Feeling Deeply

Growing up includes some challenges for everyone, I expect. For me, life often felt huge and confusing, living in a farming community amid a fairly large and loud Portuguese and Hispanic family with generations-deep blood ties to the Azores and a sort of grandiose pride in clinging to European roots while also grasping for The American Way. The closest family members belligerently professed  connections to conservative politics in public in order to “blend in,” while behind closed doors they retained a rebellious devotion to more progressive candidates and ideas. (Under questioning, they encouraged 8-year-old-me to never vote by political party affiliation but by candidates’ character.) Both my parents lost their fathers while they were still young and lived unstable lives. They came from a generation that survived the Great Depression and a World War. They didn’t talk about feelings.

Drama flourished within the community of my youth, though. Booze launched family gatherings, with cousins spilling out back doors and aunties organizing food while uncles bickered. Then arguments grew louder until somebody walked off, red-faced, or took a swing at someone else. Kids and women would scatter until things calmed down. Over food, jokes that I rarely understood drew guffaws and eased tensions until a few folks dusted off their favorite funny stories to share and share again. And then, whew. Sometimes we headed home. Other times, the wine from dinner urged someone to play fado, sad music featuring, most often, a heart-broken woman singing in Portuguese, or non-English versions of songs like Ave Maria. My mom, who spoke only English, and any nearby children, all of us forbidden to speak Portuguese or Spanish, would brace ourselves when those tunes started. We waited, amazed, until the big bossy manly men wept, blew their noses on cloth handkerchiefs, and ran out of energy. The evening wrapped up with folks patting shoulders and heading quietly home. That’s the closest we ever came to disclosure of feelings.

No surprise, I grew up with a limited ability to identify emotional states. I knew about four that I would have named as Fearful, Angry, Happy, and Sad. I read a lot and tried to figure out how to control emotional states and where they originated, but eventually I set the whole thing aside because of conflicting information. A few decades later I found a chart of emotions that helped me to understand some nuance so I could say, “That talk left me feeling content, hopeful, inspired” instead of “That was good.” Still, it felt as if feelings primarily mattered to me.   

Several books inspired me, starting with HeartMath (the book helped me consider the importance of the heart and offered techniques to feel calm), the books Blue Zones and Thrive (helped me view emotional and physical health through a cultural and holistic lens), and the book I want to talk about, Permission to Feel: The Power of Emotional Intelligence to Achieve Well-being and Success by Marc Brackett, Ph.D.

This book came to my attention during a podcast, and I picked it up because I want to improve my own skills and hoped to help my grandsons identify emotions beyond the common 4 I knew as a child. Along with engaging and well-written text, the book contains opportunities to pause and consider how we’re feeling or to practice a technique. There are 3 sections to the book. The first is more background information. The second section covers the method in more detail. The third is about applying the method. Because I’m looking for tools to help in the real-world I inhabit, the opportunity to engage with the material inspired me and initial trials have boosted my appreciation for the material.

Though the book warns against judging others’ feelings, I’ve used some observed encounters to build my own vocabulary. Because I completely acknowledge we’re often not as skilled as we think, I also take opportunities when it’s safe to do so to reality-check my observations with friends/family. I wondered how often my grandkids feel irritated, frustrated, and disappointed but hold in their feelings until they’re ready to burst.

Last spring, when schools were wrapping up for the year and before I’d read Permission to Feel, the grandchildren and I started a related discussion. We began learning about the brain, focusing primarily on the pre-frontal cortex (the Wise One), the hippocampus (the Library), and the amygdala (the Guard Dog) based on the Hawn Foundation MindUp Curriculum: Brain-Focused Strategies for Learning—and Living[i].  I hoped by teaching the grandsons brain-basics, they would better understand feelings, recognize anger and fear are designed to protect them, and develop ways to regulate emotions. We had fun discussing parts of the brain and how our Guard Dogs go berserk.

