What Does “Progress” Look Like When It Comes to Self-Acceptance?

Blame it on my brain chemistry, cultural conditioning, or perhaps my familial mythology, but the trait I have held onto most consistently in my 27 years on this earth has been self-criticism.

Thankfully, I *sometimes* have the capacity to take a step back and cultivate a sense of humor about how pervasive and relentless my Inner Critic is. Like, I’ll be sick and lying in bed with a cold, playing a loop of rhetorical questions in my head: why did you let yourself get sick? Why didn’t you take oregano oil last week when everyone in your office was sick? Why haven’t you been sleeping more? Why have you been sleeping so much?  [Insert mean rhetorical question here]

In other words: I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. I set myself up for failure almost constantly, and it always proves to be a giant waste of energy and time. It also makes me feel bad, and keeps me from feeling energized about the actions I want to make in my life, which span from doing laundry on a Sunday to writing a book to learning to treat myself with more kindness. Yes, I want to learn how to let go of this critical voice, as profound a loss as it will be.

The irony is that the ostensible “goal” of being so hard on myself seems to be a drive toward progress, ambition, some amorphous goal of “virtue”—more oregano oil, more sleep, less sleep, more water, less smoking pot, fewer calories, more omega 3-fatty-acids, whatever the obsession of the hour is. This continues to be the case even though I’m self-awarely “woke” enough about neuroplasticity to know what the research says: self-criticism is not just unproductive, it’s actively destructive. To motivation, to mental health, and even to the immune system.

The stubborn, rebellious part of me wants to say, “fuck that.” But the bottom line is, If hating yourself worked, I wouldn’t be talking about all this. I’d probably just be an evangelist for self-loathing. Instead, I’m speaking out against it.

***

As I write this today, I am in the midst of a real push to feel happier in my life. Call it a New Year’s Resolution, or the byproduct of far too many years berating myself, but that’s where I am at and I have gathered quite a bit of focus behind it, exhausting and self-referential as it may be to hear about (sorry).

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It’s true.

In addition to #therapy, I’m now also working with a mindfulness life coach to help me be more accountable to concrete goals that support my mental health and happiness. Meditate every day. Write poems again. Smoke less pot. Start a journaling practice. You get the picture. (I’ve even begun writing LETTERS between different “parts” of myself, which reminds me of the Pixar film Inside Out. Quite literally, I write myself letters “from” my Self-Loathing and then imagine my Self-Acceptance as the recipient, who then can respond in the form of another letter.) The practice of Working On Myself is DIFFICULT and time-consuming, but I’ll admit, I feel a tremendous sense of progress.

But when it comes to self-acceptance, what does “progress” mean, anyway?

In today’s techno-solutionist world of measuring our steps with FitBits, recording and analyzing our workouts on Miscellaneous Exercise App, and even tracking our REM cycles during sleep, the vague and idiosyncratic notion of progress—especially for something as mythic as self-acceptance—may seem impossible.

And indeed,  it often feels impossible, or at least it does to me. On some days, I’m easily able to observe my thoughts, habits of mind, and patterns of behavior with a sense of openness, expansion, and curiosity. All of that, to me, are central qualities in self-acceptance. But on other days, I feel myself contract and fall back into old, oppressive patterns. I’ll judge myself, and ask questions that break me down instead of build me up. Sometimes, I feel able to intervene in the cycle of self-judgment and re-route my attitude. Other times, I can’t. Frustratingly, all of these paradoxical steps are part of how I understand progress.

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Redefine your terms. B+ ≠ Failure!

My ability to connect with and actually recognize these things as progress ebbs and flows. Like, last week, when I forgot to take my Zoloft and was completely unable to focus at work, I sank and sank and sank until my inner dialogue was so recursively negative that it felt inescapable. I was cognizant that talking to myself with such judgment was costing me, and I kept doing it. The voice of Self-Acceptance seemed nowhere to be found. It wasn’t, the day ended (with a couple of glasses of wine), and the next day came around. I took my Zoloft, got a good amount done, and recognized that some days are worse than others. Perhaps being able to bounce back so quickly was progress in and of itself.

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Embrace the paradoxes of progress.

What’s deeply interesting to me is that horrible, regressive days like this can exist alongside days in which I feel so self-accepting that I’m almost unrecognizable to myself. Another day last week, to provide a counter-example, I found myself just about to spiral on the heels of receiving an angry letter from an ex. The depths of depression felt so close within my reach, and I knew that forcing myself to work would just lead to procrastination, self-judgment about said procrastination, and a negative cycle from there. I decided with discernment—and with kindness—to read my book instead of finish an article with an upcoming deadline. The progress in this instance wasn’t something anyone else could understand as a personal victory. It wasn’t an extra set of steps to record on my FitBit or dollars to watch flow into my bank account. But it was evidence of my growing ability to accept myself, the very goal I set out to achieve once I began this recent, concerted effort to be a happier person.

How can this be useful to you?

It may or not be, depending on how type-A you are, and how willing you are to regard experimentation as a rigorous practice.

I am, admittedly, type-A, so I am actually quite resistant to the notion that anything, self-acceptance or otherwise, isn’t something you can capital-a Achieve in a singular event. It also, counter-intuitively, won’t always feel good or victorious. Sometimes, accepting yourself means feeling fat and lazy and horrible, and noticing that—with a recognition of the pain it is causing you, and what might mitigate it.

