A Boundary Building Crib Sheet

YES and NO are two very powerful words. They are the gatekeepers that maintain the boundary of self and other. We need boundaries to protect ourselves from things that don’t serve our well-being; however, they also need to be flexible enough to filter in the good stuff like life experiences and connections. Many of us have great difficulty building and maintaining healthy boundaries especially in situations and with people we are emotionally invested in. This is because our emotions sometimes mess with the circuitry of our rational higher brain when they interface with each other in our decision making. Finding that middle ground between masochism (YES-ing to death) and isolation (building a wall of NO) is possible, but it takes practice. I’ve created this crib sheet to help guide the process and deal with some of the challenges that come up along the way.

(1) EMOTIONAL ASSESSMENT

It’s important to really examine the emotions that come up for us when setting limits and boundaries. I often ask clients (and myself) to reflect on how they feel when they say either YES or NO. After getting a general sense of what that brings up for them emotionally, we start to examine the feelings triggered in different situations and settings where YES and NO have been exercised. This self-reflection is key in helping us to understand and eventually reframe the responses of others.

Perhaps your friend’s inability to handle your NO is about their own fear of rejection, but their passive aggressive response to you may trigger a stream of intrusive negative thinking that has you fearing you will lose this relationship if you don’t say YES. This cycle only maintains and perpetuates some pretty shitty self-esteem and relationship dynamics.

(2) IMAGINING THE OPPOSITE

What would life be like if you didn’t always say YES? How would it feel if you could just say NO without an explanation? What would change for you? These are just some of the prompts to get you thinking about the real costs and benefits of boundary building. Imagining the opposite is kind of mind blowing. One of my clients sat with the word that came up for her (i.e. freedom) when imagining what life would be like is she didn’t say YES all the time. That imagined life prioritized her own needs and took the burdens of others off her chest. It sparked a series of small changes in behavior that prepared her to let go of a very toxic relationship.

(3) COMMUNICATING OUR BOUNDARIES

This should not be confused with explaining our boundaries. People respond best to open and direct communication that is compassionate. Congruent communication is a skill that helps people in relationships understand and express each other’s needs without defensiveness. Adapting this style of communication to express our need for boundaries will help reduce the blow-back from people in our lives not used to us having them.

Some great examples are the following:

“I know I haven’t always been good at letting you know how I feel and as awesome as you are, I know you’re not psychic. This is why I want to talk to you about a few things.”

“You are very important to me and it means a lot that I can be this honest with you about my needs.”

My personal favorite and one that I find is absolutely necessary when you work in a care-taking and/or helping profession is the following:

“I want to be there for you, but there are times when I am too overwhelmed with my own stuff and life. The only way I can be present for the people I care about is if I am taking care of myself first. This is when I have to say no to certain things.”

(Insert the flock of doves emanating from the heavens)

People may still react to your compassionate dialogue; however, rest assured that their reaction tells you more about whether they are meant to remain in your life or not. A healthy relationship is one that is reciprocal and interdependent. If they truly care about you, they will support your needs even if it takes them a little time to process and understand them. For those that don’t get it, keep reading to (5) TAKE A TIME OUT FROM THE TOXIC.

(4) A ‘NO EXPLANATIONS’ APPROACH

You don’t have to justify your boundaries further than the compassionate communication outlined above. Explanations are often about anticipating and/or managing other people’s emotions. If you find yourself worrying that you might disappoint an important figure in your life by saying NO, you may needlessly over explain your boundary. You may feel the need to exaggerate your explanations to the point of lying to avoid being interrogated about your boundary. Fighting this urge is hard work and success varies depending on the situation and/or relationship.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I only recently got good at the ‘no explanations’ approach. Below is one of my success scenarios.

My then boyfriend asked me to come hang out with his friends while they watched the UFC fights on PPV. There were a number of reasons why I didn’t feel like going, but rather than list them all, I chose to say, “No babe. I’m good. You have fun with the boys.” He immediately asked me what I was going to do on a Saturday night alone. His assumption that I couldn’t possibly have any other plans or things to do was enough to trigger some irritation, but I managed not to react. I smiled and told him, “I’ll be fine. You enjoy the fights.” My lack of explanation started to trigger some mind reading from his end. “You probably want to go out to some club, don’t you? Yeah, I know what you girls do. That’s cool. You go let some bro feel up on you instead of hanging out with your man.” At this point, I wanted to punch him in the face and/or leave the room, but I maintained my calm and restated my original response with a little “sass” to reframe his mind-reading. “I’m going to miss you too baby. You have fun tonight.” I rubbed up on him like an exaggerated club dancer to drive home how ridiculous he was being. He laughed. I laughed. All was good and no more questions were asked.

