I know you are, but what am I?

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 who has 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 dysthymia or 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.

 

 

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My Macro Journey to Fitness – Part 1

Redefining my relationship with food was one of the hardest challenges I overcame in my recovery from Anorexia. It’s been a decade plus journey with plenty of weak moments and falling off of the wagon. In an effort to hold myself accountable and practice what I preach, to both my clients and loved ones, I’d like to tell you a bit about the role nutrition played in getting me to where I am today.

The Miseducation of Julia Fragias…

The body is a wonderfully efficient machine.

Starve and abuse it, but in a continuous loop of feedback mechanisms, the brain catches wind of what you’re doing and tweaks every cell in the body to maintain your existence. When I started to eat again, my brain clearly didn’t trust me. It adjusted my metabolism to a lower rate in order to make sure the calories I put into my body wouldn’t disappear.

It took a while to earn that trust back.

The image you see above from 2007 is a softer, fuller girl almost 2 years into recovery from Anorexia. I didn’t know how to exercise properly. I didn’t know how to like food, much less understand now-common concepts like macronutrients. I was instructed by my then counselor not to restrict food and was assured my metabolism would normalize. Eventually.

But, of course, I was still afraid to eat.

I categorized foods into “safe” and “off limits.” How did I decide what made them safe? They were low in fat or fat free. Vegetables or fruit were safe, as long as they didn’t bloat me. Liquids were safer than solids. It also helped if they were low in calories per serving. I ate my “safe foods” repetitively and copiously.

My criteria for safe were so far off the mark that they actually contributed to my rapid weight gain. As my body continued to expand, I had to fight the urge to restrict my eating. I wanted someone to give me a magic menu or list of foods that I could eat without anxiety.

I wanted safety, but I needed education.

Through therapy, I was getting served a whole lot of how to eat through mindfulness, which was helpful – chew your food well, eat slowly, savor the flavors, be grateful for the nourishment – but nobody was telling me what to eat.

How could I begin to structure balanced meals that would fuel my body efficiently?

Count your macros…

My self education was to obsessively watch fitness channels on Youtube. This was when I first came across the term macronutrient. The body builders and fitness professionals I was taking notes from all shared the same advice – count your macros. It’s a catchy word, especially when repeated like a mantra, but what exactly are they?

Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats: compounds we derive the most energy from and that make up the bulk of our diets as humans. Our cells need these nutrients to grow and develop properly.

Finally, I had something specific to focus on. I concentrated on the ratios of these compounds that the fitness community recommended were optimal for fitness and good health. I constructed a daily diet that consisted of ready made and home made protein powder based shakes, protein bars, bags of nuts, bananas for my pre-workout, and cans of water packed tuna for dinner.

Finally, I had a new “safe” list!

Problem was, it was even more restricted than my previous one.

My workouts were cardio endurance based only and lasted between 60 and 90 minutes to the point of utter exhaustion. There are a number of reasons why this is not the fitness route you want to go down, but I will get into that in my next post. I dropped about ten pounds, but I was constipated, had started to develop eczema patches all over my body and odd outbreaks of hives, had terrible insomnia and brain fog. As if that weren’t all bad enough, I put on virtually no muscle tone.

At the end of 2007, my annual blood test indicated I was deficient in many vitamins and borderline anemic. Essentially, I was malnourished. My doctor didn’t help matters either by telling me I needed to lose a few pounds. He came to this conclusion based on a chart of height and weight ranges of which I was at the high end of normal. FYI – this chart also said I was a normal weight when I had full blown anorexia. Scary, truly.

Here’s an example of a Height to Weight Chart, like the one my doctor used to determine I needed to lose weight. These things are AWFUL!

I left the doctor’s office terrified.

I abandoned my diet and let my body’s cravings guide my food choices. This was recommended by a therapist who believed the body intuitively knows what it needs. She was also trying to prevent my patterns of restriction and categorizing food. I remember meeting up with an old friend, who had struggled with childhood obesity and was now super fit. I asked him how he learned to eat properly. He laughed at me and said, “Julia. NO ONE eats properly. It’s how you exercise that counts.”

