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The AND in Body Acceptance

The AND in Body Acceptance

As a woman, my relationship with my body is ever changing. Each new decade brings new experiences and new ways my body asks me to accept her.

In my early 20s, in recovery from my eating disorder, I worked proactively to accept my body for who and how she is. This journey continued through pregnancies and postpartum, and the chaos of raising little kids, and now in my wisened 40 years on earth, I am confronting the “joys“ of aging and perimenopause.

I know my clients have wondered if true body acceptance is actually a “thing.” I am here to say emphatically, “Yes! It is!”

And

That doesn’t mean the work is over for me.

Sometimes body acceptance is a soft landing spot where I enjoy months, or even years, of emotional freedom to live my life according to my values, enjoying my body as a companion along the way. And sometimes my body acceptance slips and old, critical patterns rear their heads. Yes, sometimes I am “triggered” and have to re-commit myself and put in deliberate work to accept my ever-changing-body.

This happened to me just a few months ago.

This summer, my best friend and I went on an epic trip to Switzerland to celebrate our 40th birthdays. We filled this trip with incredible adventures. Our craziest adventure was jumping off a 295-foot cliff, free falling until we were caught by the rope that swung us over 70 miles per hour above a white-capped river between narrow canyon walls.

We began this adventure meeting with our guides and about 14 other humans, who were just as crazy and excited as we were, to make this jump. Before we drove to the jump site, we had to get our harnesses secured. Unexpectedly, we all also lined up to get weighed. I should say here and I have not weighed myself in years as I do not own a scale. This has been part of protecting my long-term eating recovery, as well as my larger stand against diet culture.

I was initially more confused than bothered about why we were each getting weighed. My confusion became annoyance when, after weighing us, the guide wrote our weights on the back of our hands in large black marker. Our numbers were all easily visible to each other.

I made a point not to look the weights on everyone’s hands but couldn’t help but notice the number on my friend’s hand. Her number was significantly less than mine. I knew my friend was smaller (and taller) than me, but that size difference had never been overtly quantified before. I was surprised at how big the discrepancy was between our weights. I immediately felt uncomfortable in my body.

I tried not to think anymore about this and instead focused on the adventure ahead. Our group drove up to the cliff and walked to the platform where we would throw ourselves off. Upon arrival and after instructions, our guide asked a volunteer to go first. This volunteer needed to be in a certain weight range. Only myself and one other group member (a male) qualified. I asked for her rationale and our guide told us someone in the “mid-weight” range needed to jump first to test the rope. I made a joke about the first jumper being a sacrificial offering and was glad that, between the two of us, the male was happy to jump first. As I got back in line, I reflexively started looking at all the weights marked on everyone’s hands. I felt even more uncomfortable in my body as I realized I was the heaviest female in the group.

My mind began warring against itself. I was upset for how uncomfortable I felt. I was embarrassed that I was singled out as different from the other women in the group. I felt embarrassed that I was different, even in such an inconsequential way as weight. I felt less than by being bigger than all the women. I also hated that this derailed me in such a moment as a once-in-a-lifetime jump into a beautiful canyon. I told myself things I know to be true, which include, “Weight and size don’t matter. That isn’t what gives me worth,” and my favorite grounding mantra, “This isn’t how I want to spend my energy.” While these thoughts were helpful, this moment was still really hard and painful for me.

Before jumping off the cliff, I was able to reground myself in the present moment. But honestly, I think standing on the precipice of such a high cliff, knowing I was about to jump, would clear anyone’s thoughts, as my legs felt weak and my heart raced with adrenaline. The jump, fall, and swing, was the most thrilling thing I’ve done in my life. It was so crazy that my brain struggled to process it in the moment and I didn’t fully catch my breath until long after my feet were back on solid ground. My friend and I giggled uncontrollably at our own insanity and had huge smiles on our faces for the rest of the day. I want to tell you, that was the end of that trigger, and I went on my merry way. 

But it wasn’t. 

I wrestled with discomfort in my body and negative thoughts for several weeks afterwards. I also felt ashamed for struggling with my body image after so many years of acceptance and resiliency.