Sometimes, it may mean feeling fat and lazy and horrible and “intervening” with a breath, and a reminder that the mind is playing tricks on you. Perhaps the breath helps, and perhaps it doesn’t. “Success” in these instances is irrelevant. It is all self-acceptance, and it is all progress.

The key bit is noticing, which is certainly not something you can accurately measure and understand with a device or app. If you can breathe, you can notice. And if you’re doing both of those things, you are making progress.

Is Self-Hatred Really That Heroic?

A couple of months ago, I went to see a Functional Medicine doctor, whose practice brings together Western medicine and more holistic modalities like nutrition and herbal medicine. I was ostensibly there for a “check in,” but the appointment quickly devolved into me crying (heaving) for 30 minutes about how anxious I feel on a daily basis. How much I struggle to quiet my mind. How life tends to feel like a never-ending stream of things to do, including that which I consider a positive influence (e.g. seeing friends, meditating, doing exercise). Along the way, I also mentioned my skin problems, and the fact that my menstrual cycle provides me with trauma on a monthly basis.

“I think you have abnormal fermentation in your gut,” my doctor said.

I don’t relay his prognosis to mock him, #wellness, or Functional Medicine. He is a rigorous scientist, and effectively invented the term “the microbiome.” But I will say that I definitely didn’t want to hear about my gut and what was wrong with it. I didn’t want to add “healing” to another list of things to do.

Ultimately, this doctor also prescribed me a 3-day elimination diet, wherein I was supposed to feed myself exclusively plant-based soups and smoothies—a fast, really. As a formerly anorexic control-freak, I was of two minds: on the one hand, the idea of mild starvation seemed appealing. Since I no longer feel like torturing myself through starvation, I was uplifted by the idea of having an external force to motivate me.

But ultimately, it didn’t. The idea of opening the door to food issues—a door I thought I’d shut, for better or for worse—made my crying spin further out of control. As a compromise, I told my doctor I’d try the elimination diet in January. That is, until I saw my shrink. “You are psychologically unfit for this diet,” she told me. I was relieved. Not fasting for three days didn’t mean that I was a lazy slob. It meant I was following the doctor’s orders! And I guess taking care of myself?

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My morning routine helps me stay calm and present. #ZOLOFT

January is such a bleak time. However annoying “the holiday season” is, this cultural pressure to switch gears from FUN all the time to VIRTUE-24-7 is terribly disconcerting, and, quite frankly, unproductive. As I said to a coworker this week, you would never want to wake up from a long nap and immediately be asked to run a marathon.

And yet…!

This pendulum-like model for change is what we’re culturally conditioned to practice. Somehow, we continue to believe it works—however consciously—despite the fact that 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions and only 8% stick to them. Why wouldn’t we? We’ve all been fed the same cultural mythology—that making extreme commitments to self-improvement, usually via deprivation of some kind, is heroic. And typically, such commitments are born from a place of self-hatred.

I should stop here to qualify that I am not very good at the art of being kind to myself, despite my fluency with the vocabulary. Part of the reason why I cried in response to my doctor’s recommendation is because I know no other model for change beyond self-abuse. To embark on any program related to self-care, to me, immediately signified torture. Implicitly, I also knew that if I found myself unable to torture myself adequately, the self-abuse would only persist.

When I think about making any kind of change in my life, no matter how positive, I instinctively worry about this cycle unfolding: 1. A desire to change leads to self-abusive behavior. 2. A realization that said self-abusive behavior is not enough to “cure” me. 3. More self-abuse for not being good enough at abusing myself. It’s a cycle after all, and it’s one that almost seems driven by irony. There’s a certain humor in self-sabotage if you are looking at it in the right mood.

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WORD.

Sometimes, you’re not in the right mood. Take yesterday: I started off the day right. A cup and a half of organic black tea. Oatmeal. A session with my new life coach. Gratitude journaling AND 10 minutes of intentional breath and meditation. Like, I am a fucking parody. I should be the most self-accepting person on earth. Ironically (but not surprisingly) however, these practices often make me feel like I have more homework that I’ve been doing poorly, giving me more reasons to see myself as a let-down. The mind is really tiresome, no?

Fast forward mere moments when I got to work, all ready to #heal and live according to my #truth, and I totally lost sight of everything else beyond my self-loathing. Like every piece of wisdom I’ve been rehearsing for YEARS in therapy, meditation retreats, yoga, craniosacral healing, tarot, life coaching, uh… EVERYWHERE vanished, and there I was, crying under the fluorescent lights (not PMS), craving nicotine, eating snacks too fast when I wasn’t hungry, biting my cuticles—like, all the unglamorous stuff of life that no one ever admits to. Today, when I woke up feeling better, my obvious response was to ask, “Why did this happen? WHAT DID YOU DO WRONG TO AVOID PRACTICING SELF-ACCEPTANCE?”

This is what I mean by the dark humor—the tried and true irony—of what it means to be human. I should say that as I write this, I am on my first day of a MODIFIED elimination diet—thanks, doc!—meaning mostly that I’m just avoiding sugar, coffee, alcohol, and dairy (rather than the full fasting thing…in case you cared). The idea of modifying such a regimen for self-improvement (er, healing, I guess?) initially struck me as horrifying—like, why would I only torture myself a little bit if I could go full force? But I suppose I am practicing what I am preaching here, even if it feels annoying and uncomfortable and all I want to do is binge eat pizza and cream-filled coffee donuts with Bailey’s in them. That is: self-acceptance kind of, well, just is.

