find foodie-ism annoying when it is predicated on snobbery and enforcing social hierarchies, or promotes food restriction in disguise, not when it is genuinely celebrating food. And I see this resurgence in interest in food, just like the food preoccupation that often follows a period of deprivation, as a manifestation of the versatile and ingenious human survival drive. It is life making a way in an environment that often pressures us to deny our fundamental need to eat.

Food preoccupation can be distressing, and sometimes it comes in not-helpful forms, like obsessing over calories or counting the minutes until you get to eat again (although that last one is pretty understandable when deprivation is a possibility.) But food preoccupation can also look like an intense interest in food, taking joy and pleasure in preparing it, feeding yourself, savouring your meals, and maybe even making food your life’s work.

In other words, it can look an awful lot like coming back to life.

If your love of food was not punished and starved out of you, you are the recipient of some marvelous good luck. I am always thrilled to know people like this exist. Similarly, if an experience of deprivation triggered a new love of food and a desire to devote time and attention to it, this is a reminder of your body’s intense desire to live, and its ability to craft attitudes and behaviours that lead to food-seeking and, ultimately, survival. It is your body protecting and providing for you.

Either way, love of food is a gift. If you’ve managed to hold onto or discover it under the threat of abuse or starvation or self-hatred, you are very lucky.

Celebrate your good fortune — eat and enjoy it.

Posted in eating, Eating Disorders | 11 Responses

You don’t have to like food.

Some kids were not just neglected around food, but abused. This is a bit different than just not having enough to eat – it also includes being badgered and harassed about how you eat, what you eat, your weight, your appetite, having food withheld from you, being force-fed, force-weighed, forced to diet, forced to exercise, and a whole host of other terrible things.

It may centre around food or weight, but it is abuse just the same.

One of the devastating things about abuse is not only that it hurts and traumatizes you, but that it can drive a wedge between you and your intrinsic motivation to engage in survival behaviours, severely disrupting the intuitive process of pain-avoidance and pleasure-seeking that would otherwise lead you to take care of yourself.

Once you’re on your own, away from the source of the abuse, you may anticipate freedom and happiness — only to find that you neglect yourself. This can be extremely distressing, inspiring panic and maybe even self-loathing as you condemn yourself for not doing things that you assume everyone else does without difficulty.

I’m gonna tell you the truth here: eating isn’t easy. Getting food, preparing food, and orchestrating regular eating times takes effort, and sometimes it’s hard.

If food has been used in someone else’s hands as a cudgel to bludgeon you for a good portion of your life, it makes perfect sense that you would associate eating with doom/dread/awfulness and probably not enjoy it very much. If mealtimes used to be a time of criticism, sniping at your weight, having food taken from you, being told nothing you could do was ever right or good enough, or being forced to endure food you couldn’t stand, it is 100% normal for you to not enjoy eating today.

You would have developed negative associations with eating, sometimes very strong ones, that come up instinctively anytime the stimulus, food, is presented to you. Those negative associations will interfere with the instinctive desire — but that desire is still in you, somewhere.

You can build new, positive associations with eating. It will take time, and you might need help from a therapist and/or nutritionist. What you DON’T need, right now, is the additional pressure of being angry with yourself because you don’t enjoy eating.

You don’t have to like eating. You don’t have to like any particular food, either. Trying to force yourself to is, sometimes, very similar to reproducing the abuse.

So if you don’t like eating, what do you do?

1) Acknowledge that it’s totally understandable that you don’t like eating

2) At the same time, acknowledge that you need and deserve to take care of yourself

3) Go through the motions of putting food in front of yourself, even if your heart’s not in it (and even if you don’t end up eating it)

This is where offering yourself food at regular times comes in handy again. Even if you don’t like food, even if it inspires panic, even if it brings up all the horrible doom and terrible feelings that come from being abused — even in the midst of all those feelings, you still have the ability to put food in front of yourself.

Make it as easy and pleasant as possible. If that means you need to eat with a supportive friend 100% of the time, make some calls and figure out a way to set that up. If it means eating alone in your room so you’ll feel safe, set up a place to do that comfortably. If that means you eat only chicken nuggets, graham crackers, and canned peaches for a while, stock up on chicken nuggets, graham crackers, and canned peaches.

Play music, watch Christmas movies on your laptop, get a tray so you can eat in bed — anything. Anything to make this as pleasant, easy, and nice as you can.

Then, start putting food in front of yourself three times a day, with full permission to eat or not eat it. Commit to sitting with it in a pleasant, non-threatening environment for 15-30 minutes. Over time, you will start to build new, positive associations with food.

Being nice to yourself in general takes practice, so don’t worry if this feels strange and awkward at first. If you were abused or neglected, you were likely never taught the necessary skills to soothe and comfort yourself, or how to make necessary tasks feel less burdensome and terrible.

That’s what those things are, by the way: skills. We all learn them. Some of us later than others.