There was no magic bullet that made this experience better overnight. For several weeks I worked hard to regain peace in my body. I had to dust off and use more tools in my toolkit than I have had to in years. I was intentional and practiced mindfulness, grounded myself in my values and personal truths, distracted myself when necessary, and practiced self-care. I also extended myself compassion for being so thrown off balance by this experience. Slowly and deliberately, this burden lifted and I am re-grounded in my own body acceptance. So here in my truth: I have peace and acceptance in my body. AND sometimes this peace needs to be actively fought for.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that while my own body acceptance has been hard fought, I also enjoy body privilege. The experience I had at the canyon swing raised my own awareness at how I never experience weight stigma because I live in a “normal” sized body.

This experience was so benign compared to the experiences others face on a regular basis and knowing how much this distressed me, raises my anger and advocacy. I want to live in a world where everyone enjoys body privilege because every body is valued and seen as good and I commit to doing my part to making such a world a reality.

A voice From the Circle

A voice From the Circle

Anna Packard PhD and contribution from a group psychotherapy client

When my clients graduate therapy, I always ask them to write a “This I believe essay” as a final assignment. The purpose of this assignment is to put into words their healing transformations or pivotal changes in their journey. I want them to explore what they now believe about themselves, in recovery, as they move forward with their lives. One of my former group clients gave me permission to share her, This I believe Essay, on our blog. I hope you will take a few minutes to read this journey in her words:

I Believe in the Power of My Voice

Being diagnosed with an eating disorder was one of the most painful moments of my life. With the diagnosis came an end to my life as I knew it. Within a few days I was on a plane headed home and sent right to therapy. “My mind was sick,” they said. My voice was drowned out by the competing voices of my therapist and my eating disorder. I felt broken, shameful, and alone.

As part of my treatment, I joined an eating disorder process group. My first day of group was overwhelming, to say the least. I did my best to memorize names and piece together the lives of my new friends. They all looked so comfortable, and I felt terrified. I didn’t want to speak. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to do it wrong. The words that came out of my mouth felt insincere and forced.

That feeling lingered for a while as I adjusted to life with therapy.

As the weeks went by I settled into my new group persona. I sat on the edge of the circle and listened intently. I’ve always been told that I’m a good listener. I could easily spend most of the time silent, and that didn’t bother me. While my mouth might have been quiet, my mind was always racing. I think deeply and I feel deeply, but that’s a side of me many aren’t privileged enough to see.

Whenever I would share something, everyone seemed so interested. I remember one of my first groups I broke down in tears, and when I looked up I saw faces full of emotion and love staring back at me. These people really cared. I knew this was a safe place if I wanted to open up. Although, it would usually take others asking me questions and pushing me to share more before I would tell my story. To be honest I was usually surprised that people wanted to hear more from me. I wasn’t sure I had much more to give.

Years later I sat in my same chair on the edge of the circle. We were processing something, I don’t even remember what, and soon it was my turn to share. I had been reflecting on my experience in group and I found myself saying, “I’m just not comfortable staying quiet anymore.” It wasn’t until someone pointed it out that I saw the power in my statement. I repeated, “I just don’t want to sit here silent.”

Of all the powerful moments I’ve had in therapy this was one of the most profound. I had found my voice. I didn’t want to be the quiet one all the time. I had learned that there was value in what I was feeling and there was power when I spoke about it. I could express love and compassion, sadness and pain, or happiness and excitement. It was freeing. Finding my voice didn’t change who I was. I still listened deeply, and thought intently, but I didn’t have to do it all alone. Group gave me belonging, and with that belonging I found my voice. I believe in the power of my voice.

From Anna: As a group psychotherapist, I love how group helped facilitate her healing journey and also served as a bigger metaphor on her path. I love how her healing involved showing up for herself, taking up more space, and finding her voice, inside and outside of group.

