How to Fight Body Shame

How to Fight Body Shame

“Why can’t everyone just leave me alone?!!” I yelled, slamming the computer closed and storming out of the room. Corey tentatively followed me into the kitchen where I was hurling plastic dishes into the sink. I wanted to eat something, but I distracted myself by cleaning up the mess from breakfast instead. 

“What’s going on?” he asked, bravely offering me an invitation to verbalize the rage he could see all over my face. 

I made an angry sound somewhere between a growl and a moan. “I can’t write with noise coming from every direction out of every single person in the house!” I shouted. Mercifully, he nodded in understanding. “I just want to go somewhere–anywhere–to be alone!” 

“I get it,” he said gently. “This is really hard.” It was just what I needed to hear. 

His acknowledgement diffused the intensity of my emotion. Feeling understood was a like a momentary lifeline out of the waves of my overwhelming frustration. Unknowingly, he had saved me from looking for comfort elsewhere–namely in the kitchen pantry.

I sighed deeply, humbled by his compassionate response to my tantrum. Apologizing for my outburst, I scrawled “do not disturb” on a piece of scratch paper and taped it on the bedroom door. Here I am now, laptop back open, trying again to fight for my sanity by typing words that help me hone in on what’s happening inside me.

The morning blowup didn’t come out of thin air; it was an emotional eruption of internal pressure that had been building and building. These days of isolation and intense “togetherness” have worn me down, depleting my reserves of patience and flexibility and optimism. I feel trapped, lonely, angry, and powerless to change the circumstances that are sucking the life out of me.

The longer we spend in quarantine, the harder it gets–and the more desperate I feel for relief.

I really did start out strong, working hard to reframe this as an opportunity–to soak up more time together, live with fewer distractions, embrace greater simplicity in our days. I focused on controlling what I could, resolved to implement practices that protect my physical, mental, and emotional health. Time alone to pray every morning, walks outside in the afternoon, regular sweat-inducing exercise and mostly healthy food choices all helped mitigate the effects of so many stressors.

But as two weeks became four, then eight became who-knows-how-many-more, my energy for self-care gradually diminished. Adrenaline and willpower wore thin and unhealthy coping strategies started seeping in through the cracks in my self-discipline. 

Instead of processing how I was feeling, I’d bake cookies; instead of going for a walk, I’d pour a glass of wine. It felt like I was already giving up so much–worrying about my food choices just felt like something I couldn’t manage on top of everything else.

Somehow, what started as sporadic indulgences became daily habits. Old stress eating patterns reemerged like muscle memory. Even as I told myself that I don’t struggle like I used to with food, convincing myself that I didn’t need to check myself as often or limit my sugar intake as carefully, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. 

These momentary hits of relief didn’t come without consequences. Seemingly out of nowhere, my pants stopped fitting. 

Eventually, our choices catch up to us.

The old, familiar voice of shame hissed in my ear, “Look at you! You are so disgusting. You should have known you couldn’t stay healthy for long–it was just a matter of time before you lost control again. It’s no good pretending. You’ve always been fat and you always will be.”

You could say I’m a bit hard on myself. 

This battle with body shame is painfully familiar territory. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to lose weight–so often focusing on calorie restriction instead of nourishment, exercising to burn calories instead of build strength, and criticizing every angle of my reflection instead of celebrating my unique shape. If I could just lose a few more pounds…

The result of endlessly striving to perfect a body that is inherently imperfect? Shame. Loads of it. 

The distorted belief that my lovability somehow increases or decreases with a number on the scale? That’s shame. My desire to hide from anyone who might notice or judge me for struggling? That’s shame. The temptation to collapse into overindulgence and self-hatred instead of admitting I need care? That’s shame. The excruciating fear of being rejected for who I am or what I’ve done? That’s shame at its core.

But shame cannot survive being spoken aloud. Admitting that my relationship with my body is complicated–that I vacillate between gratitude and contempt for it every single day–undoes the isolation and secrecy that give shame its power.

The truth is, my body bears the scars of a battle with disordered eating, a struggle with self-hatred, a fear of being unworthy of love, the birthing of two humans, and the residual pain of past injuries. It is both resilient and fragile, unique and imperfect, athletic and worn down, ever-changing and steadfast, capable of bearing deep pain and holding great joy.

It is a body that has lived hard and loved much and has not given up on me yet. 

I have legs that can run and jump and dance. I have arms that can wrap my kids tight and hold them close. I have two eyes that can see beauty all around me. I have lungs that can breathe deep and sing loud. I have skin that can touch and feel and sweat. 

I have a body that is imperfect and flawed and uniquely mine. 

A lifetime of self-criticism is hard to unlearn. In this season when my capacity is maxed out, when my feelings are big and my body is tired and I’m doing my best to survive each day, it’s hard to be gentle with myself. Maybe you can relate?

It helps me to remember what the research shows: The antidote to shame is empathy. Sharing our struggle with a safe person who can look us in the eyes and hear our heart, hold our pain, and validate our struggle without trying to fix us is like a healing balm to our soul.

As life continues in all of its sweet and sour moments, may you find a quiet place to sit alone long enough to thank your body for all it’s done for you. 