We only finished two lessons, though, before schools closed and our household schedules were upended by other changes. We haven’t yet gotten back in the groove and in online school the children checked in with their teachers on feelings with a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or thumbs-sideways.

In contrast, Permission to Feel provides a 100-word feelings chart (for adults) in full color with 4 sectors divided from high-energy to low energy and low pleasantness to high pleasantness. For example, “enraged”=high energy/low pleasantness, “ecstatic”=high energy/high pleasantness, “serene”=low energy/high pleasantness, and “despairing”=low pleasantness/low energy. The method includes steps we can take to guide ourselves away from being a feelings-judge. These steps are abbreviated as RULER (Recognize feelings, Understand the causes and consequences, Label emotions correctly, Express emotion(s), Regulate emotions).

Two of the many very helpful ideas for me include suggestions about how to question children regarding feelings and a technique called “Meta-Moment.” Please note that this book overflows with useful information. This is a glimpse and, hopefully, encouragement for you to read this yourself.[ii]

Questioning children. Asking children simple questions after they’ve had an outburst or seem upset sounded like straightforward advice. The author provided some sample questions that I remember as WHY. What happened? How did you feel (when that happened)? Why do you think you felt that way?  In brief practical experience, I’ve discovered waiting too long to bring up the feelings may give the memory time to clear from a child’s memory. Ask too soon and it can restart a tantrum.

One day I just didn’t know what else to say when my youngest grandson seemed angry and revving up.  He raised his fist as if he planned to hit me. Normally I talk about hitting as an inappropriate response that can cause more problems than it solves, then suggest deep breathing. He always refuses the breathing suggestion. Instead, this time I said, “I feel soooo frustrated right now. I love you so much and want to figure out what’s happening. I feel disappointed in myself because what I usually do doesn’t help you and I feel sad because I don’t know what to do to help you feel calm.”

By movie-moment standards, his response registered as far from miraculous. He looked at me, lowered his fist, and emphatically responded, “I feel frustrated, too!” And I said, “Isn’t it awful to feel snarled up like this? I need to take a break.” He nodded and walked away to take a break of his own. Later I tried to open the discussion about feelings, but he seemed to have moved on to more interesting topics.

The following morning, though, he came to me and said, “When I was little, (so-and-so) pushed me and bit me and hit me and it hurt.” I told him I felt really mad that someone would do that to him, told him it was mean and not fair to him. “You deserve to feel safe and be treated with love.” He simply said, “Thank you” and walked away. No happily-ever-after, but a good start.

Though he seems to have some trauma-based anger to deal with, we’re working on small things. The next time I noticed his frustration escalating (while completing homework), instead of asking him to pay attention, I mentioned he seemed really stressed and asked how I could help. He wasn’t quite sure, but I made a few suggestions and he accepted one. Quickly, we returned to task.

There have been some failed attempts. When we’re tired or haven’t eaten, things can go off the rails fairly quickly. I’m learning to ask about his feelings sooner. To be frank, re-reading the book sounds helpful, too, since it’s packed with so much information that I barely offer a glimpse. 

Meta-Moment. This suggestion, with multiple emotion-regulation techniques, spoke to me. Normally I can react semi-intelligently, but things have been stressful lately. The pool (my “happy place”) I depended on for exercise is closed and I’ve failed rather spectacularly at substitute endeavors, my schedule has been chaotic, the political and social climates have been erratic and sometimes scary, and we’re currently socially distant from friends and family. I’m destined to practice this technique a lot.

In most basic terms, it’s about taking a brief time-out when life feels overwhelming to the point we’re ready to act out. Instead, the book suggests: Take a deep breath (or a few). Clock it (sense the shift). Stop it (pause). See your Best Self in the situation. Consider options and take the road that helps close the gap between your “triggered” self and your Best Self.

Again, this book has a lot to offer if you’re someone who wants to dig in and try some techniques to better recognize and regulate your emotions. Whether you’re curious or you really want to learn ways to integrate emotional openness into your life, consider inviting Permission to Feel into your world. 

