Acceptance in Recovery: Important Lessons from April

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April in New England this year has been particularly extreme. First it snowed, just as the crocus began to bloom. The snow melted, then it snowed again, knocking down the daffodils. Despite the intermittent frost and cold white blanket in these first weeks of April, the blossoms are still coming. The fragrant little grape hyacinths are dotting my yard this morning. The tomato and basil seedlings on my porch are stretching out to the sun. 

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I was thinking today that this year’s Spring is a little like recovery. My clients struggle with disordered eating, so that’s my frame of reference, but I suppose recovery from anything can feel like the fits and starts of this season. 

One of my Non-Diet Book Clubs is reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Acceptance is one of those harder parts of recovery work, but it’s essential. When we bring mindful acceptance to our experience, we notice our feelings and thoughts without judgement or without trying to push them away. Easier said than done. I personally find it hard to notice unpleasant feelings without judging, analyzing, or trying to explain them away. This is a challenging concept to grasp, never mind to practice. 

Many of you have heard about one framework from which I work with my clients: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In some ways, acceptance is not the best word to use. Clients often mistakenly think it means putting up with, giving in to, or tolerating things that are difficult or challenging. Acceptance is not about complacency, and it’s certainly not an excuse to do nothing on the path to our goals. Instead of putting up with or giving in to our negative thoughts or feelings, we can accept them by dropping the struggle with them — simply giving space for the thoughts and feelings to arise. We notice our feelings and thoughts, but we don’t need to react to them. ACT terms for acceptance work include “expand around it,” “make room for it,” “let it freely flow through you,” “breathe into it,” or in the words of the Beatles, “let it be.” 

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We don’t need to sit on a meditation cushion or yoga mat in order to practice acceptance. Acceptance happens any moment that you bring your attention to your thoughts and feelings, really notice them, and open up to the fact that you are a human being with those thoughts and feelings. You can choose to respond to them or not. You can choose to express them or not. But you don’t try to judge them or push them away. 

So many of us use food — either the withholding of it or the overindulging on it — to manage feelings that we think we can’t handle. 

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Instead, can we notice our hunger sensations, notice our cravings, and notice how full we are in any given moment? Can we accept these as our experience, even if the feelings in our bodies and minds are occasionally unpleasant? 

Can we notice that we feel angry at someone, but we’re choosing to take it out on ourselves by not eating instead of confronting that person? 

Can we notice how much we crave a certain food, and how much of this is about mouth hunger or emotional hunger and not stomach hunger? 

Can we notice feeling numb when we come home from work and just start eating, and admit that we’d rather eat and feel numb than ruminate over and over the stress from the day? Can we just notice this, without judgement? 

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These are just some of the questions that can take some time to explore and form the foundation for the profound work done by my clients. This is not about an external diet or person telling them how to eat; this is deep listening to oneself and opening to experience so that clear choices can be made. 

One important addition: noticing without judgement does not mean that we don’t also want to change our behaviors!  Maybe we don’t like that after-work, mind-numbing eating. Maybe we don’t like what food restriction in the service of avoiding anger is doing to our health and energy. Can we non-judgmentally notice these behaviors and acknowledge them as doing our best to deal with painful thoughts and feelings in the moment? Yes, we want to learn new strategies for dealing with stress, anger, frustration, loneliness. 

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There’s one very important concept here. (If you take only one thing home from this blog post, I secretly hope it’s this…) Finding new ways to cope and deal with difficult thoughts and feelings will not happen by trying to avoid or push them away. Just ask yourself if this has worked for you in the past…? Avoidance and automatic pilot go hand in hand. Acceptance of what is really happening inside in the present moment is the anecdote. When you can really drop into what is being felt or thought and observe it — and this takes a lot of practice! — you open up the freedom to make choices. You can choose to call a friend when you are feeling lonely, express feelings through writing, choose a snack that makes you feel satisfied and vital when desiring some food, and make other choices that move you towards recovery and the person that you want to be. 

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Recovery from disordered or dysregulated eating — and coming to peace with your body and self — is an ever-evolving process, and it doesn’t stop when you find yourself eating better. Like a flowering bush that needs pruning each year to realize it’s fullest bloom, we are constantly welcoming in the new discoveries about ourselves, as we let old patterns and habits that don’t serve us go. We can appreciate both our petals and our protective thorns. We are human and not perfect, and each of us are one of a kind.

