A new year (and decade) is upon us, but a concerning statement is making the rounds on social media feeds.
“New Year, same me.”
Let’s sit with that for a minute.
This statement gave me pause because of the way it could impact a person’s motivation to change. The mental conflict that occurs as a result of beliefs being contradicted by “new” information is a concept known as cognitive dissonance. People deal with that conflict in a number of ways, most of which are defensive. The first part of the “New Year, same me”statement speaks to change – it’s a new year and newness in of itself is a changed state. The second part of this statement could be read as a defensive response to change.
Here’s the breakdown.
They say hindsight is 2020. Looking back on the experiences of 2019, what would you like to carry over into this new year? What are the qualities, relationships, and situations that you feel will continue to serve you? Those are the things that should comprise your “same me” list. The descriptions underlying the “same me” posts that I read were self-depreciating, and not in that self aware kind of way that precedes a New Year’s resolution (disclaimer – I am not a fan of resolutions – see my 2019 post on Intention Setting.)
The writers of these posts listed the “bad” choices they made during 2019 with the disclaimer “this is how I am.” Their followers responded with “likes” and comments that ranged from supportive to enabling. Here’s where it gets heavy and ties back to cognitive dissonance. That disclaimer is a powerful communication meant to rationalize the writers’ need to maintain their sameness. This is a mental state that feels safer and less threatening than change. Their “bad” choices become their identity. They are unmotivated to change “how” they are and seek validation to maintain their internal status quo through the likes and responses they get. Anything that challenges that state of sameness is met with a drama tsunami of comments from both the poster and a number of their followers. It made me wonder what would happen if no one validated their defense. How would they respond if no one liked or commented on their post? What would all that silence cause them to feel or think about themselves, the world, and their future?
During some of the last sessions of the year with my therapy clients, we reflected on the highlights and low-lights of 2019. Breaking patterns of behavior and thinking that do not serve growth and well-being takes time; however, the little nuggets of insight and small changes we highlighted were proof enough that my clients weren’t entering 2020 the same way they entered 2019. Essentially they were not “the same me.”
My hope for all the “New Year, same me” people is that they don’t let that statement become a self-fulfilling prophecy. All of us are capable of change, both for better and for worse. Making the decision to start therapy and the process of change happens only when you feel ready and motivated to invest the time. Let your foresight also be 2020.
What began as an MTV reality show documenting the use of fake online profiles to hook people into romantic relationships has become a widely accepted term for a clinically relevant phenomenon. It wasn’t until the second season of its airing that mental health awareness PSA’s started appearing in some of the episodes. Many of the “catfish” and their victims suffered from mental health issues, which made them vulnerable to engaging in the behavior as well as falling prey to it. The emotional impact of revealing the deception also had an adverse effect on mental health. This only served to intensify the drama and pain being witnessed and made it almost irresponsible for the network and viewers to ignore for the sake of entertainment.
Want to know what kinds of mental health issues breed a catfish? Keep reading.
After watching all seven seasons of the show and using criteria from The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) it became clear that a handful of conditions perpetuate and maintain catfish behavior and falling prey to it.
Anxiety is a mental health condition that’s easy to empathize with because fear can be such an overwhelming emotion. It has the ability to paralyze people from interacting with each other in order to avoid the rejection or ridicule they fear will happen if they do. This was the case for the catfish who reported creating fake online personas to have anxiety free social contact. Diagnoses like Social Anxiety and Panic Disorder can close people off from the outside world. Creating a profile where they don’t have to be themselves is a relational strategy to create “safe” connections with people. Unfortunately, this safety behavior can still have negative consequences even if the person’s deception isn’t revealed. The avoidance of authentic connection to manage anxious distress keeps a person trapped in their negative and fear based thought spirals. And when a meaningful love connection occurs through deception, self-esteem takes a hard blow because the person hasn’t really fallen in love with the real YOU. This painful truth reinforces core beliefs of being unlovable and the fear that if people knew the real you they would run the other way. Imagine how that fear is confirmed when the catfish is confronted and “rejected” by their online romantic partner. When you behave in a way that elicits the negative thing you believe in or fear the most it is known as a self fulfilling prophecy. The only way to prevent that from happening is to challenge or reality test the fearful beliefs and change the behaviors that supports them. It’s hard to do that when trapped behind a screen.