Next week, book 3 of my recent (for me) top 3 “self-help” books.

Until then, may you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.


Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions, my experiences, nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[iii]  If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[iv] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.


[i] Visit www.mindup.org for more info and https://mindup.org/mindup-for-teachers/ for additional materials, including links to free training videos. The curriculum can be purchased on Amazon or at other book retailers.

[ii] If you’re on a budget, check with your local library or see if you can borrow from a friend! My current income is limited and my bookshelf is full, so I understand!

[iii] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[iv] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

Chasing Happiness

Before I dive in, I have a favor to ask. Please remember that my opinions, my experiences, and resources I mention are not meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment of your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[i]  If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[ii] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.

When Autumn arrives, somehow it feels as if the world takes a pause and starts to look back, tentatively, and forward, expectantly, full of hope for the future and often with a touch of regret about the imperfection of the past three-quarters of a year that slipped through our fingers. By New Years Eve, a lot of us will have a list of things we want to accomplish in the next year, though most of us suspect,  based on statistics and our previous history, we won’t attack our “resolutions” as vigorously as we imagined we would.

Thanksgiving decorations have started appearing and it reminds me the holiday (in the U.S.) originated to encourage appreciation for one another and our history. Whether we imagine a history as simple and flawless as the stories taught in our early school years or hold to a more realistic and imperfect version that many have grown to accept,[iii] the present seems the perfect time to re-envision our personal future. Every adjustment we make now, will change what we feel when we look back next Fall or Winter. In a sense, each moment of the present gives us a chance to write a new history, a little at a time. To help along the way, I’m bringing into the conversation three books, one per week, that I’ve found extra-helpful in my self-care journey.

The first book, in plenty of time to request it from the local library or to order from your favorite retailer and dig in soon, is The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky. This book wandered into my life a few years ago during a course called “The Science of Happiness” that I completed (twice) online through www.edx.org. I picked the book back up for a second read recently, and I’m so glad I did.

The happiness myths I grew up sorting through seem alive and well today, decades later. I thought when I found the right person, got the great job, and made enough money, happiness would find me, or I’d find it. If I didn’t find it, I thought, it was because it resided outside my circumstances or my genetics. The book addresses these myths with science and clear explanations. The author points out about 50% of our happiness seems tied to a “set point” that appears genetic (we used to call this “hard wired”). Another 10% relates to life circumstances. However, a whopping 40% can be changed through intentional activity. 

With all the self-care materials on the planet, this book really delivered a lot of info and some excellent tools. This book offers a good explanation of the theoretical framework and then provides a lot of tools. Not only are there options, they can be based on just picking ones that click for you or you can select recommended options that seem most in sync with your values by completing the included 12-question Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. (To complete the Questionnaire without the book, go to this link.[iv])

The tools, called “happiness activities” in the book, cover 12 areas and offer different options within each area. The general areas are Expressing gratitude, Cultivating optimism, Avoiding comparison and overthinking, Practicing acts of kindness, Nurturing relationships, Developing strategies for coping, Learning to forgive, Increasing “flow” experiences, Savoring joy, Committing to goals, Practicing Spirituality, and Taking care of your body. The Questionnaire helps score and select areas of focus.

Per the Questionnaire, Expressing gratitude scored as one of my highest-interest areas. Since I’m already using a tool related to gratitude and consider it quite important, I’m impressed with the questionnaire. In addition, it helped me narrow down my broad interests to a few options. And though I feel I’ve progressed a lot with gratitude, from the book I learned more about ways to cultivate an optimistic attitude. Honestly, I hadn’t linked the two.

Growing up among adults who often outdid one another to the point if one had a “cold coming on” the other self-diagnosed with pneumonia, I witnessed a lot of negative thinking. My personalized definition of optimism in my teenage years included having the ability to recognize when something awful happened (friendship fell apart), accept any role I had in the disaster (didn’t pick up the cues someone was deceiving me), and acknowledging other circumstances (intentional cover-up by folks who knew what was happening). To my surprise, the book’s definition of “optimistic” states a person who relegates their failures to causes “that were external, transient, and specific” as opposed to causes that are internal and long-lasting. Suddenly, I felt a bit more like Pollyanna.