May you have the courage to invite someone who loves you into the places you’re tempted to struggle alone. 

May you find the grace to gaze gently at the beauty you carry, beholding yourself without judgement or shame. 

And may you know beyond a shadow of doubt that who you are today, imperfect and in process, is worthy of love.

Today I’m going to exercise. And buy new pants. Without shame.

Feeling Crazy in an Upside Down World

Feeling Crazy in an Upside Down World

I’m still recovering from my last trip to the grocery store.

An eerie silence greeted me at the door, compelling me to walk quietly, almost on tiptoe as I sanitized my cart. The air felt solemn, void of the usual buzz of smalltalk and laughter and even tantrums–in fact, children were conspicuously absent. Most shoppers wore masks over their mouths and noses, some homemade from handkerchiefs or procured from paint supplies in the garage.

The fear in the atmosphere was palpable, and it immediately enveloped me in its grip.

I felt myself almost holding my breath while I hunted through the aisles of empty shelves in search of the necessities. Shoppers avoided one another, and as I pushed my cart one way, people would swerve the opposite direction to avoid coming too close. Some visibly cowered as I walked by, turning their faces away from me while I did my best to give as much space as possible. Almost everyone avoided eye contact; almost no one smiled.

My head knew it wasn’t personal–social distancing is necessary to protect us all. But my heart still felt a stab of rejection. And I was exhausted by the time I checked out.

I’ve always been a feeler. I experience emotions big and loud and passionate–both gratifying emotions and difficult ones impact me deeply, for better or worse. Until recently, I believed my sensitivity to the world around me was a character flaw, that there must be something wrong for me to be so affected by life. 

It turns out that emotions are actually a really beautiful part of being human.

Emotions are neither good nor bad; they are simply our body’s response to what is happening around us. 

It’s becoming a new passion of mine, learning about the role of emotions and the way our brains and bodies are connected to what we feel. Under stress, our body works extra hard to keep us safe from perceived threats, collecting information about our surroundings before our conscious mind is even aware. Our brain processes the information it receives and tells us our body how to respond. Do we run and hide? Get ready to fight? Are we safe enough to relax?

Lately, my brain has been firing on overdrive trying to make sense of this upside down world full of isolation and social distancing. It’s exhausting. As a result, my emotions have felt like a roller coaster, climbing and plummeting without warning, sometimes even multiple days a day:

I’ll start the morning grateful to be home with my family, soaking up so much unexpected time with my kids and squeezing them extra tight. A moment later, I’m angrily sending them both to their rooms for fighting or sassing or throwing a tantrum–basically acting on the outside the way I feel inside, too.

I try to reset with exercise and a healthy smoothie, empowered and resolved to care for my body. But by late afternoon I’m nibbling on chocolate pulled from my emergency stash, struggling with self-condemnation because I can’t seem to stop.

The natural homebody in me finds partial relief in permission to stay home, but as the day goes on claustrophobia builds and I feel trapped, frustrated that I can’t find a moment or space to be alone.

I’m desperate to connect with friends in person but confused about what’s okay–can we go for a walk six feet apart? Can I sit in your lawn and sip coffee? Is there a way to both stay home and stay sane?

Not to mention the looming fear in the back of my mind, buzzing quietly enough to mostly ignore but always there, growing in volume when I read the paper or scroll the news feed or let my mind wander down the path of “what if?” It’s a constant drain on the energy I draw on to manage the other emotions in my life, all of which feel bigger in this quarantine cage. 

Life feels so confusing right now. It’s hard to know which way is up, especially outside of the normal rhythms and community that keep me grounded. We weren’t designed to do life alone–we simply cannot thrive without regular, meaningful human connection.

The more time we spend in isolation, the harder it is for me to remember what normal even used to be like. And the more I wonder if I’ll ever be the same again.

Feelings are not unfamiliar territory for me, but the scope and volatility of our collective emotional experience these days is enough to make anyone feel a bit crazy.

But you’re not crazy. I’m not crazy. We’re NOT crazy. This is just plain hard. Everything is new, nothing is certain. We’re alone and afraid and forging our way through uncharted territory, which takes loads of courage and tons of perseverance.

Today I’m angry. For no good reason, except everything. I’m tired of holding it all together. I’m tired of being optimistic and cheering us on indefinitely. I’m grieving how much I’ve been forced to give up this spring and I’m mad that I feel powerless to do anything about it. I’m tired of yelling at my kids or being mean to my husband because I’m exhausted and feeling everything extra big. I’m tired of being less than my best self.

Life will not always feel this hard. It’s hard to believe things will change in the midst of a pandemic that has no cure, no end in sight. But it won’t last forever. We will come out on the other side–we’re already closer to the end than we were when it started.

In the meantime, the more honest we can be about what we’re experiencing, the healthier we will be both today and when this whole thing becomes a memory. Buried feelings don’t just go away–they will come out eventually in the form of unhealthy behaviors or physical symptoms or relational distress or worse. 

So let’s not wait to deal with what we’re all facing. Let’s name it. Let’s feel it–because feelings are not meant to be held, stuffed, or ignored. They are meant to be…felt. And named. And shared with someone safe enough to care that you feel what you feel.

