Snuggling with Your Shadow: the Gifts of Darkness

Snuggling with Your Shadow: the Gifts of Darkness

This time of year – post-holidays, early sunset – is a perfect time of year for honoring the darkness within yourself.

For taking a cue from Mother Nature, hunkering down, drawing inward. Our bodies’ natural rhythms lean towards hibernation and quiet during the winter. Let that inspire you to start to explore the internal shadow that needs attention.

I spent most of my own life running from the darkness inside me. I imagine most of us do.

For me, it didn’t work so well. It resulted in a lot of sugar, as you know if you’re a regular reader. It also resulted in a frenzied, sped-up life where I was constantly looking for the next “high”, whether that was travel, a purchase, or a date. I was anything but present.

When I finally did learn to slow down and be present, there was a whole world of pain waiting for me. (No wonder I had been running so fast!) But over time, and with continued attention, the pain diminished, and the gifts of being present started to feel so much sweeter than rushing and distracting myself constantly.

This frenzied way of being – it’s usually not a conscious thing. I mean, it’s so embedded in our culture in this point. We’re surrounded by substances and circumstances whose sole purpose is to keep us numbed out, frenzied, in a jangling state of high:

We have artificial lights that keep us awake far beyond what our body’s natural rhythms would have us do. We have neon lights, cities that never sleep, alarm clocks (“alarm!!”) and computer screens that have been linked to a decrease in melatonin (sleep-inducer) production.

We have drugs, yes, but we tend to shake our finger at them as though they’re the whole problem. What about compulsive shopping, mega-malls, a society whose government actually decided in the 1930s to create a sense of more NEED in the consumer so that there would be a never-ending demand for more stuff? What about how sexuality is packaged in our culture, how the boundaries of what’s appropriate are pushed more and more? I’m expecting the next major music video to include a shot of the inside of someone’s vagina, cause really, where else can we go from here?

And it’s all this, yes, but in addition to the thing itself that we’re using to alter our emotional and energetic state, it’s also about how we interact with things in general. Even a book, when approached in a certain way, can serve to numb us out or distract us.

Hey, I’m not saying that occasional numbing out is a bad thing. It’s even necessary sometimes. Also, an occasional high is pretty cool too. Life has highs and lows – that’s natural. It’s when we’re constantly using external objects and situations to induce perpetual high and dissociation that we know that something’s really wrong.

I used to use food this way, and I sometimes still do. My clients do as well, that’s why they come to see me. They have a very hard time sitting still, just breathing and noticing, because when they do, what comes up? BOOM – the darkness, the pain, the shadow.

The shadow’s a catch-all term for the stuff inside you that you’re running from. It’s the part of you that gets enraged, or totally hopeless, or bone-crushingly insecure, or ravenous for everything in sight. It’s a ball of shame and/or pain and/or loneliness and/or fury and/or grief and/or terror. It’s the little-kid part that’s paralyzed with fear; it’s the endless dark abyss or the whipping hurricane you sense when you’re feeling out of control; it’s the vague but nagging sensation that the other shoe is just seconds from dropping and disaster is just around the corner. It’s all the stuff we think we’re not supposed to be. Particularly if we are perfectionists. Mean, petty, arrogant, wimpish, ungrateful, selfish, weak.

Actually….

We’ve ALL got a part like this.

Everyone’s looks different (like a snowflake!).

But very few of us acknowledge that we have her. Or spend time with her. Or talk with our friends about her.

We are so unaccustomed to kickin’ it with our shadow that as soon as she rears her dark head, we run to the nearest numbing agent for relief.

But WHY???

Stop and think about it. What’s a few minutes spent hanging with our shadow going to do?

If we keep ignoring our shadow and using food (or sex, or the internet, or whatever) to medicate her, what’s the cost?

When I first introduce the practice of “checking in” – a body-centered exercise involving turning inwards and noticing your physical and emotional sensations – my clients usually get freaked out. When they stay with it, they experience some scary and difficult feelings. And they usually want to run.

But they are all fully capable of remaining with their experience. I often have to push a little (or a lot) for them to do it, until something clicks and they realize how beneficial it is to get to know their shadow.

