Everyone Has A Story

For about a week, the word “story” has been rattling around in my head, perhaps because there’s a song I keep hearing on the radio by Big Daddy Weave called “My Story” in which the narrator speaks of the grace, mercy, and kindness that have been shown to him by God through others. Or, maybe the word “story” is on my mind as my partner and I plan to wrap up the story of his experiences in the Vietnam War. Or, it’s possible that I’m thinking of personal narratives following a professional conference on Friday during which I was exposed to the stories of dozens of counselors and clients.

Whatever the reason, I noticed myself using the word with my clients this week, inviting them to share with me their story. Most of them were taken aback, having not thought about the story they tell themselves about who they are. And several of them came to the realization that the narrative that lives in their mind is not the same narrative they show to the world. Too often, the fear-based inner critic believes that the story must be self-centered, harsh, and unforgiving in order to protect us from perceived “threats”. We buy into that story about ourselves, others, and the world until a trusted person points out to us that they see something different unfolding.

This was definitely the case for me when I began my journey to recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder in 2005. I believed the plot my inner critic developed: I was weak-willed, too sensitive, and would never be good enough to achieve what I wanted in life. Then during one of my counseling sessions, my therapist said to me, “You’re so hard on yourself. What would it be like to be gentle?” I honestly didn’t know. Fear had driven my behavior for so long, I didn’t know how to be gentle at first. But, by allowing myself to sit quietly with my thoughts, letting go of critical self-talk and tuning into the more gentle voice underneath the static, I found that seed of self-compassion.

If you’re struggling with self-compassion or your story has been written by a harsh inner critic, consider trying some exercises to find that gentle voice within. Here’s one website that I really like, which has several audio versions of self-compassion exercises: click here. If you’re in a crunch for time, allow yourself just seven minutes to take the “Self-Compassion Break”. It’s amazing how quickly your life narrative will change when you bring to light that gentleness and peace that exists in all of us.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

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Endings and Beginnings

In her poignant books, “Kitchen Table Wisdom” and “My Grandfather’s Blessings”, Rachel Naomi Remen, MD writes about her personal and professional experiences with grief and loss and the truths revealed to her through those experiences: 1) every ending is followed by a new beginning and 2) nothing new can begin without something first ending. As simple as those ideas are, they have helped me enormously whenever I’ve faced change and transition in my life, such as leaving one job to pursue another or ending a relationship to begin whatever comes next. In most cases, I feel some hope and optimism about change, but all transition evokes some initial discomfort and fear.

That discomfort and fear will be easily felt here at Arcadia University tomorrow during Move-In Day. It is typically a day of great anticipation for students and families; it symbolizes the end of one life and the beginning of another. With that ending and new beginning will come some pleasurable feelings and some uncomfortable feelings. As a counselor, I will encourage students to be aware of their emotions and practice tolerating the discomfort of loneliness, anxiety, confusion, or sadness. I’ll help students develop healthy ways to self-soothe when really distressed and create their own self-care routine. And I will, as always in my work, reflect upon major changes in my life and how I’ve handled them (sometimes gracefully and sometimes less so).

Last night, my partner and I reflected on our perfectionist tendencies and marveled that we’ve been able to let go of labeling ourselves as a “failure” if we make a mistake. We are both better able to be gentle with ourselves, to assess a situation and say, “Well, that didn’t work” and try something new. It has helped both of us to realize that the significant endings in our lives have always been closely followed by new beginnings in which doors of opportunity were opened.

So, peace to all of you who are experiencing an ending: May you be blessed to recognize the new beginning in front of you.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

Good Enough?

Well, it’s my third day back at my job as a college counselor after having eight weeks off for the summer. There are the usual demands (such as clients to counsel, support groups to organize/facilitate, workshops to plan/run, interns to train, calendars to manage) and new jobs to learn (such as coordinating our campus’s Alcohol and Other Drug Program while our fearless Coordinator is on maternity leave). Add to that my first graduate level class in a Pastoral Counseling certificate program and my continued efforts to finish editing a book that my partner and I are working on and you can understand why my inner critic is now working overtime with the “You’re not good enough, smart enough, efficient enough…” talk. (And the only thing “good enough” is “perfect”!)