If only they all worked out this way. What I will say about all the not so successful attempts is that they highlighted my triggers and vulnerabilities. Understanding where and why I got derailed helped me to revise my approach in order to react differently next time. I have several ‘no explanation’ tactics at the ready for interactions with my parents because I know from many a trial and error how my frustration and anger gets the best of me. The worst part of those exchanges was knowing I had gone off the rails, but not being able to bring myself back. When I would hear “relax, it was just a question” I knew I had failed. Prepare your ‘no explanation’ strategies before challenging situations to increase your success and reduce distress (rhyming intentional).

(5) TAKE A TIME OUT FROM THE TOXIC

If you find that your boundaries are being tested over and over again with certain individuals despite all your congruent compassionate communication and ‘no explanations’ attempts, give yourself permission to take distance. If you can’t do that for yourself, then I give you permission to take distance. You don’t have to respond to their texts, DM’s, or any attempts at contact immediately or at all. You can choose the terms by which you will engage with them and interact accordingly. They will almost definitely feel a certain kind of way about your distance, but don’t let their reactions make you feel that you’re “ghosting” them. If your relationship is one-sided and co-dependent, it is not healthy. Your silence is self-care. And speaking of self-care…

(6) REWARD YOUR BOUNDARIES

Setting boundaries that put your needs first is an act of self-love. For those of us who have trouble saying NO to others, work with the YES and recognize that boundaries can be an act of saying YES to yourself. For people with rigid boundaries, look at the ability to say YES as being in control of the gate between yourself and others. You get to choose what and who you let it. Say YES only to what feels good to your being; nothing else gets through the gate.

As you build healthy boundaries, people who do not serve you will start to exit your life. Those exits may be dramatic and may hurt for a period of time; however, you will start to be surrounded by people who not only support your boundaries, but will also have boundaries of their own. You will get to experience what it feels like for someone to communicate a boundary with you, and learn to appreciate their openness and honesty. If we all communicated our needs directly and with compassion to each other, we probably wouldn’t even need to call boundaries boundaries. They would become more like lines of contact connecting individuals to each other in a sort of collective relationship tapestry. We aren’t there yet, but it’s worth imagining.

 

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The Healing Decade

I started setting my intentions for 2018 last weekend.  Today’s blizzard and frigid conditions have made it possible to do a whole lot of reflecting on the events of years past, my growth from them and what obstacles still exist. I discovered something very interesting. The major shifts of my life have come in ten year bundles buffered by life altering events on either end. Rather than posting a year in review, I’m choosing to do more of a life in review starting with the significant event that set in motion all the things that have led me to where I am today.

The trauma decade (11-21 yrs)

At age eleven I had a serious car accident. My injuries confined me to a wheelchair and then required over a year of intense and painful PT to get me back on my feet, literally. All the activities that I engaged in prior to this accident which made me feel good within my body were now a source of intense fear and anxiety. I had serious psychological injuries that were never addressed. My self concept and my sense of independence were deeply affected by this accident. Complicating matters worse was a strict, authoritarian upbringing where verbal and corporal punishment were the status quo for relating to children and the wonderful world of puberty, where changes occurred outside of my control. I was a wounded child in a woman’s body with a mountain of responsibility and guilt placed on me for pretty much everything that was going wrong. The depression, post traumatic stress, anxiety and negative self concept all set the stage for my budding eating disorder, which manifested into full blown Anorexia at age 21.

The transformation decade (21-31 yrs)

Anorexia wreaked havoc on my body and mind in the first part of this decade, but my inner resilience helped me to pursue my childhood dream of singing and performing. Yes, I definitely had a very warped end goal when it came to music making. I needed heaps of external validation to feel “okay” with myself, so any drunk heckling from an audience member would upset me to the point where I couldn’t finish a song. I also modeled because I needed that attention to reassure myself that I was desirable and lovable. Of course, those two things do not go hand in hand. When I sought treatment, the onion began to unfold. I was forced to face a lot of vulnerability and insecurity. It was terrifying. I didn’t have any coping skills. My eating disorder and all this hyper-focus on my appearance and sexuality were the ways I dealt or didn’t with my issues. I turned the dial way down on all of that. I started to examine the reasons behind a lot of the things I was doing. I wasn’t ready to quit it all cold turkey, but a transformation was occurring. During this time, I entered into a serious six year relationship with a man whose personality pushed buttons of change for me. Coinciding with this was my Saturn Return. Even if you’re not a believer of astrology, many of us undergo a major reevaluation of priorities and cognitive growth between the ages of 28-31. This is proven by behavioral neuroscience. At age 31, I was successfully in remission from Anorexia and newly licensed in my chosen profession of massage therapy. I felt optimistic, but I had only cracked the surface. The floodgates were about to spew.

