I see you over there, avoiding playdates, avoiding Facebook (or staying up late reading Facebook like a punishment, because you think you deserve to feel bad about yourself). I see you at the grocery store with the tantruming 3-year old, trying not to cry or scream or completely lose it yourself. I see you at the high school, hurrying by to meet with the guidance counselor yet again. I know that you dread family gatherings where people will give you advice you didn’t ask for and don’t need.
I know your baby’s birth didn’t go the way you hoped and you think it’s your fault.
I know your child will only eat buttered noodles (straight, not curly) and you think it’s your fault.
I know the teacher keeps calling you for conferences and you think it’s your fault.
I know your teenager is depressed and you think it’s your fault.
You know what? It’s not your fault.
I don’t want you to beat up on yourself anymore.
So much of this parenting thing is out of control, which is one of the scariest things ever. That’s why we give ourselves (and each other) such a hard time over it. It feels safer to say, “This is a direct result of that!” instead of acknowledging that in so many ways kids are exactly who they are no matter what we try to do about it.
One of us follows the book to a T and our 6-month old sleeps through the night. One of us follow that same book the same way and yet we’re going on a year without more than two unbroken hours of sleep a night.
I’ve got a secret for you. Are you ready? This insight comes from decades of working with other people’s kids and reading about child development and having my own kids. It’s hard won wisdom and I’m going to share it with you:
Some children really are easier than others.
Some go to sleep more easily and eat a wider variety of foods. Some handle their emotions better. Some are naturally neat and clean and sweet and even-tempered.
Some parents just get lucky.
Then there’s this other thing, which is that life happens. Bad things happen and hard things happen and sad things happen and parents lose their way sometimes. We all lose our way sometimes.
There’s not a parent alive who hasn’t made mistakes but that’s not the same thing as being a bad mom. Making mistakes doesn’t mean that this is all your fault. Making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job.
You know the best way to handle mistakes? Try again. Get help if you need it and try again. Try it differently. Try it with more support. Try it with better information or better friends or better tools. And you know what’ll be great about that? Your kids will learn that mistakes are inevitable but we can do something about it. They’ll learn that taking responsibility is not the same thing as succumbing to blame and shame.
When we can do that, that’s called resiliency. Really when it comes right down to it the best thing we can do for any of our kids is teach them how to be resilient, teach them to survive the hard stuff, even when the hard stuff is us.
I recently joined the Association for Size Diversity and Health. It’s an organization made up of activists, educators, researchers and support people of all stripes who promote Health At Every Size® (HAES).
I first learned about HAES a zillion years ago on the internet but didn’t do much more than glance at it. Then when I wrote Weighing Down Our Children I got the chance to speak with Linda Bacon, who literally wrote the book on the topic and has been instrumental in its promotion to a wider audience.
What I finally understood in researching and writing the article is that to truly promote both physical and mental health, we need to unpack it from our ideas about body size. The principles of HAES are these (this is from the web site):
- Weight Inclusivity: Accept and respect the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and reject the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights.
- Health Enhancement: Support health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services, and personal practices that improve human well-being, including attention to individual physical, economic, social, spiritual, emotional, and other needs.
- Respectful Care: Acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, weight stigma, and weight bias. Provide information and services from an understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other identities impact weight stigma, and support environments that address these inequities.
- Eating for Well-being: Promote flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control.
- Life-Enhancing Movement: Support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.
What this means in practice (literally in my practice as a therapist) is:
- I will not assume anything about your mental health because of the size and/or shape of your body (and let me tell you, there is a whole lot of body-bias entrenched in our mental health system);
- I will support you in exploring your relationship to your body, to food and to the care & nurturing of yourself and I will help you confront any commonsense wisdom that is anything but wise;
- I will help you find resources (doctors, exercise classes, etc.) that will be welcoming and supportive;
- I will not assume that I know better than you how to feed yourself, move your body or otherwise care for your physical being although I will challenge you if I see you making decisions that impede your journey to self-love and acceptance;
- If you come to me wanting support in “eating clean” or going to Weight Watchers or otherwise wanting to lose weight, (which as you can see, is not part of the HAES approach) then I will support you as you make your own choices, I will help you explore that experience and I will be there as you learn what works and doesn’t work for your own unique body/heart/soul;
- I will share what I know about HAES just as I share what I know about lots of things and just like all of our work together, I will respect your right to accept and reject what I share because I know your journey is yours, not mine;
- However I will not help you self-shame and will ask you work with me to understand what internal and external biases may be shaping your choices.
In other words, as part of the HAES principals I will honor and respect the diversity of all of my clients — their life experiences, their spiritual choices, their family make-up, their political leanings and the sizes and shapes of their bodies.
Have questions? Let me know.
Awhile back I was talking to someone who was telling me about her exercise-induced asthma. She described the feeling of her chest tightening up and her breath cutting off when she ran without her inhaler and as I was listening I was thinking, “Hmmm, isn’t that how all exercise is?” I came home and asked my husband, also a runner, and he said, no, that’s not how exercise is. He said losing your breath is nothing like having your chest close up so you can’t breathe. So off I trotted to my doctor who said, yes, I have asthma. Go figure. I’ve had this issue forever and just now got diagnosed.