The thing is, if you don’t hang out with your shadow – listening to her, acknowledging her needs, feeling what she feels – she is going to run the show. In fact, if you haven’t been spending time with her on a regular basis, I can pretty much guarantee she already IS running the show in some aspect of your life.

So while “snuggling with your shadow” isn’t necessarily the goal – although if you can do it, go for it – making regular dates with her IS. Have tea with her. Spend fifteen minutes after dinner shut away in your room with her. Take a walk with her this weekend and ask her what’s up.

I guarantee you, if you check in with her regularly, over time, she will stop needing to sabotage your best intentions and drag you into the muck – because she’s being heard.

(And true story…as I was working on this post, my computer spontaneously shut down, which it’s never done before. I decided to take that as a prompt, so I spent the next couple of hours doing self-care and checking in with my shadow, which, wow, did I need.)

The Xmas Party When I Ate 15 Pieces of Cake

The Xmas Party When I Ate 15 Pieces of Cake

When I was in the thick of my sugar addiction, it wasn’t unusual for me to consume, say, an entire tray of chocolate-covered strawberries at once, or half a tube of raw cookie dough during a walk home at the end of the day. But hands-down, the craziest episode I ever had fell during the holidays.

Raise your hand if this time of year gets tricky for you, food-wise…

You’re not alone. It’s tricky for me, too. And for many, many other women who struggle with the abundance of cake, cookies, wine, stuffing, turkey, cheese and crackers. When I’m introducing myself at talks, and sometimes, when I’m letting a client know there’s no WAY I’m going to judge them, I like to tell them about the time I went to a holiday Christmas party during college…

…and ate…

15 pieces of cake.

I still remember the one I liked best. It was marzipan, with a raspberry ribbon.

Naturally, I didn’t eat them all at once. That would be over the top! Instead, I had about seven or eight over the course of a couple of hours. Then I undid the snap at the top of my skirt and lay down on a couch, moaning. Then I got up and had seven or eight more.

To me, this illustrates how easily food can get out of hand during the holidays. You’re probably not worried about eating 15 pieces of cake (or maybe you are), but you probably are concerned about over-grazing at the office party, falling prey to the Christmas cookies in the break room, or overdosing on stuffing and mulled cider at Thanksgiving.

If I had my 20-year-old self as a client today, and she was willing to hear what I had to say (which I wasn’t at 20), here are the tips I’d offer her in order to prevent holiday “overindulgence”.

1. NO FASTING.

In my case, I had hardly eaten before the holiday party. I’d known I was heading to a serious feast that night and wanted to be able to “go to town”. So it seemed reasonable to me to skip breakfast, eat a very small lunch, and then have whatever I wanted at the party. (I did this kind of thing a lot). The problem is, if you go without food all day, your blood sugar drops drastically. As soon as you start eating again – and this is particularly true if you’re eating something sugary or carby (including alcohol), your blood sugar will immediately spike. This kind of roller-coaster sets us up for cravings and binge eating. It’s also way easier to overeat when you’re starving than when you’re mildly hungry. My suggestion: if you’re headed for a food-heavy event in the evening, ditch the restrict-then-binge mentality, and balance your blood sugar with a moderate and protein-dense breakfast and lunch.

2. ANTICIPATE TRIGGERS.

From an emotional standpoint, we often overindulge when we’re upset. In my particular situation, at that time in my life I was constantly beating myself up. I was attending a pressure-cooker college filled with wealthy, brilliant, and attractive people, and perpetually felt inferior (although I wasn’t aware of it at the time). The party I went to was filled with this type of crew. And don’t even let me get started on the dysfunction and stress that was going on at home, which always seemed to get worse during the holidays. In short, it was a perfect storm. But I was too checked-out to see how my shame, fear, and anger was constantly whipping me into a frenzy of sugar bingeing.

My suggestion: doing the deeper emotional work is crucial to breaking the cycle for good, but even making shorter-term plans around your emotional comfort can go a long way towards reducing emotional eating. That means taking a look at your calendar NOW and blocking off time for self-care and relaxation in the midst of the holiday frenzy. It also means knowing what and who your triggers are.

