I am enough.
How can something that feels so wrong actually be oh so right?
Why you shouldn’t always believe what you’re thinking.
Oh my God…what have I done? What was I thinking to share my ideas like that? Who am I to think I can be on a mission to spread the word about mindful eating? I am still working through eating issues myself. Who am I to think I can be a specialist in this?
This is exactly what was blaring through my head when I woke up Monday morning after two days at the amazing workshopping weekend “The Good One Hundred Experiment” for businesses and projects out of Edmonton that focus on the social and local good. Even though I loved the weekend, got amazing feedback on what I was doing with mindful eating, and met some truly fantastic people, my overall take away at that point was that I was a fool for sharing myself like I did. I was sure that the people there were thinking what a quaint little project I had but was truly out of my league, or what I loser I was for talking so openly about something that is better seen as a private and shameful issue that only belongs to weak and undeserving people. (Underscore the word shameful–more to come.) When I was thirteen and started to gain weight, I learned pretty quickly that my ‘go to’ position on my weight gain was to give the world the impression that it did not matter to me…in spite of all the pain I was feeling inside. That way, people wouldn’t be able to use it against me. Now, here I was some thirty years later telling a room full of participants that it was my issue, and it meant the world to me. I felt naked.
As I breathed into the feeling and allowed it, I remembered feeling exactly this way a couple of months earlier, the day after I gave the keynote address for the Edmonton Soroptimists’ at their 2015 International Women’s Day Brunch. I had put my deepest philosophical thinking and my cherished feminist passion and ideals into that speech. The project that means the most to me and the summation of my thought and personal experience now out there for the whole world to judge. The day after that one, I felt dizzy like my world was spinning. Like I was a floating head with no body, totally exposed. I was scared, kind of like I was going to get punished by the adults for sharing a secret that no one wanted to hear and I should have known better than to tell. It was out of control. Even worse, I had videoed the speech, and had put it out on youtube the evening I presented it. I was sure as a result that I was going to be shunned or targeted. As I watched it, there were also the ridiculous quips to myself about myself like I am so awkward that I don’t deserve to be listened to, that I looked ridiculous in that dress. I should have worn something more conservative. I’m always wanting to draw attention to myself. I was so overwhelmed I didn’t want to leave my house. But in my despair, and yes it was despair, I had awareness enough at least intellectually to start to question my reaction (as the Buddhists say: not to believe everything I think) and to contact some of the people I love and trust to talk me through it.
In the past few years, I have come to develop a great faith in the guiding direction of my truth. I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to my spiritual teacher Sue Dumais and her Heart Led Living principles for this. She is convinced that when you are guided to act in alignment with or speak your truth, then any consequences that arise from so doing are simply the next steps the universe has in store for you as you walk along your path on this journey we call an awakened life. I know that everything I presented in my speech felt true to me both intellectually and personally. In fact, I had likely never been so honed and felt more passionate about my convictions in my entire life.
The irony is that the speech I’d given was precisely on this topic. I had been explaining that when we women take up more space than we think we should as women in this society, an internal, critical voice–called the superego in psychology parlance–rises up in attack to “bring us back down to size.” And there are no holds barred. It is a clockwork reaction: take a big risk in your life or take up a lot of space for yourself in some way, and just watch the negative self-talk assail you. To add insult to injury, it is not even readily apparent that it is the risk in itself that leads to the negativity. You just suddenly feel really bad, foolish, stupid for what you’ve done. This voice will tell you that you are unworthy because of personal “inadequacies” or “failings.” Some of our main places of vulnerability as women are our weight, eating, age and appearance. You’ll tell yourself that you’re not worthy of whatever it is because you don’t measure up (or down sometimes in the case of the scale).
Even though I am well-versed in the workings of the superego, even though I should have anticipated this reaction given all of myself that I had put into my speech, in that moment and for a few days after, it had a disempowering vice-grip around my throat. This is in spite of applause and tons of positive feedback. The voice taunted: The people are just clapping because that is what polite people do after a speech. They are just saying it was good so you don’t feel bad. Can’t you see them smiling but not really meaning it?
Nevertheless, I started to remember that if I am going to have a life where I make a real difference for women in this area, I am going to have to be on the forefront of this issue I am so passionate about. Being in the trenches is never an easy thing. To be able to do this, I was going to have to do two things: first, what I needed in my life at moments like these was the solid support of a group of really good friends who were ready to be there for me. It resonated for me that a tree can only branch out to the extent that it has a solid and supportive root system. I needed to know who my root system was.
