Est 7 min read
I have a confession for you. Disclaimer: I'm doing this because I find that people have a preconceived notion about intuitive eating and what healing their relationship with food and their body would look like. Many times people think that it means that you'll be thin.
My confession today is: I still gain weight. During COVID, I gained some weight. This was likely my body’s way of dealing with the stress of a chronic crisis. It is adaptive and normal under duress.
I also had some gut health issues previously, and I hadn't been eating gluten for many years (I do not have celiac, I just had an intolerance to some foods). After healing my mental and emotional relationship around food and some of my physical gut issues by attending to some of my underlying health issues (constipation tendencies, nutrient deficiencies, parasitic infection, for example), I was able to feel safe to liberalize my diet. I successfully added back in gluten and really can eat anything now! That journey has been wonderful, and it's been so freeing. I feel great about being able to eat at a food cart and not even worry about what the ingredients are, just focusing on what feels good to me and what I enjoy.
While I still eat intuitively, I had been restricting myself because avoiding foods like gluten cuts out a ton of food options. When I added it back in, there was a bit of a pendulum swing of eating all the things that had been off-limits. Between letting go of restriction, the pandemic's stress, and some significant personal life stressors, I have gained weight.
Does that mean that I'm not a good intuitive eating coach? No. Does that mean that I don't have a healthy relationship with food or a healthy relationship with my body? No, it only means that my body is doing what it needs to do to support me as best it can to get through life. Today, I trust that.
There's a song by Tony Jones, Healing is not my purpose. The song really hit me. There are those of us who are very achievement-oriented and who tend to get really focused on personal growth and development. This was definitely true for me. If you hyper-focus on growth and achievement, it's likely because you don't feel good enough. Then, when you're feeling dissatisfied, unhappy, frustrated, it seems like there must be something wrong that you need to control, manage, fix, change, and you hyper-focus on healing. I think that's part of why people go on so many diets or get so focused on their relationship with food and beat themselves up over and over and over. Even if you don't end up dieting, and are in the fuck it mode, you likely get hyper-focused on it because you're trying to feel better or different and change something. What I find is that people tend to take it on almost as their whole identity.
A line in Tony Jones’ song says “My purpose is to satisfy my soul.” I had a client say “my soul doesn't even ask for that much.” I cried when I heard her say that. Your life can be so rich, nuanced, complex, and full. Yet, you're so focused on something being wrong with you that you think you need change, you need to fix it, you need to control or manage it. And my client saying that really hit home, you focus on all these other things constantly looking at what is wrong with you, rather than giving your soul what it needs to be satisfied.
Est 8 min read
I find that so many of my clients (and even me!), previous to doing this work, struggle to access pleasure and have fun.
There are so many reasons for this, we will dive into a few here. But be sure to get curious about your own personal barriers to accessing pleasure.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that humans have a negativity bias. This negativity bias is important, there's a reason we have it. If you're on a path and boulders are falling down, you want to recognize that because that is a danger, right? You want to remember that, for future times you walk down that path, you don't want to get taken out by a boulder. Our brains are wired naturally to notice the things that are negative, that feels scary, dangerous, or bad; to really highlight those and take note. It keeps us safe. That's our inherent human nature.
Let’s shift that bias a little bit by starting to take in all of your experiences and highlight those pleasurable experiences, not just the uncomfortable ones. For example, if you practice mindfulness, you might notice only uncomfortable sensations like pain, upset, and tension in your body. While it's important to recognize the sensations that are present, get curious, and honor them, it's also valuable to zoom out and notice the pleasant and neutral sensations present in your body.
It can be really helpful to develop a practice of doing body scans specifically when you are feeling good, checking-in to see what pleasurable sensations are present in your body. Sit with them, let the feeling grow, and allow yourself to simmer in it and enjoy that moment. I recommend the Breathing Room app by Rembody for support around body scans, if you're not working with a coach like me.
Explore other ways to zoom out from the unpleasant life experiences and simmer in the pleasurable ones. Perhaps, when you meet up with a friend, you have a practice where you tell each other the most exciting thing that happened to you this week or share about any adventures you're having. Sometimes people do gratitude practices for this reason, although I do find that gratitude practices can have an inherent should present with them. And sometimes it becomes really routine. So just be aware of that.
Second, explore if it feels safe to feel pleasure. For many folks, it doesn't. If you are struggling with nervous system regulation, having a lot of conflict or high demands in your life, were told as a child that it's bad to enjoy yourself, or that we should all kind of be martyrs and put everyone else’s needs first, it may not feel safe to feel pleasure. Addressing what you need to feel safe to be able to access pleasure can be really helpful.
The last piece we will look at is deserve, or feeling/believing that it's ok to make your pleasure a priority over other things/people. This is the one that I find is really complex, nuanced, and layered, but I want to give you a sense of some areas to explore. Deserve around pleasure, in particular, for people who are more caretakers, high achievers, or who have a lot of shoulds, in their minds, this can be really challenging. You might find that when you start to look at this, you realize that you don't feel like you deserve to access pleasure or you don't feel like it's your inherent right, that as a human you deserve pleasure. We all need pleasure. This is really important. It's an important experience to have and it's one of the ways that you fill up and that your nervous system regulates.
