Sarahjoy Marsh knows what it’s like to use food to cope and how to beat it.
The Pendulum of Desire and Discipline
For those of us who have struggled with disordered eating, we’ve known the turbulent swings of out-of-control desire and discipline. We’ve been driven by desires, fought against and hated our desires, and punished ourselves for giving in to our desires. On this pendulum, when our food issues swing painfully out of control we desperately seek strategies to “get ourselves under control.” Discipline becomes punitive and steeped in self-loathing. At times it seems that to give our discipline enough momentum, we rev up the insanity, so that we are essentially at our very worst, “hitting bottom” as it’s sometimes called, before we can “take the swing” to the other side. Swinging back and forth between longing and coping, between unhealthy desire and unhealthy discipline, will not lead to recovery. It painfully entrenches us further and profoundly limits us from experiencing lasting freedom.
If you’re reading this book, you’ve probably lived this pendulum. On one side, the pendulum swings toward compulsive, painful behaviors, robotically, even feverishly pulling us along a trajectory we’ve come to know all too well. On the other side, the pendulum swings toward our desperation for this to end. By increasing the punishing deprivation or atonement strategies, we hope for relief. When we’re frenzied enough by this cycle, some part of us comes to deeply believe that it generates our conviction for recovery. We might even tell ourselves, “The more desperate I become, the greater my conviction will be.” Tragically, this swinging pendulum only serves to perpetuate the cycle.
Yoga’s path holds that recovery is possible when we loosen our grip on this pendulum. To do this, we must understand the underlying tensions of our relationship to both desire and discipline, and we must create new relationships to both.
Disordered eating causes us to struggle with confusing, painful, and conflicting desires. For example, we may desire nourishing companionship but turn to ice cream for solace instead. We may desire purposeful work, but turn to bingeing for self-soothing, even though it leaves us numb. We may desire radiant health and vitality but compulsively seek control through rigorous self-denying diet rituals. Our desires for nourishing companionship, purposeful work, and radiant health, to name a few, are not bad, nor are they problematic. Even more critical to know: these desires are not unrealistic. In fact, these are the intelligent desires of our life force. This life force is the vitality that wants you to thrive, to be vibrantly healthy, so that the life that is best meant to come through you can. Much like the force that enables birds to take flight and gladiolas to bloom, this life force has a unique expression through each of us. Underlying this life force are the intelligent desires that prompt you to come to life.
The predicament is that ice cream, bingeing, and rigid diet rituals, though painful, provide just enough relief, and quickly enough, that our deeper desires get supplanted. We divert ourselves, again and again, with things that have historically provided more immediate solace. Turning to food has made sense because it’s readily available, it produces biochemical responses of satiation and reduction in anxiety, and we know how to do it. However, by repeating these behaviors, we have essentially programmed our minds and bodies to be able to robotically initiate and complete our food, diet, and exercise rituals. And when the behavior is practiced enough, even the thought of the ice cream solace that we will reward ourselves with at the end of a difficult day is enough to provide immediate relief to our brain and body. Similarly, the thought of tomorrow’s workout to burn off the calories of a compulsive indulgence provides just enough permission and fleeting sense of control that we feel we’ve strategically, and safely, bargained for the binge (and arranged for it to have as little impact or lasting evidence as possible).
Our robotic, immediate-relief strategies, in action and in thought, soothe us in dangerous ways. In addition to greatly reducing our ability to tolerate discomfort, these strategies also flatten our desire “landscape.” Our conflicting desires become merged with each other in our mind. How did this merging occur?
The Merging of Desires
Our brains take time to develop. In early life, we cry because we are hungry, cold, wet, tired, overwhelmed, or lonely. We aren’t able to discern these experiences as the source of our impetus to cry. (Sometimes our crying baffles the adults around us, too, as they try food, diaper changes, naps, and playful attention to soothe us.) Similarly, when our brains are in early development, we may register a feeling of hunger, but underneath we’re lonely and don’t know how to identify it. Slowly, through experimenting and experiencing, we learn to identify needs and satisfy them naturally.
Those of us with disordered eating patterns had this natural process interrupted. We came to believe that our physical signals were bad or wrong, that our base desires were problematic or overwhelming (first to others, but then internalized as overwhelming to us, too), or that something about our desire was dangerous and could not be trusted (if our innocent expression of desire or need, for example, overwhelmed a parent’s parenting ability, or became cause for them to feel frustration to the point of shaming or harming us). Quite likely, we were raised in an environment in which we didn’t learn how to tend to our body’s unique way of signaling these needs and desires, as well as our body’s unique way of announcing its satiation of these needs and desires. We came to internalize messages from our environment, took cues from grown-ups, and experimented to find out what we could safely feel and what we ought not to feel.
Because this occurred at a time when our brains were tremendously malleable and subject to the kind of shaping that becomes reflexive, it’s not surprising that we bring certain behaviors forward with us as we mature into adulthood. Although we’re twenty or more years older, we still instinctively turn to certain foods for solace. We’ve grown up and become more capable of complex thinking, but our earliest self-soothing strategies, because they were successful in providing relief (albeit short-term) and went unchallenged, remained intact. This can be quite confounding to our now more grown-up intelligence! We see ourselves moving through the robotic pattern of our food, diet, or exercise rituals and know we should not be doing it or wonder why we are compulsively doing the very things that exhaust us or drive us to anxiety and depression.