The healing decade (31 yrs and counting)

When a train is approaching a station you feel it initially as a tiny flutter of air that gets progressively stronger until it practically knocks you over when the thing emerges from the tunnel. That’s exactly how this decade has been thus far. At age 31, something shifted for me – the flutter of air. My sister gave birth to her first child and holding him triggered a desire for family that overwhelmed me. Everything that I felt comfortable and complacent with needed to go and believe me, it WENT. The great purge gained momentum as the years progressed. This last year and a half, I experienced a mass exit of relationships that no longer served me and the pulling out of the many energetic hooks placed into me by the people I had chosen to give my time and my heart to. Despite all the loss and the ache I feel in many parts of my being, I have never felt lighter and more myself. It’s amazing how clear your intuition and wisdom become when you aren’t burdened by other people’s stuff. My graduate program has given me a lot of perspective on how I perpetuated and maintained some of the situations that plagued me in the first half of this decade. My inner circle consists of some really incredible, intelligent and supportive people who are doing the work on their end and who I admire greatly. The best advice I got this year came from an article a “soul” friend shared with me about reclaiming my power. I get to control who gets access to me. I can and will heal through all this loss and painful adjustment because I have reclaimed that energy for myself. I am surrounded by the best cheerleaders. These people show up. They reciprocate. They care. One of my intentions for this year is to continue to allow them to take care of me, even when I don’t always know how to ask. This vulnerability is a strength that will set the stage for the type of partnership I want for life; the pivotal event I know is coming.

In the meantime, I will keep my gaze on “the bandaged place” as the Sufi poet Rumi so eloquently put it because through that wounded place “the light” will enter me. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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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Going Up to Bring You Down: Body Shaming in a NYC elevator

On one of the last truly hot and humid days in NYC, I decided to wear one of my favorite outfits – a black crepe halter dress with plunging neck and back lines. I love this dress not just for its fit, but also because it shows off the muscle tone of my upper back and chest. I feel strong, ethereal and sexy whenever I wear this dress. It’s one of those wardrobe staples every girl should possess. By the time I arrived at my destination, I was glazed in a dewy sweat sheen.

Going up to bring me down....body shaming in a NYC elevator.
Going up to bring ME down….body shaming in a NYC elevator.

I stepped into the elevator with a middle aged woman and three men, one of which held the door for me and offered to press my floor. I thanked him for his good manners. One by one, the men got off at their respective floors. When the elevator reached mine, it was just myself and the woman in the back. I noticed she had a cane and was leaning into the wall staring at the floors lighting up overhead. As the doors opened, I picked up the hem of my dress and started to step out. What I heard next shocked me. “Wear a bra!!” she angrily blurted out. It took me a second to process what she said. As I turned back around to confront this unprovoked insult, she pressed the button to close the elevator door in my face.

I was shaken and for the rest of my day, I tried to comprehend what had triggered this woman to body shame a complete stranger.  The universe’s attempts to make good on the event by showering me with random compliments about the dress or my body did nothing to take the edge off her insult. Its sting stayed with me long into my commute home in the evening. I looked at the sea of faces sitting across from me and wondered were these people also passing judgment on me? What is it that provokes us to shame each other?

I have written about the topic of bullying before in previous posts. Females choose a more social form of aggression as their preferred method of taking others down a few notches. Body shaming is just one tactic. This form of relational bullying is usually rooted in deep issues of self esteem. It is used to maintain status, weed out competition, and provide a means of addressing fear and jealousy. Was this the reason for the middle aged woman’s verbal bomb? Targeting me because I presented a mirror to her of what she wasn’t and subsequently taking me down in order to alleviate her own insecurities? Then another thought hit me – if women like her are doing this to each other well into middle age, what hope do our little girls have of building a healthy self image and learning to be “girls’ girls?”

After a lot of thinking, I came to the conclusion that the best action I could take to counter the shame was to be that example. After all, I do consider myself a “girls’ girl.” I appreciate the beauty of other women and celebrate in their successes. I am able to be this way because I have worked through the self esteem issues of my youth and accept who I am at this time in my life. I complimented the dress of a woman standing next to me on the train, which made her smile for a good long minute after I told her. I held the elevator for another woman rushing to catch it, who breathlessly thanked me and then told me to have a wonderful day upon exiting. I helped a middle aged woman on the train remove a bracelet that was squeezing into her wrist and causing her major discomfort. She called me an angel and showered me with kisses and hugs. All these acts of random kindness left me feeling a more loving vibe that reverberated to those around me. Ironically, I saw the woman that had shamed me waiting for the elevators a couple of weeks later. I held the door for her as she entered. She said nothing to me. I couldn’t help but look at her, wondering if she recognized me. It was clear she didn’t. With her eyes fixated on the numbers lighting up above, I exited the elevator and this time, no comments followed me out.

Additional reading:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-long-reach-childhood/201109/bullying-in-the-female-world

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/women-who-hurt/201109/relational-aggression-and-the-job

 

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The Grey Experiment

“You look tired!”

