Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Myths of the Good Body Relationship, Uncovered

For the next two weeks, I'd like to focus on the things that can get in the way of a good relationship with your body. Below is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, now out to publishers. I've included the first two 'myths' we all have about having a good relationship with our bodies. Next week I'll finish it off with the final three!

I want to take a moment to address some of the resistances that might be coming up for you when you think about actually feeling better about yourself and your body. I saw them in myself and many of my clients. Let’s just call them the ‘myths’ of the good body relationship. Part of reviewing your relationship is examining the beliefs that may have held you back from what you’ve wanted. If you’ve been making excuses, or think you can’t begin to create a good relationship with your body yet, see if any of these sounds familiar to you.

MYTH #1: If I’m nice to my body and make peace with it, nothing will ever change…

If you’re used to operating from criticism and blame, it might feel uncomfortable and wrong to commit to a better relationship with your body. You might feel like you’re letting it ‘off the hook,’ and that if you love yourself the way you are now, you’ll be unmotivated to change. In fact, the exact opposite happens. The more loving and connected to our bodies we become, the more likely it is that we’ll naturally want to treat them well, to listen to them and to make choices that honor them. It’s practically impossible to be connected to your body on a deep level and act in any other way.

On the other hand, constant criticism and nagging often create a negative cycle that begets more of the same. If you’ve ever been in a relationship where someone was constantly criticizing you and telling you everything that was wrong with you, you’ve experienced this firsthand. Neither of you feel comfortable or happy. Frequently, if you’re on the receiving end of the negativity, you all also want to rebel and act out, just to get away from it all. Criticism and negativity often lead to self-destructive behaviors because we feel trapped. Choosing to be loving and connected opens up the possibility of change that comes from a deeper place.

A great deal of energy is wasted with the criticism too. Instead of getting to be on the same team as your body, you oppose each other and feel exhausted, like you can never be enough. It’s hard to accomplish much from that place, because there’s never any reward. Even if you fool yourself and your body into thinking you’ll be really nice and loving when you reach some external goal, that so rarely happens. Instead, the same fear and judgment that got you there stays with you, and instead of enjoying a goal weight, you’ll find yourself guarding it and fearful of putting weight back on. If there’s no change in the relationship, it’s likely you will.

Healing the relationship with the body gives you more than the possibility of lasting and positive physical changes. It also changes how you relate to yourself. A lot of your criticism of your body may mirror how you were treated in the past, or how you’ve felt in other relationships. When you choose to break that cycle—uncomfortable as it may be at first—you’ll be amazed at how much more freely you can move in your own life, knowing that you’re loved no matter what.

MYTH#2: I do have good reasons to not like my body.

We all have checklists in our heads of the way we’d like things to be: in our relationships, at work, the size of our bank accounts. It’s only natural to be disappointed when we don’t get what we want. The same is true with our bodies.

We can look at rolls of fat, cellulite, weight that won’t come off and decide that until those things change it just doesn’t make sense to be at peace with our bodies. They’re blowing it; they’re doing it wrong. They’re not matching our picture. But if we’re actually connected to our bodies and in relationship with them, the checklist by itself won’t work—just like it doesn’t really work in our relationships.

If your partner doesn’t do the dishes, you can decide that you don’t like him. But if you don’t talk about it, listen to his feelings and express your own, nothing’s going to change. When you decide that you have good reasons to not like your body, you’re doing the same thing. You’re treating it like something outside of you, rather than something you’re in relationship with. You’re not asking what might need to change inside both of you to make the relationship better. No problem gets solved any other way.

If you want to be attached to what your body is doing wrong, feel free. But without your participation and responsibility, there’s a good chance nothing will ever change. We can’t be so passive about how our bodies are, treating them like machines that aren’t performing the way we want them to. We have to acknowledge that we are a part of that dynamic too.

The other assumption that we make when we decide that our bodies are disappointing us is that they are somehow doing it on purpose. How many times do we make those same assumptions in our relationships? Often when we talk things through with a friend or a partner who disappointed us, we realize there were lots of other things going on that we just didn’t understand.

The same is true with our bodies. Somehow over the years we may have taken on some belief that says they’re out to get us, that they’ll never be the way we want them to be. Biology would tell us otherwise. Mostly our bodies actually want what we want: to be happy, healthy and vibrant. They’re biologically motivated to be trying to do whatever they can to create those qualities. The need to survive and thrive is in their DNA. If something is preventing that from happening, we both need to look at what’s going on and see what we can change.