Second, I needed a renewed commitment and vigilance to understanding and shutting down my superego when it rises up and attacks. The superego is a one-trick pony. Its goal is to keep you safe, which it does by keeping you small. It doesn’t want you to take any psychological risks because they mean vulnerability, and that is dangerous to your sense of self. It will speak to you in terms of should/shouldn’t, right/wrong, good/bad, and typically in a nasty, contemptuous tone. As you ‘cop on’ to its modus operandi though it will morph to something more subtle or caring. Quite often it starts to speak to you ‘reasonably’ but still identifiably as superego because it is encouraging you to do something to derail yourself. (My superego says to me when I am having breakfast: “Oh look, there is a bit more milk left in your bowl. Why waste it? Pour a bit more cereal in–even though I’m not hungry–and finish that milk off.)
But there is no vitality, no growth, no fulfillment in safe. This is not to say that every risk should be embraced. There is definitely a role for calculated and supported risk. Indeed, the superego catches hold precisely because there is an element of truth in what it says. But you need to get skilled in using your judgment to weigh what is relevant and what is distraction, derailing or disdain. You need to keep in the front of your mind that any kind of enriching life will require risk. And because of that a wily superego will never be far behind.
No wonder I have been so enchanted by Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. She speaks of the necessity of risk and its unavoidable counterpart vulnerability for a good life–a life of expansion, fulfillment, love and belonging. Her title is inspired by a speech of Theodore Roosevelt’s. I was equally struck by a quote she included by Madeleine L’Engle “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
Brown is clear: vulnerability is necessary. It is not weakness. It is the key. That simple but not that easy. Many of us don’t go after what we want because of it. We tell ourselves that we’re not ____________ enough (whatever your particular version is) for what we want. This is another way of saying you should be more of this first or shouldn’t be so much of that. Brown describes these messages as coming from the gremlins of our mind. They run a tape of chatter whose aim is to shame us out of risk. It is another way of understanding the workings of the superego. The great insight I find in her work is how this defence mechanism uses shame as a tool to get us to conform to social rules for fear of disconnection—If I do x, people will see that I am flawed; therefore, unworthy of love and belonging. But here is the truth, counterintuitive as it may be: you need to act in spite of the messages. You are worthy now. And yes, you may fail, get hurt, be disappointed, have your heart broken.
More deeply, I have come to see that no permanent and satisfying change will come if it is motivated by the hounding and belittling approach of the superego. Like “Oh God, look how horrible my thighs are in my swimsuit, I have to go on a diet.” When we are being criticized, we just want to get out of the line of fire. How we do grow is towards light, kindness, compassion and love.
So, the thing is, you cannot succeed and be happy when you are being propelled by the superego. And the only thing you can do about the superego is shut it down. If it is hard for you to imagine being so strong in the face of your gremlins, imagine instead that this voice of criticism is being levelled against some young person you care about. Would you let how your superego talks to you, talk to someone vulnerable, precious? Never! Many us would put our lives on the line for others, but not for ourselves. Instead we collapse and take it.
Funny, one of the things that made a pivotal difference in my getting out from under the superego attack after the International Women’s Day speech was a sense of fierce protectiveness for someone who mattered to me. I had sent the youtube link to my Little Sister, Lovedeep, who had asked how it went. Little Sister in capitals because she is a girl from Vancouver, who since she was ten I have been matched with as her Big Sister. I should say young woman because she is now fifteen. Well, she watched it, and she loved it. In fact, she wrote me an email saying that she was so proud of me in everything I’d shared. She asked if she could pass it along to her friends from high school because she could see herself and them in what I was saying. She hoped that hearing my words would help them. Wow. I do what I do to make a difference for women in the world to be their biggest and best selves. If my message landed for only one woman, it would be enough. But that it landed for this woman, a young woman? Her world was brighter, more hopeful, more sane? I wasn’t afraid anymore. I was humbled. I no longer cared about what anyone else might think about my words. In fact, I was buoyed. It brought out a mama bear in me as far as being willing to face any consequences. And truth be told, so far I have only had amazing feedback.
Now, how to draw on the mama bear in yourself for yourself? The task with superego work is to see the vulnerable parts of yourself as I saw Lovedeep, and to stand up for them. This can be a challenge because many of us did not have an ally or protector at moments when we most needed one. But the second you hear the inner critic you need to summon an attitude of “over my dead body will you talk to me like that.” One of the most direct ways to disempower it is to shout (aloud or inside) “Shut UP! FUCK OFF!” Another way is to question it “if I am such a loser, Superego, why do you even bother with me? Maybe you should find someone more worthy of your attentions.” Still another tactic is deflating understanding: “Oh! You’re here. Thank you. I must be feeling unsafe in someway. I appreciate the info. I am going to go check it out.” The important thing is you CANNOT give its tone any credence. It will sense your weakness and keep trying. Honestly, it will never stop. You will only get better at disempowering it by recognizing it and ignoring it.