A final-ish note that I actually have no idea what that means, because I am not sure I have ever felt self-acceptance. But I have felt the exhaustion of self-abuse, arbitrary and couched in some vague mythology about heroism. I’ve also realized, experientially, that self-loathing tends to behave a lot like a splinter: the more you try to pry it out of you, the more it gets stuck. More often than not, splinters extract themselves when you let them be, rather than when you stab yourself with a tweezer to make your body swollen and inflamed. You know?

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It seems many of us struggle with this question.

So whatever happens this year, let it be known that I am done making myself feel like total garbage about myself on a regular basis, no matter how tied up it is with my feelings of worth and competence. On some days (like yesterday), I will probably do a bad job and bite my nails and smoke a cigarette and ask myself unproductive, self-critical questions about my past actions. But at the end of the day, I can probably try my best to take a big breath, and see that alone as a gesture of a self-acceptance. Just one breath! We can all do…at least try to do…that.

So. WHO ELSE IS WITH ME?!?!?!?!?

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously began her 1979 collection The White Album. The aphoristic phrase later became the title of her 2006 book of collected non-fiction. While there is a certain melodrama in Didion’s observation about survival, it’s strangely accurate, pinpointing that drama, or perhaps even melodrama, comprises the foundation of what it means to be human. 

That is, if we woke up each morning without telling ourselves a certain set of stories—often both unconscious and implicit—we would be at a loss. If someone asks, “What’s your name?” each of our answers is a story. So too are our likes, dislikes, jobs, habits, past times. Our lives are all fueled by self-created (and self-perpetuated) narratives. 

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“I will never be as good as Joan Didion” = a story I tell myself as a writer

Culturally, the very idea of “storytelling” is comforting (although it’s become a bit of an annoying buzzword in the TED-talk-worshipping zeitgeist of 2017). When we were children, most of us asked our caregivers for story-time before bed. Fairy tales and myths transported us to emotional locations beyond the isolated islands of our thoughts. And yet even humanity’s psychological status quo (read: anxiety) is constructed out of narratives. (“I am out of breath. Why am I out of breath? Will I ever breathe again?”) As someone with panic disorder, this parenthetical example is **DERIVED FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE**

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism: as a species, we have adapted what contemporary neuroscientists call “negativity bias,” a hard-wired impulse to locate and identify threats (internal or external) all around us. There is always a metaphorical lion on the side of the road to be avoided. Telling ourselves that—repeatedly, and in whatever variation depending on our circumstances—gives us answers, meaning, something to grab onto.

Our habits are also stories. “I’m a morning person.” “I drink too much.” “I hate exercise.” Data shows that humans repeat 40% of all behaviors every day. Are we really “creatures of habit” or are our habits largely the product of the stories we tell ourselves? I’d hazard the guess that the answer is a combination. We stick to our habits (partially as a result of the stories we perpetuate about them) because they function as evidence of our survival mechanism. “I’ve eaten cereal almost every morning since I was 10. Therefore, cereal has enabled my survival up to this point.” The mere idea of giving up eating cereal could give me heart failure. God forbid, but you get my point.

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Dana Schutz’s Swimming, Smoking, Crying. A story I relate to.

Whether or not we’re aware of the particular stories we tell ourselves may not make a difference in our actual quality of life. I’ve been in therapy since age 9, and have definitely rehearsed psychodynamic analyses with my various therapists over the years. I like to think I’m pretty aware of the stories I have told (and still do tell) myself, but I am also comfortable admitting that my awareness hasn’t changed much when it comes to my happiness in a big picture way. But knowing the impact of the stories I tell myself helps me expand the aperture of my perspective. If, say, I am feeling shitty, anxious, and depressed, I try to invite myself to ask how much of my sinking mood is the byproduct of a myth I’ve written about who I am and why my thoughts operate the way they do.

By the way, doing so doesn’t really me feel better, but having the emotional tools to ask myself the question provides me with a palpable sense of empowerment and freedom. Rather than feeling like a narrator, devoid of subjectivity, reading off the “page” of my stories, I act as a protagonist. I still may be telling myself a story. But the narrative unfolds in the present, rather than the past, tense. Selfhood itself is a narrative.

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Oprah knows her stories. FOR SURE.

During Thanksgiving and the “Holiday Season” in general, everyone seems either to complain about their impossible, right-wing relatives who they can’t even stand chatting with at dinner, or the fact that just being around family makes them crazy. I fall into the latter bucket. Being around parents—and the evocative artifacts of what “home” used to mean— tend to bring out the worst, most fossilized stories that we’ve ever told ourselves—including the ones that date back to junior high school. Like, no, brain, I am no longer a depressed anorexic 14 year old….but thanks for reminding me that I used to be that, and think that. There is a certain comfort in remembering the evolutionary mechanism at work. You may still feel like shit, but at least remind yourself that YOU ARE A MAMMAL.

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No, you’re not a fish. You are a mammal.

