Trauma & Obesity: The Link We Ignore

One of the first things I do when a client asks me for help around their health and fitness goals is assess their mental health history. I’m not a mental health professional, but I’m trained to detect when someone’s challenges go beyond the scope of my practice as a health coach. For example, if someone is actively struggling with depression or an eating disorder, it’s my responsibility to make sure that they are referred to a licensed professional who is trained to deal with that specific issue.  I also explore their mental health history to see if it may be tied to their current physical state.

The weight loss and fitness industry tends to focus solely on weight loss methodology. This involves attempting to regulate the food we eat, and encouraging exercise. But very few health professionals check in with their clients around their mental and emotional well-being. This is unfortunate, as studies are finding there is a direct correlation between someone’s mental  health and physical well-being.

Me.

I was abused as a child, which affected the way my brain was hardwired.  Yes, exposure to various traumas at an early age will affect the physiological development of the brain.  This hardwiring pre-disposed me to depression and anxiety as I got older.  As a result, food became a coping mechanism for emotions I hadn’t learned to process.  But my issue wasn’t just about food.  Exposure to trauma and stress, especially in childhood, also affects our bodies.

In the late 90s, there was a study done which found a correlation between adverse childhood experiences and increased health risks as an adult (watch this TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime/up-next).  This study came about when a health professional at Kaiser  running a weight-loss clinic realized  many of his patients had been sexually abused.  It was eventually unconvered that stress hormones released during adverse experiences in childhood can predispose them to various health risks, including obesity.

While the brain is especially impressionable in childhood,  scientists studying neuroplasticity are finding that our brains remain malleable  beyond our youth.  This means trauma & grief (loss, illness, abuse, rape, etc.) experienced in adulthood also impacts the physiology of our brains.  And stress hormones (like cortisol) negatively impact insulin sensitivity, making it harder for the body to process carbs and subsequently leads to weight gain. 

So if we’ve known since the late 90s that obesity can be linked to trauma, why is it so often ignored by proponents of fitness and health?   Well for one, I think the topic can be uncomfortable for some people.  Listening to a person’s story around trauma & suffering requires a high degree of intimacy, vulnerability, and compassion.  Secondly, I believe that it has to do with this country’s consumer-driven culture. If we make obesity about people being lazy and undesirable, we can get people to spend money on weight loss products (a quick Google search showed me that the weight-loss industry as a whole was worth $64 billion in 2014).   There may be other factors involved, but I think these two are at the forefront of the problem, and require immediate attention.

Now, I’m not implying that everyone who is struggling with obesity has some type of severe mental health challenge or trauma to cope with. What I am highlighting, however, is in addition to educating people on healthy lifestyle practices, we also start checking in with them around their mental and emotional state of well-being.    If a person‘s unwillingness to exercise is linked to a depressive episode, then it’s the depression which requires attention, not their exercise habits.

Until health conversations become holistic and less weight-centered, we will continue to see people struggling to attain the physical well-being they so desire.   And until health practitioners (and society as a whole) cultivate and utilize compassion and acceptance instead of shame and guilt, we will continue to alienate those we claim to want to help the most.

Depressed, But Not Broken

During my 4th and final psychiatric hospitalization, I remember lying in my hospital room crying uncontrollably.  The blood-stained bandage over my left forearm hid a self-inflicted wound; a message carved with a blade reading “LIFE SUCKS.”

I was 17 years old and struggling with Major Depression, anxiety, and passive suicidal ideations.  By then I had dropped out of school because I did not have the energy to deal with people.  There was a history of debilitating mental illness in my family and it was predicted I would follow the same path.  I would not be able to work or lead a normal life.  I would spend my days in a treatment facility with other people who were told their brains were broken and could not be fixed.

Broken.

I felt like a broken person physically, mentally, and emotionally.

