I have struggled with compulsive eating since I was a child.
I came from a loving, demonstrative Italian-American family who had the best of intentions, but ended up sending me extremely confusing messages around food and my self-worth. In a nutshell, those messages were: “Eat! Eat! Clear your plate!” and then, “Oh my God, you’re too fat! You’re never going to attract a man looking like that!”
Needless to say, I learned to define myself from these messages and went on to have several bouts of yo-yo dieting, compulsive eating and obsessive exercising. In my late 20s, I lost 60 pounds from doing Weight Watchers. I became a runner and completed a marathon. I can remember feeling like I had finally made it and was free of this bad, fat self once and for all, but when I completed the marathon, I was still left with the feeling of not being good enough.
After all of that, I was still not happy at the core.
However, it took me a long time to truly admit this to myself and I went on to have many more bouts with gaining and losing my weight, and eventually starved myself in my late 30s. This time, it was under the guise of spiritual growth and development. I remember telling myself that I was exploring beyond the belief of what my hunger level really was, but deep down the”once I get thin I will finally be good enough” mentality was still running me.
Starving myself was my last attempt. When I arrived at my ideal weight, I had never been so unhappy in my life. No matter how many pairs of size six jeans I bought—and looked really good in—I was still left with this void in my heart. I felt a lot of despair knowing that no matter what size I was, I just didn’t feel good enough.
Three years later, my daughter was born. It was her birth that radically shifted my experience of self-worth and helped me to fully remember the truth of who I am. My love for her was so profound, unconditional and life-affirming. It was obvious in that moment that there was no possible way that I was going to pass down this profound suffering around self-worth, negative body image and the unhealthy relationship with food that I had. I didn’t care what would happen to me—if I had to remain overweight for the rest of my life, I would. I just knew that there was no way I would feed her the same misguided information that had been passed down to me.
I spent the next several years after her birth in a deep spiritual inquiry. I saw all the places where my self-worth was caught up around my body and being thin or fat. Knowing that my true identity was love wasn’t enough to free me from this conditioning. No. I had to get up close and personal with myself and be honest with where my heart had shut down because of the pain.
I had to look at my actions, no matter how ugly it got.
I can remember having thoughts about my little girl’s body once she started growing, wondering if she looked fat in certain clothes and feeling happy when the pediatrician would tell me she was in the tenth percentile for her weight. The first feeling that arose when I had these thoughts was shame. But I didn’t turn away. I couldn’t turn away. My love for this little being was so strong that it gave me the courage to feel into the pain of this belief. I was brought to a vivid memory of when I was a little girl and my grandmother was shaking her head in shame and disgust over how fat my thighs were. It was horrifying! As the tears poured down, I could feel the center of the belief, where it came from and how it was ending with me.
This brought about so much compassion for myself, my grandmother and all women on the planet who are suffering from this distorted belief around what beauty is.
I experienced countless moments like the one I described above and continued to say yes to these painful feelings. The more I stayed present throughout this process, the more I felt healed in the deepest sense. This freed up a lot in me, and I was naturally moved to want to lose my pregnancy weight and start exercising again.
I can remember telling a friend of mine that, for the first time in my life, I trusted the place this desire was coming from. I wasn’t being motivated by the feeling of not being worthy enough. I just wanted to love myself the way I loved my daughter and I wanted my every action to reflect this love.
My body was overweight, and its shape had also changed after pregnancy. When I would look in the mirror, the first feelings that would come up were disgust and shame I felt consumed by self-hatred, but as I breathed deeply and stayed with the uncomfortable feelings, I was able to see my essence looking back at me every time. And even though it was the same body in the mirror, I felt beautiful. The body that appeared before me was strong, radiant, curvy and brave. I wanted to nourish it, adore it and feed it foods that made it thrive. I wanted to move and feel alive in it—it was my birthright to experience joy in this body no matter what size it was! I still cry when I feel all the times I denied myself this freedom—like not letting myself go swimming (one of my favorite things to do!) because I was too ashamed and embarrassed by this body.