Anxiety and depression go hand in hand. Some symptoms of depression that underlie catfishing are low self-esteem, social isolation, worthlessness, and persistent negative and distorted thinking about self and others. One of the catfish in Season 1 had used his online connection of ten years to a girl he never met as a means of coping with depression and suicidal thoughts. He felt self-conscious and suffered from low self-esteem due to his weight. He assumed what the girl would probably think and feel about him if she saw what he really looked liked. This is a type of cognitive distortion known as mind reading. Finally meeting her in life challenged a lot of the beliefs that were keeping him from video chatting and meeting up with her. Another catfish had adopted an identity that she felt represented all the things she wished she was and got to live that imaginal “perfect” life through the profile to escape her depressive reality. On the flip side, some of those hooked by catfish also suffered from low self-esteem and depressive thinking. When an awesome, exciting, and beautiful person started complimenting them, they wanted to believe it was the real thing. Their mood and self worth became dependent on the external validation provided by the catfish. Revealing the deception triggered a downward spiral of hopelessness, worthlessness, and despair for some of the victims. Sadly, they are likely to fall prey again if they don’t learn how to cultivate validation from within. Sorry, Nev and Max, but those two month follow up video chats where everyone reports how great they’re doing – probably not that accurate.
Some of the most dramatic episodes involved people who catfish for revenge, to get a boost of attention, or to manipulate the victim into providing them monetary support. These catfish are in line with the cluster of personality disorders characterized by their “erratic and dramatic” behavior. Now for the disclaimer– in order to properly assess and diagnose someone with a personality disorder a mental health clinician has to take into account a lot of information including developmental history, family dynamics, trauma exposure, and a host of “rule outs” of other disorders that better explain the problem behavior(s). Moving on…
The three most commonly known disorders in this cluster are Borderline, Anti-Social, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder(s). Catfishing as an act of vengeance for being “wronged”(e.g. one catfish created a fake profile for the purposes of emotionally and financially destroying an ex who had cheated) or to test the limits of one’s love without regarding how that will impact the other person could be interpreted as “borderline” behavior. That shift from love to hate and back again speaks to that erratic emotional state experienced by someone with the disorder in response to perceived abandonment or rejection. The resulting behavior could include threatening to commit suicide or self-harm to keep the other person concerned about them, creating an illness or injury (i.e. what Max referred to as the two C’s – cancer or a car crash) as an excuse that will prevent the person from rejecting or abandoning them, or giving ultimatums such as demanding that the person move, travel large distances to meet them, or make grand gestures to show that their love is “real” only to have the catfish stand them up or disappear for a time. This kind of emotional roller-coaster and instability is a disaster for both the catfish and the people they hook. They aren’t capable of stopping cold turkey without truly wanting to get off the roller-coaster. They will also need some intense therapeutic support to learn to manage their emotions and change their behavior.
And now for the scariest of catfish…
Both Anti-Social and Narcissistic Personality disorders have some level of what is known as schadenfreudeor deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. Criminal behaviors like assuming someone’s identity to commit fraud (e.g. one catfish manipulated multiple victims to pay her bills and buy the things she wanted, then glibly blamed them for falling for it) or to slander a person’s reputation for “fun” (e.g. one catfish was arrested when she orchestrated a sexual encounter between a well-known athlete and a woman she didn’t know was a minor resulting in him being labeled a pedophile and almost destroying his career) display a lack of empathy and manipulation of people’s emotions to inflate a fragile sense of self. In one of the episodes, a victim whose identity was being used by a number of catfish expressed how a stranger grabbed her on the street and demanded to know why she had stopped talking to him. The woman became so guarded that she barely socialized or went out alone. While one of her catfish was confronted and the fake profile dismantled within a few days, this woman’s hypervigilance and the blow to her sense of identity will probably take a much longer time to undo.
The Catfish relationship take away…
The show identifies a number of “red flags” (see above) to look for when talking to someone online, whether you’re interested in dating or friendship. It also provides a few helpful investigative strategies to use if you suspect that the person might be a catfish. That being said, I think it’s important to also set what I call safe expectations before trying to date anyone on an online platform or app.
Your safe expectations should keep in mind the following three statements:
If it’s too much and too soon, it’s misattuned!
Don’t question your judgment with this. It takes time to get to know someone and that offer of all your hopes and dreams in a “perfect” package right from the beginning is just not realistic. If it’s the real deal, this person will not become upset if you slow the pace down. They will also not react with anger or ghost you when you set a limit. Using the phrase, “I’m really enjoying the process of getting to know you” followed by the limit you want to set shows a healthy boundary and sets the pace by which you want to open yourself up to this person. Don’t fall prey to statements that push back at that limit with “loving” manipulation such as “but you’re the perfect woman and everything I’ve been looking for…why are we waiting?” or “we’re adults and don’t have to play games.” Some version of these two repeat themselves in a variety of online dating courtships. If they get mad or ghost you, ’twas your gain in the end.