Group is a passionate part of my work as a clinician and at Balance Health and Healing. We currently offer three eating disorder process groups for those seeking recovery from ages 14 to 60+. I am excited to announce that we will soon offer a new experiential group focused on body acceptance! This group will start this fall. If you have questions about group or believe group may help facilitate your journey, please contact us! I am happy to geek out about all things group and hope I and group can join you on your journey.

Reference link: https://thisibelieve.org/guidelines/

Commit to Coping, Here’s How

Commit to Coping, Here’s How

How are you doing? No, really, how are you doing? Life can be hard and learning how to really take good care of yourself can take a little time, but it’s so worth the effort.

Coping Skills are for Humans

If you’re a human, congratulations, you need coping skills. Think of stressors as experiences that demand a response by your body. This is where the stress response comes in and it is an incredible system that is designed to keep you safe while facing life’s challenges.

But this stress response also needs to be dealt with. If you’re like most of us, once you’ve faced a big challenge, whether it’s speaking in public, being cut off in traffic, or having a difficult conversation, you just want to move on. You don’t want to think about the stressor anymore. You’re just glad you got past it.

But, guess what? Your body isn’t past it yet. It’s still having a stress response. Your body is still disrupted by the stressor and it needs your help to get back to homeostasis. So, even though you’ve dealt with the stressor successfully, your work here is not done yet.

Enter Coping Skills

This is where coping skills come in. Effective coping skills are designed to help you move through the stress cycle and return to homeostasis where stress hormones decrease, the immune system calms down, and the parasympathetic system quiets the sympathetic system. When you don’t engage effective coping skills, your body can become stuck in a chronic stress response, making you more sensitized and vulnerable to stressors. In contrast, when you commit to coping with effective skills, you get better at facing challenges and can more quickly return to homeostasis. This is a process by which your brain learns from challenges and you become more resilient to stressors.

3 Rs of Coping

But how you engage coping skills also matters. Because the stress response is a full- bodied and full-brained response, understanding what’s happening during a stress response can help you move through the stress cycle more effectively. These are known as the 3 Rs and they come to us from Dr. Bruce Perry, a trauma specialist.

1 – Regulate

When you face a stressor, your body moves to survival mode with a full-system response designed to keep you alive. This response can include a racing pulse, shallow breathing, temperature shifts, hyper-focus, and loss of appetite.

Given this strong stress response, your first target for coping skills needs to be regulation. Facing a stressor dysregulates your body and so it makes sense that a critical part of returning to homeostasis includes a focus on regulation.

Coping skills designed to help you regulate include paced breathing, sleep, temperature changes, eating, reducing stimuli, and grounding techniques to keep you in the here and now. Regulate coping skills should be your first line of defense as they pave the way for you to benefit from additional coping skills.

2 – Relate

Once you’ve engaged regulation skills, it’s time to focus on the second R, Relate Skills. Because you are a human, you are wired for connection. This means that when life’s stressors threaten you, it’s important to rely on meaningful connection to help you cope and return to homeostasis. This is what it means to be human.

Relate skills include self-compassion, empathy from others, affection, love, and support. You don’t need a loved one to solve your problem or tell you why it wasn’t a big deal. You need someone to love you and empathize with your emotions of the experience. And you need to do the same with yourself, responding to yourself with self-compassion, not self-criticism.

3 – Reason

As you build a strong foundation of coping with Regulate and Relate Skills, you’re ready for some Reasoning, but the truth is, most of us try to jump straight to reasoning skills too quickly and then wonder why we’re still stressed out and feeling self-critical. Bypassing Regulate and Relate Skills leads to short-circuiting the healing process. It makes it more difficult to have an accurate understanding of your experience and leads to poorer reasoning and resolution as a result.

You must attend to first things first. Self-regulation, loving relation, and then reasoning. Reason skills include increasing insight, taking perspective, challenging stories, learning lessons, consolidating memories, and problem-solving. These are important skills that require critical thinking, skills that are difficult to engage without a strong foundation of self-regulation and loving relation.