“You don’t want people to think you’re letting yourself go.”

“What a shame! You have such a youthful face.”

“No, really…how old ARE you?”

All of the above statements have been made to me by friends, relatives and surprisingly, complete strangers. What they are all commenting on is the color of my hair; not a complete head of grey, but a village of silver and white that sprang up at my sideburns and crown beginning at the age of 19.  Yes, 19. This early onset of grey is genetic; both my sister and I inherited the premature greys from our mother. Three traceable generations before her went grey in their early 20s. I remember a story about my great grandmother almost becoming an “old maid”.  As her male relatives haggled with potential husbands over her dowry, her dark hair became fully grey. By the time she was married at age of 30, which was considered over the hill in those days, she was perceived to be much older due to her hair color.  It probably didn’t help that her husband was also almost 60.

Speaking of perception, societal pressure for women to maintain a “youthful” appearance is evident in the way we react to graying hair.  A recent UK news story spoke of scientists isolating the gene that causes hair to lose its pigment. The end goal would be to eventually create a pill that would target that gene and “stop the clock” on the greying process.

Guess I’ll be needing that pill, huh?

When I saw my first white hair at 19, I promptly plucked it out.  At the time, I was also dyeing my hair to match my moods (thank you, Manic Panic).  As a result, I never allowed enough of the grey to come in to be noticeable to myself or anyone else.  Paradoxically,  a baby face with a head of silver had become a beauty trend.  Girls and young women purposely dye their hair different shades of gray before their biological clocks have them looking so au naturale. So, where is the disconnect? Going gray is only acceptable if you choose to do it and are visibly in your 20’s as opposed to it happening naturally. J-Lo is 46 years old with amazing skin and body fitness. If she stopped dyeing her hair, she most certainly would have some greys. Would that make her any less of a sex symbol? Would her younger boyfriend leave her? Would the world tell her that she was letting herself go?

gray_20something yr old
The grey 20 something year old…

I wanted to see how long I could go without reaching for the L’Oreal bottle. I decided to stop dyeing my roots in June of 2015. I was already sporting a tan and the village of grey coming in on my head was being oxidized by the sun giving it a reddish and blondish hue depending on the light. My clients complimented my “highlights” and my deepening bronze skin tone. It was still all positives once September rolled in and I started my semester.  Within the first three weeks of school, I got my first comment. It came from a girl who had a penchant for blurting out whatever was on her mind  in the middle of class no matter how inappropriate (social pragmatics = 0). Sitting outside our classroom, she looked at me and said, “What’s up with your hair?” I asked what she meant. “You don’t dye it,” she replied in a flat tone. While I was mildly annoyed in the moment, it didn’t deter me from maintaining my decision to keep it REAL. I told her I liked how it looked and kept reading my textbook.

By the end of October, there was a solid inch of grey hair from my crown downward. The tan was also fading and as the semester became more rigorous, my hair was going up in a bun most days to be out of the way. I arrived to school sometime around Halloween and the security guard in front of the gate stopped me from entering. He asked for my ID and when I showed it to him, he did not believe it was me. He kept saying that it did not look like me. I took my hair down and shook it out to match the style in the grainy image on my card. Still, he was adamant that it wasn’t me in the ID. He then called over the other female guard to show her my ID. All this time, there were young people filtering past us and none of them were being stopped for IDs. So, I made mention of that. The answer: They’re students. Before I had a chance to answer that I, TOO, was a student, the female guard playfully hits her colleague and tells him it is my ID, it’s just my hair that was throwing him off. They both laughed and instead of apologizing to me for all the trouble, he thought it would be a good idea to compare me to the bride of Frankenstein with her grey streaks and wild up-do. Your Halloween joke was not funny.

As final exam time approached in early December, I had experienced a few more incidents. The post office worker who told me I was “brave” for leaving so much grey. The 20-something year old boy who made a crass comment about the color of “other hair” on my body. And the handful of much older gentlemen who complimented my hair and asked how I take such good care of myself. More than anything else, the little comments were wearing me down; things like you look so tired, school is aging you, stop putting your hair up if you don’t want people to say anything. I found myself near tears as I wrestled with the urge to dye my hair again. In the end, I made an appointment just after Christmas and dyed my locks back to black. What broke me was the idea that major judgements that could affect my future, both personally and professionally, would be made based on the “age” of my hair. I left the beauty salon feeling like I had my armor back, not my youth.

 

Additional Reading:

http://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/369413

http://recil.grupolusofona.pt/handle/10437/6666

https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=QD_eCQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA133&dq=hair+color+and+self+esteem&ots=ExFkYHlghp&sig=AG9Y01Aw1VmXoihOo7WiY9a2_iw#v=onepage&q&f=false