We all need pleasure.
Let me just tell you right now, you do deserve to access pleasure, make it a priority in your life, and have fun, joy, and satisfaction. You absolutely do.
But there are some reasons you might not fully feel that in your body even if you believe mentally that you should be able to or you deserve to. Even if you believe you deserve to access pleasure, you may not really know that in your bones or have the practice of it yet.
Here are some areas to explore. What was the messaging that you got as a child around pleasure? Did you get shamed for enjoying things by being loud (squealing/laughing)? Did you get shamed for self-pleasure, like masturbation when you were a child? What was the message around it? Is it shameful? To deserve pleasure? Or to access pleasure? If the answer is yes, you definitely want to do some work around trauma healing through a therapist, coursework, or books. Pleasure activism is one that you might want to check out (I personally have not read it but I've heard a lot of good things about it).
What is your wiring (underlying belief) around pleasure and shame, and can you start to dismantle some of the wirings that hold you back? Start with being curious. Is it possible that it's not shameful to access pleasure and that you’re not bad if you have pleasure in your life? Start to rewire in that sort of way. Ask yourself, what is possible? How can I shift this, but first, you want to be really curious about it and give yourself space to feel how you feel about it.
Let’s talk a little bit about putting others first. A lot of time people come to me and they know all these other things need to happen but pleasure is low on their priority list. That is a form of caretaking of others. This is about boundaries, understanding your value and your worth as constant and non-negotiable, and acting in a way that validates your value. You deserve to be your priority.
This can be really hard to hear because sometimes it feels like you shouldn't be the priority over other things. Certainly, if you have little children who can't get themselves fed, you may need to put that first before going and having a hot tub soak or getting your nails done, or having sex. You might need to take care of the littles first, but you still need to be the priority.
You're the person who is in charge of your body, taking care of yourself throughout your lifetime, and no one else is going to make you the priority. It really is on you to make yourself a priority and getting to a place where it feels okay to do that can be really challenging. You definitely deserve to be your priority and there's nothing selfish about being your priority. It doesn't mean you're going to suddenly turn into the kind of person who ignores all the things around you that need to be done and doesn't take care of other things. In fact, it might make you feel even more resourced so that you can participate in those things more easily so you can feel good about doing that. I recommend the book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. They talk about human giver syndrome, instead of being a human being, many of us tend to be human givers. We're taking care of everybody else before ourselves. This is patriarchy BS y’all. Time to fight against it.
Another piece can be fighting against an underlying belief that you’re not good enough. It's really hard to make yourself as equally a priority as other people or even more of a priority than other people because you don't feel like you deserve it.
Take a look at what things cause you to feel not good enough. You may also want to focus on dismantling wiring that others gave you- the messages that there was something wrong with you or you aren’t good enough.
I've had clients share with me that they feel like they're a monster, that they're poison, or there's something inherently wrong with them and that means to them that they are not good enough. If you feel like you are a monster, it'd be really hard to make yourself a priority and feel like you deserve to be cared for and nurtured. Pleasure is absolutely nurturance so start to look at what are the things that make you feel shame or feel you don’t deserve nurturance. Where are the wounds that you need to heal in order to feel like you are good enough, you deserve to be cared for, nurtured, and receive pleasure?
Do you have things from your past or current patterns/behaviors that you feel a lot of shame around? If there are things you’ve done that harmed others (or even ways you harmed yourself) you may feel you don't deserve pleasure because you have fallen short of an ideal. Maybe you weren't able to parent the child the way that you wanted to, maybe you got in a car accident and harmed someone, or struggled with substances, basically anything that you are feeling that your value and your worth are diminished by. Recognize that your value and your worth aren't diminished because you made mistakes. Every human makes mistakes. You're here, you're growing, and you still deserve to have pleasure. It can be helpful to begin to explore shame and self-forgiveness practices. Brene Brown’s books are helpful for this work.
You might be wondering what this has to do with food…knowing you deserve pleasure impacts your relationship with food and your body deeply. From allowing yourself to enjoy your food to regulating your nervous system (which impacts food patterns) to trusting and enjoying your body, pleasure is so important. So, dive in, work on the barriers and go get some of that well-deserved pleasure!
Eating restrictively, dieting, or eating in a way that is not attuned to your body is hard on your digestion. Intuitive eating and being more attuned to your body actually help with digestion.
Digestion is really impacted by how regulated your nervous system is. Some people can easily regulate their nervous systems and some are more easily dysregulated. You may be familiar with the Window of Presence (also referred to as the Window of Tolerance), where they talk about being out of that window- in a hyper state of arousal (flight or fight) or a shutdown state. Ideally, you spend most of your time in that window where you're comfortable, you feel safe and secure, and where your nervous system is very regulated. In that place is where healing and optimal digestion happen. If you're someone who's out of the Window of Presence pretty frequently and who’s nervous system isn't easily regulated, then you're likely struggling with digestion. You may be prone to constipation or diarrhea, you may not be absorbing nutrients, or you may be having a lot of bloating or other symptoms.