Like most people, I sometimes wake up wishing that I had a clean, structured understanding of what my purpose was on this earth, and how I could best enact it. There’s a reason people join cults, nurture their SoulCycle obsessions, or become vegan. We all have control issues (#deathanxiety), and the pursuit of external identity-markers gives us a break from having to create and uphold our own, individualized stories of meaning and purpose. Remember that Marx called religion “the opium of the people” for a similar reason—in an attempt to point out the pleasure we derive from dogma, those pre-existing ideological structures that lessen the weight of personal responsibility—to define our own ethics, taste, politics, spirituality. But at the end of the day, every religion can be traced back to a cluster of stories.

You may feel an instinct to judge the stories you tell yourself as “bad” or “good.” (Guess what? That’s evolution too.) Certainly, some of the stories we tell ourselves are productive and inspire us to make positive changes, while others are regressive and keep us imprisoned in the chains of old, bad habits that we’ve simply practiced for too long. But there is nothing valuable about making blanket judgments about our conditioning and the ways we enact it, internally and externally. We will never stop telling stories. The most powerful thing we can do to free ourselves from the ones that hold us back is to notice them.

Am I Practicing Self-Acceptance or Being Lazy?

Despite my successful memorization of New Age-y aphorisms about being present and loving oneself, I struggle quite a bit with self-acceptance.

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I may have a mugwort sprig next to my bed, but I’m not perfect.

Our culture celebrates clenched fists, tightened jaws, fierce competition, and, to a certain extent, self-judgment. If you’re “pushing yourself,” an undeniably virtuous thing, you’re presumably having to judge your behaviors, and your definition of what it means to be doing “enough,” that artfully amorphous term. 

This framework is what encourages many of us (hi!) to lock ourselves in a cycle of self-loathing.

I didn’t do enough today. I ate really gross shit last week. I don’t work out enough. My writing sucks. I procrastinate too much. &c.

The intention behind self-loathing for many of us, I think, is protection. Beating up on ourselves can become a convenient refrain, a way of reminding ourselves of the desire to fulfill [x goal] Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (Daft Punk!).

e.g. If I beat up on myself for how many french fries I ate last night, I will prove to myself that my goal is to be healthier. Hopefully, I will even choose to eat a salad instead today.

Of course, feeling shitty about yourself is a shitty motivator. Myriad studies have actually proven this (such as this recent one), and have also proven the benefits of self-compassion. When we meet ourselves where we’re at—no matter how “successful” we are in practice—we enable ourselves to achieve more. IT’S SCIENCE.

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From now on, let’s pretend a “B+” means BE POSITIVE.

But truth be told, the line between self-acceptance and laziness isn’t always clear. My ongoing struggle in therapy is to figure out when I’m enacting positive behaviors, and when I’m rationalizing self-destructive behaviors. I can be quite convincing, I’m afraid. #DENIAL.

For instance, this question comes up a lot in my meditation practice. I like to meditate every day, and consider it an important ritual for my spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being. But because I also have a tendency to over-schedule myself and hold myself to too many standards, my “requirement” to meditate every day sometimes feels like a chore. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not—and it’s something I have to “push myself” to do.

Say I get caught in the rain during my commute after a long-day at work. Upon arriving home, I may not want to meditate. I may want, instead, to drink a beer and binge eat french fries. While that decision may not be capital-H Healthy according to some static definition of Self-Care, it may be a healthy decision for me in that moment.

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Sometimes, you just want to read Keats and drink tequila—and that’s OK!

But, alternatively, say my long day at work involved a lot of ruminating, and stewing in negative thoughts. Meditation might be exactly the thing I need upon coming home—either in addition to the beer and french fries, or instead of it (plus some other dinner option). The hard thing is that it really depends on the situation, and my specific FEELING about what would be self-caring in that particular moment. Unfortunately, living in an EMBODIED WAY and trusting our intuition isn’t something our culture applauds us for, either.

Long story short, sometimes “pushing yourself” is an act of self-care, and sometimes it’s the stark opposite. “Pushing myself” to meditate when I’m tired might be a fantastic idea on one day, and an unnecessary form of “punishment” on another. As I have said before, can sometimes be an insidious coexistence of self-awareness and denial in the mind.

The most important thing is taking a step back from all the mental clutter, owning your shit, and making decisions independent of it.

What do I mean by “your shit”? Well, put simply: our thoughts—our sense of what our experience is like outside of what it feels like in our bodies. Ask yourself, “What are my go-to ways of narrating my life?”

In my case, I tell myself the story every day that I am Type-A, hard on myself, and overly-analytical. This narrative is pretty accurate, factually-speaking, but it has also led me to some pretty destructive behaviors. For example, I spent many years smoking pot around the clock, because “I deserved it.” “It made me chill out—and even made me smarter.” If I could achieve everything I wanted (straight As, regular visits to the gym, social interactions, etc) while still being stoned all the time, I was deserving of self-acceptance.

In hindsight, I was rationalizing a bad habit. Whether or not I dismiss my many years of denial as “lazy” isn’t really the point (experts would probably suggest avoiding negative labels). The more important takeaway is the power of storytelling. We are capable of creating the right dramatic scenario in our minds to support our behaviors and thought-patterns. And it’s up to us, too, to recognize that—and make changes anyway.

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Look at me following my own advice (NOT!)

What I’m saying may not sound particularly encouraging, but the bottom line is that the knowledge we hold in our bodies often has way more wisdom than what is in our minds. When I actually allow myself to feel EMBODIED, rather than relying on a story of what my experience is like, my sense of what self-care means is flexible and intelligent. Sometimes, self-care is running. Sometimes it’s smoking weed. Sometimes it’s simply saying “It’s OK that I smoked weed even though I am trying not to self-medicate.”