The tool I felt most drawn to in the section on cultivating optimism suggests writing about “your best possible selves.” This involves pondering deeply important goals and picturing them as achieved, then writing about that. It’s suitable for people of all ages and employs my imagination.

To find a second example, I closed my eyes and opened the book to a random page. Well, perhaps it wasn’t quite so random. The pages I opened to nestled in the section entitled “Managing Stress, Hardship and Trauma” and the tool was “Learning to Forgive.” Yikes! Although this wasn’t one of my top scoring areas, I realized almost everyone I know (including myself) has gotten bogged down at some time after we have been wronged or perceived we have been. The page I opened to has two activities/tools. One is to “Imagine forgiveness.” The other is “Write a letter of forgiveness.”

  • Imagine forgiveness suggests thinking of a particular person “you blame for mistreating or offending you.” You then imagine feeling empathy for the person, take time to consider their perspective, view them as a complete human being, and forgive them. Note that this does not mean excusing or putting up with poor behavior! It’s about letting go of the pain around the incident(s) and weaving through it thoughtfully and completely, imaging what you would say, how you would feel, and, in the end, reducing your stress.
  • Write a letter of forgiveness seeks to help us let go of anger and resentment by writing out our feelings in a letter, but not sending the letter (so it doesn’t matter if this person lives next-door or is no longer alive).  The activity suggest one method is to write about the offense, how it hurt you, how it still hurts you, what you wish they would have done, and ending with a clear statement of forgiveness. Again, this is not meant to be sent/mailed to anyone, but to help you find some peace and, perhaps, understanding.

While these may not resonate with you at all (and that’s absolutely fine), there are many other great examples in the book that might interest you. I consider the book one of those that touched me in a most lovely and uplifting way. To be clear, my preference is for information that wraps itself into or around practical tips – things I can use in my own life. The How of Happiness does that so well that I have to add it to my small personal library (and remove a book to make room for it because I have limited space).

Above all else, the book reminded me that we all have the power to make our lives happier, not by magic, but through chasing happiness in the right way: with an internal focus. To me, the potential life-long happiness upgrade makes it well worth the attempt.

Next week, book 2 of my top 3 “self-care” books. Until then, may you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.


[i] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[ii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

[i] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[ii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

[iii] For U.S. history, as a start consider Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi or sources that respect the perspective of indigenous people and those kidnapped humans who were brought to this country enslaved. For me, loving a country means knowing the country’s authentic ups and downs, accepting the past, and working toward a more equitable future.

[iv] If you’re waiting for the book and would like to try the Happiness Questionnaire, here’s an article that includes the questionnaire along with guidance: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/03/take-the-oxford-happiness-questionnaire

Giving Attention

So many things compete for our attention these days. Interacting with family and friends. Opportunities to engage with one another. Commitments to work, whether paid or volunteer. Making sure we meet our financial obligations. Focusing on caring for our bodies, preparing food, taking time for movement. Keeping up with current events and staying informed. Leaning in toward new opportunities. Keeping up with lifelong learning. And we live in a time with many entertainment options. Given all the competition, it’s no wonder so many of us struggle to make time for ourselves.

Several years ago I realized that when I completed two simple activities, my days went much more smoothly. For me, that still stands. I feel far calmer, happier, and far less likely to become irritated with others on days when I take as little as 15 minutes a day for some meditation and give myself some time – from 2 minutes to 2 hours – to write (whether a journal entry or crafting stories, but excluding emails and work-related tasks).

On days when I traveled for work or had other unusual time-sucks to deal with, these soothing timeouts sometimes didn’t happen. What I learned from this, thanks to the obvious difference in my stress level during days when I rushed around feeling frazzled, was to take time to pay attention. In my rush to care for family, do my best at work, and move through the day as efficiently as possible, changing my focus from the task-orientation to something a bit softer did not come easily to me. I learned a little at a time.