The superego work we are called to do reminds me of one of the plot twists in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Russell Crowe’s character Prof. John Nash has been seen at points in the movie in terms of his relationships to an operative of the US Department of Defense Parcher, a university friend Charles and his niece Marcee. Over time, Nash–and we in the audience–painfully come to see that these people are simply figments of Nash’s imagination. He only makes the realization when he notices that Marcee has not aged in all the time he has known her. But the three “people” remain real to him all the same. Nash must keep telling himself that they are only hallucinations. Even at the end of the movie when he is receiving his Nobel Prize, all three are still there. They never disappear. They only become less compelling as he continually reminds himself that they are fantasies made up by his mind.
The messages from your superego seem fully compelling at first too, and it often feels treasonous to call them out. It requires courage and constant vigilance: for yourself, by yourself. And it is going to tell you that you’re not up for it, it’s not worth it, and it won’t work for you anyway. You’ve got to be ready, and you’ve got to be smarter than it by understanding how it works.
So, I am reading along, lapping up everything in Daring Greatly when Brené Brown comes to the example of her giving a TED talk in her hometown Houston. TED talks are 18 minute online presentations of “ideas worth spreading” from an expert in an area. She was invited to speak on her shame and vulnerability research. Her talk was so well received locally, it was picked up on the main TED site. And from there it went viral. At over 5,000,000 views it remains one of the most watched talks of all time. Sounds great right? Well, the next part of her book details the fallout, the personal fallout she calls “the worst vulnerability hangover of her life.” She couldn’t get out of bed afterward. She wanted her husband to hack into the TED site and take the talk down. The irony was not lost on her that she was feeling unbearably vulnerable based on a speech she had given on the importance of being vulnerable. (Yes, vulnerability: simple but not easy) But she got through because of the trust she had in her research results and her commitment to speak the truth of what she’d learned, which meant allowing vulnerability to take her where she needed to go. I had a little laugh. Certainly my talk did not have the reach that hers did, but it was pushing me in my own ways to risk and show myself.
Interestingly, Daring Greatly reports that the shame messages women experience are highly correlated to eating disorders, as gremlins enforce conformity to social rules and expectations. Even in this day and age, recent research in the US makes clear that ideals that society expects women to strive toward still do not allow us a lot of freedom. Important attributes of being feminine were listed as being nice, pursuing a thin body ideal, showing modesty by not calling attention to one’s talents or abilities, being domestic, caring for children, investing in one romantic relationship, keeping sexual intimacy contained within one sexual relationship, and using our resources to invest in our appearance. Brown shares that from her own interviews she has discovered that every successful woman she questioned has talked to her about the sometimes daily struggle to push past “the rules” so she can assert herself, advocate for her ideas, and feel comfortable with her power and gifts. The takeaway is that you have to anticipate the gremlins if you are going to dare greatly.
It might not be evident from reading this how your superego is talking to you and stopping you. If that is the case, I have some homework for you. Take a day when you keep a journal close at hand. Record any thought you have relating to yourself that comes in the form of right/wrong, good/bad, should/shouldn’t. At first it can be quite destabilizing. Many of us have so many thoughts like these that we wonder if there would be any left underneath them or if we would still know ourselves without them? It is discombobulating to become aware that so much of what we’ve been telling ourselves is essential to succeed or to be loved is actually unnecessary and unhelpful.
Learning about the superego and how it operates to hold you back is one of the most invaluable tools in seeing how you eat is how you live. How you talk to yourself about food is a mirror for how you talk to yourself in the rest of your life. When you feel you are enough, you will find that there is enough food for you. You can let go. You can trust.
Emotional eating expert Geneen Roth has a powerful chapter on the superego in her book Women, Food and God called “GPS From the Twilight Zone.” Explore and discuss it in my Virtual Book Club on Food and Eating. Going step by step through the book will give you chest full of tools to have at your disposal to understand your relationship with food and how you’ve been using it in your life. It will also give you a warm and safe community where the compassion you feel for others will grow into a liberating compassion for yourself.
Who are you with no rules and no limits? What is your unique gift? What are you hungry for in this life that doesn’t have anything to do with food? Dare to ask. Dare to answer. Ground yourself in your worthiness. You are enough. You deserve. Brave the vulnerability and summon the courage.