Rarely, if ever, is self-flagellation a productive decision.  

So, if you’ve eaten too many french fries and feel like shit in your body, perhaps you’ll eat something green tomorrow. But I would hazard the guess that saying “It’s OK that I binge ate french fries” will make you feel much better in your body.

It takes quite a bit of courage to say “It’s OK.” Try it. Push yourself.

Acknowledge Your Shit (+ Say No Thanks)

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Week after week, day after day, I wonder about the origins of my self-loathing. When did it begin? And why? The answers remain unclear, hence asking all the time.

When I refer to “my self-loathing” in everyday conversations—with random people at parties, friends of friends, colleagues, etcetera—I’m always amazed to find that so many people seem to really hear it, and express some kind of relief—as in: You hate yourself on a regular basis? You mean you feel the thing I thought no one else felt?

It’s like a more positive version of the feeling I have when I read WebMD message boards about hypochondriacal scenarios I’ve conjured for myself and see that everyone is bugging the fuck out. Like, oh yeah, we’re all crazy and typing in our bizarre psychosomatic symptoms into Google on a Saturday night. NBD.

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Story of my life.

Anxiety is one of those feelings that is addictive because it’s recursive. It’s cyclical. First there’s the rumination— on habits (or habits of mind), rhetorical questions, obsessions, behaviors, other self-referential objects. Then comes a “bad” feeling. Anxiety, of course, then wants to solve the feeling, because we’re wired to survive. And then more unanswerable questions pile on. Then more feelings. Usually “bad” ones.

(FYI: I don’t mean “bad” or “shitty” with self-blame. I get that any feeling is “just a feeling” but I’m trying to bevel the edges of my Buddhist ideologies by writing with more raw and colloquial language.)

In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, there is a word—papancha—that refers to this recursive, addictive, cyclical process. Sharon Salzberg, who is my meditation teacher and friend and colleague (and the amazing author of a new book, Real Love), once defined papancha as “the imperialistic quality of the mind towards negativity.” Anxiety, to me, is imperialistic. It somehow always feels like it conquers you. To add insult to injury, you always seem to want to fight back.

Exhausted by this pattern,  I’ve spent the past month or so experimenting with seeing my various judgments and obsessive thoughts differently—and deliberately. For sake of contrast, below is the “before” part of my work-in-progress “before and after”:

Usually, my thought patterns look something like this.

  1. I feel thirsty.
  2. I must not have had enough water today.
  3. I should’ve had more to drink earlier.
  4. Well, just go fill your water bottle, it’s not that hard.
  5. Why do you buy water bottles if you don’t use them?
  6. If you weren’t thinking so much about this, you would just drink water.

It could go on and on.

The irony here is obvious. Anxiety tends to preclude me (you, anyone) from taking a proactive approach to dealing with the very object of the anxiety. It’s often self-sabotaging. For instance, if I’m so anxious about thirst, the best and most pragmatic choice would be to drink. But over the years, I have gotten so used to my habit of rumination as a response to anxiety that I typically lose sense of what I am actually wanting, what my body feels, and what’s best for me in a given moment.

What I have referred to as the “after” stage is a process. But the shorthand is that I am trying to practice welcoming “bad” thoughts, checking in with how they make me feel, and then choosing to say “no thank you!” to them, if that seems self-caring.

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This was a to do list of mine for a recent Saturday. I obsessively make lists, as they keep me feeling bad about my productivity. #dysfunctional

Let me give some context.

A couple of years ago, I was in one of those bad, donation-based yoga class where the teacher kept encouraging us to “not think about our fear.” I remember thinking, “That’s not rly that yogic.” Shouldn’t you acknowledge and accept your fear? The same way you should acknowledge anything that happens in the present moment—even if it’s realizing that you are spending 10 minutes berating yourself about why you don’t drink enough water? Because by acknowledging it, then you can at least be like, OK, now I’m going to release that. If you don’t pay attention, the feeling (and its effects on you) have to go somewhere.

Meditation is the first and only tool I’ve encountered that has enabled me to begin developing a more productive relationship to anxiety. I no longer want to eradicate it, but want to kindly let it know that it’s not welcome as much as it has been in the past. I don’t ignore it (“I don’t hear you knocking on my door!) but rather say something to it like a, “Hi. I see you’re here, but I’m busy at the moment. Sorry!”

I think meditation seems to be so uncomfortable because people (myself included) don’t want to watch what their minds do, and where they go, if without significant distraction. It’s unpleasant to be honest about what we’re capable of making ourselves feel. We’re confronted with watching our mind do things as unproductive as my thirst and water bottle dialogue—and constantly. But it’s only when you notice these things that you can pull yourself out of them. The process REQUIRES that you first acknowledge what’s happening—and that is courageous and useful in and of itself. Even if it feels shitty and seems like it’s showing a part of yourself you don’t want to see. Bottom line? You can’t not think about your fear. It will be there no matter what you call it, or don’t.

Fear is just one emotion in the camp of feelings most of us hate, and that often encourage us to act in ways we don’t like—acting out “our shit.” Maybe you’re feeling loss or are going through a life transition, and, like me, spend 954,334,549 hours on your phone for no reason and then hate yourself for it. Or maybe you drink too much alcohol or have gained weight or sleep too much or are a compulsive online shopper. You get my point.