This is a different way of approaching our bodies: assuming that they are doing the best we can and probably want the same things we do. In most relationships—no matter how dysfunctional—it becomes clear sooner or later that the both people also want the same things: love, respect, connection. Instead of deciding that there are reasons not to love, we can start focusing on creating what we both want and how we contributed together to where we are now.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Body As Guide

For those of you following the blog, and anyone interested in having a place to connect with this idea of a better relationship with your body, go to the newly created Facebook page, 'Anna Stookey's Befriend Your Body' and click on 'like.' I'll be posting thoughts and comments there and welcome yours!

I'm continuing to evolve and think about this message and what step to take next in my work with the body. As I listen more deeply, I'm aware of how much action we can take in our lives without really being connected to it: we do the things we think we're supposed to do to accomplish the things we think are good to accomplish. There's always a next thing to be done.

But if we check in with our bodies, they'll tell us almost instantly if we're coming from a true, connected place that's rooted in who we really are or if we're just spinning our wheels. How do they tell us the difference? Here are a few thoughts. When you're faced with a to-do list or a decision to make about what to do next, try on these tools and see if they help.

1) The 'yes' test. Often we're dragging our bodies along with us to accomplish the missions of life. But if we're not aligned with and 'embodying' what we're doing, we're often less efficient and connected to to the task at hand. One way to 'test' whether or not we want to be moving in the direction we're moving is to check in with our bodies. Standing straight up and down, ask your body a yes-or-no question you have strong 'ye's to and notice if it leans forward at all to answer your question. Similarly, ask your body a question you have a strong 'no' to, and notice if it leans backwards in response. Often our bodies will betray our true feelings about something through their movement and positioning.

Now that you've seen how it works, ask your body a question you're not sure you know the answer to: 'Should I leave my job?' or 'Should I stay in this relationship?' Notice how your body responds: whether it enthusiastically rocks forward or leans back. How do you feel when you receive that information? Is it accurate? Is it what you've 'known' on some level but haven't wanted to hear with your conscious mind? Consider what might happen if you took your body's perspective into account.

2) Following tension. Sometimes our bodies are trying to speak to us but we're not listening. Throughout your day if you notice tension, tightness or any other physical response in your body, practice breathing into it and asking it if there's anything you could be doing differently, or anything that sensation is trying to say. The results may surprise you. You may get an image of a different behavior or have feelings arise around something that's going on in your life. Stay open to what you receive and see if you can translate it in some meaningful way into your life.

Our bodies' sensations may also simply be reminders to slow down, tune in and take a moment to center. Once we do that, they may go away. Sometimes bringing consciousness into the moment effects change without our having to get more information.

3)What makes you 'sick?' Beyond tension, you may get a feeling of nausea or stomach upset when you think about certain situations or choices. If that's the case, see if you can dig deeper and find out what the body is trying to tell you. Do you need to stand up for yourself? Let yourself leave something that's no longer working? There can literally be a feeling sometimes of 'not wanting to digest' what doesn't feel good or right. By paying attention to the cues your body gives you, you may be able to make choices that are in your best interests before things come to a head.

Our bodies are miraculous partners in the evolution of our consciousness and our lives. Learning to listen to them and partner with them, especially to help us get information we may be avoiding with our conscious minds, is life-changing. Practice going to your body in the midst of turmoil and choices and see what it has to say. It may just have needed to know you were listening!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Power of Forgivness

When we begin to think about our bodies as something we're in relationship with, we also have to begin to acknowledge all the ways we may have ignored them or treated them badly.
One client who had always judged and blamed her body for being overweight found herself needing to take a new kind of responsibility once she realized it was a two-way relationship. What was she doing to contribute to her body's feeling unhealthy and heavier than she wanted?

Often we think of our bodies as being to blame for what we don't like about them, but really when we start to check in, we may realize they were doing the best they could with what they were given. Based on our behavior, we may need to be forgiven too. Letting go of our own guilt and shame around how we have been with our bodies is essential to our healing moving forward.

This is especially apparent with clients who struggle with binge-eating, who frequently find themselves in a cycle of overeating, then feeling horrible and restricting, then feeling deprived and once again overeating. The cycle repeats again and again. When they can learn to partner with their bodies and forgive themselves for their behavior even as it's happening--staying connected to the body rather than shutting down with shame or guilt--the cycle often ends.

Darren, who would frequently eat an entire package of cookies after a bad day at work, used the tools of our work together to keep dialoguing with his body even through a binge: "I'm so sorry, I know I'm doing it again. Please forgive me." Something about choosing the connection to his body over his own cycle of shutting down eventually made the whole cycle lose its power. He found that instead of acting out with food, he could check in with his body and find ways to relieve stress together rather than at odds with each other: go for a walk, call a friend, take a hot shower.