What are the seeds that you are sowing this Spring? What is blossoming within you? What kind of flower are you growing into? What kind of life and person are you wanting to be? Every day, despite the frost, darkness, and other challenging conditions, we strive to blossom and become who we are. In fact, those challenging conditions are part of what makes us like a strong, resilient plant. This Spring, nurture and feed your soul and senses. Provide fertile, nutritious soil and plenty of water. Take good care of the seedling parts of you that long for the sun. 

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One of my favorite quotes is from Georgia O’Keefe, also a favorite artist. “Nobody sees a flower, really -- it's so small -- we haven't time, and to see takes time…” Take time to fully recover and develop a healthy relationship with food, your body, and your self. Get to know yourself and your uniqueness. Get to know what makes you feel alive and bring that aliveness out into the world. Allow yourself a full range of feelings and notice them all. Take time. Slow down whenever you can to check in with yourself and bring awareness to those feelings, even the hard ones— the ones that we tend to want to avoid or pretend aren’t a part of our experience. 

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I have to accept that April in New England is a little back and forth. I arm myself with a good warm scarf, lots of layers that I can peel off, and plant little sprouts on my sun porch to remind me that the sunnier side of Spring is coming. I emerge from the in-breath of winter, and breath out a blog post for the first time in awhile. My winter writing is more introspective and I don’t share so much of it. Today I accept and publish for you the imperfect combination of words here to describe this human’s experience of Spring and my work in it. I am grateful for the work with all of you — in person and on-line — that helps me feel the connectedness of all things. 

As I tend to my little seedlings, taking them inside when the porch gets below freezing at night, I imagine all the seeds being sown in the hearts and minds of humans all over, in all kinds of conditions, this Spring. I accept the cold temperatures, even though I don’t particularly like them.  I accept that I have to wait until the soil is warmer to put my plants into the ground. It’s another cold April in New England. The hard stuff in life is part of it all. 

Change and Resistance

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Change.

It’s in the September air here in Boston. Children start school. The college students come back. Mattresses and dressers are seen on sidewalks and on top of cars everywhere. In fact, a cool September breeze blows through my windows as I write this in my new office between Davis and Porter Squares, on the Somerville/Cambridge line. It feels exciting to be in this sunlit space, despite all the adjustments that moving an office creates.

I haven’t blogged in what feels like too long. There are many very valid excuses, like taking a vacation, spending summer days with my children, and moving my practice space from two locations into a new one right here. I took an unintended two months off from writing, and today I feel rusty and resistant and prone to procrastinate.

Before I started typing this, I walked into Davis Square to get lunch. I could have lingered long, but the part of me that really wanted to sit down and write today told me to have my lunch and come back to my breezy space to re-engage with my blog readers after this summer break. It was quite amazing to discover just how many things I had to do before I actually sat down to type. I had to make a cup of tea, make sure my desk was set up just right, open my third floor windows more to let in that breeze, finish up some paperwork, call a few clinicians about our mutual clients, etc, etc...

Yes, it was striking how many really important things I had to do before I got around to doing what I really wanted to do: write. In fact, in the hierarchy of things that I wanted to do today, reconnecting with you, my readers, was top on my list. So, why was I feeling so unable to just sit down and do it...? Why was I procrastinating...?

When I slowed down and checked in with myself, I realized, for one thing, that I was really out of the habit. Prior to my writing hiatus, I had been blogging every other week. I took a much-needed 11-day vacation and unplugged myself completely from my computer and work, but then I never really went back to the blog. Sure, I have wonderful reasons, but regardless, I got out of the habit. And here I am, with a whole afternoon finally free and dedicated to blogging and I’m (first unconsciously, and then quite consciously) avoiding it...

This got me thinking about my clients and resistance to change. So many people come into my practice because they want to be eating differently. They want to have a better relationship with food or recover from an eating disorder. They know what they ultimately need to do to make the changes, but it’s so hard.

How can we want something so badly, but find ourselves behaving in ways that don’t support those goals and values that we hold dear? Although there are lots of reasons why we resist change, one of the simple reasons is that change is hard. Until something becomes well-practiced and rhythmic, it feels awkward. My writing today feels like that. When it’s a more regular practice, it flows more freely and with ease and energy. After being away from it for so long, it feels foreign, choppy, and far from easy. Today I can viscerally appreciate how hard it is for my clients to change their habits with food and physical activity.