Because we have come to label our compulsive behaviors as “bad,” unearthing what our deeper desires might be gets lost in a sea of badness as we, without even identifying those underlying desires, lump them into badness itself. After all, it is those desires that produce this bad behavior, isn’t it? To the part of our brain that has not advanced with our biology, this thinking makes sense. And so we merge the badness that we feel about these painful rituals with “by association” badness toward our deeper desires, the very ones that represent the intelligence of life trying to pull us forward from suffering to vibrancy.
Another painful and unforeseen outcome of our reliance on these self-soothing strategies is that we’ve greatly reduced our ability to tolerate discomfort. We’ve programmed ourselves to need immediate relief. We have not had to learn how to withstand the discomfort of our desire for nourishing companionship, for example, nor how to tolerate our loneliness. We have not learned how to tolerate the inner conflict between our deep desire for radiant health and the overwhelming messages of self-hatred and never-good-enough that keep us detached from the innate loveliness, and lovability, of our own bodies. Unknowingly, our robotic, immediate-relief techniques have prevented us from having the opportunity to grow in these ways. In our repetitive reliance on immediate relief, our ability to leverage our discomfort for learning and discovery has become profoundly atrophied. The good news is that, like the muscles of the physical body, the practices of yoga also develop and strengthen the suppleness of our life muscles for self-awareness and for tolerating discomfort.
Recovery will require us to practice getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable in all areas of life. Truly, life requires it. So you might remind yourself that every step you take in recovery is also a significant investment in your life as a whole. Your 360-degree life will require that you get comfortable feeling uncomfortable, in both unpleasant and pleasant experiences. It may surprise you to know that many people struggle with the discomfort of feeling extraordinarily good, radiant, or content. Simply said, they don’t know what to do with themselves.
At times, in recovery, it is feeling tremendous that may become the trigger for painful behaviors. Therefore, we use the skill of getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable (GCFU) in all stages of recovery and to prepare ourselves for what life feels like when we aren’t in constant pain.
We do this using one of the essential life skills discussed in chapter 3, getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable (GCFU).
Getting Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable: Just for This Moment
Giving yourself permission to truly feel what you feel, to experience what you experience, can cause you to feel uncomfortable. If having permission to feel what you feel wasn’t offered to you in earlier life, giving yourself this permission now can feel unsettling, like you are breaking a rule or about to get into trouble. If you resist feeling what you are feeling because you are afraid it will last forever and be too painful, know that you are not alone, and that this is a sign that this fear has been trying to protect you from feeling for a long time. Discovering that feelings and experiences are occurring just for this moment helps make opening up to feelings safer and more manageable. Going to the thoughts of “forever” and “too much” are requests from your brain and body to move more incrementally when you’re in the realm of bigger feelings.
“Just for this moment” is the process of seeing what is, feeling what is, noticing what is, and acknowledging it as our experience just for this moment. We’re staying current rather than suppressing or denying, both of which result in stored or postponed experiences and feelings. When we bring our attention to and actually experience body sensations, acknowledging that this is indeed what’s occurring, just for this moment, we begin to get comfortable feeling.
Just for This Moment (GCFU)
Let yourself become still and quiet. Relax your face, your jaw, and your breathing. Become aware of the temperature in the room and any peripheral noises. Then bring your attention to a body signal, something tangible and evident in this moment. When you’re ready, spend a minute on each of these:
• I’m feeling [this body signal (achy muscle, droopy eyes, thirst)]. I accept that this is a sensation, a signal, a symptom my body is producing — for this moment.
• Just for this moment, I do not need to override my body signal. What I am experiencing is legitimate, changeable, and temporary.
• Just for this moment, I do not need to alter my experience. This body signal is a valid expression of the human body, my body.
• Just for this moment, I do not need to dismiss my experience. All on its own, this body signal will continue to change.
• Just for this moment, I do not need to suppress what I feel. I can courageously admit, without any shame or guilt, that this is what I am experiencing right now.
All of our body signals — in fact, all of our mind-psyche-emotion signals — are expressions of the complexity of what it means to be human. We have experiences that impact us. We accumulate our experiences in our body, in our mind, in our emotions. An expression, at any one moment, is both a vital reflection of who we are, including the influences of the culture we live in and the experiences we’ve had, and an ever-changing, nuanced, fleeting expression. A muscle ache may be the result of mental tension, poor food choices, or a new or more strenuous activity (to name a few things). It is the vital expression of the whole. A muscle ache also has subtle fluctuations within it. Observing the fluctuating nature of sensation reminds us that this is what is happening just for this moment.
As we learn to observe how body signals and mental broadcasts influence each other, such as when a thought of anger toward the body for having a muscle ache increases tension in the body, we will gradually come into awareness of how we generate a mental train of reaction to get away from, resist, avoid, medicate, or manipulate our experience. This is where we’ll greatly benefit from the skill of getting in the GAP to help us navigate a nonreactive relationship to what is occurring.
Photo Credit: Catherine/flickr
Sarahjoy Marsh is a yoga therapist and educator, with a master’s in counseling. In her new book, Hunger, Hope & Healing, (Shambhala Publications), she fuses yoga with psychology, neuroscience, breathing interventions, and mindfulness techniques, to bring readers with eating disorders, food addiction and body image issues a practical and accessible guide to recovery.