Parker Palmer's A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward the Undivided Life begins with this story: "There was a time when farmers on the Great Plains, at the first sign of a blizzard, would run a rope from the back door out to the barn. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards". I worry that in a culture that constantly encourages us to do more, be more, and have more that we sometimes wander out into our own metaphorical backyards, chasing the things we think we need to be happy, or mindlessly moving with the wind, and lose sight of our way home, back to people and things that give us life. I am in the midst of my own reckoning. I am learning to let go of what it is I am "supposed to be", putting down the broken mirrors all around me that are giving me a distorted view of myself and my life, and trying to find my own way. I am slowly finding my way back in from the blizzard, from the do more/be more/have more hustle, and I am laying a rope for the times I will inevitably find myself out in the chaos. I hope you'll join me.
I have lived a significant portion of my life operating in "defense mode". In sports, the offense's objective is to score as many points as possible while the defense's job is to keep the other team from scoring. To do their job effectively, the defense has to always be vigilant, watching the other team like a hawk, anticipating where the opponent might try to deceive them or over-power them to score points. That's fine in a football game, but it's not the best way to approach life.
Operating from the defense comes from a place of fear- trying to prevent bad things from happening. In my own life, I have put up unnecessary boundaries in an effort to guard against potential threats. I have kept a vigilant watch for pitfalls. I have often expected the worst to happen and lived accordingly. In many ways, this approach is a coping mechanism. If I expect the worst and then it happens, I am not surprised or caught off-guard, I am prepared. The problem is, we attract and notice the things we invest our energy and thoughts in. If we expect bad things to happen, if we are constantly waiting for others to let us down or hurt us, then guess what we will most often notice? Even tiny missteps may feel like a huge deal because we may see them as a sign of the inevitable horrible ending coming our way. And we are far less likely to participate in or notice all the wonderful things happening because we are so caught up in preparing for, avoiding, and expecting the worst.
Why bother to challenge yourself in this area of your life? When you can move from the defense to the offense, you begin to operate from a place of hope and gratitude. You are more likely to take risks and build deeper relationships. You will feel happier and more successful because you are more readily able to see the good in life. You will not let tough moments define or defeat you because you know that those moments are temporary.
So how do we overcome this defensive approach, especially for those of us who seem to have defensiveness as our "default setting"?
The first step is to recognize when you are operating defensively. This may be the hardest part, learning to recognize when it's happening. My advice is any time you are feeling resistant, hesitant, or concerned, check in with yourself to see if those thoughts and feelings are valid or if you are projecting the "what ifs" onto your life. Ask yourself, what am I afraid of? Fear, the emotion at the heart of a defensive approach to life, is not always a bad thing. In fact, fear is an important emotion for keeping us safe. It becomes a problem when we allow it to run our life and keep us from all the good around us. For example, I don't really want to be in a car accident (who does?) so I drive with caution and that's a good thing because it keeps me safe. But what if I decided that I would just never drive or ride in a car ever again to avoid being in a wreck? That's not healthy and it would really limit where I was able to go and what I was able to do. Yet, so often that's exactly what we do in life. We completely avoid, or worse, we sabotage things that could result in hurt or failure, cutting ourselves off from the amazing world waiting right outside our little comfort zone.
Once you are able to recognize your defensive stance, you must figure out why you are acting this way. All behavior serves a purpose and living in defense mode serves you in some way or you wouldn't be doing it. Get to the heart of that reason and then reframe it. For me, living defensively is about past hurts and guarding myself from getting hurt again. But you know what? Getting hurt is a part of life and no matter how much I prepare or avoid, I am going to get hurt sometimes. That's part of being human. The good news is, every painful thing I've encountered, I've been able to overcome. Humans are crazy resilient. So I can either learn to drop my over-the-top defensives and experience all the wonderful things life has to offer, and still get hurt sometimes...or, I can remain defensive, miss out on some great opportunities and relationships and yet...still get hurt. Hmmm, that doesn't seem like a tough choice.
I know I've missed out on some really meaningful relationships, wonderful opportunities, and happiness because I expected to fail or get hurt and the easier thing was to just not participate at all or stay so closed off that I missed out on the richness of those experiences. I am tired of missing out and I don't want you to miss out either. So, let's keep doing to hard work of confronting these fears so we can live our best and brightest lives.
Maybe it's that I am very quickly approaching 30 years old, maybe it's personal growth, maybe it's that in light of all the other things going on in the world I am completely out of fricks to give...I'm not sure, but I what I am sure about is that I am really really really over hating my body. You may not know this about me, but like so many other women, I am a recovering disordered eater. In my late teen years, I developed anorexia that later turned into binge eating disorder. It has been a long hard slog of owning my truth, being really frustrated with myself, and learning new healthy ways to navigate the world but I am learning that despite the shame I have felt my body over the years, there are also a lot of things about my body that I should be really proud of and grateful for.