Forgiveness is powerful. Our intention to forgive and be forgiven often changes negative behavior altogether. Forgiveness is an expression of love and a willingness to change and transform a situation, even if we don't exactly know how. When we do this with our bodies, we say that we're willing to look at a situation differently, and that we're primarily committing to being in our experience together rather than separating or shutting down.

Think about the ways that you may shut down in your body relationship when you blame or judge your body or when you feel guilt or ashamed yourself. What might happen if you chose togetherness and forgiveness instead? Try these three steps:

1) Let yourself feel and express your feelings as they arise. If you're in a binge, say how you feel even if you can't stop right away. If you're judging your body for how it looks, acknowledge that it's happening even if you'd like it to be different.

2) Ask for forgiveness and/or be willing to forgive. Instead of shutting down and feeling guilty or pointing the finger and blaming, see if you can simply say you're sorry and stay open to repair. Be willing to offer the same kindness toward your body and the misperceptions you may have toward it.

3) Notice what follows when you stay connected to your body instead of separating from it. Though it may take time for a negative behavior like bingeing or judging to change entirely, you'll probably notice a shift right way in terms of how you feel. It takes a lot of energy and emotion to blame, judge or carry shame. Choosing forgiveness and connection keeps you more open, relaxed and present--like choosing to tell the truth instead of covering something up.

As you move through the week ahead, continue to pay attention to opportunities to forgive and stay connected to your body. Also notice if you can accept forgiveness for your own negative behaviors and practice communicating and being honest. As in any of our relationships, we can't always change overnight. But we can express our feelings, our desire to work on things together, and ask for forgiveness along the way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Control Freak Revisited

If you've ever seen the movie When Harry Met Sally, you remember Sally's penchant for controlling and convoluted food-ordering
: 'I'll have the salad, but the dressing on the side and no bacon unless you can cook it well-done and then I will have bacon but crumbled not strips...' Harry sits next to her and rolls his eyes.

But how many of us can secretly relate to Sally's attempts to control her world? They scream of an internal vulnerability, a need to know all the answers. Sally's not just showing us her relationship to food; she's showing us her relationship to her whole life.

When clients tell me they've started restricting or hyper-managing their food intake, one of the first question I want to ask is what's going on in the rest of their lives. Where do they feel a loss of control in another area of their life that's being filled (unsuccessfully perhaps) by the control they can feel when they keep their calories under a thousand or get to some perfect weight? Feeling our humanness, our vulnerability, means the relinquishing of control--even Sally gets there eventually: snot-nosed, human and despairing. It means realizing we aren't always going to know the answers or even understand the plan for our lives, let alone create it.

How we relate to food and to our bodies can tell us a lot about how we're relating to our lives. When I become more self-conscious, more restrictive and judgmental with my body, it's often a sign that something else in my life is making me feel vulnerable and I don't want to feel it. One client I worked with began starving himself and working out like a maniac when his job security suddenly became shaky. Another client notices that she has a tendency to diet whenever family is about to come into town; it gives her something else to focus on besides the growing feeling of anxiety and confrontation she's afraid will swallow her up when they arrive. If she can be thinner, maybe she'll be invulnerable to the drama that usually ensues.

Our bodies take a lot of this abuse, but I'm sure--just like we would--they'd rather be seen and connected to rather than objectified and controlled. Control puts us in a robot-like position, gets us out of feeling and into doing. As with a bad relationship, living with the dynamic of control can feel like walking a tight rope; inside, our bodies and our psyches live in fear of doing something wrong and no longer being valued, rather than knowing we're valued no matter what we do.

If control is coming up for you around food and your body, ask yourself what else might really be going on? Are there are other things playing out in your life that feel out of your control? Are there feelings you'd rather not be feeling?

The truth is that there are a lot of things in life we can't control: from relationships to jobs to even how people see us. In the end, Sally's vulnerability is what makes her loveable, not whether or not she has her whole life figured out. If we rely on control for our happiness, we're bound to be let down. Instead, we have to change what we try to control, focusing on our feelings and our attitudes rather than the perfect diet or body.

When we control too much we not only stop being in a real relationship with ourselves, we no longer let others in the way we could. Learning to be with the soft edges and hunger of our bodies takes courage and opens us up to the world much more than fearful restriction. How can you let yourself feel your vulnerability, the truth of what you're experiencing? If you let go of control, what might show up in your life instead?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Getting Past the Weight Set Point

So I'm at my doctor's office for my annual gynecology appointment--the one where I have to get on the scale (previously recounted in a blog entry in April of '09). This time, I'm sitting outside his office for the consultation part of my visit when I hear a woman checking in. She's terrified of getting on that scale. She says no matter what she does, her weight is always the same: "I do really well, I eat healthy for a few days and then I get on that scale and it says the same thing! It makes me feel like not even trying..."