In the hospital room that night, I remember begging God to take the pain away.  If you suffer from depression, you know what pain I’m talking about.  It squeezes your chest.  It physically hurts.  I prayed and prayed, but the pain only intensified.  Eventually I gave up on this idea that some spirit of divine comfort would save me from my despair, and decided God either didn’t exist, or didn’t care for me.

I’ve felt like this many times in my life.  I’ve screamed and raged, out loud and also in silence.  I’ve cried in public spaces, hoping someone would extend a loving touch on my shoulder and let me know everything would be okay, only to be disappointed.  I’ve laid in bed for days, unable to move or face the day.  I’ve sat on therapists’ couches, retelling the same tired stories about how I was abused, angry at myself for still not having recovered from it.

Yes, I’ve felt broken.  And while those moments are very rare nowadays, I still experience blips of despair.  These moments are short-lived now thanks to my healing journey, but they still happen.

Many of us face moments of anguish, helplessness, and even hopelessness.  During these moments of distress we may turn to a higher power or source for answers which don’t seem to come.  We turn to friends who are unavailable or say things which make us feel worse.  We feel alone and hopeless, sometimes to the extent that we wonder if it’d be easier if we could just fall asleep and not wake up…

Have you ever felt as if you were dying inside?  If so, you’re not alone.  The more I learn about mental health, the more I realize depression is an existential crisis more so than a disorder.  In other words, depression is not a sign that something is wrong with you, or that you’re broken.  Many people, if not most, will experience depression at some point in their lives.  Even if depression is a chronic experience in your day to day life, there’s nothing wrong with you.  You are not alone.

I go out of my way to say that nothing is wrong with you because my experience has been that belief only worsens the experience.  It magnifies that sense of alienation and hopelessness which overwhelms us as a result of depression.  Many people take measures to numb themselves to that sense of despair and I don’t blame them.  I think it takes tremendous courage to admit to ourselves and others that we’re suffering, and to allow ourselves the space and grace to feel those feelings.  But if you’re depressed, you’re not broken.  Depression is a human condition.  It’s a universal experience transcending race, culture, language, and socio-economic background.  There are others in the thick of it just like you, and while you feel so alone, you’re not alone.

There’s this misguided belief that people who suffer from depression don’t want to get better, but the truth is, many don’t believe it’s possible to get better.  And while that feels so true, the depression itself is a lie.

When I say it’s a lie, I am not saying the feelings aren’t real.  I am saying that the beliefs it feeds us are not true–that something is wrong with us, or we’re worthless, or that nothing matters, or that we will never be happy again.

If you’re reading and this is triggering you, stop for a moment and take a deep breath.  Take as many deep breaths as you need until you can come back to the moment.

Let’s stop for a second and talk about where depression occurs.  It’s not a bacteria we can treat, or a tumor we can remove.

Depression is like an internal rumor turning the mind on itself.

Now, if depression exists in the mind, then we can’t fight it with our minds.  (Please re-read that.)

That’s the mistake some well-meaning people make when trying to assist their depressed friends.  Don’t you think that if a person could think their way out of depression, they would?  Trust me, they absolutely would.  But you can’t use reasoning and logic to “correct” maladaptive thought patterns.  Neural pathways in the brain make it almost impossible to do so.  It’s an inherently flawed and useless technique (so please stop it).

These pathways are sometimes hardwired to follow a specific pattern of thought.  This is also known as a schema.  Schemas predispose certain people to becoming depressed, anxious, or paranoid.  But here’s the good news: those pathways can be re-routed and re-adapted.  We can reprogram our minds so that schemas don’t hijack our perception of reality.  We can do this using various mindfulness and therapeutic techniques.

There are a number of therapeutic processes that can restore balance in the mind, but the most significant practice is mindfulness because it actually encourages us to get out of our heads, to be less cerebral.  Again, we can’t think our way out of depression.  Mindfulness is a path guiding us away from our thoughts and into a higher state of conscious awareness (or “higher mind”).  This broader state of awareness is one that isn’t consumed with the story our brain is telling us.  Mindfulness provides detachment from the thought-forms that have us in a stranglehold.