One thing I worked hard to relinquish during my recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder was PERFECTIONISM. It never served me well. In fact, perfectionism only served to increase my anxiety, distract me from my goals, and dissuade me from making friends and from even trying new things. When I let go of perfectionism related to my weight and shape, I was able to take life one moment at a time, one meal/snack at a time, and enjoy my body for what it can do in this moment. That didn’t happen overnight, but it’s now rare that I wake up feeling “not good enough” in terms of my weight and shape. I can more easily tell myself, “I listen to my body’s needs. That’s all I can do.”

However, letting go of perfectionism as it relates to my work ethic seems to be a more difficult and ongoing task. Today I opened up a desk drawer and found an affirmation I had written a year ago: “I do not need to prove myself to anyone.” Wow. I’m still working on that. For some reason, I still conflate my self-worth and my achievements (no matter how much I can objectively say I’ve already achieved with my life). If the work isn’t good enough, then I’m not good enough. Letting go of “Is it (the work) good enough?” is easier than letting go of the associated thought, “Am I good enough?”

None-the-less, those of you who know me know I’m determined to keep trying, working, and learning whatever lessons life has to teach me. My difficulty letting go of perfectionism is just another opportunity to keep trying and helps me stay focused on the present moment.

Here’s hoping you, too, can let go of any perfectionist thoughts you’re retaining!

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

“It’s okay to not be okay”

The title of my post today is a lyric from the fabulous song, “Exhale” by contemporary Christian artist Plumb. If you don’t know it, find it and give it a listen. The first few lines really set the tone: “It’s okay to not be okay. This is a safe place. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be ashamed. There’s still hope here. No matter what you’ve done or who you are, everyone is welcome in His arms.” This song is SO comforting! Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, there is something reassuring about the hope that comes from “letting go” (the next lyric of the song), breathing in, and exhaling all of your unmet expectations.

Yesterday I realized I’m still waiting for happiness. When I was stuck in the cycle of bingeing and restricting, I told myself, “I’ll be happy when I lose ___ pounds.” Then I realized I could be happy with myself no matter what my weight. When I was struggling through graduate school, I told myself, “I’ll be happy when I have my master’s degree.” Then I realized I could find moments of joy during the journey. Now, as my job is less satisfying than it was initially and my relationship is not where I want it to be, I tell myself, “I’ll be happy when…” I’m discovering that I’m still struggling with the lessons I thought I already learned: “Happiness is an inside job” and “Find joy in the moment”.

Normally, a discovery like this one — in which I find myself relearning lessons I thought I already knew — would knock me off course. And, truth be told, it did for a few days. Then I heard Plumb sing, “it’s okay to not be okay” and that phrase has embedded itself in my mind.

“It’s okay to not be okay.”

“It’s okay to not be okay.”

“It’s okay to not be okay.”

Maybe this is the most important lesson of all.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

The C word

Whatever word you think I’m referring to here, you’re likely to be wrong. The C word I’m thinking of today is “communication”. It’s the most vital element of healthy relationships. In fact, without it, relationships cannot begin or be maintained. And, of course, it’s something many of us struggle with.

We communicate from the moment we’re born, first with cries and yells, then with either spoken words, written words, sign language, or body movements. We’re remarkably direct for the first years of our lives. We know how to communicate in order to get our needs met. Then, at some point, direct communication becomes more difficult. For some of us, an inner critic develops, challenging us to “say the right thing or they might not like you”. For others of us, the voices in our home or school environment are so loud and dominating that they drown out our own voice leading to the development of an inner voice that says, “Why bother?”. Either way, direct communication becomes difficult. Asserting our needs becomes difficult. And developing and sustaining healthy relationships becomes nearly impossible.

As I use my personal life and my work with clients to reflect on the word “communication” this week, I recognize some important lessons I’ve learned that have helped me communicate better and improve my relationships:

1. Communication requires time and effort. Direct communication (overcoming the voice of the inner critic) is not easy, but it is a skill that gets easier with practice.

2. Communicating is as much about listening (actively attending and reflecting back what you understand) as it is about speaking/writing/signing.

3. Communication should involve ownership of one’s feelings and thoughts. For example, “People are so annoying” is less direct than “I feel annoyed by someone who let the door slam in my face this morning as I was coming in to work.”

4. Despite the advances in modern technology, the best way to be sure your message is being understood is by communicating in person. Texts, emails, and facebook posts leave a lot up to interpretation (unless you abuse emoticons!).

5. The healthiest relationships involve communication about things that are going well, in addition to things that are challenging. This requires an attitude of gratitude and a willingness to notice and reflect back to the other person the positives, no matter how small they may seem.