Lessons from my Relationship with America

Lessons from my Relationship with America

I was the grumpiest one at the parade. Maybe the only grumpy one? Everyone else was smiling and laughing, all decked out in their red, white, and blue outfits. But I was having a hard time celebrating America this year. 

The last month has been heavy for me. The mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas broke and angered my heart. I was then deeply upset by the overturn of Roe V Wade and what that means for women in our country. This year, I felt like I was living in a country I didn’t recognize. 

I left shortly after the parade was over, even as my friends and my children all clamored to go to the local fair to play games and eat corn dogs. I knew I needed to engage in self-care and re-set before rejoining the day-long festivities that is our country’s birthday celebration. 

I went where I knew I would find refuge: the mountains. As predicted, after a few hours of hiking, I felt grounded and ready to enjoy the evening with family and friends.

As I hiked, I thought through my emotional experience with everything happening right now and had some important insights for myself. 

I picture our current America like a dysfunctional family. There are absolutely parts that are not going well, parts that harm people, and those things need to change. There are also many things that continue to go right. I do experience so many freedoms and live in a land, community, and country that I love. I showed up for a protest rally right after the overturn of Roe V Wade. Could I also show up and celebrate my country’s birthday as well? I asked myself to hold this complexity and nuance as I started to cook for our BBQ celebration. 

This complexity parallels so many of our relationships. Whether that’s community, family, friendships, or even our relationship with ourselves. 

It’s easy to let the scales in these relationships tip one way or the other. Maybe we focus too much on what is going wrong. Looking hard at what isn’t going right, is important. We need awareness to shine a light in dark spaces in order to know what needs to change. But only  focusing here can leave us depressed, overwhelmed, and helpless. In the week after the Supreme Court Roe V. Wade overturn, this is exactly how I felt. On the opposite end, maybe we look too much on the positive. And yes, you can look too much at the positive. This may feel comfortable, but doing so negates growth. 

Every relationship is complex and dynamic. Indeed, every human is complex and dynamic. This is part of why I love my job so much. I love witnessing and supporting humans in all their complexity. I believe strongly in my personal responsibility to hold myself, others, and relationships, in that complex nuance. 

That balance is chronically hard to achieve, and I absolutely don’t do it perfectly.  Because of that, I try to hold myself lightly in the journey. After the parade, I gave myself space to feel my sadness and distress around the state of our country. And as I allowed myself that space, while simultaneously taking care of myself, I was able to come back to the place where I could hold my own dialectical experience: the joy and pain, together. 

When I was too tilted into my distress, I fantasized about moving to Canada. I felt helpless and angry. Re-centered, I still hold my anger and distress, but I also feel compelled to show up in proactive ways. Because this is my dysfunctional family after all. When I hold my love for my country, simultaneously with my distress, I want to claim my country and advocate for change. 

 I want this lesson to deeply internalize to myself as well. When I get too down or critical about myself, I feel depressed, angry, trapped, and helpless. If I can hold myself in my complexity, which includes pretty great parts of myself too, I want better for myself. I want to show up for myself in proactive, healthy, compassionate ways. 

We are all complex and dynamic. We are all capable of growth and change. As we journey, I hope we can all hold ourselves with compassion, honoring and holding that complexity, looking hard at what we need to change, and loving ourselves enough to show up in all our dysfunction. 

Airplane Wings and Us

Airplane Wings and Us

 

“I just don’t let things bother me.” Ever heard someone say this?

Deep breath. I have reactions and thoughts, but first let me share a short story.

I remember one time I was on a particularly turbulent airplane ride. I had the window seat overlooking the wing. I felt frightened as I watched the wings bounce impossibly up and down. I remember worrying if the wings were going to snap off and this would be the end of my story.

The flight had been so scary for me that I called my dad upon landing and told him my experience. When I told him about watching the wings bounce with such intensity I thought they’d break off, he told me, “Anna, you want the wings to bounce. If they were too rigid, they would fall off.” 

This struck me then, and continues to be an important life lesson.

Resiliency is a big concept in the therapeutic world. Indeed, much of what I do with clients is help them build their own resiliency to life’s challenges.