Working with a trainer, he put on lean muscle that raised his metabolism and allowed his body to burn off more calories at rest.

And he noticed something interesting.

The fitter he became, the less he craved the fried pork chops, plantain chips and soda of his youth. Remember what I said about the wonderful efficiency of the body? As his body grew healthier and stronger, so did his food choices.

He strongly urged me to contact his trainer. After I got over myself (my bad experience with personal trainers was documented in my post A Body Is A Terrible Thing To Waste) I set up my first session in August of 2008.

I started on the strength-training program the trainer designed for me. It was around the 6 week mark that I started to feel something I never expected to feel again. Hunger.

I was hungry all the time.

To actually feel my stomach rumbling and experience the weakness of NOT attending to that hunger was frightening to me, but also a huge step forward. Hunger was a sensation I had psychologically dulled for years with my disordered eating habits. So, for the first time since my recovery began, I ate when I was actually hungry.

This. Was. A. Game changer.

I was most ravenous within an hour of my workouts. I found myself craving meat, which was shocking because I had been a vegetarian for 7 years and the thought of animal protein in my mouth used to nauseate me. This hunger and these new cravings were my body’s call to action.

FEED ME, JULIA!!!

But how?

Stay tuned for Part 2…

 

 

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Using Your Whole Brain to Avoid Drama

A few months back, my sister and I were chatting about how she had learned to cope with her kids’ misbehavior and meltdowns. Unlike the old school European tactics of our parents, she had discovered a way that built a level of self awareness in her children even some adults lack. This magical teaching tool is No-Drama Discipline (image above) written by two of psychology’s leading experts in parenting.

I decided I wanted to read this book not because I am or will be a parent anytime soon nor because it is required reading for my grad school endeavors. What appealed to me about it was gaining another level of understanding the way in which our brains react to emotional situations. While it may be geared toward parents trying not to psychologically scar their children in the process of raising them, its tools can be applied to almost any relational conflict in life.

The WHOLE brain…

The authors speak of the brain in two parts – an upstairs and a downstairs. This rather simple separation makes sense in terms of our reactions. Think of your upstairs brain as your rational, intellectual side that likes to problem solve and think through things before it reacts. It’s the part that has had many millennia of trial and error to evolve into the task master that it is. The downstairs brain is your primitive, reptilian side that reacts immediately and strongly to things that stimulate it. It’s governed by emotional reflexes and, if left to its own devices, would have kept us from ever becoming “human.” The whole-brain approach these experts describe is getting the upstairs and downstairs to work together in order to build a positive sense of self, accountability and resilience, delayed gratification and a host of other mindful things in children.

Adults can have trouble integrating their upstairs and downstairs brains too. We have ALL been there; a situation where reason flies out the window and we would sooner punch a wall than ask questions. That’s the downstairs brain running the show. This reactivity is noted by the authors as being a plea for help or a sign that a child doesn’t know how to process and express the BIG feelings that have overwhelmed him or her in that moment. Adults, too, can have trouble articulating BIG feelings, especially if there is a level of vulnerability involved. What it boils down to is if you punch that wall, will you still be loved? If you are at your lowest, will people still be there for you? If you are your worst self, can you still be lovable? The answers to these questions are in the following steps.

Step 1 – The Connection Cycle

In dealing with relational conflict, the authors emphasize tuning in to the mind beneath the behavior (77).  This is focusing not on what the person has done or said, but on the underlying why. This is sometimes easier said than done; however in the initial moments of the behavior’s aftermath, connecting with the other person begins to communicate a sense of comfort. The connection cycle begins with a physical touch, followed by validating where the other person is emotionally, listening to what they have to say and then reflecting on it. This first step demonstrates that you know the person may be in a bad way at the moment, but you are there and willing to understand them. This approach teaches our kids how to love through good times and bad, as well as promotes the secure attachment vital for their healthy, future adult relationships. Cue the word adult..

Step 2 – A little Redirection

Connection is very much about being in the present moment. While you can’t bend time to undo the offending or upsetting behavior, the “moment” doesn’t have to define the other person, the relationship or life as you both know it. With connection established, you now have a firm grip on why the downstairs brain ran amok. In order to get the upstairs brain on board to resolve the situation, the authors refer to a series of strategies in redirection. I’ve chosen the ones that best apply to adult conflict.

