There I was, trying to decide what to make for dinner. I wanted to eat something healthy. And cheap. I thought I should use up some ingredients I had lying around. I didn’t want to schlep to the market anyway. I remembered this simple dish a friend made for me recently: quinoa, wilted kale, black beans, and Goddess Dressing. It was so delicious and felt so good in my body. So I whipped it up using some kale I had growing in the backyard, a can of organic black beans and just enough quinoa. I even had what I needed to make a goddess-like dressing. Sounds so healthy you could eat a cheeseburger right now, doesn’t it?
For a split second I reveled in my capacity to cook something so healthy yet so delicious and satisfying. Period. End of story.
Or not...this is when things started to get a little bit out of hand. I lost contact with the present moment feeling of satisfaction and got grandiose about it. I thought, “This time, I’m really going to do it right. I’m going to be healthy and lose weight and look fabulous and become a movie star and rule the world and...” Then my inner critic intervened. She said, “Who are you kidding? You’ll never be able to keep this up. You just like the “unhealthy” stuff too much. You have no discipline. And besides, is this meal even actually healthy? You know what the Paleo Diet people would say about eating grains and legumes. And you know what the Raw Foodists would say about all this cooked stuff. And could you have been any lazier? Canned black beans? Come on!”
OK, so to some of you that all sounds really crazy. But my guess is more than a few of you hear me striking a familiar chord. Many of us struggle with constant attacks from the inner critic, an insatiable tyrant fed by some of the worst external messages from popular culture and the multi-billion dollar diet industry (frequently targeting women). Our critics can launch attacks related to just about any topic, but I know mine loves to jump in when I'm trying to decide how to eat.
A good friend of mine put it well when she said some of us “know too much” about nutrition from obsessively trying to figure out how to do things “right”--to be healthy, to be thin, to cleanse our livers, whatever. We’ve read book after book and consulted a bazillion professionals with a bazillion totally different ideas about what’s killing us. But we’ve just been fueling our inner critic. Over and over the belief that we don’t know what’s best for us is reinforced. We learn we can’t trust our bodies. Body? You know, that thing that carries your head around. I’ll wait a second while you find it...
There. I can feel mine right now. It’s telling me it’s lunchtime. But I’m wanting to ignore it because I’m busy doing other things, like writing this article. But if I ignore it for too long, I’m going to be so overwhelmed by hunger I won’t be able to make a conscious choice based on the kind of nourishment my body needs. I’ll probably eat a super burrito or a super something else I don’t need right now. My critic will have a field day with that!
Many of us are used to telling our bodies to shut up and quit whining or we ignore them altogether to the point where we’ve forgotten what their signals even mean. Our critics attack us for having hunger, for having needs. Mine sometimes chimes in with “look at all those people who can skip lunch. Why can’t you be more like them? You’d be more productive if you didn’t waste your time eating so much, fatty.” Harsh. Lies.
I know it’s tempting to look outside of ourselves for advice when we’re struggling. But I’m going to make a wild assertion here and suggest the answer isn’t in nailing the science of perfect nutrition. It isn’t in counting calories, buying into a diet food plan, or throwing away all the grains in your house. It’s not in letting the inner and external critics (you know that friend who sounds like a Weight Watchers commercial?) tell you what to do. When you listen carefully to the voice of the inner critic, you'll likely find it talks utter nonsense. It contradicts itself all the time because it’s main purpose is to criticize--not tell the truth.
What if instead, we soften the voice of the inner critic by not buying into it? What if we learn to take our body’s side in discovering what feels good and nourishing? Now, this takes a lot of practice and a lot of compassion. This takes standing up for yourself in the face of the siren song of the diet industry, all that stuff your mother told you that you know isn't exactly right, and that critic inside of you who constantly makes you doubt yourself. This takes being present and tuning in.
I am well aware of the irony in writing an article which is giving advice on ignoring all the advice. I can’t seem to find a way around it! Keeping that in mind, I would like to share 5 ways you can work towards learning to trust your body when it comes to food:
You have it in you to know what you need. Years of being told you can’t trust yourself certainly takes a toll, but I believe you can gain that trust back. Eventually, your top adviser on what to eat will be your tummy. And then, if you feel stuck you can seek a little counsel from trusted outside sources. But for now, lose the nutrition and diet books and make space for your body to speak. You might like what it has to say!
Most of these posting are excerpts from my podcast A Therapist Walks Into a Bar and articles I've written for Psyched in San Francisco Magazine I credit my words with the teachings of many people in my life, from authors I've read to friends, family, colleagues, and clients. These words represent my interpretation and synthesis of the things I'm learning. Topics vary but inevitably come back to the same thing: building awareness around how we interact with ourselves and the world around us.