Every morning Matt, Izzy and I meet our next-door neighbors and their dog Happy for a walk. Izzy tears around, barks, puppy bows and takes a nip on Happy’s ears to entice him to play with her. No dice. Happy stands mute, unresponsive, looks at the grass. After the first ear nip, Happy runs to Penelope, our neighbor, for help. He jumps on her legs and she says, "Oh Happy, you poor thing." And she stands between Izzy and him, pets his ears, murmurs love ditties. Protects him from the rambunctious red head that is Lucille Ball in a dog’s body.
Penelope tells us that when Happy goes home, he lays on the cashmere blanket and is fed eight small meals a day. (He’s not overweight, just a bit round like a tiny beach ball). When I ask Penelope about her eating habits (she doesn’t really know what I do or write about. Not really. And that’s good because she doesn’t tailor her answers to appear different than she is), she tells me she also eats quite a few times a day. Loves food, and doesn’t deny herself anything, although that is not a problem for her. Her husband Moe, fasts one day a week, eats at 10 am and 2 pm every day and except for a small muffin at 6 am and 6 pm, that’s the extent of his daily food intake. He was once sixty pounds overweight, he says, and this is his way of maintaining structure and being disciplined. Sometimes she calls him a tight ass. Sometimes he calls her Gimli after the stumpy dwarf in Lord of the Rings. And then they laugh. Izzy bites Happy’s ears again, Penelope protects him and on we walk.
How we eat is how we live. How Penelope eats is similar to how she protects Happy: lots of cushion. Lots of what she defines as love. Moe isn’t fazed by Izzy’s attempts to engage Happy. He thinks she is cute. He keeps walking.
He’s a restrictor. She is a permitter, something we talk about at our Women Food and God retreats. The laser version is that restrictors have a hard time saying yes to themselves while permitters have a hard time saying no. Restrictors are most challenged by Eating Guideline number three (eat what your body wants) and permitters are challenged by Guideline number five: stop when your body has had enough.
For permitters, more is not enough and for restrictors, less is more. There’s no reason to try to change either of those patterns. It’s hopeless. They developed from a combination of family environment, genetics, culture. And rather than try to change what cannot be changed, rather than pushing against a personality pattern, I have found that the best, the kindest, the most effective action is to look deeper. Look inside. Look beneath the pattern itself. Go back. Go further back. Keep going.
In my own life, what I’ve discovered is that the voice that says “Good. Again. Harder. Deprive yourself more. Then more,” goes back to when I was a child and was so magnetized to the external (because as a child, there was no other choice) where I learned certain behaviors would keep me safe, most specifically turning against my own impulses, reining myself in.
Restrictors, of which I am a supreme example, were hypervigilantly attuned to what out there would make them feel safe in here. “If I control myself, I can control what comes at me. If I can control my weight, I can control the amount of love I receive. If I match what I want to what is expected of me, I will be safe. I will be loved. I might even be thin.” The end goal was never about being thin; it was about being accepted, being safe, being loved. Food was just the means by which those things could happen.
Permitters stayed safe by blending with their environments. They figured that since there was no way to change them, they might as well tune them out. Eat. Give themselves pleasure. Follow their impulses.
I’m writing about this today because what’s behind both these patterns is the same: fear. Because as always, our relationships with food are doorways into our beliefs about being alive and most specifically, the ways we abuse and turn against ourselves no matter what type (or sign or enneatype or ayurvedic dosha) we are.
I am most interested in what’s behind, in back of, inside the conclusions we came to (and are unconsciously still obeying). In sitting in myself. In stopping the self-abuse. In naming the conclusions I came to about myself: I am unlovable. I am a failure. I am not enough. And feeling where they are rooted. Because the second I use my eyes to unlock from the external world and turn them around, there is a wealth of unmet feelings that once recognized, soften and stop trying to get my attention through acting out. When, for instance, I feel what it feels like to believe I am not enough, I see my father immediately. I see the rows of report cards I brought him with all A’s and one B. I see him asking why I got a B. I feel the need to keep trying, keep pushing, keep proving to him that I am smart and that he can therefore love me. And I turn towards that one. I soften. I realize my conclusions were not true and that what I wanted most was not getting all A’s but what I thought getting them would give me -— his unconditional love, his high regard.
At that point, I can go in one of two ways: I can see that my father himself was quite damaged from being in the war, from having a mother who he felt hated him. And I realize that I am, as one of my teachers once said, “Taking long-ago instructions from someone I wouldn’t ask for street directions from today.”
And even if I see that, know that, feel that, I still need to pick up the fragments of what I believed about myself that I still believe. And so I do the work of naming, feeling, turning towards, forgiving — and releasing myself from the judgment and from believing that the more I deprived myself, the safer I would be. The harder I pushed, the more I studied, the more I went without, the more love there would be.
We all have reasons we do what we do, and mostly, they are out of an old decision that protecting ourselves either from starving ourselves or overeating was going to keep us safe.
But restriction leads to rigidity. And what looks like permitting leads to self-indulgence. Both are ways we lose ourselves. Both are ways we keep the fear of being ourselves, of telling the truth, of showing up as ourselves under wraps. Both are ways we never ever come home to who we actually are beneath the layers of protecting we’ve developed. We see this over and over in the eating meditations during our retreats. The food on your plate is a doorway to what you believe about love and truth and power. That is why we eat together and notice, pay attention, feel the support of community—and unwind decisions hat are no longer true.
In a recent retreat, someone said “food has always had great power over me.” And I said, “It’s not the food. Food is just food. A cupcake has no power. A bowl of potato chips does not have a voice. Cookies don’t talk. Food has no power at all, but what does have power is fear. What does have power is your old and unavoidable conclusions about yourself and the world around you.
“It’s dangerous to be vulnerable.”
“If I show myself, they’ll hate me.”
How do we stop? By paying attention. By naming feelings. By turning towards ourselves and unwinding a lifetime of turning away. By asking for and receiving untold support for being on our own sides.
Here’s what I know: when I am on my own side, it looks like not overriding the no. Or yes. Or do it now. It looks like the recognition — all it takes is three minutes — that I have been here waiting all along to, as David Whyte says, give my heart back to itself. And that looks like, feels like, home. Because it is.
No matter how sophisticated, wise, or enlightened you believe you are, how you eat tells all. If you want to understand and change your beliefs about abundance, scarcity, deprivation, relaxation, kindness, and what you deserve to give yourself, the world is on your plate.During our upcoming May 10-15 online retreat, you will learn precise and intuitive steps to channel the obsession with food, body and weight in life-affirming ways so that what you take on your plate and what you want most in your life are aligned. To register now or for more information, call 1-703-401-0871 or CLICK HERE.