Reduce words – Do not nag, lecture or harp on what happened, since the why behind the behavior is known. Do not do this days, weeks or months after the conflict either. People tune out or conversely, ruminate on the negative. No one feels good in the end.

Describe, don’t preach – I’ve placed this after the above because it relates to what you say. Just describe what you observe. Take all the emotional language, assumptions and judgement out of it. If anything, ask them to help you understand what happened.

Embrace emotions -You want to make sure they know it’s okay to feel BIG emotions, but they are not a license to ACT. This is done through setting boundaries i.e. the standards of behavior that are okay and not okay, while also maintaining connection and being empathetic (97).

Emphasize the positive – Give your focus and attention to behavior you want to see repeated. Statements like “I love it when you…” or “It makes me so happy when we…” open up a dialogue that redirects from the negative thing that happened.

Creatively approach the situation – Humor and playfulness are just as fun in adulthood as they are in childhood. While some situations may be serious, there are still ways of poking fun at ourselves (e.g. Wow, I was being a crazy pants back there!) or at the circumstances (e.g. I feel like this Emoji face right now…and then doing it).

The last strategy of redirection involves teaching mindfulness. One important tool is the do-over defined as a second chance at handling a situation, which is meant to build a child’s empathy and mindfulness. Ask questions like, What could you have done differently? What will you do next time? Ask yourself those same questions.

Mindfulness is the most honest resolution to any relational conflict.

Reading this book allowed me to understand the why behind the demise of a close friendship. It also helped me to have a difficult conversation with someone I cared for deeply with more presence and understanding than if I let my hurt feelings do the talking. Moreover, it paints conflict resolution as a warm and nurturing experience; something I never experienced growing up, but I can now model for my present and future relationships. This book is LIFE!

 

To order a copy: https://www.amazon.com/No-Drama-Discipline-Whole-Brain-Nurture-Developing/dp/034554806X

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How to be mindful with a mind that’s full in 2017

Welcome to the end of the first week of the New Year. I am not alone in saying that 2016 presented its fair share of obstacles, life altering experiences and game changing events. None of us want a repeater in 2017. Last week, I set out to create an image of how I wanted this year to unfold. Within this image was a list of intentions to guide me along the process. Why not resolutions, you ask? There is a huge difference between resolving something and intending to act. The former implies that there is something wrong; that there is unfinished business hindering you from getting to where you want to be. To make such a list drives into your consciousness all the failures, road blocks and let downs of years’ past. Intentions are purposeful actions. I intend to hug strangers, eat broccoli, travel to Cuba and so on. Intentions allow you to be mindful even if the rest of your brain is locked up in the junk of 2016.

Doing for ME above all others…

One of the most powerful intentions I put on that list, which set the tone for all the others that followed was doing for ME above all others. This is huge! I am an empath and a nurturer. My profession by definition draws on both these qualities, sometimes to depletion point. Oftentimes, I forget myself and my own needs. Therefore, placing ME at the top of my intentions keeps me mindful of number 1. Channeling that nurture inward allows my higher self to steer me forward. She’s the one with the clear voice and my best intentions in mind. Her judgement of situations and people is never cloudy. She is my gut and she is always spot on. If this is too woo-woo for some of you, let me rephrase it as learning to put your needs first. If it puts you last on the list, just say NO.

Walk away from other people’s tornadoes…

You cannot take on or personalize other people’s struggles in this life. Once again, the empathic nurturing self wants to provide solutions, love the pain away, walk alongside them in their process. What you need to realize is that it is their process, not yours and trying to invite yourself into the tornado leaves a destructive path in its wake. As my post on unconditional love explored, it’s okay to walk away.

Any kind of day can be made better by working out…

I told myself whenever I was feeling off in some way or another, I would do a quick workout and then re-evaluate how I was feeling. Being in your physical body prevents you from ruminating and that form of distraction can reset your nervous system in profound ways. Feel good hormones called endorphins surge through your system every time you exercise. Why not take advantage of nature’s mood elevators? Who here has 15-20 minutes a day to feel good? I DO!!