Dieting and restricting increases preoccupation with food, thoughts of shame, and a lot of the eating behavior that people are concerned about. If you're eating restrictively, then you're going to often have the pendulum swing of eating in a way that feels out of control. That cycle is really hard on your body since you're not getting enough nutrients. It puts you into a stress response so you're going to be in that fight or flight hyper state of arousal or you're not going to have enough energy and you're going to go into shutdown. It's going to prevent you from being in that window of presence or tolerance. When you're having a lot of shame, that will tend to put you into fight or flight or into shutdown mode, more often shut down. Shame will increase preoccupation which increases anxiety. As you have increased anxiety your nervous system is more dysregulated. Likely, you try to deal with the shame and anxiety by restricting again. It's a vicious cycle.
When you're in that cycle of dieting and restricting there will be a pendulum swing. When it swings, typically you eat everything, throwing the diet out the window, which is hard on your digestion in the sense that you're not going to be getting consistent food, getting enough nutrients, and then suddenly, you're getting a large amount of food, maybe even so much that you’re eating in a way that's not attuned to your body, and it's feeling physically uncomfortable. You're not listening to your hunger and fullness signals because you're in that primal hunger stage where your body is just feeling restricted and thinks that it's a famine, and now it's time to eat abundantly so that you can make up for that energy deficit. You're going to have a lot of food that you're trying to digest all at once. If you're eating beyond fullness on a consistent basis or past fullness to an extreme amount, then that's going to be hard on your digestion as well.
Another consequence of restricting is that it leads to less of the good bacteria in your gut. Studies show that just having disordered eating creates the same negative impact as having a full-blown GI disorder. Studies found that people who are diagnosed with anorexia and in recovery (after they go through a refeeding phase) have a significant decrease in the variety and amount of good bacteria in their intestines.
These are all ways that dieting and restriction or even the idea that you should be eating healthy can actually harm your digestion, both through throwing you out of nervous system regulation and through other physical, mental, and emotional effects.
What do we do about that? First off, reject all that diet culture BS. You're going to throw that right out the window because it is not helpful and diets do not work. If you're not sure or you're not familiar you can check out some of my other blogs on these pieces. You can also check out the Intuitive Eating book and there are some other really great anti-diet books out there as well.
Instead of doing the dieting thing, shaming and should-ing yourself, and keeping your body, nervous system, and digestive tract all out of whack, you're going to build body attunement. Body attunement simply means being attuned or tuned in to the signals that your body is giving you. That can include hunger and fullness signals but it also includes signals that you need a break, you are feeling restless, or signals around emotions, like you're angry, signaling that someone is crossing a boundary. It's honoring the messages that your body is giving, taking care of yourself, and nurturing yourself. You're going to build body attunement, connection, and trust with your body, and let that be your guide.
You may be wondering, how is this going to help your digestion?
The more attuned you are to your body, the more you're able to honor your needs and stay in that window of presence. Optimal digestion happens in that range. By rejecting diets and diet culture, you will have less shame, less anxiety, fewer things throwing you out of that window. By building attunement, you'll be able to notice signals like not feeling great when you eat, for example, the extra-large size of popcorn when you go to the movie theater actually makes you feel a little queasy and constipated. You're not going to necessarily stop eating popcorn, but you're going to notice how it makes you feel. You'll have more discernment and choice in it. You're honoring how it actually makes you feel, acknowledging that and then making choices based on that. You're also going to be able to honor hunger and fullness signals. When you're honoring hunger signals, you're going to eat more consistently, and really fuel your body, which again, is going to help with that nervous system regulation. It will help with energy level, sleep, and blood sugar regulation. Eating regularly, when your body says you're hungry, is good for digestion as well. Your body knows what to expect, it's moving things through, you're not getting too little and then a large amount of food all at once, you're just getting the amount that feels good to you.
We don't want to turn intuitive eating into the hunger fullness diet. There's nothing wrong with eating beyond fullness, especially if you're in choice about that and you're using discernment, when you decide I'm going to have a little more of this, this would feel good to me right now. In general, if you're able to be aware of your fullness signals, and honor them, that's going to help with digestion because your body's going to be processing the amount of food that it's able to process at once and not feel overburdened by that. You're less likely to get heartburn, bloating, all of these kinds of things.
Intuitive Eating and body attunement help your digestion, your mental and emotional health, and helps to increase your resilience by increasing your ability to regulate your nervous system. It is such a beautiful way to nurture yourself!
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The first step to healing your relationship with food is reconnecting with the signals your body gives you. One of the ways to do that is by checking in with your hunger before you eat. Here's my spin on the traditional hunger scale..