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Sometimes, I like to drink Campari but I don’t think it’s destructive.

Somehow, I’ve found that calling “my shit” what it is—my shit—has given me both some emotional distance and a sense of relief. In many self-help slash wellness contexts before, I’ve heard that you should “treat yourself like a child” or to “pay attention to your inner child”—that being nurtured like that is self-love. But I’ve never wanted to create that dynamic with myself; it just doesn’t appeal to me, and I think that’s OK (though I’m sure it works for many, and that’s great). In my case, a mix of cynicism and kindness is mesmerizingly comforting: I notice that there are elements of me that can simply be shitty (to others, to myself, etc.), but also that they can probably change. To start that process, I make the observations I need to make, and then experiment with saying no thanks! to some patterns. The notion of this being an “experiment” has also lowered the stakes for me. I feel less pressure to “succeed” in being less self-critical.

#innerchild

No thanks is kind but clear, direct but open-ended. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be having the thought, or denouncing its existence through avoidance. It’s not shutting it down. It’s strangely a technique to objectify the thought as something Other, so that you re-situate yourself in an empowered position. Like, do you want to feel horrible now? the aftertaste of self-criticism may intimate. And your answer can sure as fuck be no thanks! 

I wish more self-help books said fuck and shit and didn’t pretend like change was actually something that feels tenable when you’re urgently seeking it. It will never feel that way! At least I don’t think so.

BUT if you treat your thoughts like little offerings you can take or gently say, “No thanks!” to, the project becomes far more relatable—like politely turning down an offering for fresh ground pepper at a restaurant. You’re neither rationalizing nor criticizing your behaviors. It’s a conversation, and during it, it’s possible to feel change happening, just with one decision.

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Offerings in my bedroom. OBJECTIFY YR THOUGHTS.

Dealing with Anxiety + Embodiment

Can I eat
what you give me. I
have not earned it. Must
I think of everything 

as earned.

            –Robert Creeley

The speaker of Robert Creeley’s poem “For Love” stutters these sharply enjambed lines just after gaining momentum at the beginning of the staccato, recursive poem.  Desperately, the speaker (Creeley himself) asks his lover, the poem’s addressee (whose name is Bobbie, as we learn from the dedication)  if he is capable of eating what she gives him. Of course, he is also asking himself, rhetorically, performatively—is he capable of receptivity? Can he really accept love? Pleasure. Acceptance. Being seen.

Immediately, Creeley decides to answer for himself: “I have not earned it.” His insecure, questioning mind then chirps in with an additional, new question—no question mark: “Must / I think of everything // as earned.” In characteristic fashion, Creeley’s question is a statement, likening his interrogations even further to the circular, often contracting ruminations of the mind.

I’ve always read these lines in a somewhat symbolic way: in the often-sheltered universe of one’s romantic relationship, love itself becomes objectified, something to be earned, deserved, returned—a commodity. We “invest” in others, and wonder if it is “worth” it. Love—something we feel with our bodies and ultimately do with our bodies—becomes an idea. A thing. And our vocabulary adjusts accordingly. This poem gets that, and has been my favorite poem for many years. I even have one line from it tattooed on the back of my right thigh!

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DAT INK.

I love this poem for many reasons, but I am especially fascinated by how strangely the body figures into it. Take the act of eating, which is presented as a symbol of the “give and take” of love, of what the speaker earns (or doesn’t) from his lover. In the world of the poem, Creeley’s body is not hungry; he simply wonders whether it is deserving of love’s nourishment. “What have you become to ask,” Creeley immediately then asks (characteristically without a question mark), “what have I made you into,” he says again, growing desperate with each question. His potential answers include: “companion, good company, / crossed legs with skirt, or / soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s lover is an idea— “companion, good company,” a compartmentalized fragment, “crossed legs with skirt,” or a surreal composition, “soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s recursion is his defense—from himself, from the body. And from his need for defense, we know of his vulnerability. We see the absence of his being, his loving, in the poem, and in the absence we feel his anxiety, which is basically the poem’s subject.

Throughout “For Love,” the speaker and the lover’s bodies both are no longer bodies, but rather the ideas of bodies. And love, perhaps, too, becomes an idea as the speaker’s experience becomes circumscribed by the circularity of the poem’s language. The poem talks about itself, creating distance from the thing it seeks to describe (love), and defends itself against its own admission: a desire for presence, connection, expression—being, in other words.

This dynamic—defensively thinking about something in abstractions such that it becomes disembodied—was central to my 11 on-and-off years with anorexia, and even my current struggles with anxiety and OCD (not unrelated to the anorexia, but I’ll save that for another time). Food was everything I thought about. It was the object of my focus, of my craving at all times—intellectually, but of course, physiologically, too. I kept food at a distance from myself, situating it as a constant other, an object of craving that I always knew was there—separate from me, something I thought I could control. Being hungry all the time made my body feel like something else, an idea, an object. It kept me from actually feeling, being, alive.

Looking back on that time as the person I am now—someone who not only eats enough but also wants to grow and be happy—I can see that my biggest fear during those years was embodiment. The stuff of life that makes us human—in the bodies we inhabit. Connection, compassion, love, loss.