If chronic depression is something you experience, I suggest seeking therapy.  Sometimes just speaking your thoughts out loud to an objective ear provides immediate relief.  A skilled therapist is there to guide you through your healing process and hold space for even the most painful thoughts, memories and beliefs you carry inside.  Nothing can replace a good therapist.  But there are some mindfulness & therapeutic practices* I studied and employed on my own which not only helped me manage my depression but free myself of it.  I include some of them below.

*Keep in mind, these practices may not work in the middle of a depressive episode.   Medication (natural or prescription) may be needed.  These practices work as a preventative measure when used during times when you’re feeling more like your usual self.  I find the best way to cope with depression is to do my best to get ahead of it by practicing self-care radically.

Mindfulness Practices/Therapeutic Processes:

  • Meditation: the practice of quietly observing our thoughts peripherally, while focusing on some sound, mantra, or physical sensation such as the breath.  Meditation’s effects on the brain have been studied extensively.  Meditation is proven to correct maladaptive neural pathways and restore people struggling with schemas to mental health.
  • Orienting: the practice of finding colors or objects in our present surroundings in order to ground ourselves in the present moment.
  • Deep breathing: the practice of consciously taking deep breaths in order to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which counteracts our fight/flight/freeze responses.
  • Journaling: the practice of diffusing and disentangling our thoughts on paper, in order to increase our self-awareness and decrease our tendency to act on impulse
  • Gratitude: the practice of retraining and reorienting our focus on the good rather than the bad
  • Affirmations/Autosuggestion: the practice of restating positive thoughts and beliefs consciously so that over time our subconscious minds start to take on those beliefs (personal note…this is an incredible practice.  I can actually hear my subconscious mind repeating positive affirmations while I’m sleeping and getting ready to wake up in the morning!)
  • EFT Tapping: the practice of tapping various pressure points in the body to alleviate stress/pain, while reprogramming new beliefs
  • Physical Touch: the practice of specifically applying loving touches to points of tension and pain in the body (personal note…when my heart is racing, I place my hand over my chest, close my eyes and take deep breaths)
  • Grounding: the practice of grounding yourself in the present moment and within your body.  This is done a number of ways.  One great way is to place your bare feet on the ground and feel a sense of oneness with your surroundings through your feet.
  • Movement through Exercise/Yoga/Dance/Stretching/Walking: movement is another way to get grounded and connected to your body and feel the present moment.
  • Coloring/Doodling: coloring easily puts us in a state of peripheral awareness, where our thoughts arise in the background our minds while we focus on the task at hand.  Any hobby that can influence a flow state like gardening or exercising our creativity can induce this state.
  • Reframing: the practice of reframing traumatic memories to reduce symptoms of PTSD.

There are countless mindfulness and therapeutic practices not listed here that can help not only during periods of distress, but can also be used to minimize and eventually prevent chronic episodes of depression.  These and many other tools, with consistent practice, freed me from the idea that I was inherently broken.

Depression, like many other states of dis-ease which manifest in the body/mind, is only a signal letting us know that something is off balance.  There are a number of factors contributing to the imbalances we experience in the mind and body.  It’s important not to blame ourselves or beat ourselves up for what we’re experiencing, but to take a proactive approach to our healing process in whatever way we can.  Sometimes that looks like giving yourself the space to lay in bed and cry.  Wherever you are is where you are and that’s OK.

 

Note: If you don’t really suffer from depression, please don’t send this to your friends/family members who are depressed as a way of “pushing” them to get better, even if you mean well.  I beg you not to use my work or my story to shame people who are in the midst of emotional crisis, or to diminish/dismiss/trivialize their experience.  There is no singular path to wellness.  Every journey is sacred and personal.  I share my journey, not to tell people how to heal, but to inspire them into believing healing is possible.  If my story can serve as a beacon of light to those who are suffering, I will happily share it from a place of compassion, kindness, and love.