I’m in the business of listening to and communicating with others, but I still occasionally struggle with direct communication. I hope these lessons help you as much as they’ve helped me.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

Turning Heads versus Turning Hearts

Most days my gym workouts are physically and socially revitalizing. I enjoy the feeling of exercising my muscles and love being a “social butterfly”, flitting from equipment to equipment, sharing my smile and gentle encouragement with the many acquaintances I’ve made over the years.  Every few weeks, though, I have a day where my inner critic won’t shut up. Today was one of those days.

It all started with a new girl. A new girl who turned heads. I noticed her. Or, rather, she was noticed by that insidious voice of disordered eating and distorted body image that exists within me in a world of all-or-nothing. It was that voice that said this morning, “Ugh! A zit on your chin. That’s disgusting. You’re so ugly.” It was the same voice that added, “Look at that fat roll around your middle. You’ve really let yourself go.” Well, with that voice ringing in my head, it was no surprise that I felt distracted and defeated when the new girl walked up the stairs, started working out like a demon, doing new and interesting moves on each piece of equipment…AND HEADS TURNED. My inner critic saw how she gained the attention of dozens of men (and women), even if just for an instant before they went back to their own pursuits of health and happiness.

My critic said, “She turns heads. No wonder! Look at her X! It’s perfectly sculpted. Look at her Y! So round! She’s the total package! You’re so ugly compared to her.” I proceeded to turn inward, to withdraw from others, even from the hard-to-resist smile of my friend and the wry humor of my workout partner. I was no longer engaged in my workout, no longer listening to my body, no longer present with my friends.

UNTIL…

Twenty minutes before the end of my workout, I heard a small voice whisper, “turning hearts”. What?! I’m almost shouted it out loud in response to the whispering voice. “Is it better to turn heads or to turn hearts?” was the reply. I pondered this. The small gentle voice continued: “You may think that she turns heads, but YOU TURN HEARTS. Every day, you come in here sharing your smile with others, being open about your experiences with disordered eating, promoting body positivity in the locker room, and asking others how they’re doing. Again, she may turn heads today, for one moment. But YOU TURN HEARTS. And that’s much more lasting.”

I was stunned. And SO grateful for that still small voice of self-compassion. I plan to ponder those words every time my inner critic takes over and tells me that the measure of my success is how others perceive my physical appearance. I’m ready.

Next time I’ll say, “I turn hearts.”

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

Slowing down

For eight months, I’ve been co-authoring a new book with a veteran of the Vietnam War. The work has been emotionally challenging for both of us. On one particular evening, my co-author shared that, for most of his life, he ran from his past trauma until it finally caught up with him and demanded his attention.

Something similar happened to me last Monday. All of my running around, rushing from event to event, all of my personal and professional work came to a screeching halt when I contracted three separate illnesses. From heat exhaustion on Sunday to stomach bug on Monday to head cold on Wednesday through today, my body is telling me loudly and clearly: YOU MUST SLOW DOWN!

Message received! When I had no energy to do anything except sleep, watch TV, and read, I realized that I’ve been ignoring my body’s needs. My emotional exhaustion should have been a clue that my physical body might soon follow suit. But, it’s a trap I fall into easily; it’s my internal computer’s “default setting”. Even the words with which I use to describe my life experiences (“struggle”, “wrestle”, “work through”) suggest that I don’t find it easy to simply “be”, “relax”, or “let go”. It also implies that I don’t think I am enough. Indeed, my counseling work this summer has revealed an underlying belief that “I am not enough”.

Having less energy and being sick has been a blessing. It has forced me to re-prioritize, putting REAL self-care first again. Sure, I’ve been taking care of my needs in a cursory way, but often just to check them off some imaginary to do list: Exercising? Check. Eating well? Check. Journaling? Check. Still accomplishing a million other little things to prove my worth to others? Check, check, check, check…!!!

In the spirit of self-compassion, I’m telling myself the following:

You’ve worked hard to prove your worth to others.

Those who matter already know you and respect you.

Maybe it’s no longer necessary to work so hard.

Maybe it’s okay to just do what needs to be done without always giving it 110%.

Maybe what needs to be done and what you want to get done are two different things.

Maybe YOU ARE ENOUGH, EXACTLY AS YOU ARE.

 

Peace, joy, and recognition that YOU ARE ENOUGH,

Megan