Our culture makes it hard not to fear embodiment, especially for women, I’d argue. We are told to eat this, not that. Wear this, not that. Move our bodies this way, but not that way. As film critic Laura Mulvey wrote in her iconic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “[W]omen are simultaneously looked at and displayed… they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” In a traditional framework—the one Mulvey is using—women’s bodies are typically regarded as objects, as ideas, as vessels for what she calls to-be-looked-at-ness. This leaves many of us clinging to our bodies, trying to follow the rules about our bodies that we’re given by the outside, so that our bodies can be legible to the outside. So that we can be beautiful, worthy of being looked at. For many of us, this narrative was rarely critiqued; or, even if it was, how easy is it to internalize a belief that resists everything you were ever taught?

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“The Male Gaze” causes women to possess “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Hi Ryan Gosling!

Learning to meditate has been my life’s greatest healing practice thus far—for my anxiety, OCD, insomnia and more—but it has also shown me just how much I fear embodiment. Sitting with myself brings up terror. Each day during my practice, as I try (an infinite number of times) to focus on my breath, my mind panics, and I feel it clinging to thoughts that try to jostle me out of my body. Experiencing that anxiety—the push-pull between my body and mind—is almost always unpleasant, but it reminds me to see my thoughts (particularly my anxious ones!) as separate from my body, as fleeting, flexible. My body, too, of course, is fleeting. And OBVI mortality is my #1 anxiety (I freak out about death on a daily basis probably). But the practice of actually SITTING WITH THAT ANXIETY, and feeling it, is meditation, despite the belief that meditating necessarily = inner peace. Meditation creates a space within which being a body can’t be rendered into an idea. 

BODY ≠ IDEA

I should admit: I often hate it when I meditate—the act of doing it. I hate sitting with my body, being with it, of it. I feel uncomfortable—physically, emotionally, intellectually. But that doesn’t mean I buy into the thoughts that challenge me to step outside of myself. I receive whatever it is my mind gives me, and go onto “accept” the thought if the invitation appeals. The scariest thought of all, perhaps, is that we always have the choice to either receive—or gently turn away from—everything we are given. But we all certainly have the power “to eat” what we are given, and not to think of everything as earned.

Can irony and acceptance coexist?

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art 4 art’s sake (hat tip 2 the mobil mini mart :D)

Part of my conceit in starting this blog was to recognize the role irony can play in the process of acceptance.

What do I mean?

To me at least, part of the reason capital-A Acceptance seems so daunting is because it feels like it has to be pure, all-consuming. A capital-D Decision. No turning back.

If I accept the fact that I gained 15 pounds last winter, that means I have to be content with my body image, and likely commit to staying this weight for the rest of my life.

I somehow assume that if I’m going to accept something about myself or something that happened, I can’t also account for any lack of acceptance, or any other feelings that challenge the acceptance. I don’t know where I learned this assumption. Here are other examples:

  • If I accept that I didn’t get enough work done today, I guess I’m accepting that I will always be a lazy loser with nothing good on my CV.
  • If I accept that I was a bitch to my boyfriend, I am resigning to treating him terribly forever, and to always having bad relationships.
  • If I accept that I forgot my friend’s birthday, I am recognizing that I am a categorically forgetful person and self-absorbed friend.

We associate acceptance with the negative stuff. It’s rare to feel the urge to accept the fact that something went really well at work, or that you had a great revelation in therapy. The dictionary definition of acceptance is: the consent to receive. When good shit is happening, you really don’t take the time to CONSENT to receiving it. You just receive it.

As of recently—and it’s a process—I’m beginning to envision acceptance as something much more holographic. If I gain 15 pounds, I can accept it, but part of accepting it can be that I can also feel bad about myself and want to lose weight. I can also simultaneously accept that I might then ALSO feel judgment about wanting to lose weight, “because feminists shouldn’t hate their bodies.” Then I may find myself reasoning that each person’s feminism is complicated and unique, and that patriarchal conditioning has affected me in ways I am not in control of. I can also simply accept that I feel more comfortable when I am 15 pounds thinner, and let that be that, even if it’s superficial. All of it can be there. Acceptance isn’t tidy or static. It is messy and dynamic.

Let’s just be clear that none of that is pleasant or even feasible much of the time. And for that reason, I think I use irony as a defense mechanism to make the process of acceptance easier for me, in all sorts of contexts. Examples help: I constantly make reference to my psychiatrist in casual conversations with not-close friends; I say things like, “tbt to my eating disorder” or post Instagram selfies of myself doing physical therapy exercises.

Perhaps, on some level, I feel uneasy about how much I need psychiatry, or ashamed of the fact that I used to be anorexic, or nerdy for allotting twenty minutes of my evening ritual to picking up a washcloth with my feet in order to strengthen my toes.

Or perhaps creating distance from certain parts of my life that involve discomfort is part of accepting them. It seems paradoxical that self-acceptance could involve disavowal of my pain or self-deprecation. And maybe these behaviors really do just come from insecurity. But maybe that’s also OK. Acting out of insecurity doesn’t mean you aren’t working on yourself. The real challenge is accepting how uncomfortable that is.

Let me just say that I know next to nothing about most of this. I’m just narrating along the way. Rather than thinking of acceptance as an endpoint, or happiness as the result of X, Y and/or Z, I am just often checking in on myself—my attitudes, my habits, my relationships—by seeing what comes up in the distance that irony, by definition, creates.