Your time is precious and your own to give.
This is the opposite of “too much, too soon.” If you find that you’re spending a lot of time trying to make something as basic as a phone call happen, you need to take back your most precious commodity. It’s wasteful and emotionally exhausting. Use that time to engage in self-care and to meet someone who’s more present and available…and real.
If it doesn’t feel good in your mind and body, it isn’t.
Powerful is the mind and body (gut) connection. Our bodies sometime react before our minds have a chance to process the “warning.” If you find that you’re experiencing some kind of somatic reaction when interacting with someone, check in with yourself. I’ll share my own experience with this one.
A few years ago, I had been talking to someone for about a month and feeling what I thought was a deep connection starting to develop between us. As we were trying to lock down a date to meet up with much excitement coming from both ends of the phone, I ignored some clear physical reactions that only made sense after this person did the slow fade to ghosting. Mixed with his compliments and flirts were little passive aggressive statements. I wasn’t picking up on them consciously, but my body was reacting to them with what looked like a rash on my chest and neck. This rash had occurred in the past in response to a loved one splitting on me (i.e. shifting from loving to rejecting without understanding what I had done.) My body knew this person was going to split before my brain processed the evidence for it.
Trust in the wisdom of your gut – it’s primal and straightforward unlike the stories we weave and tell ourselves to rationalize or deny shit experiences. Leave the stories and the drama for reality tv.
Additional sources of information on the mental health issues discussed in this post:
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.
The term “self-care” has been getting a bad rap ever since it became a buzz word. It has gotten to the point where saying that you’re taking a “mental health day” or “technology fast” is met with ironic glares and eye rolls. Can we stop the shade for a moment and think about how language is the key factor here? What does self care mean to you? Get to the heart of the need and call it by its name. For me, self-care is a reset. This resonated with a number of people in my personal and professional life.
We all need a reset.
The world needs a collective reset.
But I digress…
I took my reset in the form of a month away in the land of my ancestors. The Mediterranean sun, salt, and siestas reset my overwrought nervous system within two weeks of being there. The home cooked cuisine consisting of sun ripened vegetables and fruits, dark breads, soft aged cheeses, and freshly caught seafood reset my overactive gut; the place where stress tends to set up shop in my body. I returned to the city three days ago, but not to the grind. I find myself being fiercely protective of my healing energy and I will tell you why.
Like many New Yorkers, I am a hustler running to get as much done in a day to keep my head above the water line and my eye on the prize. This isn’t necessarily earning me any merit badges. This last year was especially challenging given that between my work, full time graduate study, and clinical internship I left myself only one day in a week to take care of ME. Just ONE day. No wonder my guts were contorting inside of me along with my mood. A good friend and fellow therapist gifted me a deck of daily “self care” cards. Everyday I would shuffle and pull a card out. Some days I was a BOSS about doing what the card instructed. Other days, I would look at the card and think impossible. I am lucky that my one month sabbatical actually was as curative as it ended up being. On the flight back home, I thought about how I was going to maintain this reset in an environment full of triggers. Here’s the list I came up with, which I am sharing with you all. I may not be able to control the environment around me, but I can control the one inside of myself.
(1) Go be in nature – walk along the boardwalk and inhale the sea air, walk barefoot on the sand or grass covered earth to literally ground my energy, lean my body against the trunk of a large tree and release the day into its embrace, or take a long walk across uneven terrain and appreciate how my body moves to keep me balanced.
(2) Cook the foods of my ancestry – recreate the meals that healed my gut and renewed my spirit. Channel giagia’s culinary muse and cook for myself like she would have done for us kids.
(3) Speak my language – hearing and speaking Greek activates different parts of my brain and psyche. My mother tongue is sometimes more effective at expressing intense thoughts and feelings. Allow myself to talk shit if that’s what comes up…nothing is as satisfying as cursing something or someone out in Greek. Greek curses are EPIC and I always laugh afterwards when I think about the direct English translation.