During the Greater Good Science Center class, “The Science of Happiness,” the instructors discussed the power of spending time in nature, engaging in simple walks in a park or even a minute or two looking at a tree (or other large green growing plant). Not one to accept such advice without trying it out, on a particularly difficult day at work, I stepped outside, walked to the back of the building where a large tree towered over a neighboring office. I stared at the tree for a minute or two, daring it to make a difference. Frankly, I found it difficult to direct any frustration toward the tree. It stood, firmly rooted, leaves rustling in a light breeze, apparently unconcerned about the humidity or the temperature or cranky clients or a complaining coworker. In spite of doubts, I stood watching the tree, breathing, and felt my tension slip away.

Surprised that a tree, however beautiful, had any impact, I vowed to remember that simple tool. And to try out more things.

Through the “Happiness” class[i] I experimented with a few different ways of paying attention to gratitude. One was to write 3 things daily for which I felt grateful. Another was to write 3 things on 3 different days each week. The final technique I tried involved gratitude writing once a week, stating 5 things for which I felt grateful and adding a sentence or two about what impact each had or why I felt so thankful.

A few years later, I’m still using the third technique. Someone gifted me with a lovely journal and though I resisted writing in it – who desecrates such beautiful works of art?! – I finally gave in and started a gratitude journey. This weekend I realized I’m nearly out of pages. I’m not ashamed to disclose I’ve missed weeks and picked up where I left off. I’ve also stared at the page a few times, after jarring weeks, slowly pulling something up from deep inside myself for which I could honestly claim I felt grateful. Most of the time, though, I strive to give little premeditated thought to the process. Instead, I go with the flow. I write the numbers 1 to 5 on 5 lines, then quickly jot something down, something that generates gratitude in my heart. After that, I give myself more space to write a 2 to 3 lines about each of the 5.

My entries will never win any prizes, and they often mention people – family, friends, coworkers, the stranger who bought me coffee. They also mention the weather, a spectacular sunset or full moon, a story that touched me, a sushi combination that surprised me, the roof over my head, the public library, the midnight blue color of the night sky, my health, access to healthcare, charming places, beautiful noise, services (like food delivery or my CSA), animals and birds, flowers and trees, easy trails. Several years of those weekly notes live in one journal that I rarely examine unless I want to remember.

Both of these simple practices – taking time outdoors to appreciate nature and developing a gratitude habit – can tweak a perspective enough to inspire more positive changes. Start slow. Stay consistent. Try different things.

This week I’m re-reading The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a book I learned about through The Science of Happiness class. I plan to write more about that book next time. For now, though, I’m wishing you some relaxing time in nature and hoping you find a rewarding gratitude practice that lifts you and keeps you mindful of all you have.

May you be healthy, be happy, be strong, and be safe.


[i] The Science of Happiness class is offered at low- to no-cost online through www.edX.org and additional information about positive psychology can be found at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/

Falling

Autumn arrived last week, the season that most folks (in the Northern Hemisphere) imagine as bursts of colorful leaves that usher in the cold days of winter. Fall makes a more minimal entrance here in the areas fringing the biggest metro sections of Southern California. In my childhood, autumn in Central California brought some colorful foliage and the tulle fog that caused a lot of mayhem on the highways and streets. Where I live now, the only significant gatherings of autumn leaves erupt briefly, mostly in parks, and late in the year: after Thanksgiving. The trees quickly shrug off the old, rushing to try on their Spring wardrobe.

Though it doesn’t feel like autumn weather, at the local market I couldn’t resist picking up a beautiful pumpkin. When I got it home my grandsons started talking about carving it. More practical, I suggested cooking it. They countered with the idea of painting it. And then carving it.

We clearly see things from a different perspective, yet we all expect some compromises at home. It makes sense, given the combination of different personalities and moods crisscrossing paths in one relatively confined space. Because of the lingering heat of summer and heatwaves that have flitted through the southern half of California, we lost our usual suburban refuge: the back yard. We all get downright cranky some days.