Put simply, resiliency can be thought of as our ability to “bounce back” and adjust to life’s adversities. Intuitively we focus a lot on that “bouncing back” process. But equally important to resiliency is the impact in the first place.

The wind exerted incredible force on the airplane wing and the wing moved in response. The wing let itself be impacted by the events around it. This ability to move in the first place; indeed the ability to be moved in the first place, is key to its resiliency.

It is the same for us. There is no inherent resiliency in “just not letting things bother us.” There is no good life skill in this. In fact, resiliency comes from allowing events to impact us and move us. It is in these impacts that the challenge, insights, and growth happen. We need to be moved in order to grow and change. 

Glennon Doyle has wise words on this topic,

“Being fully human is not about feeling happy, it’s about feeling everything…It’s okay to feel all the stuff you’re feeling… You’re not doing life wrong; you’re doing it right. If there’s any secret you’re missing, it’s that doing it right is just really hard. Feeling all your feelings is hard, but that’s what they’re for. Feelings are for feeling. All of them. Even the hard ones. The secret is that you’re doing it right, and that doing it right hurts sometimes.”

People who have learned to “just not let things bother them” are missing out on valuable life lessons and growth that come from feeling the full range of emotions inherent in the human experience.

Those dark spaces full of struggle and intense feeling, that come from the impact of lived human experience, are sacred. They are where we truly learn who we are and what we are capable of. This is where we learn we can do hard things, which is the definition of resiliency.

 

Learning that Grief is Normal

Learning that Grief is Normal

Grief is very natural- it’s been said that grief is the form love takes once our loved one is no longer present with us. Grief is the psychological pain response to losing a close family member or friend. When we look at it through the lens of attachment theory, we gain greater understanding into what the normative process of grief looks like.

We tend to have a handful of people in life who we have a psychological attachment to- these are people we have close relationships with, people who are invested in us and help us regulate our emotions and physical well being. We turn to them when we need help, comfort, or distraction. We experience a longing for them when we are separated. With attachment comes a disposition towards caregiving. Those we are attached to are who we are naturally driven to care for and most willing to accept care from. Research into attachment theory shows a very biological drive towards these bonds- they are essential to our survival and we are programmed to stay close to our attachment figures!

When we experience loss of one of our key attachment figures, we ache for them.  But beyond that deep emotional pain, we may experience sensations of being displaced or unmotivated, maybe even a loss of our sense of competence and ability to function. Looked at through a lens of attachment, these reactions seem expected. Our predictable system is disrupted, and we are reacting to that difficult disruption.

As our grief progresses, there are typically some changes in our emotions and behaviors over time. When you think of visiting a friend who was widowed a few days ago, imagine what you might expect to find- a bit of chaos in the home environment, weepiness, perhaps a lack of motivation to accomplish much. 

Now, imagine visiting that friend five years down the road- do your expectations differ? You might expect to find the friend still sad over losing a spouse, and certainly still missing that person- but in many ways, living life with more predictability and emotional steadiness. Over time, we never stop missing or loving our lost loved one, but the way we experience grief and even the nature and intensity of our emotions will typically change over time. 

This very normative process results in what we call “integrated grief”. Integrated grief differs from the first year following loss, when we are in a period of “acute grief”. While integrated grief can still have peaks and valleys, it doesn’t interfere with our day to day living the way acute grief does.  

How do we transition from acute to integrated grief? The task before us is to solve the problem of accepting something that is the exact opposite of what we wanted.

As we come to accept the reality of our loss, we oscillate back and forth between paying attention to the painful emotions and reminders of loss and setting them aside momentarily to pay attention to the basic tasks of life. This “Two Pillar Theory” in grief research explains how we bounce back and forth between these two realities at first- it’s impossible to do it all at once in acute grief. Gradually, we become more adept at merging those two pillars, and the reality that our day to day living and future are without our loved one sets in. We find a way to accept something that is the exact opposite of what we wanted.  And in that acceptance, life continues forward.  