So, after an hour and a half of procrastination, how did I finally sit down and blog? I remembered something from a book that I am currently reading with colleagues in one of my supervision groups about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The book is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, and I highly recommend it. ACT is a psychotherapeutic modality that (at least as I see it) is a soup mix of various behavioral therapies with a hefty dash of mindfulness. ACT concepts can be applied as part of psychotherapy or nutrition therapy or simply on their own at home by anyone. In fact, they can be applied anywhere there is a desire for change.

One of the major concepts that I’ve appreciated about ACT is the concept of slowing down and asking yourself, “Are you living the life that you want to live right now?” Are you focused on what is meaningful to you and aligned with your values? When we have psychological problems or stressors, we often think that we should put our lives on hold while we try to lessen or take away the pain. Working with ACT means that we don’t try to take away the pain, we try to “lean into it” and learn from it, while focusing on acting in ways that are meaningful and values-driven.

My favorite metaphor in the book is one about grief. Grief is like an inflatable ball that we are holding underwater. We can hold it and hide it underwater for a long time time, but the moment that our guard is down and we remove our hands from the ball, it pops back up to the surface. Many of us try to bury grief by working a lot, by taking addictive drugs, and, yes, even by binging or restricting or obsessing about food. We will do anything to make the pain go away. Although these methods work at first, they hurt us in the long run. The ACT model says that instead of trying to push away pain, we can acknowledge it’s presence in our lives and ask ourselves, “How can I best take care of myself and act in accordance with what I value, given that I have this suffering in my life?” There are many techniques for working on change in this way, and I am delighted to report that many of my clients are finding the techniques awkward at first, but very transformative once they get into a rhythm of practicing them regularly.

This brings me back to my own awkwardness and procrastination today about writing. I was stuck in my “shoulds.” I should finish this task before I start writing. It should feel easy and flowing and energizing when I write. I should not have let so much time go by without blogging... Well, that got me nowhere. (In fact, a massage therapist friend has told me that “shoulds” give people tight shoulders. I could feel the tension mounting.) I was trying to avoid the suffering, the awkwardness, the strong resistance to change that my body and mind were feeling about writing.

So, instead of trying to push away the discomfort that it took to sit down and stare at a blank document on my computer, I sat with it for awhile. It made me squirm. I kept looking out the window, wanting to flee and go back down to the Square for a latte. I took a deep breathe. And another. I  acknowledged to myself that sitting down to write is hard, particularly sitting down to write something that other people will read. I reminded myself that getting away from writing for two whole months was a choice that I made. I would probably make it again, given the same life circumstances. I decided to renew my commitment to myself and my readers to get back on track and write biweekly again. I also realized that being rigid and unforgiving toward myself when I don’t do it perfectly is not helpful.

My eyes darted around for something else that I needed to do so that I could avoid writing some more. I tried to be kind to myself, and noticed this without judgement. I sat some more and thought about how writing today was really the way for me to live the life that I want to live right now. It’s not easy all the time, and sometimes it is a really big struggle, but writing and reaching out with free, easily accessible inspiration is meaningful to me, especially to include a community that is beyond the boundaries of my own practice walls. And a regular writing practice, like the blog, keeps my writerly muscles toned.

Wow, was it hard to get started today! And, wow, did I learn about myself and my habits a lot in the process! I think that instead of spending an hour or two procrastinating in two weeks when I sit down here to write again, I’ll start with that question: “Are you living the life that you want to live right now?” and remind myself that my writing practice is meaningful to me, no matter how hard it is to get started. In fact, the struggle is not only inevitable (as I’m sure all you writers out there will agree), but a great teacher.

Can you imagine how this might be applied to changing your relationship with food or with physical activity? Change is challenging and resistance to change can be strong. It’s hard to break out of our comfort zones and those places that we go to automatically. However, we can slow down and ask ourselves: How do we best take care of ourselves during these times -- in a way that is aligned with our own values and meaning? How do we eat in a way that nourishes us and makes it easier for us to be the people that we want to be in the world -- and not how the eating disorder or someone else told us we “should” eat? I believe that if we can begin to ask those questions, then we will begin to understand that change, however much it makes us squirm, really is possible.