Over the next several years, I began eating and exercising with mindful awareness. I had been practicing this prior to my daughter’s birth, but from a place of wanting to “fix” myself. This time was different, because I knew myself on a deeper level—I wasn’t trying to lose weight in order to become happy. I was already happy in the deepest sense. This time it truly was about the exploration and adventure into figuring out what felt good in my body. Answering that question was fundamental to my process, and continues to be.
Just to give you an example of how this looked for me, I was constantly aware of my actions and inspecting how they made me feel. So if I binge ate, I would witness it consciously, feel into what was happening for me and ask myself, does this feel good in my body? Getting honest with myself in this way naturally gave me great pause before going full force into a binge, and I can honestly say that, at this point in my life, I’m less inclined to binge eat because it just doesn’t feel good in my body and I don’t like feeling sick. The same is true for when I would be on a juice cleanse. I can remember doing a cleanse one winter and my body just didn’t want to do it. I felt weak and cold. I listened and stopped the cleanse. I never in a million years would have done that before.
I also experienced this around exercising. About two years ago, I took up power walking again and bought a Fitbit. I would walk 15,000-20,000 steps a day. In addition to taking a 40-50 minute walk for exercise, I would walk and move my body any time I had the chance—like walking my dog a little extra every day, parking far away from the grocery store and walking the grocery cart back to the store instead of leaving it in the parking lot. Another thing I began to add in was dancing every night with my little girl and husband. This was not only a great way to get steps in, move my body, and feel alive, but it was an excellent way of connecting with my husband and daughter. It felt great to be active again, but at some point I cut back to around 10,000 steps a day…and that was perfectly okay. In the past I would have just stopped completely because of the all-or-nothing kind of attitude I had around food and exercise.
Three key things that have helped me the most with breaking free from an all-or-nothing way of thinking:
>> Reminding myself that there was always a clean slate available, and that just because I had a bad day, week(s), or even hour, this was actually part of the process and needed to be fully seen and allowed in order to embrace real change and find balance.
>> Remembering the good stuff I was doing for myself that had actually become natural to me. So even if I indulged at happy hour and had ate too much cheese or drank one too many glasses of wine, I would remind myself that I had also eaten greens that day and enjoyed my yoga practice. I would forgive myself and move on.
>> Part of letting go of the same old all-or-nothing thinking learning to trust my body and give it a break if I was too tired. Even if I only accomplished half of my walking goal one day, it was still enjoyable, got me moving and it mattered. Sometimes even walking around the block is enough to keep my good habits and healthy thinking intact.
What has essentially worked for me is trusting in my process, no matter where it takes me. This continues to bring balance in all areas of my life. My weight loss has been slow, but it’s real. I’ve lost over 40 pounds in the last four years and have kept it off.
While I may have been thinner at other times in my life, I’ve never been happier. I have fallen in love with the whole process of my journey and have truly learned to appreciate myself exactly as I am. What this means for me is that, while I genuinely enjoy eating an organic, mostly plant-based diet these days, I still like having pizza with my husband and little girl once in a while. Or, if I have PMS, I won’t hesitate to have some chocolate chip cookies or a few glasses of red wine just because it hits the spot—and I trust myself to know when I’ve had enough.
I always like to remind others that it’s not about arriving at some kind of finish line and achieving perfection one day. It’s about letting go of the outcome and being here right now, keeping your finger on the pulse and showing up for it all.
It’s about being honest with yourself and having the courage to face painful feelings and taking refuge in the innocence of your being.
It’s about enjoying your food and moving your body because you’re alive, and it simply feels good!
Always remember: there is nothing you have to do to earn the right to be worthy. No matter what size you are, your essence is more than enough—it is pure light and love right now and always. You might want to lose weight and improve your eating habits, but this has nothing to do with your essential nature.
The more you honor yourself for who you really are, the more you will reclaim a sense of balance, joy and harmony with food, exercise and in all areas of your life.
Author: Jennifer Byrd Rubacky
Image: Author’s Own
Apprentice Editor: Lois Person/Editor: Emily Bartran