The National Eating Disorders Associationkicked off its awareness week on 2/24 building on their campaign of “Come As You Are.” This theme was first presented in 2019 as a call to all individuals experiencing issues with body acceptance and disordered eating, regardless of their background, to tell their story and be heard. This year’s campaign calls for people to reflect on the positive steps they’ve taken toward accepting themselves and others, including those born of set backs and falling off course.
Even though I have been in “full remission” from Anorexia Nervosa for 8 years now, there have been days and weeks where I catch myself thinking and behaving with the logic of my past disordered past self. These moments are usually triggered by stress. Knowing that stress has the power to conjure up ghosts of Julia’s past, I decided to create a contingency plan to make sure I stay healthy in both my body and mind.
One of the major positive steps I’ve taken this year has been to meal prep.
My “cooking for one” game has been sad. I held this belief that cooking was best saved for when I had company or other people to cook for. Subsequently, I would either stretch the same food out for days or would eat an assortment of “snacks” between clients and commutes. A couple of months ago while at work on a very hectic day I caught myself thinking “you don’t get to eat today.” That automatic thought freaked me out because I haven’t thought that way in over 15 years. It was mean, punishing, absolute, and not at all reflective of the present me in the room. Combined with the lethargy, irritable mood, and GI issues I was experiencing (perhaps a combo of stress, the environment, and my eating habits) I had to take action.
RSVP for One
I decided to reframe “cooking for one” as treating myself as my own dinner guest. I started my action plan by making a grocery list of pantry items to create more meal options. I also researched recipes that weren’t time consuming to ensure that I could work meal prepping around my work schedule. I chose which days of the week I could cook – Sunday nights after work and Thursday mornings. I kept a note in my iPhone where I would jot down ideas of what to cook on my commutes to and from work. This helped me to appreciate and get excited about the process of planning my meals. I have been able to stick to this plan because I made it an enjoyable process. The second I start feeling like I haveto do it means the plan needs to be modified.
People can still experience distorted body image and eating habits even if they aren’t diagnosed with an eating disorder. Developing a healthy relationship with yourself and with food can be a life long process, but trust that it’s possible. Help exists in the form of counselors, therapists, nutritionists, holistic health professionals (love you, Dr. Huang) to name a few who can guide you toward a positive body-mind connection from thought to table.
The Oxford English dictionary defines emotional intelligence (EQ) as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”
The above also sounds a lot like a goal of therapy – being able to put our feelings into words and communicate them to people in our lives in a direct, fair, and caring way, so that we can feel better about ourselves and our relationships. EQ treatment plans for everyone!
Inc.com’s Justin Bariso published an article in 2018 describing what qualities make up emotional intelligence based on research for his book, “EQ Applied.” Unlike our IQ, emotional intelligence is not fixed or stable throughout our lives. We all have the ability to raise our EQ through cultivating the qualities Bariso describes in his article. What I found interesting after reading his list was that even the most self-aware of us do not have all 13 qualities in spades. In fact, if all we had were the first three we would still be pretty decent humans.
These first three qualities of emotional intelligence from Bariso’s list are the following:
You think about feelings
You strive to control your thoughts
All three are also objectives of Cognitive Restructuring, a cognitive behavioral skill that helps us manage our emotions by monitoring the automatic thoughts that come into our minds in a given situation or context where they are triggered. The “pause” aspect would be where the therapeutic work takes place. You take the time to examine the thoughts that come up and their associated emotions in order to understand the where, what, how, and why. They are the building blocks of self-awareness. And now for the breakdown.
Where did these thoughts and messages originally come from? I call automatic thoughts “the tape recorder” because oftentimes these thoughts are messages we recorded about ourselves in childhood based on our parents’ and/or important people’s feedback. These messages were shaped in the context of early experiences and saved in our emotional archives. The “play” button goes off when present day experiences trigger those long recorded messages.