(4) Disconnect – unplugging from other people’s life dramas both in vivo and tech is VITAL. I had limited access to a stable wifi signal while I was away, so I couldn’t really peruse anyone’s content or engage with them for an extended period of time. This was AMAZING. I used the precious little time to interact with only select people and using minimal communication, which is a sharp contrast to the long responses I normally give. I want to continue this. Less is so much more and my contact boundary must shift to reflect that. Embrace the real life company of loved ones and those who reciprocate energy ONLY. Ondos! (Greek for “indeed.”)
For the past few days preceding the new year 2019, many people were blowing up their social media profiles with collages of a year in review. Actually, let me correct that and say MOST people. This was especially the case on Instagram, although Facebook and Snapchat were no slouches. Let’s not also forget the iPhone’s penchant for sending unsolicited “Moments” to many users as the year wound down to its close. Some of those moments weren’t very “smart” while others were too much so. What people tend to forget is that all of these images and snapshots of life only represent a fraction of a life being lived. All these carefully curated lives are flooding our ability to reality test as we scroll, check, and comment. They have the power to trigger a range of negative emotions and automatic thinking of oneself that I would compare to self-torture. How do we override this or do we even want to?
One of the major complaints a client shared with me was how accomplishments cannot be faked. When this client sees posts of college graduations, new homes, or weddings the negative self-appraisal switch gets activated. It’s easier for her to dismiss the filtered faces and Photo-shopped bodies because they are “obvious” in their fakery. Here begins the exploration of what is meaningful about these accomplishments using a form of reality testing known asThe Socratic Method. For this client, graduation meant attaining higher education that will get someone a better salary and financial stability. This belief has three parts to it, one of which is TRUE. Graduating college is attaining a higher education in the form of whatever degree is earned – TRUTH; however the type of degree earned can reality test the other two parts. The person she saw in the graduation photo may have earned a degree in History with a minor in Art. Does that automatically set them up for a particular job? Will that job have a salary that is “better” than hers? Will that person have financial stability as a result of the job and salary that their degree garnered them? The belief obviously falls apart. The one part that is true is parsed from the distorted beliefs attached to it. This helped get my client thinking about her tendency to make assumptions and self-torture based on what she saw on social media.
Another client’s depression was triggered when his iPhone sent him a selection of images titled “Holiday Moments.” The images reminded him of the awful break up he experienced the previous Thanksgiving, and how his family had picked apart his life over the recent Christmas break. What he expressed about the images gave the impression that they were painful to look at, so much so that they caused him to have a depressive episode. Reflecting these feelings back to him padded the landing for the following challenge – if these photos are so painful, why would you want to keep them in your phone? This led to an exploration of what it would feel like to delete the photos and how he was holding himself back from dating due to self-blame for his relationship ending. He decided he wasn’t ready to delete the photos, but it got him thinking about his own self-torture i.e. using images to justify the “story” he tells himself that perpetuates and maintains his depression.
I looked at the collages of various friends and acquaintances throughout the Holidays, some of which I knew had a particularly challenging year. I found myself becoming annoyed and even angry at the discrepancies between their curated lives and the ones they were living in real time. Part of my reaction was rooted in the many hours I gave audience to their hurt feelings, struggles, and inability to take action to change their negative circumstances. I knew the truth and it angered me that they couldn’t own it. That being said, I also know how incredibly difficult it is to acknowledge the above and resist the urge to get a self-esteem boost outside of the situations that are bringing you down by “false advertising.” We have ALL been there and our brain chemistry facilitates this behavior. There is a region of the brain that floods with dopamine every time we experience something novel or receive a reward. It gets activated when we receive positive reinforcement for the images and moments of our lives we share on social media. It can quickly escalate from an occasional mood fixer to an almost addictive need to post and check for likes and complimentary comments. These behaviors don’t give us the same reward of feel good chemicals. If anything, they give us less unless we escalate our activities.
The reality in the unreality of social media is that we humans are social creatures. We make meaning of our existence in relationship to others. Our self-judgment is part of the driving force behind curating our lives for the eyes of others. What happens when the careful selections don’t get us many likes or comments or worse, when they become the target of trolls and bullies? We become trapped in a negative feedback loop that maintains the dysfunctional cycle of seeking gratification for a life not lived as we would like it, but as we want others to perceive it. Before you post, think about the expectations you have of sharing the content. Whatever these are, they can serve as your personal barometer to test whether or not you’ve fallen prey to this cycle. A little less self-torture in 2019 is a great intention to set and more importantly, to SHARE.
Some recommended reading:
The New York Times: This Is Your Brain Off Facebook (article pub. 2/01/2019)
Planning on quitting the social platform? A major new study offers a glimpse of what unplugging might do for your life. (Spoiler: It’s not so bad.)