After sitting for a while in a pleasant environment with food, you might feel like eating it. You might not. If not, put it away or throw it away (and be nice to yourself.)

In a few hours, put the food there again and sit with it. Practice.

It’s going to be okay.

Posted in eating | 7 Responses

Feeling safe around food again.

When you haven’t been fed enough, either as a kid, or as an adult for a significant period of time, the fear of going hungry kind of seeps into you. It starts to change your behaviour around food and eating. All of this is your body’s way of making sure it gets fed. This is about survival, not about character, and not about morality. You do what you have to do.

Sometimes people with a significant history of food insecurity or restriction will hoard food or feel preoccupied with food. While this can be good for survival, it can seriously complicate your food-eating life.

As you know, I’m a big fan of the regular meal. Planning to have, and actually following through on, regular meal and snack times gives you the chance to plan ahead, to put together nourishing combinations of food, and it also, crucially, provides one thing the scared, underfed part of you desperately needs: a guarantee that eating will happen.

When kids who were underfed are placed in a foster home or adopted by new parents, they often hoard, binge, and are totally preoccupied with food for a while. This scares a lot of caregivers, so they may clamp down with controlling practices that, unfortunately, sometimes serve to frighten the kids even more.

What can actually help (though it’s never easy, of course) is to provide structure and permission, rather than control and restriction. Part of that structure means setting regular meal and snacktimes, and crucially, communicating those times to the child. Some people will write the meal schedule on a whiteboard or tape it to the refrigerator, so anytime the underfed child is scared of going hungry again, they can look (or be gently pointed to) the meal schedule and remember, “Oh yeah. Food is coming in a comfortable amount of time.”

This is part of breaking through trauma in order to provide a sense of safety. Trauma does weird things to the brain, like keep it stuck in events that happened long ago, making it difficult to form new memories that build a bridge out of those events. People often need guidance, someone to walk with them, and sign-posts to remind them that where they’re going, and where they are, is not the same as where they’ve been. A meal schedule is one of those sign-posts.

As for what the meal structure should look like, I’m going to borrow from one of my colleagues (I can’t remember who, I’m sorry! Please feel free to add your name in comments if you’re reading) what she called The Rule of Threes, which I thought was a brilliant way to remember: three meals and three snacks, no more than three hours apart.

If you need to feel safe around food, if you need to reassure the part of you that is scared of not getting enough to eat, write it down somewhere. You can write times of the day, or you can just write the rule itself, and put it somewhere you will see it when you’re thinking about food. Whenever you wake up, eat something (within an hour or so), check the clock and make a mental note of the time you’ll need to eat again.

These are not enforced eating times — rather, they are the times you will commit to providing yourself the CHANCE to eat. That means physically putting food in front of yourself (whether you think you want it or not), sitting down, and deciding whether/how much to eat. If you don’t want to eat, put it away. If you only want part, only eat part and put the rest away. If you eat it all, check if you’re still hungry and want seconds. If you’re not sure, wait 15 minutes and check in again. Look at the meal schedule and remind yourself that food will be coming again in three or less hours.

At this point, don’t worry about what you are eating. Just put anything you have available, or anything you think you want, in front of yourself at meal times. Anything is better than nothing, and you can always build on it later. Regular eating times are the foundation, and the walls and roof will be built in time.

You are going to be fed. Someone is taking care of you. The people who raised you might have messed up in some way, or just plain didn’t have access to enough food, but things are different now. You’re taking care of yourself now, and you’re going to follow through.

Posted in eating, Humane Nutrition | 21 Responses

On not being fed enough as a child.

This is one of the painful truths of my job: discovering that sometimes children, especially fat kids, or kids whose caregivers suspect they will one day be fat, don’t get fed enough. Sometimes those kids grow up and become my clients.

Sometimes considerable abuse and neglect in other domains comes along with being underfed as child, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes kids grow up in a family system that looks perfectly functional to everyone, even to themselves, that just happens to not meet their most basic needs. Like getting enough to eat.

A lot of kids respond to being underfed by sneaking, stealing, bingeing at a friend’s house. It’s expected. It’s universal. It’s survival.

The unfortunate thing is, they often internalize the idea that these behaviours are proof of moral corruption or badness, or some underlying eating pathology or addiction. It’s not true, but I’ll tell you what is.

If you were one of these kids, you were not bad. You did what you had to do to survive.

I’m glad you did that. I’m glad you’re here.

There is nothing wrong with you. You are not broken or bad. You were born into a world where the people responsible for your well-being failed in one of the most fundamental ways. I don’t know if they were abusive or neglectful or forgetful or just wanted you to lose weight. The bottom line is, they didn’t feed you enough, and that was their fault, not yours.

Eating is a human right, and you’re a human. Even when you’re a kid.

Posted in children, eating, Liking Yourself | 47 Responses
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