The first time I can consciously remember hating my body was just after a sexual assault that happened in my teen years. I was angry that my body could invite something so awful, devastated by the idea that my body was somehow not my own. I had always been a chubby girl and this experience made me want nothing to do with the thick hips and curves that made me seem so much older than I was. In the midst of feeling so emotionally out of control, I took control of the one thing I thought I could- food. It started as an effort to get a stronger body- a body that could fight, a body that could run, a body that was better equipped to defend itself. I started counting calories and running. The weight dripped off of me, slowly at first and then like an avalanche, but it was never enough. No matter how far I got or how much weight I lost the emotions I was running from kept catching me. I started exercising more and cutting back more, distracting myself from the demons I wasn't ready to face, and before I knew it I had developed full blown anorexia. I was chewing up food and spitting it out to avoid weight gain, I was exercising for hours at a time every single day of the week, I was hiding in bathroom stalls waiting for privacy so that I could purge, and I was limiting myself to an absurdly low number of calories each day. When we would go out to eat I would order a side of steamed veggies as my entree. What started as a way for me to gain a sense of control had suddenly become the thing that was controlling me.
I got down into the 120s just before I got married. Even though I was at the lower end of a healthy weight range, perhaps for the first time in my life, I had gotten there in a terribly unhealthy way and far too quickly. When I moved in with my husband I found that hiding my lifestyle and unhealthy habits was hard. I wasn't alone enough to continue purging as often as I wanted and I didn't have the same time in my schedule to continue over-exercising. The weight crept back up and since I couldn't keep running from the bad feelings with my anorexia, I started stuffing them down with binge eating. I ate what I wanted when I wanted and as much of it as I wanted. I ate until I felt okay, and it took a lot of food for me to feel even a little bit okay. I snuck through fast food places for extra meals and disposed of the evidence. I sat at my desk and stuffed my face with as many carbs as I could get my hands on, binging on food that the store I was working at was discarding (yikes). I ate entire family-size boxes of snack foods in one sitting. A few months of this and unsurprisingly I was bigger and weighed more than I ever had in my entire life. I was officially obese.
When we moved away from our hometown and I was no longer living in the same city where the trauma happened, the walls started coming down. I went to therapy. I started running and eating healthy. I got back down to my average weight...the weight I was at before anorexia and later binge eating took over my life. And yet again- it wasn't sustainable. We became parents. The foster care system wrecked me emotionally. Every one of our son's diagnoses wrecked me emotionally. And like most addicts, I turned to the thing that I knew would make me feel good even if it was just for a moment. A few months into this cycle, I ended up going to months of therapy specifically for binge eating because I just couldn't get a handle on it by myself. I was no long too proud to say I was out of control. I remember sitting in my therapist's office blankly staring at her because she asked me to identify my feelings and I couldn't. Literally not a single feeling came to mind. I was just.....empty....numb...disengaged. She handed me a list that had hundreds of feeling words on it and I started weeping because the last ten years had just been sort of grey. Feeling anything meant also feeling the bad things I had been trying to escape for so long and it had never been worth it to me. I had learned to stay numb as a way to stay safe but I also knew that in the numbness I was using to protect myself that I was missing out on some really great feelings too. I also knew that I had a little guy who needed a good example of dealing with big feelings in a healthy way, a way I couldn't show him at that point in my life. So I fought. It was hard and a lot of the time it was awful. There were setbacks and breakdowns and days I wanted to give up. There were days I retreated into the nothingness I had created for myself. I learned my triggers. I learned self-care. I faced big hard scary parts of my story. It has been a long hard journey and it's not over yet. It may never really be over for me and that's okay. I know now that the good beautiful moments are so good and the hard scary moments will pass. I know that no amount of food will make the feelings I'm trying to avoid go away. I know that I can't run forever and that when reality catches up it hits hard. I've learned that in the midst of running and stuffing down that other parts of my life suffer. I've learned that there are people who love me who will stand alongside me for the hard scary parts if I'll let them. I've learned that I am resilient. I've learned that I am enough. I've learned that I am lovable.
I haven't lost the weight that I put on during my last cycle of binging that happened a few years ago and I have had a lot of shame tied up in that. Every fat roll, every piece of clothing tucked in my closet that no longer fits because of the weight I gained, every photo of myself that I hate is a reminder of how easily things can get out of control. It happens so fast and you are in so deep before you even realize it. But in the midst of this season I am also learning to love myself and to love my body. No, I am not where I want to be in terms of my health and physical fitness, but every day is a chance for me to take one step closer to those goals. And you know what else? Despite all of this, there are a lot of things my body is really great at. In just the past 24 hours, I.... ran a couple of miles, carried several days of groceries for a family of three up a flight of stairs, hugged my son, prepared food for the boys who have my heart, made art, moved boxes, swam laps. I loved big and I loved well. I refuse to be ashamed of the vessel that has carried me this far and has brought so much joy and strength to my life. This body has seen some shhh and it keeps getting back up. One day, this body will quit, but today was not that day so I refuse be ashamed of it for one more second.