This year has been a whirlwind of personal discovery for me. I discovered thought work (the art of working on one’s thoughts) in a podcast called Unf*ck Your Brain. This concept was new to me and I had never heard of it before. But this woman, a former lawyer and feminist life coach, was talking about things I had always struggled with: perfectionism, body image, diet culture, and basically my thoughts around all of that.
To be honest it blew my mind. One of my first brain explosions was: thoughts are optional. This was a GAME CHANGER. What?! I don’t have to think this way when I look in a mirror, listen to a recording, or relive embarrassing moments in my past in the middle of the night??
This was HUGE. Kara Lowentheil went on to talk about body image and the work she had done herself on being able to just look in the mirror. I had struggled with this for a long time. I’ve spent a lifetime picking myself apart, thinking I was too pale, chubby, and disproportional. About a year before hearing this podcast I was in a bad place with mirrors. I had moved in Austin to a new house and there were built-in mirrors so I could see myself every time I walked down the hallway. This was a problem for me because I would get so angry and feel so terrible that I would start to cry at any sight of me in the mirror. A therapist suggested I cover them.
I know a lot of women have this issue, and I’m the first to tell you it does NOT matter how much you weigh. If you hate yourself in the mirror, your brain doesn’t care what the scale says. Once, at my smallest size, I thought my mirror was making me look thinner than I actually was, so I bought a new mirror. One that didn’t “lie to me.” But of course, I got home and was convinced that it too wasn’t showing me the truth. My brain needed something to pick apart.
I used to get angry when I saw thin people eat sweets. No joke, I have had to stop watching tv shows because I couldn’t handle it. I thought it wasn’t fair that she was so thin and a pastry chef, didn’t she have to eat sugar to do that?! I can’t eat sugar! (A lie I frequently told myself).
I used up so much brain space thinking about food and what I made it mean in my life. I used to think that I would only be a worthy person if I was thin. That people would respect me more if I was a size 2 or 0. I know I didn’t make this up, it is what society tells women their whole lives. It is the kind of thinking the multi-billion dollar diet industry banks on. Now, back to that whole “thoughts are optional” thing I was talking about.
What was so profound for me was, I could be the observer of my own thoughts. I could notice how I was thinking and how that was making me feel on a daily basis. When I was telling myself that I was worthless (or much worse) in front of the mirror, I was making myself feel bad. We always say we’re our own harshest critic, but we can be our own meanest bully too. I was making myself cry because of the thoughts I was thinking. This just blew my mind.
This led me to uncover a LOT of beliefs about myself, and they weren’t all that pretty. Awareness gave me everything. I learned to practice new thoughts, that were not the most ideal but were baby steps better than ones I had been thinking. This released some tension and created a slightly better feeling. Instead of “Wow my arms are huge..” I practiced, “I have human arms.”
“I have a human body” was a sentence (thought) I could believe that felt slightly better than the last thought. I practiced this thought deliberately every time I looked in the mirror. Eventually “I have a human body” was the default. I liked this practice because it wasn’t a quick fix, a mirror covering, or a sappy love letter to my legs and how grateful I am to them for taking me from place to place. I have tried all of that before. This was reprogramming my mindset, and it felt like a superpower.
I have proudly graduated from “I have a human body” to actual self-love. Yep, it sounds cheesy, but stick with me if you got this far! Before this year, I wasn’t able to sit with my own thoughts. When I lived alone, I would constantly have a podcast going to keep me company and far away from my actual self. And when I couldn’t handle myself with just podcasts, it was a whole box of cereal in one sitting, or a whole bag of cheddar popcorn even after I’d already eaten dinner. Obviously, this just made me feel worse, and I’d beat myself up for eating more, but I couldn’t seem to break the cycle. When I wasn’t using food, it was work. One does not simply complete two years of DMA coursework in one without some (severe) workaholic tendencies. I lived this way until I found thought work.
Life coaching is all about thought work. It is about gaining awareness about your thoughts, how those thoughts are making you feel, act, and what results you get from that process. It is then deciding what to think on purpose to get the results you truly want in your life. What I learned is you can’t out-action your beliefs. If you don’t like yourself, you won’t like yourself at your “ideal weight” (remember that second mirror?).
(This goes the same for trying to out practice your belief in yourself. There’s no magic “finally good enough” threshold where you finally believe in yourself, you just need to rewire your brain about it.)
Today was a big day for me. I was sitting at the park this morning near my apartment in Brooklyn and noticed a woman working out with a near-perfect (or what I would have considered “perfect”) body. Had this been a few years ago, my internal monologue would have gone something like:
I wonder if she works out regularly. I could probably do all the things she’s doing now, but like why don’t I look like that?
Do you think she eats bread?
No way right? I mean she also must be on some sort of plan or maybe she was just born lucky… She must have a really fast metabolism. And no WAY she ever eats sweets are you kidding?
Do you think she eats more than 1200 calories a day? Probably not right?
I’m definitely never eating bread again, I can’t believe I even ate it for so long.
I wonder what her diet is like…It is so unfair that some people are just naturally thin.
Different forms of this conversation would swirl around in my head leading myself to a buffet of self-loathing. But today, doing that didn’t even cross my mind. I noticed her, but not in comparison to myself. I had nothing bad to say about myself and it wasn’t even my first instinct to do so. I didn’t think the situation was unfair, because I genuinely like myself now regardless of what I look like or what the scale says. I don’t automatically compare myself to people anymore because I have self-respect. I don’t shame myself into looking a certain way or trying to look a certain way, because shame just feels terrible, and I’m not willing to treat myself that way.
Before this year I had been comparing myself to others for as long as I can remember. The first time I remember noticing that “thin was better and I wasn’t that” was when I was 7 years old. This has been a long exhausting road, but my head now has room for other things. Food doesn’t constantly control my every decision. I don’t avoid it, I don’t demonize it, and I don’t make it mean anything.
That’s not to say those thoughts don’t pop in from time to time. Old habits die hard. But now I know they are optional, and I don’t have to believe them or engage with them. I know how to manage my mind now, and it has honestly changed my entire life. I want to help other people feel better regardless of their circumstances, and help them learn how to manage their minds. I want to help them create relief from that mean internal bully that just won’t let up. That is why I became a life coach.