The life issues contributing to that crankiness, I’ve realized, cross age boundaries. Our challenges include some lack of physical activity, lingering awkwardness related to a new way of living during a pandemic, a fluctuating level of anxiety because of external events like wildfires that impact air quality, and lapses into ineffective communication. In simpler terms, we all stress out.

Humor, when used at the right time, can lighten up potential emotional explosions. For example, when the 5-year-old in my life becomes really frustrated about house rules that limit television or playing video games, name-calling is a go-to response. It usually goes something like this:

A miffed kindergartener looks at me and announces, “You’re a doodoo head!”

Me: “What?! I have doodoo on my head?!” I start touching my head. “Where is it?! Help me get if off! Where is it?!”

My kindergartener struggles to glare but we laugh. Then we talk, and we’re back on track.

In grown-up world, the situations are often more nuanced and sometimes humor fails. While there are many tools I use, I’m sharing one I learned about a few years ago but just started practicing in the last few months. I use this when something is bothering me, but I’ve got conflicting emotions and/or I feel muddled by anxiety or fear. When I feel stuck, I’ve become a fan of RAIN.

To start, keep in mind this is just my experience and not a recommendation. You know what works for you, so you do you! I’m not a professional with a certification for teaching this technique (I’m not even sure if there is a certification!), so after you hear about my experience if you want to walk through this yourself, look for the link I’ll share to a video with Tara Brach (a genuine expert and awesome teacher). In the video, she walks folks through RAIN.

For me, recently two activities converged. I began posting more often on Facebook, and a friend I have known for decades started sharing a lot of posts I found offensive and racist. Since I didn’t think of this person as racist, I made an “Ah, c’mon” comment that I thought would seem non-judgmental and light-hearted. It did not go well, and I received some unexpected and mean backlash. When I went back to review previous posts from this person, it was clear that we have a big difference of opinion regarding race. Because I felt awful and had a hard time just letting this go, I used the RAIN technique.

The acronym RAIN, coined more than 20 years ago by Michelle McDonald, has been popularized by Tara Brach, PhD. The acronym stands for: Recognize what is happening; Allow the experience; Investigate with interest; Nurture with self-compassion.

Recognize requires taking time to look at the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For me, the thought that repeated: I thought we were friends and I do not even know this person. I felt anxious, perplexed, abused, and embarrassed. How did I get this so wrong?

Allowing, for me, involved letting the experience just percolate, not beating myself up or making excuses for others. In just sitting quietly with the event, I realized my online comments resulted in a response of fury and disgust that I felt also held some sense of smug superiority.

To Investigate, I gave myself time by taking a few deep belly breaths and sat quietly to see what bubbled up. First, I acknowledged, offending someone else was never my intention. Then I reminded myself, I did the best I could at the time. What happened next surprised me. Just sitting calmly, old remarks and reactions from this person popped into my mind from decades ago. I remembered their best friend as an unabashed racist. I remembered the last time our paths had crossed, this person and their spouse gossiped about and made fun of other friends we had known while I sat uncomfortably, saying little. As other memories came to me, I realized this individual had not ever been a friend to me and most likely connected with me to feed information to my abusive ex-. Many other pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Initially I wondered How could I have missed that?! Rather than going down that rabbit hole, I moved on to offering myself compassion.

Nurturing myself, I repeated my go-to self-talk. I counted my blessings and repeated May I be safe, be healthy, be happy, be strong. I added the line from Brené Brown, I am here to get it right, not to be right. And, from Desiderata, the lines I recall most. Like the moon and the stars, I have a right to be here. Whether or not it is clear to me, the Universe is unfolding as it should.