What are these thoughts saying about yourself and others? What are the emotions attached to these messages? Identifying the core beliefs underlying the thoughts and the emotions that come up pave the way for understanding how they developed and why they were useful in a particular time in your life. The belief that you’re only valuable if you take care of others may have been a way for a child to survive a neglectful upbringing, but in adulthood, that belief with all its associated thoughts and emotions could lead to codependent relationships, depression, and low self-esteem. One of the hardest aspects of cognitive restructuring is challenging these thoughts and messages. The fact that we call them “automatic” thoughts says it all – they are deeply rooted and habitual patterns of thinking that, like any habit, need time and work to break. The amazing thing is that our brains are capable of doing this with enough repetition and practice.
With a good base of self-awareness, we can learn how to communicate both positive and negative feelings in a healthy and constructive way to other people. This skill also takes time and work to develop because much like our automatic thoughts and emotional triggers, our patterns of relating to others are also habitual. It’s on a whole other level when the people we are relating to remind us of our parents in some way. For this reason, these patterns are sometimes referred to as “repetitions” because they repeat dysfunctional communications formed in early life with our caregivers. A good portion of Bariso’s list (numbers 4-9 are listed below) encompass the above, but with some clarifications:
You benefit from criticism – Bariso refers to this as taking in the negative feedback and asking yourself how you can improve, but I feel there is a difference between constructive criticism and straight up criticism. When it’s the former, taking it in for the purpose of improving yourself makes sense. However, when it’s the latter, I think it’s more about what you can learn from the experience about yourself and the other person giving that feedback. I worked with a client whose character was very warm, generous, and considerate. When her sister in law flipped out on her for not attending her baby shower (the client had a work obligation that was mandatory) she began to call herself inconsiderate. We took the time to examine the “evidence” for her sister-in-law’s criticism and came to realize that we needed to work on her ability to maintain healthy boundaries when dealing with her super enmeshed family; not to make her more considerate.
You show authenticity – what Bariso noted as “say what you mean, mean what you say.” Stand by your values.
You demonstrate empathy
You praise others
You give helpful feedback – the feedback that you give to other people to help them be their “best” self. The ability to give and receive criticism has its opposite – the ability to give and receive praise. For many of us, it is hard to accept praise and/or complimentary statements. That’s also something worth unpacking in therapy because it feeds into our self-esteem and self-concept.
You apologize – Bariso notes that apologizing doesn’t always mean you’re wrong. When you KNOW this, you can tackle conflict resolution like an EQ-ed boss. It’s a tough one to master and one that I struggle with at times depending on the conflict and the person involved. It requires overriding your ego and considering someone else’s feelings in addition to your own. The more emotionally invested I am, the harder it is to form the words of the apology without sounding defensive or blaming. One of the best forms of apology in situations where you may be in the right is saying, “I am sorry if what I said/did made you feel…” followed up with reflecting whatever it is they respond with such as, “you felt like I rejected you” or “you felt that it was fucked up.” As the situation de-escalates (although sometimes it may not, which makes the apology and resolution process super challenging), you can introduce resolution in a collaborative way such as “how can we prevent this from happening again,” “what can we do to work through this,” or “how can I help us overcome this.”
Being able to apologize is tied to the ability to forgive and move on (#10 on Bariso’s list noted as “forgive and forget”) which is another difficult thing to master. This is part of the therapeutic process of rupture and repair. The rupture is in the conflict – actions and/or words that caused pain and a rift between two people. The repair is in how you resolve and move on from what happened. An important thing to ask yourself in this process is what holding on to all that emotion is actually doing for you. What is useful about not forgiving or not forgetting? What’s holding you back from moving on?
Bariso’s 11th and 12th examples are also humanistic core values – honoring your commitments to self and other (i.e. keeping your word) and helping other people. His 13th trait is the ability to protect yourself from“emotional sabotage” which he expands upon in another article. Essentially this last trait is made possible by cultivating all the other ones on the list. The higher your emotional intelligence, the less likely others will be able to derail you even if they are master manipulators. Raising your EQ not only benefits your sense of self and your relationships, but also can have a ripple effect on the environment around you. Imagine if everyone was working to raise their EQ on a daily basis. Imagine if we evaluated EQ as an important, even non-negotiable characteristic for potential partnerships and friendships. Imagine what a whole bunch of self-aware people could accomplish if they all came together.
Sit with that and let your mind be blown a little too.
When did “I’m good at Math.” turn into “I’m a genius. You’re stupid.”
