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A friend of mine recently sent me a text about the connection between eating disordered behaviors and the lack of giving or receiving love. It got the wheels in my head turning and I had too much to say to respond via text. I decided instead to send an email with my thoughts. After re-reading my response, I decided to share a more fleshed-out version with the rest of you as it’s a topic that could be good for all of us to consider…

Heart“American psychologist Abraham Maslow created a hierarchy of needs based on his understanding of what motivates people. He postulated that when needs go unmet, the desire grows. Motivation then increases as the person aims to get the needs met.

Within the category of social needs, Maslow places love. When we don’t experience love, we long for it. We want to know we’re the apple of someone’s eye; to know that we’re cared for unconditionally. Without this, we can convince ourselves we’re not worthy of ever being loved and therefore hold love back from others.

This is where an eating disorder (ED) can enter the picture. Those with EDs may aim to get needs met through the behaviors they use. EDs are often about what the person is not saying…rather, they act out thoughts and feelings via restricting, binging, purging, overexercising, etc. What others, and sometimes those themselves with eating disorders, can’t see is that they may be crying out. They may be trying to say, ‘Love me! I need you to love me. I need you to understand me.’ And they can become broken when others are not able to do this. Enter in more ED behaviors and self-defeating cognitions.

Love is complex, but it’s something we all want/need; even when we can’t or don’t admit that. We can convince ourselves we don’t need love (or belonging, or community, or security, or…), but as Maslow explains, that’s not necessarily true. We’re motivated by such a need. It’s not a matter of ‘Eh, that’s not something I’m really interested in.’ We NEED love.

Because people in our lives are just that – PEOPLE — sometimes they don’t have the ability to love us in a way that makes sense to us. They may not even be aware that their own life story has contributed to this. What we find, however, is that we can look at those people and assume they know and are holding love back purposely. We can assume that people are doing things on purpose and we’re asking ‘What is wrong with this person?’ But the bottom line is that sometimes, many times, people aren’t aware of how their actions are influencing others, nor are they always aware that others aren’t necessarily doing something wrong, but it’s perceived as such based on their own thoughts and feelings. It then FEELS wrong.

It makes a lot of sense that the lack of love contributes to the development and maintenance of an ED. The disorder can then become the thing turned to for the things that are lacking. Somehow the ED will give what is needed. This is a complexity of ED. It becomes an identity; a security blanket that wraps itself so tightly around those who have found it.

Love is something everyone needs and when that feels like it’s not there, it can be as detrimental as not having shelter, drink, sleep. At the same time, however, we can’t be so quick to assume we’re not loved at all…”

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Last week I read an article on things to let go of before the New Year begins. I was so moved that I immediately printed out several copies to share with clients I was seeing December 30th; as the article, in a sense, summed up many of the things I encourage my clients, as well as myself, to do on a regular basis. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to “let go”, and that for many of us the first thing we can ask when we hear those words is “how?”

IMAG0680Simply put, letting go means no longer allowing things to impact us. I don’t believe there is a quick way for any of us to let go of things that are holding us back or creating uncomfortable emotions in our lives. In fact, it can be quite complex; which is why for many who seek counseling, the process isn’t over within a few sessions. I do believe, however, that the first steps in letting go are being able to acknowledge and accept that there is something affecting us in a way that is unpleasant.

To acknowledge and accept is to recognize and then to believe something as valid. In session, I often explain this concept using the example of my water bottle sitting on the table, stating “The water bottle is on the table. That’s it. It just is. We know this because we can see it sitting there.” However, if we enter into a judging or emotional mindset we can begin to create questions about the water bottle and our relationship to it, such as “It’s still completely full so I obviously have not drank enough water today. I’m so mad at myself.” In doing this, we’ve shifted from acceptance to judgment, and may then find ourselves in a place of blame or self-sabotage.

Acceptance isn’t an easy task, but it’s possible. One reason is because we can take a look at the evidence around us that suggests something is true, and then convince ourselves that it’s false or not completely true by putting judgment and emotion into the picture as stated above. Or we can judge ourselves based on what we see before us. This is where we can fall apart in our daily lives; we’ve created something that may not actually be there, and is based on perception and feeling, rather than on evidence and truth.

Another important aspect to mention with regard to acceptance is that it does NOT mean we like something or are even okay with something. I can’t stress this enough. If we’re struggling with an eating disorder, for instance, we may not like that we have an eating disorder, but we can accept that we do based on the evidence that supports this as true. It’s only after we’re able to accept, that we can then determine if we need/want to make changes in our lives. For example, “I have an eating disorder (acceptance). The eating disorder is creating problems in my life (acceptance again).” We can then dissect this further to determine what those problems are, and what we want to do to change/improve them.

This is important in order to begin letting go. To let go we must first acknowledge and accept that something is affecting us in a way that’s unhelpful, and make a choice to not allow it to affect us further. We make changes in our thinking, feeling, and behaviors. If we don’t want to continue being affected by something, we must accept it, and choose not to dwell on it continually or use it to manipulate ourselves. We can allow thoughts to slide through our minds (like an egg in a Teflon pan) and not grab hold of them. Another way is by acknowledging ineffective thoughts and learning to respond differently/talk back to them (notice that in this response there is also a healthy choice being made):

Ineffective thought: “You must lose more weight.”

