If you were able to get inside my head and hear the nasty things I said to myself right after a binge, you'd have arrested me for cruel and inhuman treatment. I was brutal. I took "fat shaming" to such heights that in those moments, I obliterated everything I knew that was good about myself and replaced it with feelings of worthlessness and self-pity.
And yet I knew better. The consequences of my binge-eating disorder -- morbid obesity, low self-esteem and poor body image -- should have been punishment enough. But I needed to injure myself twice: once with the food and once with the loathing. A piece of me secretly believed that if I inflicted enough verbal abuse upon myself, it would cause me to stop bingeing.
It never did. It just made things worse. The more I berated myself for compulsive overeating, the more I ate compulsively. I couldn't manipulate myself into healthy eating behaviors any more than my doctor's warnings or my parents' reprimands. Fear of leaving my children motherless was no doubt the greatest hurt of all, but even that threat wasn't enough to stop the behavior.
I have since discovered that when we hate ourselves so much, we're probably not going to get better or change our habits. It's only when we begin to love ourselves and treat our bodies and ourselves with compassion that we even stand a chance.
Here's how I turned a life of blame and shame into a life of love and acceptance:
1) I stopped comparing myself to other people.
I lived with a perpetual scorecard in my head: is she better than me or worse than me? Prettier or uglier? Fatter or thinner? Smarter or stupider? The list was endless. Because I was so competitive, I either had to land on top ("the best"), or I was at the bottom ("everyone's better than me"). I couldn't just be okay, I couldn't just be in the middle. I was more comfortable at the extremes. When I realized that I'm good at some things and not good at others, or that I'm fatter than some and thinner than others, I began to get some perspective that I'm not the best or the worst. I'm just another human being with strengths and weaknesses. It's healthier for my mental health to focus on what I'm good at and what I need to improve than to spend my time looking over my shoulder at everyone else.
2) I made peace with my mistakes.
I was the type that could fixate on my mistakes for months and years. I could even spend decades ruminating about how my life might have been different had I done this and not that, moved here and not there. All this was rather futile as the past was the past and I could learn from my mistakes -- but I couldn't turn the clock back and make a different decision. One day, I realized that I needed to forgive myself for my failures and I needed to be kinder and more compassionate with myself. I came to see that every mistake I made opened a different door for me than the one I expected, and life's surprises actually worked out quite well (so far). So I could keep spinning the wheel, or I could get on with making gold out of straw. An added benefit to accepting my past is that I'm more forgiving of other people and their mistakes. Life has gotten so much richer since I've let go of the regrets.
3) I brought self-care from the bottom of my to-do list to the top.
Self-care isn't optional. For me, it's life and death. If I don't take care of myself because I'm so busy taking care of everyone else, then I get resentful and I pick up the wrong foods. I start rationalizing that it's okay, and pretty quickly my new healthy lifestyle goes out the window and I start eating over every resentment. And, believe me, every item on my to-do list that precedes my own name can turn into a resentment. So I stopped blaming myself and shaming myself for not being "good enough" at saving the world and obliterating poverty, and began with the first step, which is eating well, taking time to de-stress, connecting with my spirituality, slowing down and relaxing for a few minutes a day, and listening to my body. All those other jobs on the list will get done, but if I don't put on my oxygen mask first, I can't help other people with theirs.
4) I stopped battling the very people who were trying to help me.
There were a lot of well-meaning people in my life who only wanted the best for me but every suggestion they gave made me feel defiant and angry. I wanted to do things my way and if it led down the path of self-destruction, so be it. This was particularly true with weight loss. Wonderful nutritionists, personal trainers, endocrinologists, and of course -- friends and family -- all had excellent tips for calorie counting, portion control, exercise and grocery shopping. I would have none of it. Loving and helpful people became the "enemy" and my job was to sneak around and figure out how to do things on the sly. What I came to find out was that all my subversive techniques were hurting me and while I was deriving great satisfaction out of eluding their suggestions, I was getting fatter and fatter. One day, I just decided to listen instead of fight, and I realized that I wanted to be healthy. Why would I bite the hand that was feeding me? Now I come from a place of "want to," not "have to."
5) I accepted my vulnerability and realized I wasn't going to be perfect.
Once I committed to a food plan or an exercise program, I would get very enthusiastic at the beginning and jump in with both feet. Then I would fizzle and feel like a failure. Now, I just take things one day at a time. I don't project out months like I used to: "If I stick to this diet, I can lose two to three pounds a week, and then by June, I'll be thin." It never worked that way, anyway, so why would I set myself up for failure? I have much better success making behavioral changes in my life if I don't over-endow them with importance and make them all or nothing. When I do that and I slip, I go all the way down the rabbit hole and start abusing myself and calling myself names all over again. Instead, I approach each meal one at a time, each buffet one at a time, and on those days when I make "less good" choices, I ask myself how I could have done better. Then I turn myself just one degree in the direction of a better choice; not great big declarations, just small baby steps back to a healthier lifestyle.
This is compassion, which I've always had for everyone else, and now I can say I have it toward myself. With self-compassion, I want to be healthy, I want to make good choices, and I want to honor how far I've come. With shame, I wanted to be self-destructive, I wanted to make bad choices, and I wanted to blame it all on other people.
Which fork in the road would you take?