In the end, I realized if I had it to do over, I might have approached this individual differently. I could have asked by private message about their posts and why they felt committed to their philosophies. I would have had a chance to try to understand why they believed what I understand as false stereotypes that, in the end, seemed likely to hurt them as well as others. I realized where my feelings came from and feel confident that I can move forward with a new understanding of the old relationship. I want to speak and honor the truth, so I will add that this experience helped me see this individual as unkind and not a good time investment for me right now; I’m taking a break that may become a permanent fracture.

To me, knowledge is power. RAIN is an effective self-care/self-compassion tool that helps me reach a deeper understanding, find some peace, and develop insight. I plan to use this when I’m having one of Those Days, feeling frustrated and, at some level, anxious, overwhelmed, or confused.

In the hope of inspiring others, I’m sharing what works for me. Take time to explore what works for you.   To learn more about the RAIN technique, use this video to walk through the technique with an expert, Tara Brach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8e_tAEM80k

Next week I’ll share more about some of my other favorite tools and how they’ve worked for me. In the meantime, follow health guidelines, get some sunshine if you’re able to do so safely, move as well as you’re able, laugh often, and remember to be kind to yourself.

May you be healthy, be happy, be strong, be safe, and live a life of ease.

One Step Forward

For a few years I’ve been interested in Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size, and for the last year I’ve been working to integrate Intuitive Eating principles into my life. My relationship with food has changed. A lot. Enough to convince me to launch a new self-care adventure. In order to understand what follows, I wanted to share the circumstances that led to a decision I made as well as what inspired me. Over the next six months, I’ll share how it all goes.

This journey started with a routine check-in with my doctor that didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. Since this happened during a pandemic, it’s understandable that most sane folks already feel a bit off-kilter on a daily basis. Anxiety is through the roof for good reasons: health concerns, work worries, money freak-outs, separation and isolation, limited resources, contentious politics, and intentionally conflicting news reports.  So, in addition to the normal high anxiety built into life these days, add stress about going into a medical clinic during a pandemic to mingle with potentially sick strangers wandering around inside.

The visit didn’t start well. I had to wait outside in hot weather, standing in a security line with people who refused to socially-distance. Once inside the door my level of freak-out ratcheted up because, while the clinic required several safety measures, clinic staff inside routinely ignored other visitors who disregarded those “rules” by removing their protective masks or invading the space of other patients.

When I successfully made it beyond the gatekeepers (security, payment, weigh-in that showed a small weight gain, a medical check-in with a nurse for my aching back), I waited a few minutes for Doc. The usually affable and smiling person I expected entered, looked at my medical record, frowned, gazed momentarily in my general direction, and grimly commented it’s time to talk about ob*s*ty. Your BMI has gone up and BMI is a very important measurement.

Until that discussion, I honestly believed the doctor saw me as an intelligent woman and a worthy-while-fat human being. By the time we finished a much longer discussion during which I questioned the validity of the BMI (designed for use in measuring large populations, not to assess an individual’s health), I had little doubt I represented a reprehensible majority of fat folks who clogged up the well-oiled gears of this mammoth medical corporation.  

Doc scowled and commented Ob*s*ty puts you at very high risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and, of course Covid-19. Thinking this a discussion, I mentioned I used to teach statistics. Correlation between weight and those diseases doesn’t prove causation. In fact, I’m more concerned that science shows the importance of quality medical care and the role of stigma in health outcomes.

I didn’t mean it as an insult, but Doc’s response I’m talking about science, not stigma left little doubt I’d unintentionally hit a nerve. I tried to explain a bit about my 40-year dieting history. That is, successfully and repeatedly starving (and usually over-exercising) for about half that time, alternating with disordered eating that resulted in more and more quickly regaining any lost weight even though I ate less than before. Over and over again. Doc shook it off and insisted Caring about yourself is about not giving up. It’s about trying again. And again. And again. I listened, thinking this sounded very much like a prescription for dangerous yo-yo dieting so it couldn’t be standard for this by-the-book humongous medical business. I’m referring you to our healthy lifestyle program that’s all online now. You might learn something from it.

