Do you believe in yourself?
If you have bulimia symptoms, what does that mean?
On the deepest gut level, I think it means, to believe in who you are and what you can do to the same degree that you believe that when you wake up tomorrow morning there will be air and light and a firm earth to walk on. (Fortunately there aren’t that many of us who doubt that on a regular basis – although I’ve certainly gone through times in my life when I wasn’t too sure about that, either).
When we face difficulties in our lives – Judy, who has bulimia symptoms, for example – this self-belief is usually quite diminished or distorted. Judy feels that her life will spin out of control if she weighs too much. She also eats three, four chocolate bars every time she gets the daily call from her mother – always around 5:30, when she comes home from work, when her mother quizzes her endlessly about what she did and did not do at the office.
Judy loves her mom but hates these calls, and hates the feeling of hate. The chocolate bars get dumped on top of the hate, so the hate is covered – but then she must deal with the fear of weight, so she goes and throws it all up. After that, she feels a strange mixture of relief, relaxation, numbness and self-loathing. Maybe the best thing about throwing up is how familiar this mixture of feelings is to her.
(Sidebar: I am saying that Judy has bulimia symptoms rather than she has bulimia because it’s always pretty easy to tell whether one has a symptom of a particular condition. It’s usually much harder to tell whether one actually has a condition. Also, once we say we have a condition, it is often not a far step from thinking that we are that condition. And that can take away from our true nature. I like to think of Judy as Judy, as a precious human being – not of a bulimic “case” by the name of Judy.)
What Judy believes in is pretty complex but here are a few things. She believes that
- Her body weight has the power to dictate her life
- Her life is not under her control
- Someone else has the right to regularly question every detail of her work life
- She should not have negative feelings towards her mother
- Food and bulimia can deal with strong feelings
- What’s familiar is good
What would happen if we waved a magical wand over Judy and changed these beliefs into believing in Judy? Now she might say to herself things like
“If anyone has control over my life, it’s me.”
“My body weight is only important if it’s a medical issue; otherwise, it’s completely irrelevant.”
“Nobody has a right to question me, and I always have the right to not answer.”
“I can have negative feelings towards people I love. I know that in the end, my positive feelings will win out.”
“I can handle strong feelings by dealing with them directly. A feeling is something I have, not something that has me.”
“There’s always something interesting around the corner. Always sticking with what’s familiar is boring.”
It seems to me that ultimately, this is about having life-affirming beliefs which bring movement and change and relationships, versus life-hindering beliefs that keep us stuck in stagnation and isolation (this is important for everyone, not only for people with bulimia). For some people, life-affirming spiritual or religious beliefs can take the place, or get mixed in with, believing in ourselves. For example, I might believe that only God has control over my life, and that this God is entirely good and loving and always has my best interest at heart. Or I might take the view that the only entity I have to answer to is my higher power.
Back to Judy. If life-hindering beliefs are one of the reasons why she struggles with bulimia, what can she do? Are beliefs like light bulbs – you just take the broken one and replace it with one that works? Yes, sometimes that works. There is not one fix-it manual that will work for everyone. But if you’ve tried the light bulb method and it didn’t work so well, here is something inspired by Buddhist teacher Diane Eshin Rizzetto’s book, Waking up to what you do:
Engage the observer – reflection
Some of the beliefs and feelings mentioned above may not be obvious to Judy. So she could start with something that she does know, for example dreading her mother’s phone calls, or the feeling of relief she feels after engaging in her bulimic behaviour, like purging. She might want to start with the latter, because it’s a comfortable feeling. Observe: what did the feeling of relief feel like in her body? What thoughts accompanied this feeling? What did it remind her of? It would be good if Judy could answer these questions without judgment. When I started engaging in this practice, one of the things I needed to watch out for was sarcasm.
Deepen the observation
Once Judy gets the hang of observation, she can go deeper. Not only can she venture out to observe herself in more unpleasant situations, she can also come closer, so to say. In the beginning, the observation is often some time after the fact. Now she can try to take the observation into the situation. “Oh, here I am, unwrapping this chocolate bar. I notice I’m anticipating the first bite. I notice how I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it. It’s like opening the door to something.” At this point, Judy is hopefully somewhat used to not judging herself. So she may go ahead with her usual bingeing and purging or other bulimia symptoms, but now she does it with her eyes wide open. And the beginning practice of not judging herself is already opening the door to a more positive belief in herself.
Spotting the beliefs
After practicing for a bit, Judy may be ready to, as Rizzetto says, “engage the power of awareness so that we can see more clearly what deeply held beliefs are behind our actions.” Now that Judy knows what it is she is observing, and how to observe, she can take the odd action – and simply pause. Stop. Stop in the store, in the middle of picking up the chocolate bars. Stop before picking up the phone. Stop while throwing up. She can stop and ask herself, “What am I requiring of myself right now? What “must” I do? What is the rule I’m following?” This is where she puts the spotlight of her awareness on her beliefs. (And it is to a large degree these beliefs that feed these bulimia symptoms.)
Stopping the beliefs
These beliefs or rules are usually quite engrained and we have rarely chosen them consciously. “They develop slowly over time from a combination of our unique cultural experiences, our upbringing, our natural tendencies”, explains Rizzetto. But now that Judy has carefully excavated them, without chasing them into hiding through judgment, she can choose to do something with them.
Here is something happened to me. I had been trying to stop smoking for years and years. I was quite aware of what I was doing, of how detrimental smoking was for me, etc. Then one morning, I spotted the belief – it was a really simple one. I was sitting on the bus to work, thinking that because my friend Tara was coming to visit for a few days, her allergies would make it difficult for me to smoke around her. And all of a sudden, I noticed myself saying the words, “I don’t need to smoke at all!” I realized that I had this strange belief that I “should” smoke (maybe stemming from my upbringing among chain-smoking artists). That was over 16 years ago, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.
This little story also illustrates that this is, of course, not a linear process. I didn’t first reflect on my behaviour for so many months, then observe my behaviour as it happened for so many months, etc. But in hindsight, certainly all these elements were there.
It was a very powerful experience. It was powerful because it showed me that when I believe I can do something, when I truly believe it, I can change things.
Please give me a call or email me if you think this is something you’d like to talk about.