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.
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 likefood, 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.
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.
October 13th was the 8th anniversary of my recovery from Anorexia. Back on that date in 2004, I broke down on the floor of my bedroom in the middle of the night. I was staring into the demon bowels of the disease that had dictated my life for 3 years. It sucked the air from my lungs. I couldn’t live another day with its crushing pressure. It took me two weeks to leave the confines of a friend’s home (where I had escaped to cocoon myself from reality) and once I did emerge, I felt like I was in some kind of silent film. The world moved slowly, while I felt frenetic. I quit and distanced myself from everything in my life that I had allowed to enable the disease. I went into therapy. I ate a bowl of black eyed peas and rice, my first meal, with trepidation. My stomach; my intestines; my mind slowly came back to life. With belly distended, I proudly proclaimed on whatever social networks existed at that time that I was recovering. I was still very thin, but by the New Year 2005, my consistent eating led my body to “betray” me.
The life preserving shut down of my metabolism was meant to make sure I wouldn’t starve again. I was afraid to eat, but I did anyway. I submitted my food journals to my therapist who approved and told me to eat more. “Variety” she stressed, but I was fixated on foods I felt safe with. I did gratuitous amounts of cardio at odd hours, so no one would stare at my body at the gym. They had known me when I was at my thinnest and I feared their assumption that I was letting myself go. My fears were realized when in the Spring of that year, a trainer approached me and offered to give me a fitness assessment. The masochist in me accepted and after running his various tests, proclaimed to me that I was borderline obese. Oh, the shame that washed over me. For years, that left me with such an acrid taste for personal trainers. He told me to cut out the “junk food” and come see him for sessions at the gym. I was living on tuna fish and pita breads, fueling my workouts with coffee and bee pollen smoothies. I never went back to that gym. In fact I stopped going to any gym. My weight and health habits fluctuated erratically between 2005 and 2008, until a good friend recommended his trainer. I got over myself and the shame I had felt in my previous experience and contacted him. He assessed me through a short circuit of activities and introduced the concept of strength training. He taught me how muscle mass and strength would benefit me in the long run, making my metabolism more efficient and letting my body reshape itself into it’s own “normal.”
The seed he planted germinated when I went back to school for massage. I was hit with Anatomy, Physiology, Neuro and Kinesiology. I never soaked up information with such appetite before. I couldn’t get enough. This knowledge enhanced my workouts and sessions with my trainer because I understood how my body was designed to function. Suddenly, Mr. “Borderline Obese” became the joke that I should have never taken seriously. (Side note here: I saw his picture and name on a real estate placard recently, which clearly shows us he did not have a glowing career in exercise physiology after all). I also returned to therapy with a more cognitive approach to help get to the root of my control issues and take them head on…much like throwing knees and elbows during pad drills. I channeled my emotions into my workouts and learned, often times the hard way, what an art BALANCE is. Now, as a massage therapist, it is so important to foster this healthy sense of bodily awareness within my clients, wherever possible and always when solicited.
So when I was contacted recently by a Fitness/Wellness website for a review of their services, I stepped up to the plate and joined. SlimKicker is a point based program kind of in the vein of Weight Watchers, except that it values activities and nutrition at various levels and creates challenges for its users to foster long term health habits. It also provides a calorie counter, fitness tracker and other resources. There is the community aspect too, as users can post inspirational feed on the homepage, join each other in challenges/groups and “friend” each other for support. The About Us section states that the site is all about learning proper nutrition, portion control, and acquiring important habits. In that vein, upon signing up I was asked for my weight and what my goal was – weight loss or strengthening/toning. Although I chose the fitness oriented option, the pop up that followed was more for weight loss, citing how many calories and percentages I needed to consume in order to achieve my goal. The amount it noted was no where near what I would need to fuel my body and my workouts. To drive this point home, I logged only my exercise habits; not my food intake. If I followed what the site suggested, I would essentially send my body into starvation mode.