Now, I understand that it’s basic biology.[i] The body thinks famine (not ‘this idiot is starving themselves because they think it will make them healthy’) and everything slows down. I sighed at the realization that the “cure” for everything from my itchy eyes to my aching back is still weight loss. I thought about suggesting Doc tell me to get younger. That would definitely help. I didn’t make the suggestion.

Doc commented The program has a very good success rate. How good? I want to see data about weight loss retention at 5 and 10 years to show me something is permanent.[ii] But “medical science” apparently has a different perspective. Doc looked at me with a squint, so I could guess what came next. We track data for up to 12 months while people are in the program. Some lose 5 to 10% of their body weight.

I’m focusing on intuitive eating, I say. Doc responds, Well, whatever you’re doing is clearly not working. I just want you to live longer. Are you at least willing to attend? There’s no excuse; you don’t even have to leave the house. It’s all virtual right now. I was already inside my head when the word “compliance” popped up, so I missed the details. As soon as someone mentions compliance, my radar switches on. What I told myself Doc meant: If you end up sick we’re not going to give 100% because you don’t care enough to do what you’re told.

It felt like a life-and-death decision, so I agreed to register for and attend the orientation. (More about that another day, but at the orientation they said compliance is part of the program requirements with non-compliance noted in participants’ medical records.)

The upside: the experience helped me to recognize how my relationship with food has changed.

I climbed into the driver’s seat, turned on the engine and the a/c, buckled my seatbelt, took a few deep breaths, and checked in with my body. At that moment, after six consecutive nights of 5 or 6 hours of sleep, I definitely felt the fatigue and noticed a burning rawness, as if I had been attacked and singed by the flames of the experience, but aside from frustration with the impersonal medical system, I felt  disappointed with the doctor who didn’t have time to listen and didn’t want to hear, felt some residual shame from not having one of the 20% of the population’s slender bodies[iii], and some anger about all the failed diets that slowly drove up my weight. I wondered, would eating something comfort me? I sat quietly. A few years ago, I knew I would have driven to the nearest no-no store and gotten something decadent. This time, though, having given myself permission to eat whatever my body wants, I realized the good breakfast I’d eaten prior to the appointment stayed with me and I felt zero hunger. I asked myself what might help? What I longed to do: have a cry, and punch something inanimate repeatedly.

Lacking the inanimate object to pummel (though I really do want to learn how to throw a proper punch), I cried for a minute or two. After that I realized how disgusted I’ve grown with diet nightmares that end (95+% of the time) with dashed hopes, a lighter wallet, and feelings of complete failure (aimed at Self, not the Diet). I reminded myself that Diet Culture (now a $72B a year business) loves to lure people in under multiple guises (diets, lifestyle-, health-, mindfulness-, and wellness-programs are hot money makers right now) but Diet Culture silently cheers when people fail. Why? Well, duh. Out of the 48+ Million dieters in the US this year, repeat customers are how they earn the big bucks.

I attended the orientation with an open mind. The “lifestyle” program requires logging all food/drinks, strictly adhering to calorie counts, weighing/measuring food, drinking lots of water, exercising at least 300 minutes a week, and weekly (or daily) weigh-in. To me, these are all clear signs of a Diet Culture Program demanding total fixation on food. That strategy has failed me so often, I can’t bear to go back to that type of thinking. But after the orientation, the question that haunted me remained. What do I do? Deal myself in for a doomed diet and hurt my own body? Reject the inhumane and unproven strategy outright knowing it could have consequences? Blaze a different trail?

My decision: there will be no digging for the mythical slender old-lady inside me who longs to be set free. She quit tormenting me 20 years ago. The Real Me is smart enough to focus on finding contentment in each day, practicing gentle nutrition and joyful movement, working toward better sleep, expanding mindfulness practices, and the magic of gratitude. It’s not perfect, but it’s a perfectly acceptable start.


[i] And this ignores Set Point Theory.

[ii] So far, even surgical solutions aren’t looking promising to me in the long-term.

[iii]These are the people who wouldn’t survive a famine but remain the ideal for many reasons.