I thought I was experiencing the same old thing everyone was experiencing and so I didn’t question it. I did shame myself about it a lot when I was a teenager (telling myself if I just worked harder! If I just made myself run through it! If I just tried more!) before accepting that I’m a slow and steady person who can’t do heavy cardio. Only now my doc is telling me with the right meds maybe I can.
Here is my point.
Sometimes our reality isn’t real. Which is to say, something that we think is universally true (Don’t all bosses belittle their workers? Don’t all partners shut down periodically and refuse to speak to their spouses? Don’t all children have falling down tantrums ’til they’re seven or eight?) may actually be a sign that whatever we’re putting up with could use a fix. But how do we know? How do we know that what we’re experiencing is not “normal?”
(I hesitate to use the word “normal” here because sometimes what we need to do is redefine normal. So for me, normal means medication before I do cardio. That’s not necessarily “abnormal” if you think about it in the context of asthma. Likewise some behaviors may just need a new definition of normal depending on what’s going on.)
I think one of the biggest ways we can know that something’s wrong and could use some fixing is when we allow ourselves to recognize our unhappiness or discomfort with it. At the very least, that’s the best way to know that we need help. I could have mentioned my wheezing to the doctor during my annual check up when we talked about exercise. I could have explained why I switched back to the elliptical instead of that Couch to 5K program I started (and wheezed my way to the seventh week before I had to quit — I could never get through the long 20 minute run). After all, I was sad about giving up Couch to 5K and that alone made it worth mentioning.
Someone struggling with her boss or her partner or her kids could call someone (why, a therapist springs to mind!) and say, “Hey, is this typical? Do I need to learn to live with it? Or is there something I can do to change it or make living with it easier?”
My feeling is that if something is bothering you, it’s worth checking out. What the heck, it might help, right?
About twenty years ago I went to a training at the Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland presented by CARES Northwest about interviewing children as part of a sexual abuse assessment. During the second half of our day we watched videos of the practitioners interviewing the kids. I remember one child’s story in particular because it was a very hard story and because at the end, for the first time, you see one of the interviewers crack. The boy, who was about ten, asked her about what would happen at the end of the day, what would happen to the interviewer. The woman conducting his assessment started to choke up. We could hear the tears in her voice as she told him that at the end of the day she opened up all of the windows in that room and let the wind blow away all of the fear and sadness so that the space could become peaceful again and ready for the other children who would come there and need to tell her their stories.
That’s stuck with me over the last two decades.
Once a client said something to me that wasn’t so bad but to her it felt very bad to say it and after she said it her eyes got wide and she clapped her hands over her mouth.
“I can’t believe I said that,” she said behind her hands.
“But you did,” I answered.
“I did,” she said. Then she put her hands in her lap and we spent some time talking about saying it before we talked about what she said. But she left it at the office that day. That’s where she left it to be considered and examined and she did not feel the need to pick it back up again in her everyday life.
I think of my office as sacred space and as safe space. I want my clients to know that they can say whatever they need to say — whatever they’re most afraid to say — and they can leave it there. If they need to, they can leave it there and pick it back up at our next session or they can leave it there and let it go. I will hold it safe for them until the fear and the shame and the sadness are no longer so powerful and then they can set it free and know this secret — whatever it is — is no longer more powerful than they are.
There’s this advice in all those lady mags, the ones that tell you how to get Thin Thighs in 30 Days and promise to tell you What He’s Really Thinking. The recommendation is to post a picture of yourself back in your thinnest days or pictures of women you wished you looked like up on your refrigerator so every time you go get something to eat you’ll be shamed away from the kitchen.
We act out versions of this all of the time. We berate ourselves for missing deadlines or for not getting chores done. We look at other people “for inspiration” but then play back their success to remind ourselves that we are failures.
But what if we decided to feel good about ourselves anyway? Even though it’s been more than 30 days and our thighs are not thin? Even though our carpets are not vacuumed and we turn in projects late? What do we have to lose if we liked ourselves anyway? What might we gain?
When I talk to clients about being kind to themselves they sometimes worry that if they take the heat off they will run roughshod over their own lives. They will eat M&Ms for every meal! They will stay in bed watching Jersey Shore reruns instead of going to work! They will leave the dishes in the sink FOREVER! Then sometimes they point to people who have done just that.
Well, I say, we’re not talking about those other people — we’re talking about you.
Most of us will get sick of M&Ms on our own. Most of us will also get sick of watching Jersey Shore episodes. And most of us will eventually do the dishes, even if we do them reluctantly. We will find our own best balance, which doesn’t necessarily need to look like anyone elses.
It’s easier to be good to ourselves when we feel good about who we are already. It’s easier to meet goals when we trust ourselves to meet them. Jettison the shame for the new year and you might be surprised at how far you can go.