As the conversation goes on, the nurse comes back to weigh her and the woman refuses. "I have to put something down," the nurse pleads. "Too much," is all the woman will offer up. She's become terrified of her own number: that indelible, unchanging weight.

It made me think about all those conversations about a 'weight set point' that seemed to be so popular a few years ago. The idea is that each of our bodies settle into a weight that seems normal to them and then that weight doesn't budge, no matter what we do. I've heard popular thinkers apply this concept to other set points too: those for happiness, prosperity, relationships. We get used to a certain standard and then--to preserve homeostasis--don't seem to stretch beyond it. We get stuck at our set points.

Listening to this woman and her battle with the scale, its unchanging number, I revisited the idea. It does seem to be true. Can you relate? You try and try, you think you're doing everything right: exercise, diet. And nothing changes. Your weight stays the same.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because when we accept the idea of a set point, we're not acknowledging our ability to influence or be a part of it. To her, it seems as though her body is being stubborn, unmoving. No matter what she does it stays the same. If she wanted her body to know that she'd prefer a different set point, how would she even begin? In her mind, she's already at odds with this thing (her body) that's not doing what she wants it to do, which is CHANGE.

Something begins to shift when we start seeing our bodies as something we can interact with: we allow that we might be able to start that dialogue, to have some influence on things like set-points and outcomes. This attitude certainly sets up a different way of relating to our body's behavior. Instead of believing our body boorishly wants to stay the way it is, we can start telling it what we'd prefer and see what happens. Allowed into the conversation, our bodies may have important feelings and information for us to take in as a result.

When I work with clients with this idea, it's sometimes surprising what happens. Being given the option of communicating with their bodies about what they'd prefer, rather than being at odds with them, they realize their bodies have something to say, and that together they might create positive change. One client who imagined what it would be like to feel lighter and more alive, shared that request with her body and found herself wanting to move and be more active. It was as if her body was saying, "Okay, yes...let's begin." Another client found herself drawn toward more energizing and alive foods. Both needed to make the request and then just listen.

More importantly, both clients began to feel themselves in partnership with their bodies by offering up their dreams to them, rather than seeing their bodies as stubborn objects resisting their desires. In partnership, many things become possible: even the changing of a set point. We have to believe that our bodies don't choose a set point out of defiance, they choose it for the same reason all of us choose the comfortable and familiar: it's easier. But that doesn't mean that given a request and a vision from someone we care about that we wouldn't be willing to step a little outside our comfort zone to try on something better for both of us.

I encourage you to be willing to give your body this chance. Try following this five-step process (also outlined more fully in my forthcoming book) to create positive change with your body:

1) Feel the way things are now--whatever it is that's difficult or challenging. Are you frustrated with your weight? How it feels to move? What your clothes feel like? Let yourself feel and acknowledge the feelings connected to the current situation.

2) Get a vision for how you'd like things to be instead. How would it feel if you could move the way you wanted to in your body? If you felt lighter or your clothing was looser? Let yourself fully experience what that would be like, as if it already existed. What do you see/feel? What are you doing? Surprisingly,when it comes down to it, your vision may not be as much about what you weigh as it is about actually feeling good and at ease with your body.

3) Imagine that you can communicate this to your body, showing it what you'd prefer instead. You might even say, 'This is what I'd like, what do you think?'

4) Next, be willing to see if you get a response. Is there some behavior or wish your body gives you back? Is your body on board with the new vision? Ask your body if there's anything you need to be doing to make it possible and see what kind of response you get. Sometimes clients get a vision of what they could be doing differently and can see themselves doing it. Sometimes it's literally a feeling in your body of restlessness, pent-up energy, a directive to move. How does your body tell you what it needs?

5) Make a commitment to keep checking in together and acting from a sense of the new vision. Get so clear on it that you can feel it in your skin and call it up at will. Use it as a place to come back to and touch base. Ask: does the behavior you're engaging in align with the vision you and your body now share of what you'd like? What would your body say?

When you really get that your communication with your body matters, you embrace both the positive and negative influence you're capable of having. What would you like your body to know about what you most want? How can you, by communicating that vision, go from stuck to transformed?

Try it. In the process, you just might find yourself changing the 'stuck' feelings about your body you didn't even know you had!