How To Care For Your Body Intuitively And With Self-Compassion
Mindfulness. Intuitive eating. Self-compassion. These are terms that we have become familiar with as so many are craving new ways of coping, connecting with ourselves and relating to each other. But as these concepts become buzz words or are over-commercialized, we risk losing the spirit of what is important.
When it comes to eating and how we relate to our bodies, many of us become paralyzed in our pursuit of mindfulness. There are literally hundreds of food documentaries telling us the different diets that we should adhere to, but they all seem to contradict each other. For the most part, the media still portrays only one type of body as desirable. We are living in the most over-worked, disconnected, and financially burdened society ever. Stigmas against mental illness run rampant. And the icing on the cake; we’re burned out and fatigued from the state of the current world. Thank you, COVID-19. Intuitive eating, mindfulness and self-compassion can turn our external focus back inward, allowing us to tap into the wisdom of our own bodies. And to do this, we must be able to listen to our own needs and turn down the voices of outside influences.
Six years ago, I began working in the field of eating disorder treatment. While diet culture is in no way the sole cause of eating disorders, it can be incredibly activating and certainly does not help anyone’s recovery process. As I helped to support and guide people in healing their relationship with food and their bodies, I became more and more angry at the “diet culture” we are all daily subject to. I challenged myself to begin examining my own behaviors and core beliefs around food and my body. I leaned into the discomfort and got painfully honest about the negative behaviors and beliefs that I engaged in and at times even cultivated. And I realized that if I was to preach freedom from this suffocating chaos to others, I had to first be free myself.
SO, WHAT DID THIS PROCESS LOOK LIKE?
Well, I examined the chronic need to lose 10 pounds (or so I thought). The daily weighing and seeking approval from my bathroom scale. Guilt if I gained even a single pound. Negative body image. My relentless inner critic shaming me throughout the day. Perfectionism. Moderate food restriction and diets. While this was a different path than one who might be struggling with taking even a small bite, it was also an important journey.
No, I did not have anorexia. But why did I weigh myself every day? Why was I afraid of certain foods? Why did I constantly feel the need to change myself? Why did I struggle so much to accept my body? I stopped exercising rigorously and I had a major shift in my perception.
To my surprise, my body DID NOT CHANGE, at least not that much. I slowly began to trust my body. I stopped censoring the food I was eating, and most of the time I ate when hungry and I stopped when full. It’s a miracle how much easier it is to not overeat when you haven’t deprived yourself throughout the day! I think the fear underlying this kind of freedom is often externally imposed on by diet culture. We are taught that if we don’t do drastic things—like buy those supplements or join that gym—we will just keep gaining and gaining. We undermine our metabolism and our own innate instincts. I started exercising again when it came from a place of desire versus a place of fear and shame.
Through trusting myself, I learned that my body has a natural place it wants to be.
If I honor and accept this, I can innately listen to what my body wants versus trying to change or control it. I can trust my hunger cues and move my body in ways that feel good and in ways that align with my values. For me this looks like three meals and three snacks each day. All food is good; nothing is forbidden. I began enjoying those “off limit” foods in moderation such as cake, fries and mac-and-cheese. And I love fruits and veggies. I engage my body joyfully through peaceful walks, hiking, yoga and running. I ditched CrossFit. Why? Because I HATED it. That’s just me. Today, I get to listen to what sounds good and what my body needs. This ultimately frees up A LOT more time and energy for the things that really matter!
I believe that it is vitally important to examine our relationship with food and our bodies. Body image affects almost all areas of our life. Our relationships—romantic and platonic alike—our performance at school and work, and our sexual choices and experiences. How do you know if this journey is for you? It can be really clarifying to start with being gentle and curious with yourself.
Think about these questions to investigate your own personal experience:
How would you describe your relationship with your body?
When you think of your body, what comes to mind? What thoughts and feelings come to mind? How do you deal with these thoughts and feelings? What do you tell yourself about these thoughts and feelings?
What are the physical characteristics you may need to accept about yourself?
What are the negative body image thoughts you need to reduce or eliminate?
What are the situations you would like to feel more comfortable in?
What beliefs and behaviors do you need to change to be less invested in appearance-based self-worth?
What are the consequences or impacts that your body image struggles produce, and what do you want to change?
5 philosophies for caring for your body
Not every one of these may feel right for you; explore a few and see how they work.
Treating ourselves with kindness can motivate us internally and allow us to show more compassion externally. There are a number of misunderstandings about self-compassion. For example, the core belief that self-compassion will make a person selfish or lazy, but science proves otherwise. Self-compassion is an inner resource that helps us survive adversity, build resiliency, and it motivates us to achieve our goals. We receive more energy and motivation from love versus fear.
Avoid giving moral value to food. An intuitive eater is defined as a person who “makes food choices without experiencing guilt or an ethical dilemma, honors hunger, respects fullness and enjoys the pleasure of eating.”
Maintaining an in-the-moment awareness of the food and fluid you put into your body. It involves observing how the food makes you feel and the signals your body sends about taste, satisfaction, and fullness.
Joyful movement is a way of approaching physical activity that emphasizes pleasure and choice. Exercise often feels compulsory — it’s done to earn food or burn off food, and to punish the body for not fitting into arbitrary and unrealistic ideals. Joyful movement recognizes the right to rest as well as the benefits of rest, and your choice in whether to engage with it or not. How do you find joy in movement? Well, what did you love to do as a kid? What do you look forward to versus dread? Do you enjoy walking your dog, or do you prefer going to a candlelight yoga class? Listen to your body and do what feels good.
What I really love about mirror work is that it can be a combination of intimately connecting with yourself, as well as exposure to yourself. We can intimately connect when looking into our own eyes while stating affirmations. Louise Hay’s Mirror Workbook takes you on this journey in “Mirror Work: 21 Days to Heal Your Life.” Mirror work can also be repeatedly standing in front of your mirror, becoming more comfortable with all parts of your body. When doing this, it is important to set all judgement aside. This needs to be an exercise that is either neutral or affirming. If you find yourself criticizing, you may not be ready to take this step.
Taking the time to utilize these resources have aided in the ongoing journey of self-acceptance for both myself and for so many others. With the holidays approaching these practices can be especially helpful. Purposefully focusing your attention on the present can help you embrace companionship, connectivity, and overall contentment and help make the season of celebration more meaningful for you and your loved ones.
This piece was written and contributed by:
Leila Anne Counseling
Leila is an individual and family therapist based in Denver, Colorado. Originally from the PNW, she is an avid outdoors enthusiast. In her practice, Leila aims to provide a safe place to explore letting go of self-critical narratives and practice new narratives of self care and self compassion. Leila also has 6 years experience treating a variety of eating disorders. She is trained in both Family-Based Treatment and Emotion-Focused Family Therapy.