You’re not crazy. You’re brave and you’re tired and you’re doing the best you can. And your best is enough.

When Life Doesn’t Look Like You Want

When Life Doesn’t Look Like You Want

Yesterday didn’t look the way I expected. Maybe you can relate.

By ten o’clock in the morning, I laid on the floor weeping in defeated surrender over frustrated plans for my first day with my newly homebound children. One stubbornly chose to clean her room rather than join me in kid-friendly yoga, while the other curled up in a ball of tears next to me, moaning because the movements were just too hard.

My best efforts to nurture their minds and bodies were failing. I had spent hours the night before, planning, organizing, and picturing the new rhythm of school at home we would embrace over the next six weeks. From the moment everyone woke up, however, it was clear that my expectations were not going to be our reality. I pushed, they resisted; I threatened, they melted down; I controlled, they rebelled.

It was too much, too soon. Yoga was the last straw–we all broke.

None of us were ready for life to look so different so fast.

Over the past week, one broadcast at a time, the things I depend on to keep my life stable, predictable, and healthy have all been shut down. It started out slowly, murmurs of disruption whispering quietly from places far enough away to feel removed from my reality. I mostly ignored the voices of fear and alarm, rationalizing that our quiet life was safe from the panic I saw elsewhere.

The murmurs grew into figurative shouts almost overnight. A mild discomfort stirring inside of me spiraled into uneasiness that threatened to morph into full fledged anxiety as I became more and more aware that I am not in control of what’s happening all around me. 

All at once, my life suddenly looks nothing like I expected.

Catapulted into the role of an educator, reorganizing my days around engaging my kids’ hearts and minds, and feeling ill-equipped and unprepared.

Fasting and praying and trusting God to provide what we had planned to raise at a now cancelled fundraiser, believing my husband’s job will remain stable.

Stripped of the outlet to move my body and teach other women to dance, to sweat, to persevere, to fight against the forces that threaten our mental and physical health.

Disconnected from the community that helps me process the big feelings all this stirs up, isolated out of fear of infecting others or contracting a sickness I can’t see and can’t fight.

Wrestling with shame over the number of tears I’ve cried already, over the sense of failure in realizing I have no idea if I have what it takes to survive this.

Life is harder than I feel equipped to navigate successfully on my own.

I’m fully aware that there are so many others struggling for reasons that seem bigger, more significant, more legitimate. One friend is facing a potential loss of her business; another has been blocked from traveling to bring home her almost-adopted daughter. And those are just two stories–people everywhere are facing unprecedented challenges that stir up real anxiety, real pain, real uncertainty. 

No matter how big or small the interruption looks for you as compared to anyone else, we cannot escape the fact that our reality has been altered indefinitely. Comparison does nothing to soothe the ache of disappointment that comes when life looks different than we want it to.

We are all reeling a bit, knocked off-balance and unsteadily trying to step forward into a world where nothing feels certain. In the midst of so many unknowns, here’s what I DO know:

1. I can’t do this alone. Left alone with my thoughts and fears and frustrations and feelings, I quickly work myself into a spiral of hopelessness. I realized yesterday that now, more than ever, I must reach out to my people in creative new ways. Technology has the potential to steal my peace, but it can also help me build a bridge of connection–Marco Polo, Voxer, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and even strategic social media, I’ve never appreciated you more!

2. I must get outside. I need the sun to shine on my skin, the fresh air to open up my lungs, my eyes to lift off of the screen and up to the expanse of sky, to the beauty of the world beyond the often constricting walls of my house. The moment you step outside, I’m told, the stress hormones in your body immediately begin to dissipate–I need this now more than ever.

3. I must practice healthy rhythms. My physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health all need extra attention when life spins out of control. Exercise is a non-negotiable. Quiet time in the afternoon helps our whole family reset. Nourishing meals remind me to eat for fuel and not for comfort. Protecting time to pray and meditate on Scripture shifts my focus and calms my heart. Without these practices that bring life, my days feel chaotic, anxiety spikes, and my soul shrivels.

4. I must prioritize both gratitude and authenticity. Choosing to name the gifts in this moment–even when I have to grasp to find them–builds my capacity for joy. But I also need to make space to admit what is hard, or I risk missing the chance to encounter God in the places I need him most. Telling the truth about where I’m struggling releases the hold of discontent so gratitude can do its work. I need both.

More than ever, I’m resolved to fight for the practices that help me thrive. The stress inherent in this season threatens to trigger either panic or despair, which could easily morph into full-blown anxiety or even depression. (Ask me how I know.) 

I’ve learned the hard way that I cannot neglect self-care when life presses in on all sides.

After a run in the sunshine, this morning brought with it new hope, new perspective, and new resolve to find the gift in this forced slowing. Today I didn’t coerce my kids into adhering to my schedule but decided to savor the freedom of releasing control. And we all breathed a little easier. We laughed a lot more, too. At the end of the day, I’d choose joy over control every time.

What practices help you stay grounded when life feels unsteady? I’d love to learn from you!