Of course, there are times when this normative grief process is interrupted by some “derailer”- complicating life factors may act to sidetrack the normative path grief takes. In the absence of these derailing factors, we can expect our grief to progress to a place of integration.  

Why does this research matter? For starters, we can place so much undue pressure on ourselves and others to speed the process up. In paying attention to our outward appearances rather than our grief work, we can sacrifice the long term integration for short term “having it all together” points. We might begin to avoid grief reminders, important things we need to spend time integrating during our acute grief in order to get those societal gold stars. This pressure can actually act to prolong and complicate our grieving. When we have realistic expectations for ourselves and others in grief, we allow the processes to occur naturally and real integration can happen.  

As with so much of life- what we try so hard to avoid can end up being what eventually sinks our ship. In the short term, it may feel reasonable to run from pain. In the long run, avoidance leads to a continued inability to cope with distress (the darn distress isn’t going to catch a hint and cooperate with our scheme to ignore it!) 

I hope this knowledge empowers you to step towards your grief, to sit with it a bit today and get to know it. Remarkably, I’ve learned that it’s not present to torture you, but to guide you and teach you.  

 

The Messy Middle

The Messy Middle

As an adult, I find myself dismantling unhelpful, internalized attitudes and beliefs that I picked up from my youth. One that I’ve been confronting recently is this belief that “If you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward.”

Have you heard that one too?

This belief makes me think about moving sidewalks in airports. My kids and I always love to get on the sidewalks that are moving in the opposite direction so we have to work extra hard to move forward toward our destinations. We giggle as we run full speed but hardly move at all. And then, when we stop, the sidewalk pulls us back, defeating all of our progress. This is a good time.

But it’s not fun and playful if we are all on invisible moving sidewalks that quickly eliminate our progress if we dare to stop moving. Operating from the belief that I’m on an invisible moving sidewalk that requires my chronic movement and dedication to not backslide, is exhausting at best, and fear and shame inducing at worst.

What’s funny about this belief system is it doesn’t follow physics. Well, I don’t know much about physics at all actually…but I feel pretty confident in asserting that if I’m not moving forward, I’m actually staying still.

And is there value in staying still?

That is the lesson I am learning in my life right now. In recent years, I have felt like life is asking me to slow down in important ways. I have been asked to confront and settle into spaces of “not knowing.” While this makes me feel messy, confused and vulnerable, I am learning to trust the process. It feels painfully slow and I’m not sure how or when it will conclude, or what that will even look like. Is this my midlife crisis?

I love how Brené Brown describes this messy place like being on Space Mountain. You are on the roller coaster, it’s too late to get off, and you are in the dark and can’t anticipate the twists and turns you are facing, nor do you know how and when it will end. But it does. It will.

Brené Brown discusses how you cannot skip this messy middle place. She even asserts that this messy middle place is “where the magic happens.”

I’m not feeling all sorts of “magical” but I am learning valuable lessons inherent in this space. I was listening to a guided meditation recently where the guru asked me to start breathing in ways I’d never considered breathing before. I’m used to breathing into my chest, or even down towards my stomach, but this guru asked me to breathe into my back and sides. He asked me to attend to the feeling of expansion from my ribs laterally, instead of feeling my breath move up and down.

That’s what this feels like. A new way of breathing that feels sideways. A way that is teaching me about how I can expand in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It is teaching me to settle and not be reactive. I am learning to be more deliberate and slow as I sort through all the messy pieces I am confronting. 

I am learning to be more present. I am learning to be “ok with not always being ok.” I am learning that I don’t have to be “productive” to be whole and worthy. I am learning to be compassionate with myself. Staying still, right now, is where I am learning to truly listen. So yeah, that all feels cool. I haven’t come out the other side, but I am so glad to learn that choosing to slow down and stop for a period is not the same as moving backwards. Just the opposite.

 

Stay in Your Lane

Stay in Your Lane

I recently had my first baby and it has been the most amazing and most exhausting experience of my life! There is a steep learning curve when having a baby and I have learned lessons on lessons on lessons. One important lesson came to me at about two in the morning as I was feeding my son. (more…)