It is important to note here that there is a disclaimer in their Terms and Conditions that states the site should notbe used by anyone with any medical or nutritional conditions and that content is for informational purposes only, not meant to replace professional medical advice. Obviously no one with an eating disorder has any business on a site where everything is meticulously logged and counted, but many people without said issues can still have disordered eating habits and cycles of guilt they feel compelled to share via social network. The site’s inspirational feed is 80% laments at having eaten too much of something labeled “bad” either by the user themselves or the nutritional information offered to them by the website (Remember that disclaimer,guys?). Also, there are statements of pride over extra exercises and completed challenges; however these inspirational statements are edged with complaints about weight gain or lack of loss (again, that disclaimer). This is not the site’s fault. They want you to be positive, stay focused and band together for support. Our society is more to blame for fostering this widespread self loathing and depreciation. The hate and guilt are infectious and breed a vicious cycle that will continue so long as we choose to continue “sharing,” despite any health oriented social networks best efforts.
SlimKicker, if used properly, can function as a motivator for adopting a fitness regimen because it holds you accountable for your activities. Much like a TO DO list, if exercise is factored into a week and logged daily, it makes you all the more aware of the need to check it off your list. After doing so for so many times, it will hopefully become a natural part of your daily lifestyle. I’m still not a fan of food logging due to my past; however if you truly don’t know what you have eaten in a day, keeping a food diary can help you track unhealthy patterns like over eating and of course, under eating. My advice is to pay attention to your body’s individual needs and seek out a registered dietician and/or nutritionist if you find the process to be overwhelming.
Anyone close to me knows that although I do not claim to know everything, I hate being wrong. If a question is asked of me, I like to have the answer ready and on the tip of my tongue. When I saw a good friend of mine recently for lunch, he proclaimed to me how his life had forever changed thanks to the Socratic method. For those unfamiliar, the classic Socratic Method uses creative questioning to deconstruct and discard preexisting ideas, so that the respondent to these questions rethinks their original statement. The goal is to increase understanding through inquiry. Basically, if you think you knew something; you don’t. Socrates felt this to be a blessing because the person who thinks they know already, cannot think and therefore, cannot know.
My first experience with the method was in my Philosophy 111 class in freshman year of college. We began with Plato’s Symposium, which introduced the Socratic method within the context of a discussion between notable philosophers (Socrates among them) of that time in Greece. My understanding of the method was like that of a lawyer cross examining the witness to break down their testimony and expose the truth. It also reminded me of many a childhood argument with my father, who had a knack for taking whatever I felt strongly about and making it seem senseless.
Upon hearing my friend’s statement, I was intrigued to know the how and why of this change. Enter a form of psychotherapy known as Classical Adlerian. This form of therapy, developed by doctor and psychotherapist, Alfred Adler, influenced the latter approach of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy used today. It identifies the individual’s private life “plan” explaining its self-defeating, useless and predictable aspects, and encourages a shift of interest away from self-significance to self-responsibility and social-communal awareness. His therapeutic technique is broken down into 12 stages, all of which are heavily influenced by the Socratic Method. In the early stages, questions are asked of the client to gather information, clarify meaning and the feelings being expressed. Then, in the middle part, more penetrating, leading questions are asked to uncover the client’s personal logic, unconscious goals and hidden feelings. The social and personal implications of their feelings, thoughts and actions are explored, (both in short and long term consequence) and new options are generated through this use of the Socratic method. Everything divulged is reexamined and evaluated to help the client take steps in a different direction of their own choosing. In the latter stages of therapy, the Socratic method is used to evaluate the impact of the client’s new direction and to contemplate a new philosophy of life. The Socratic style places all the responsibility in the lap of the client. The role of the therapist is not that of a superior expert, but of a “co-thinker” helping the client arrive at a new way of living. (SOURCE: http://www.adlerian.us/theoprac.htm)
Here’s an example of this method of questioning at work, Adlerian style:
Client: “My wife doesn’t love me. She never gives me what I want”
Therapist: “Is your idea of love only giving you what you want? What if what you want is not good for you. Should your wife then give you what is unhealthy for you? Is that really being loving of her?”
Client presents a list of symptoms that is keeping them from moving forward in life. Symptoms may serve as excuses for avoiding something that the client is not doing. The therapist asks the question: “If you did not have these symptoms, what would you do?” The client’s answer is often quite revealing about what he/she is avoiding.
Inspired by my friend’s proclamation, I sat down and wrote a list of personal “truths” which govern the way I conduct myself in life, both socially and personally. I found that my “truths” in written form felt like they no longer belonged to me, but had been written by someone else. I could examine and pick apart these words on paper with a lot less ego than say, if the ideas were still doing their turns in my head. This brings me back to my original statement: I do not claim to know everything, but I hate being wrong. I can imagine Socrates’ first question being, “What does it mean to know?” or “How do you define wrong vs. right?” Hours of self-examination may be ahead, but worth every neural pathway formed.