In other words, create a plan of attack, in advance. Think you might get emotionally rattled watching your whippet-thin sister-in-law take her third helping of mashed potatoes? Plan to step outside for a few minutes to breathe and get grounded. Think Aunt Rhonda might give you grief about being single? Plan to sit at the other end of the table, and figure out now what you might say to shut her down (hint: directness plus humor is often a winning combination). A little planning can go a loooong way. Trust me.

3. THE POWER OF CHOICE.

Oh hey…don’t forget, since you’re an adult, you get to choose how you spend the holidays!  If you find it’s just a whirlwind of lines, credit cards, and family drama, it’s time to take matters into your own hands and create some of your own rituals that feel supportive. When brainstorming what this might look like, consider how to indulge all your senses, not just your tastebuds! This might look like attending a special holiday concert with your favorite person, baking some healthy and decadent treats (search my blog to find ’em), taking a stroll around town to check out lights and sip cider, or using scented candles, a fire, or potpourri to infuse the scents of the season into your environment. Doesn’t that sound lovely? (Now you know what I’ll be doing this holiday season ;)).

Your Body is Not Meant to Look Like a Hairless Mannequin

Your Body is Not Meant to Look Like a Hairless Mannequin

It’s spring, which means….

….we’re enjoying the sun

….we’re starting to plan our garden

….we’re cleaning out the grill

….we’re scheduling summer road trips and shows and parties

….and oh yeah, we’re taking off our sweaters and subjecting our bodies to a harsher degree of scrutiny.

Every year at this time, we start thinking about the pounds that need to come off, the flab that needs tightening, the hair that needs waxing or shaving.

And every year at this time, my inbox and voicemail fill up with messages from people whose distress over their relationship with food and their body is staring them smack in the face at the start of shorts season.

We have come so far from understanding what our bodies are truly for.

Your body was never meant to be a deodorized, perfumed, hairless mannequin with no fat. (In fact, I just read that the model type body featured in magazines is achievable by only 5% of American women. FIVE percent!)

Your body IS meant to be a vehicle for maneuvering around this great planet and offering your gifts to the world.

Your body IS meant to enable you to experience the pleasures of the senses: the taste of a great meal, the feel of wind and sun on your skin, the sounds of birds or your favorite music, the deep beauty of movement, the sight of the mountains and the sea and your loved one’s face.

Your body is also meant to enable you to experience pain. Both physical and emotional. And sorrow, and anger, and grief, and fear, and shame, and illness, and age, because that is all part of the beauty of the human experience.

Your body may be lumpy like a potato, stringy like celery, knobby like a parsnip. Because it’s a creature creeping around this earth, not an airbrushed photograph.

Guess what – the most intimate relationship you will EVER have is with your body. Every cell in your body is working hard EVERY DAY to make you the healthiest you can be. If you could see how hard your digestive system and your sweet heart and your veins work for you, man, you would be filled with a sense of gratitude and disbelief.

Please: do not use your poor body as an excuse to abstain from the delights of the season. Remember that your body exists so that you can experience the sun, feel the grass on your feet, and dig your hands into the dirt. Appreciate it simply because it does you that enormous service.

Now go have an ice cream, and enjoy spring.

And if you need someone to tell you it’s ok to do that, get in touch.

This December, I Think You Should Eat Whatever You Want

This December, I Think You Should Eat Whatever You Want

This past month, have you been inundated with articles about how NOT to gain weight over the holiday season? I know I have. And frankly, it’s annoying.

In fact, this morning I was listening to NPR and they were doing a story on this very subject. They interviewed a doctor who stated that between Christmas and New Year’s we tend to eat 1,000 more calories per day than usual, resulting in a one pound weight gain.

One pound?!? Horrors!!

I even got into the game myself. In October I gave a talk on “How to Avoid Binge Eating During the Holiday Season”. Guess how many people came to that talk? ONE. That’s right. One.

You know what that tells me?

We WANT to feast during this time! We WANT our indulgences!

So whether your customary holiday weight gain is one pound or six, I’d like to offer you a radical new way to approach December in America.