I believe it is possible to be a happy, healthy, person devoted to personal growth without committing earnestly and singularly to a green-juice-lentil-chip-yogi lifestyle, punctuated by daily arm-balance Instagram posts and infinite permutations of a gratitude hashtag.

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HOWEVER, I have completely asked a family member to photograph me in Eagle pose for my Instagram so that I could post some pseudo-spiritual and saccharine caption about the process of getting stronger and the role that #presence plays. And you know what? I also fucking love green juice, lentil chips, and yoga. AND much of the time when I buy 8 dollar green juice, 4 dollar lentil chips, or 30 dollar yoga classes, I make fun of myself for being self-indulgent or elitist or narcissistic or dumb. And you know what else? It doesn’t feel like abuse—and I accept that too.

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While I like green juice, I don’t think I feel grateful for it.

When it comes to the irony I bring to my (legit? authentic? earnest?) love of wellness trends, I think I am trying to disavow the fundamental narcissism of self-improvement as a thing. It’s not that I am not making fun of yoga, a practice that I love quite genuinely, but the cultural capital it carries with it, one that is contingent on being privileged in innumerable ways. The idea of being a white NYC-gurl who doesn’t question loving yoga would make me feel like a cultural appropriator and an un-self-aware exercise biddie. And that, I hope, I am not.

Irony often is a mechanism used to create distance, to cause alienation. As Wayne Booth said in The Rhetoric of Irony, irony is “a very messy subject” as it introduces “conflicts of fact.” When I listen to Kesha and get goose bumps, but then post a Facebook status about how ridiculous it is to get goose bumps when listening to Kesha, I contradict myself, I introduce conflicts of fact: I suggest that I somehow doubt the fact that Kesha is an artist I actually love.

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That’s Wayne Booth.

But I think, at least in part, that the partial disavowal, and the humorous friction it creates, is part of figuring out what the fuck it means and is to be who I am. Humor, to me, is empowering, even if it can serve as armor. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of the need, sometimes, to be guarded.

Thus, here’s to the value in”repudiation and reversal,” as Booth would put it. To close, I’ll end on an overused Walt Whitman quotation that feels relevant: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Rather, I’ll add just one last quote by another dead white man: Wallace Stevens said, “The poem must resist intelligence / Almost successfully.” I love this idea of ALMOST SUCCESSFUL RESISTANCE. Imagine resisting yourself almost successfully—enough to incite a gentle, productive back and forth between different parts of yourself.

Imagine self-deprecation and self-acceptance existing in some kind of bizarre harmony. Imagine a perpetually unsuccessful state of resistance, two things against one another, teetering back and forth. Their mutual instability is what creates something resembling stability.

 

Do what thou wilt: My attempted motto for this blog

Often, I feel I am confronted with personal writing that is cynical and acerbic—and stunningly articulate—but that makes me feel like vulnerability is a sin. There may be moments of self-deprecation, sure, but they can still feel guarded and impenetrable. There may even be allusions to Walter Benjamin. Perhaps you know the kind of personal essays I am talking about.

Other times, particularly when I’m reading extra-personal writing about intimate issues like sex and relationships or mental health (topics I care endlessly about), I find that there is no place for irony. Narratives about self-improvement guide us from the writer’s dissolution to their dharma, and the notion of being self-critical or wry isn’t part of the equation. I find this can be especially true for “women’s issues” writing, much of which is urgent, essential and empowering, especially for female-identified readers. After all, there are so many issues that are, indeed, women’s issues.

But I also think there’s an opportunity to bring the cutting nature of humor and irony to the coziest attitude, and the most vulnerable writing. My goal is to try and check myself. To be funny and candid, but also grave when the moment is right. To find the humor in my moments of self-loathing. To alchemize the micro-traumas of everyday life into opportunities for laughter and self-compassion.

That is why I am starting this blog.

Today, I scoff at the idea of dieting even as I often feel like shit about my body, and feel jealous of other people who appear to have more self-control than I do—the people who uncritically look on menus for salads dressed with fat free balsamic vinaigrette, or a comparable example. 

Sometimes, I get mad at myself for being critical about my body, arguing in my head that feminists should resist the paralyzing effects of self-hatred. But over time, I’ve learned the value of letting myself be—allowing myself have the feelings of self-loathing when they arise and noticing them, rather than hating on my own self-hatred. The word for that in Pali (the language of the original Buddhist texts) is papancha. Sharon Salzberg has translated papancha to mean “the imperialistic tendency of the mind toward negativity.” I try, each day, to stick with the singular island of negativity in my mind, rather than allowing negativity to proliferate into an imperial empire.

Sometimes, accepting the times when I hate myself feels paradoxical, wrong, unreasonable. But why add insult to injury? Why not try to find at least a little bit of freedom in shitty moments?

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I am reminded this evening of the mantra “DO WHAT THOU WILT” or “DO WHATEVER YOU WANT” from François Rabelais’ Gargantua (translations vary). This idea guides a group of monks living in an abbey called the Abbey of Thélème in a parable at the book’s end. “Their whole life was lived, not in accordance with laws, statutes or rules, but by their own choosing and free will. They got up when they felt like it; they drank, ate, worked and slept when they so desired… In their rule, there was only one clause: DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.”

Since I can’t live this way at all times (can you?), I will try and write this way. At least when writing on fat free balsamic … because guess what? No one’s telling me what to do!