Response: “I have an eating disorder. I no longer want to be controlled by it and am choosing health over sickness.”

It’s at this point we find ourselves more able to let go…

If we live our lives in denial or continually allow things of the past to control our lives, we can lose so much of our today. In starting this New Year, may we each learn to accept and let go of the things that are proving to impact us negatively and are causing us to be less than we were created to be.

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candleThe hustle and bustle of the holiday season is here and many of us will soon finish our shopping, attend seasonal events, or visit with family and friends before awaking Christmas morning, sitting around the tree in pajamas, sipping coffee and enjoying the blessings we have received.

But for some, this time of the year is more difficult than enjoyable. It may be a time when we remember a loved one who is no longer with us or we struggle to be around the various foods that will be before us. It could be a time when we realize how last year’s Christmas was bigger and better because we recently lost a job and could barely afford to purchase more than a candy cane for someone’s stocking. Or perhaps just being around family is awkward or stressful. Whatever the reason, the holidays can be challenging.

So what can we do to help ourselves get through a time of year intended to be merry and joyful? I’ve compiled some suggestions based on a mix of my personal experience, as well as my knowledge as a counselor. However, I realize that not everyone can find the peace they are seeking this holiday. To help, I encourage all of us to:

1. Stay in the present moment and try not to dwell on what has happened in the previous days/years. This helps us to not miss out on the experiences that are right before us; the memories that are creating themselves today.

2. Focus on the positive aspects of your life. Even when we can’t or don’t want to see them, we all have positives in our lives and this is a great time of year to remind ourselves of the things that have helped us feel good throughout the past 12 months.

3. Call a family member who lives far away and is unable to directly share the holidays with you. Calling my aunts, uncles, cousins or grandmother who all live in Rhode Island gives me a feeling of warmth and love. The phone call may be short, but it reminds me that there are many more people in this world who care about me and about whom I care.

4. Reach out to someone who may not have anyone at all. Perhaps you can stop by a local nursing home and provide Christmas cheer to a man or woman who is lonely or buy a cup of coffee or a muffin for a homeless person you see on the street everyday on your way to the office. Evidence shows that helping others can increase/renew our sense of purpose and feeling of hope.

5. Laugh. Laughter truly is one of the greatest medicines and the best part is that it’s FREE!!! Who doesn’t enjoy a good chuckle now and then? If you’re alone this holiday, there are many websites that have funny videos posted, so why not Google such videos and give yourself a chance to laugh out loud.

6. Practice deep breathing. This is probably the number one skill I teach to my clients, no matter what their age, because it works. When we’re experiencing tough emotions, such as anxiety, taking deep breaths in through our nose and out through our mouth, slowly, can produce a calming effect and is actually proven to slow the heart rate.

7. Listen to your favorite music, even if it’s not holiday related. Music, like laughter, is shown to help increase mood. When you start to stress or the noise of all the kids in your family starts to bring up negative emotions for you, pop in your earbuds and turn on your MP3 player. If you don’t have a MP3 player, head to a quiet part of the house, turn on a TV or a radio and allow yourself to relax.

8. Give yourself grace and know that it WILL be Okay. I’m thinking specifically of those who struggle with food concerns and how much anxiety can be present for those individuals during this time of year. Know that it’s normal and okay to take part in holiday meals and that if we pace ourselves, while practicing some of the above skills, we will get through.

9. Watch a holiday movie. Whenever I see that “Elf” is playing on TV, I instantly feel better. Ironically, the first time I saw this movie I was in a very difficult place in my life. However, it’s a movie that is hilarious and brings to me positive, happy feelings and truly gets me into the spirit of the holiday. There are others that are just as good, such as the old Charlie Brown movies. Whatever you choose, let yourself enjoy it!

10. Pray or talk about your feelings with someone you trust. Coping with the challenges of the season is in no way easy and I’m a believer in prayer and in talking about what’s going on. In those moments when I truly don’t know what to do, I bow my head and say, “God, I need you. Give me strength to get through.” I’ll also quote Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God,” which reminds me that I don’t have to know all of the answers to why things are the way they are and I don’t have to figure it all out on my own. He is there to guide me and to provide that which I cannot provide myself. On another note, if you are having trouble handling a family member, go to that person and gently express your concerns. I use a structure that I also teach my clients: “When you (fill in the blank), I feel (fill in the blank) because (fill in the blank). I need (fill in the blank).” An example? “When you crack jokes about me being unemployed, I feel angry because I worked very hard. I need support and compassion as I try to find another job.” Make sense?

Some additional things we can do to improve our holiday experiences include cooking, baking, crafting, playing in the snow, taking winter/holiday photos.  Maybe you’ll be able to practice at least one of the above and certainly feel free to let me know how you did.

With that I’ll say, try to have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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