“As psychoanalyst Erik Erikson once noted, there are only two choices: Integration and acceptance of our whole life-story, or despair.” ~From Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning
I’ve been doing a new exercise lately, when difficult memories surface. I take a deep breath, and the in-breath represents full acceptance of myself and everyone in my past, my life story and theirs. Then I breathe out, and that represents letting go of the pain and trauma that I experienced, forgiving myself and others. Breathe in — acknowledge and accept; breathe out — let go.
In the spirit of accepting myself and acknowledging my whole life story, yesterday when I was posting some pictures from ten years ago I included a somewhat unflattering picture of myself — worthwhile because of my two adorable cousins.
I wanted to avoid the temptation to edit out parts of my life that I don’t like — like the fact that I was significantly overweight for most of my late twenties and early thirties. That was a part of me, and I can’t breathe out and forgive myself unless I breathe in and acknowledge it. I did so many fun things during that time, and it’s impossible to post pictures of them without showing that aspect of myself as well.
Eleven years later, I’m forty years old — about to turn forty-one. And I’m almost sixty pound lighter, and have been for several years. Significantly, I didn’t lose the weight by finding the perfect diet or exercise regime. I lost it by letting go of self-recrimination and shame. I lost it by forgiving myself each time I overate. I lost it by letting go of my identity as someone who was fatally flawed. After thirty-plus years of dieting, binge eating, and starving myself, I told myself that I wouldn’t diet anymore, that I would only have three rules for myself from now on:
1. Eat when you’re hungry.
2. Stop eating when you’re full.
3. Forgive yourself when you don’t.
For years I was stuck in a cycle of overeating, feeling shame because of it, trying to diet and exercise because I hated who I was, and then overeating again from that place of shame and hunger. I tried breaking the cycle over and over again, but I always tried to break it in the eating stage or the stopping stage. I finally realized after years and years that I needed to break the cycle in the shame stage. “Forgive yourself when you don’t.” That’s #3 on the list, but it’s the most important part.
I started out pretty well with “eat when you’re hungry” — not a simple thing when you have felt your most beautiful and affirmed when you were dieting or flat-out starving yourself. I bought healthy food and prepared it and tried to feed myself with as much love as I would feed a child, and with as much purpose as I put gas in my car. But the “stop when you’re full” part took a lot longer. The overeating had grown compulsive — sometimes the food just tasted so good, and I was getting such an endorphin rush from it that I couldn’t stop; but other times I was sick of eating, my jaw hurt from chewing, and the food tasted like sand, but something in me kept saying eat, eat, and I couldn’t stop.
That’s when I started pulling out my new rule, #3: “Forgive yourself when you don’t.” Instead of wallowing in shame and self-hatred, I got myself a drink of water, patted myself gently on the arm, and said, “That’s okay. You’re doing the best you can, and that’s a lot! Get a good night’s rest — tomorrow’s another day.”
It didn’t work overnight. In fact, without the shame and constant inner struggle I did gain weight at first. But gradually, slowly, I found myself eating and thinking, “Hm, I think I’m full,” and putting the food away. Without the shame the compulsion began to diminish. Eating became a thing to enjoy and be proud of — I was giving my body what it needed to live! Exercise flowed out of that joy. Instead of beating my bad flesh into line, I was enjoying the strength in my legs as I ran, and biked, and in my arms as I kayaked or did yoga. Shame got me short-term success and deeper longer-term problems. Forgiveness is healing me.
It was a long process, and I have far from mastered it. I still overeat occasionally. And I still am tempted to feel ashamed of myself. But then I remember how far I have come, and I pat myself gently and say:
You have done the very best you can, every step of the way. You have made mistakes, but you are forgiven. Accept yourself and your past, forgive yourself, and let it go. When you have learned to forgive yourself, it will be possible to forgive others for the times they have hurt you. Breathe in — it’s okay. Everything that has happened to you is part of your story — there’s nothing you need to deny or forget. It has all led here, and here is where you are supposed to be right now. Breathe out — Let it go. You are not defined by your pain or your mistakes, or the way others have hurt you. You can let go of all of it and live fully in the moment, and accept fully what this day and this moment have to offer you.
Friends, is it time to forgive yourself? Is it time to break the cycle and let go of your shame? Is it time to learn to feed yourself? Can you start tonight? — Pat yourself gently on the arm and say, “It’s okay! You did the best you could today, and that’s a lot!” Start tomorrow fresh, not needing to skip lunch to make up for today’s dessert, or to start a new diet because you had seconds at dinner. Wake up, not bad, not fatally flawed, just human. Wake up, forgiven and new, and feed yourself.