I want you to eat whatever you desire.

I posted this on my Facebook page, and someone replied “I won’t feel good if I eat EVERYTHING I want.”

I totally agree.

But I would argue, if you’re not going to feel good after it, your body doesn’t truly want it. Your tastebuds may want it. But your insides are likely saying “please, no”.

So here’s what I propose you try over the next few weeks:

1. Make sure nothing’s off limits.

We all know what the restrictive mentality leads to. That’s right: overindulgence. So guess what. You are allowed to have that Yule log. You are allowed to have mulled wine. You are allowed to participate in your neighbor’s cookie swap.

2. Ask yourself “is it worth it?”

Here’s the thing – while you have permission to eat whatever, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily worth it. Is a slice of that Yule log from Safeway really going to make your night that much more dazzling? Are your neighbor’s cookies really that drool-worthy and flavorful? If the answer is yes, go for it! But if you know that the mulled wine is actually just going to put you right to sleep, if the Yule log just tastes like a sponge soaked in artificial sweetener, well, what are you missing? This approach involves truly listening to, trusting, and honoring your body. (And if you have a difficult time doing this consistently, you should schedule a consultation with me).

3. Stabilize biochemically with protein and regular meals.

Consuming the typical holiday party foods causes biochemical dysregulation. It can kick up mood swings and can even trigger more cravings. You know how it’s hell on your skin? Yeah, that’s what it’s doing to our insides too. As you make deliberate choices about what’s worth indulging in – and what isn’t – make sure you regulate your system as much as possible so that it can better handle the sugar, gluten and alcohol.

4. Feed your soul, not just your body.

If that Yule log truly is that scrumptious, please do not insult it by gobbling it down in a frenzied state of guilt and fear! SIT DOWN, breathe, chew slowly and ENJOY IT THOROUGHLY. Feel PASSION and GRATITUDE for it. And along those lines, please remember that food is not the only way to enjoy this time of year. Pick at least two other decadent sensory experiences to indulge in fully between now and New Year’s. Do you enjoy winter music? Attend a Christmas or Solstice concert, or listen to wintry classical music on Pandora or Spotify. Do you love to feast your eyes on lights? Decorate your home with candles scented with cinnamon or pine, or take a stroll around your neighborhood at night to soak up the neighbors’ decorations. Is crafting a passion? Take an afternoon to make scented bath and body products as gifts for friends and family. THIS is the stuff that feeds your soul! And when your soul is fed in this way, the Yule Log from Safeway somehow loses some of its intrigue.

Wishing you a holiday season that feels deeply nourishing in body, mind, and spirit!!

“I Know What I SHOULD Be Doing…I Just Don’t Do It”

“I Know What I SHOULD Be Doing…I Just Don’t Do It”

When it comes to relationship with food, or weight loss, or healing from an eating disorder, a lot of us think we have the right tools and we’re simply not using them. As a result, we experience a great deal of shame (“I can’t get it together”), self-judgement (“what’s wrong with me that I can’t just do this – seems like everyone else can”), and fear (“am I EVER going to deal with this?”).

I’m here to share with you that often, the situation is more complex than this.

If you can relate to the statement “I know what I SHOULD be doing – I just don’t do it”, there are four things I’d like you to consider.

1. Do you have the right tools?

Many people rattle off this list of activities that they are supposed to be doing in order to prevent or interrupt compulsive eating. These activities usually fall under the category of diets / calorie counting / journaling your food intake, or band-aid distraction activities masquerading as self-care, such as mediating, writing in a journal, going for a walk, calling a friend, watching a movie, etc. And then there’s that useless “figure out why I am eating so that I can stop.” My friends, as you know, none of these tools work in the long term. Why? Because compulsive eating, at its root, is about avoiding a relationship with yourself and your internal experience. None of the aforementioned activities help you to tune in to what’s going on inside – or, if they do, it’s in a very superficial way. What tools should you try instead? Learning how to listen to your body, identify and work with your emotions, and give yourself what you need, is a pretty good start.

