A good few years back, I went through a really difficult time in my life. I had just moved to America from England, leaving behind my family and friends. I had a newly minted PhD but couldn’t find a job, and had no academic connections in the U.S. And I knew pretty much no one in America, besides my new husband’s family. New house, no job, and an entirely different culture to deal with. Not to mention homesickness. Not surprisingly, I also began to have panic attacks.
Ridiculously (but I was only about 26 in my defense) I did not give myself permission to feel anger, grief, or upset about these changes. Instead, I blamed myself and internalized everything, thinking there must be something wrong with me for not being able to adjust to them. Jobless, I had a quite a bit of time on my hands with which to ruminate on fixing this problem…
The ‘answer’ I rationalized, was to ‘improve myself.’ The anxiety I felt was my fault, therefore I had to become a more serene, healthier, happier person. I really didn’t stop to think that I had very good reasons to feel anxious!
At around this time, I picked up a book on eating healthily with a plant-based diet. I also started attending yoga classes. I became vegetarian and practiced yoga every day, with a view to becoming a yoga teacher. I started reading lots of books on spirituality, especially Buddhism. A trip to Whole Foods could take two hours because I carefully read the ingredients of every single item I picked up in an effort to avoid any processed or refined ingredients.
Now, this is actually a pretty healthy lifestyle, right? Arguably, yes. But, here’s the thing. I was practicing this lifestyle for all the wrong reasons.
I was feeling so out of control of my own life, placing all of the blame for my negative feelings on myself, that I had turned to diet and spirituality as a means of gaining a modicum of control. Every time I checked the food labels, I felt empowered and in control. In reality, I was anything but. And, crucially, it didn’t make me much happier…it certainly didn’t make me a ‘better’ person (what did, IMO, was gaining confidence at work, and being less serious and more lighthearted about life).
Don’t get me wrong, yoga and healthy eating are both great. I still try to practice both. But I’ve quit the obsessive label-checking; the flirtations with veganism (which, again, I think I flirted with only because I was down this path of food control = moral purification. In other words, it was a way to feel ‘in control’ again) and the self-help/diet book reading. I would like to be vegetarian again, however. I fell off the wagon two years back, but I care deeply about animal welfare, and still feel guilty when I eat meat! I think that is the right reason to be vegetarian, though.
What I’m getting at here is that deep down, you know when you’ve been hijacked by your own desire to ‘self-improve.’ You know it because you feel anxious about food, weirdly ‘high’ when you eat healthily for a whole week (or some other self-imposed goal) and, perhaps the biggest giveaway, you feel like you are on some kind of ‘journey’ or ‘quest.’ Let me tell you, this is a quest that you can never achieve, because the only place it leads is more self-doubt, recrimination, and anxiety. Once you’ve reached one goal, all you can do is replace it with another more restrictive one. Where’s the joy in that?
If you’re wondering why I felt compelled to suddenly share my thoughts on this topic, it’s because I just finished reading an article about a new eating disorder that’s appearing on the DSM V: orthorexia. This is defined as an obsession with food and diet as a means to self-purify, to the point where it negatively impacts one’s health or ability to function in the world.
I don’t think I was even CLOSE to this point…orthorexia is a radical condition, and fairly rare. Still, all disorders appear on a continuum and I perhaps splashed about a bit in the paddling pool end of the spectrum.
So, how SHOULD one eat? What is joyful eating? Really, it’s simple. Too simple for control-freaks like me, perhaps, but all the more healthy because of it’s simplicity! As author Michael Pollan suggests, “eat food, mostly plants.” If you’re eating a well-balanced whole-food diet, getting exercise, drinking enough water, and cutting down on sugars, you’ll be just fine. Cook at home. Eat some chocolate when you feel like it. Avoid binges (which is pretty easy when you’re not dieting) and don’t think about food too much. And, by all means, practice yoga. Yoga, in fact, is the one exercise that keeps me feeling sane and balanced. I just don’t obsess about getting the ‘perfect pose’ anymore. I do it for me, and to feel good – not to prove something to my teacher or to myself. I also highly recommend mindfulness practices. It really helped me deal with my anxiety and accept rather than to seek to change it.
Right now, on this green beauty journey I’m on, I’m careful not to get obsessive about ‘purity’ because I know this is a flaw in myself that can be a problem, especially when I’m feeling out of control or low-confidence. So if a product isn’t 100% clean, I’m OK with that. I don’t want my old food issues to simply transfer to another locus of control!!
I hope this advice proves useful to you guys, and that as 2015 approaches you can put it to some use as you crack out the resolutions journal…
Have a happy healthy Holiday season…and eat joyfully!