Fantasize like a 5-year old…

Small children fantasize 24/7. Their play incorporates a ton of make believe and they love telling long drawn out stories of what they envision their future/fantasy selves to be like. My niece is always telling me her I want to be a princess fantasy complete with what her hair will look like and the types of rooms in her home. Why is it so hard for us adults to do the same? The inability to fantasize about certain things I desire for myself is like telling my inner 5 year old not to dream because I don’t believe it will come true.  There is power in falling in love with that story or as a close friend put it watching the movie of your life play out all the while rooting for the heroine – YOU. I intend to tell myself elaborate stories of future me with as many details as possible and enjoy the vision in progress.

As my list took form, I felt an energetic shift within myself. The first week of the New Year has been an optimistic one not because anything profound has actually happened, but because I feel more at home within myself than ever before. Let the above intentions guide you in making a list of your own. See what shifts occur within you. This is YOUR year.

Brujeria Before Breakfast

 

What future events do YOU see in there??

No afternoon Greek coffee date would be complete without someone’s aunt or grandmother offering to “read” your cup. When you’re super little and have no concept of the gravity of future you find a lump of coffee sludge being able to tell you things wildly entertaining. Fast forward to your teenage years and suddenly, you want that relative to answer all the burning questions of young adulthood like will I ever get a boyfriend or what college is going to accept me. About 4 years ago, I had a friend’s aunt read my cup during a particularly rough period in my life. Nothing of what she told me made much sense or more importantly, gave me comfort…in that moment. However, in hindsight, everything she pointed out to me has actually occurred. I just couldn’t digest it all in the frame of mind I was in.

This brings me to present times. Recently, a friend recruited me to visit what I am affectionately calling a bruja (Spanish for witch). This little Puertorican lady has been blessed with the gift of communicating with the spirit world i.e. a medium. Surrounded by infinite statues of saints and other worldly figures, she channels the messages your guardian angels and/or loved ones want to give you as well as answering any questions you may have beginning and ending with a prayer. Now, I understand not everyone in the secular world believes in the presence of spirit guides etc. but I always have. And when the going gets tough and I am in need of some perspective on matters internal, the bruja can be the perfect counsel.

Image of La Milagrosa – a powerful protector and miracle worker

While sitting in her little waiting area, cold and overly pensive, I reviewed the events of the past year. If that year could be given a theme, it would be “UPHEAVAL.”  The amount of situations and individuals that changed and/or disappeared from my little life overwhelmed me to the point where my sleep and nutrition suffered. It has only been in the last few months or so that I have felt settled and somewhat “safe” within my current environment. I wondered what would come through when the bruja started her distracted scribbling, a technique also known as automatic writing, which is used to open communication with the dead.

 

 

While in her trance like state, many things she uttered made sense to me. What made the biggest impression on me was her exclamation prior to me asking or uttering anything other than my full name to her. Yes, I do believe that some psychics are just intuitive people who are able to read the emotions, body language and mental state of the individual coming to them for advice. They assess and ask the right kinds of leading questions that allow them to be spot on about many aspects of your life; however, they don’t actually predict anything that you don’t already know. My bruja said some goosebump inducing things to me. Only later on in the reading, when her eyes cleared of their fixed, glazed over gaze did she give more of a grandmotherly, human perspective which I sensed did not come from any of my guardians beyond.

In Christianity, Judaism and Islam the Archangel/St. Gabriel delivers the messages.

I walked away a mixed bag of emotions. Later that same evening, I wrote out everything my ridiculously clear episodic memory recalled from our session. I hadn’t looked at her words until last night, when in one of my pensive moods. A few things stood out to me that I wanted to paraphrase here because they could help others live a little more open to what the universe has to offer.

Take care of your body – put nourishing things into it and keep it fit.

Take care in how you present your outward appearance.

Take care in what you say – your words are powerful and affect others profoundly.

The above three pieces of advice help the mind break its pattern of going to its little fearful place. Intuition won’t be clouded and the messages that need to come through will. My ultimate lesson is to trust and be true to myself. And I can think of no better person to channel that energy onto 🙂