2. Are you simply in too much pain?

There’s a really good reason we binge eat. Chances are it’s our most effective tool for numbing out, distracting, getting high – basically, removing ourselves from our present experience. If you don’t know how to sit with your pain, all the dieting and journaling and walking in the world will get you nowhere. Truly. What to try instead? Learn how to stay present with your feelings, for starters.

3. Are you leveraging the power of choice?

Here’s a really important thing to know – we talk about choice like it’s really easily accessible all the time. Ha – if only it were that simple! If you don’t have the right tools, and you’re in too much pain, then it’s pretty difficult to simply “choose” not to binge. I hope that this understanding this helps to validate your experience. But if you are well along the road to healing, choice becomes more of an option.

4. Are you stuck in victim mode?

We all have a part that wants to sabotage our success and get taken care of. Getting to know her and learning how to relate to her is crucial for your healing process. Again, we are back to developing the skills to connect to your internal experience. You can’t figure out the victim part with your brain. And if you don’t know how to listen inside, you may not be aware of her at all. Start to pay attention to how you are feeling and what “voices” occur when you are engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors. You may discover your victim, which is great, because then you can start to engage with her.

Do these tips resonate with you? Let me know at info@stephaniesmallhealth.com.

Why I’ll Never Tell You to Love Your Body (and How to Actually Get There)

Why I’ll Never Tell You to Love Your Body (and How to Actually Get There)

If you’re reading this, you probably struggle with body image issues. Maybe you’re dissatisfied with your current weight or muscle tone. Maybe you flat-out hate your thighs, or your knees, or your wrinkles, or the whole shebang. And one thing I know you all have in common is that probably, somewhere along the way, in a quest to heal, you’ve come across the phrase “love your body”.

Perhaps it issued from the mouth of a young, smooth-skinned, impossibly fit yoga teacher. She cooed it in sugary tones at the beginning of a class while you were looking in the mirror and sucking in your stomach.

Or perhaps you found it in the pages of a self-help book. Or saw it in a TED talk.

Whatever form the message arrived in, it made you cringe. You tried to implement it, but it felt disingenuous. And, quite possibly, it made you feel even worse about your body.

Why?

When you feel really badly about something – say, your body – when someone shines a bright light on it, all it does is illuminate the depths of its darkness. There’s too great a disconnect between how terrible you feel and how positive the message is. It doesn’t sink in. (This is why positive thinking doesn’t work long-term).

Would you tell someone who is dying a painful death and grieving the loss of their life, “Everything happens for a reason! Enjoy the last few days of your life, because life is a precious gift, and then you’re going to Heaven/be reincarnated/back to God!”?

No. That would be really misattuned, right?

They wouldn’t suddenly leap up, a glow in their faces, and say “Wow, you’re right! I never thought of that! I feel fantastic now!”

So, when my clients tell me that they’re unhappy with their bodies, I meet them where they are. I guide them into feeling their feelings of shame and anger. There’s usually a lot of emotional pain there, and it’s not just related to their bodies, but about how they were treated based on their appearance, and what their appearance means to them. These feelings get stored up like toxins in the body, and it’s crucial to release them (like a detox).

At the same time, as we work on areas of health like nutrition and movement, my clients begin to view their bodies with occasional respect (if not affection). They start to experience what happens when they treat their bodies well – they become stronger! They have more energy!

They also learn how to turn to their body for crucial information, and to trust its wisdom. They hone their ability to use their body to guide their choices in life – whether choosing what to eat for dinner, what job to take, or who to date. Relying on the body this way develops a true bond of trust. It’s hard to hate someone who’s helping you out so much.

Eventually, they may get to a place where they can experience gratitude for a certain part of their body.

And over time, many people are able to have genuine affection, and even love, for their body.

This does NOT happen from me demanding “love your body!”. In fact, it’s not anything that anyone else can demand of you. It happens when you meet yourself where you truly are and gently move towards a relationship with your body, stopping frequently to honor the occasional “I hate my body!”s and “I hate this!”s and “I’ll never change!”s. Because guess what – if you give it enough time and care, and find the right guide, you can get to a place where your body is your friend. I know, because I did.