When did “I think he likes me!” turn into “I’m hot. Everybody wants me.“
When did “Oh, my butt looks so cute in these pants.” turn into “You wish you had my body, bitch.“
Society has done an amazing job of conditioning us to hear confidence as cockiness. Positive “I” statements as narcissistic. It’s frightful that a healthy self concept can be skewed so negatively. But it happens and the lower the self esteem of the other person, the worse it is.
In the behavioral neuroscience courses I’ve taken, many of us struggled with understanding sensation vs. perception. The take away from all those lectures was that perception isn’t necessarily reality. It may not have anything to do with what actually happened. The example in class was of an experiment where people listened to a piece of classical music and then reported their mood afterward. Same stimulus, but many different perceptions. People reacted to the same piece of music differently – some fell asleep, some were crying tears of joy, some became angry, others sad and so on.
Much like the classical music, the positive “I” statement also goes through that auditory pathway into the sections of our higher brain that gives the statement meaning. The meaning comes from our own experiences and core beliefs. How we perceive the words may have nothing to do with the words themselves or the person they came out of.
There’s a Greek expression my father used to say – He whohas fleas feels itchy. Essentially, if someone has something in their mind (fleas), their reaction is going to reflect that (itchy). Itchy is their state of being. So, if you make a statement of self esteem and the person you say it to has a low self concept or suffers from cognitive distortions, their filter is going to assign a negative meaning to it. It will become evidence that they aren’t good enough. They will mind read you and assume you think you’re superior to them. They might even call you names and tell you they want nothing to do with you. Being around you doesn’t make them feel good because they don’t like the mirror you have become for them. Nothing you do or say is going to change that. In the end, they need to take a hard look at their own reflection instead of flipping it back onto you.
You are absolutely allowed to acknowledge your accomplishments and take pride in your traits. We are all little works in progress. The more support we give each other, the more likely it will inspire growth and self love. I look to people who make positive “I” statements and feel inspired. In my head I hear “I should try that” or “Oh, that makes me want to write again” or “I wonder how I would look with that hair cut.” But I wasn’t always like that…
Between the ages of 19 and 22, I suffered from dysthymiaor what is now called Persistent Depressive Disorder. It’s a chronic low grade depression that casts what feels like a shadow over every area in your life. My self esteem was almost non-existent and my thoughts were extremely negative. I walked around with a pervasive sense of hopelessness. I definitely perceived everything and everyone through that filter. I had a close friend who was gorgeous. She had body confidence for days, could talk to just about anyone and got the attention of boys/men wherever we went. Being in her company made me acutely aware of all the things I felt I wasn’t. I would get upset or border on crying many times we would go out. I would tell her things like, “You just want everyone. Let me have someone too.” She would look shocked, tell me I was also beautiful and could have whomever I wanted, but I felt like she was just telling me these things out of pity. I perceived the tone of her voice as patronizing. I would ask her why she was talking to me like I was some kind of loser. She would give me this look of confusion mixed with annoyance, which made me scared she would stop being my friend. I would apologize profusely and then compliment her repeatedly. I perceived her as being annoyed with me all the time. It got to the point that I felt so self-conscious being around her that I decided to stop talking to her. I didn’t return her calls. I didn’t make any effort to reach out to her. I needed to relieve myself from the anxiety and lowness I felt when I was around her. None of this was her fault. She did nothing but be herself; a self that I couldn’t be. My depression and distorted negative thoughts convinced me I had no business being around her. In one of the last voicemails she left me, she was semi crying and asking what happened; how it hurt her to not know what she did to make me disappear. It’s really sad and messed up. As I look back on that period in my life, it makes me see recent experiences with former friends in a different light. It’s easier to forgive when you’ve been in their place. It’s easier to have compassion when you know what level of lowness their words and actions toward you came from.
These experiences helped me see how far I have come from that dark time in my life and taught me to be more compassionate for that suffering when I see it and experience it in others. If I could say anything to that friend now it would be, I’m sorry. I had a lot of issues and you were a good friend to me despite it all. You didn’t deserve to be treated like that. I hope you can forgive me.
And to those former friends who treated me in kind, I forgive you too.