For Fathers Who Couldn’t Love Us Because They Didn’t Love Themselves

I was getting ready for work one morning when my daughter came into my room and sat on the edge of the bed.  She should have already left for school, but from the corner of my eye I could see that she was still in pajamas.  Attempting to stifle my frustration, I turned to ask her what she needed and noticed the look on her face.

“What’s wrong,” I asked.

“I want to buy my dad a phone so that I can get in contact with him.”

A sea of words came rushing up from the pit of my stomach.  The waves crashed behind my teeth and receded.  What trickled through was, “That’s not your responsibility.”

“Yes it is, because he needs help and I’m the only one who wants to help him.”

“I understand mamas, but he’s a grown man, and only he can help himself.”

Tears welled up in her eyes.

“He’s in pain.  He’s suffering.  That’s why he is the way he is.  He just needs someone to love him and help him.”

For years I tried to help him.  I thought my love could save him.  I loved him through the abuse, the alcoholism, the liquor induced seizures, the constant job firings.  I could not save him, his mother could not save him, and his father could not save him. He needed to save himself.

But words don’t teach, only life experience can.  The more I tried to alleviate her sense of responsibility for this man, the stronger her case became for why he needed her.  “I’m the only one he has.”

We cannot escape our parents.  This is especially true for my daughter who sees his face every time she looks in the mirror; feels his height as she towers over her peers.  I think this is the gift and the curse we’re all born with—this sense of our parents and all their memories, mannerisms, features and expressions etched into our DNA.

This conversation with my daughter was surreal.  As she spoke, I heard my own teenage voice echoing behind hers.  I had the exact same conversations with my mother about my father when I was growing up.

I remember being on the phone with him after my parents split up.  He told me how sad and lonely he had been since my mom left him, but mentioned nothing of the abuse that drove us away.   My 5 year old brain could not discern the manipulation and I felt sorry for him.  My compassion for him only grew with time, and when I reached the age of 16, I was giving him my babysitting money and bringing food to his home.

He needed me.

Forget the fact that he’d abused us.  Forget his negligence.  He needed me.

Because he was in pain.

He had been abused too, so it wasn’t his fault.  He never knew his father, and maybe that’s worse than having one who beats you.

I had tremendous compassion for my father.  I had every justification for why it was okay for him to be who he was.  Meanwhile, I contorted myself to gain his approval, mercilessly.

If I could get my father to see my value, if I could get him to love me, that would undo the worthlessness I adopted as a result of his tyranny.  I took on his monsters.  Maybe I was the monster.  Why else would he punch me in the chest?

I made excuses for him and called it forgiveness.

But that pain still lingers where fists and keys landed on my skin.  The brain may try to forget but the body remembers.  It absorbed the force of the blows and that energy, unexpressed, remained in my body as rage.  My rage, unacknowledged, seeped through cracks in locked doors and permeated my being.  They called it Depression.  Labeled me “disordered.”  But there was nothing wrong with me.  I was just angry.

And for every relationship I entered which mimicked the dynamic I had with my father, the rage swelled.

Then one day, it expressed itself.  It was an out of body experience.  The man it had been directed at had not seen it coming. Not from me, always so composed, so gracious, so understanding, so compassionate, so ready to see the best in everyone…

…such an enabler.

As he talked at me, and down to me; as his voice rose; as he continued to hurl insults at me; as I continued to play the mediator to try and alleviate the rising conflict, I stood up.  I began walking, not knowing where I was going.  And the rage announced itself as a “FUCK YOU!” sandwiched between 2 short sentences.  Then I hung up the phone.

My hands were shaking, and I began to cry in the middle of the street.

There was guilt, and shame.  And yet there was a voice justifying what I’d just done.

“You had to do it.  You couldn’t let him talk to you like that.  You had to do it.”  But I felt ashamed.  Maybe there was a nicer way to have handled it.

Spirit said, “NOPE.”

That night it became clear to me that I wasn’t just yelling at an emotionally abusive man.  The voice of my child self was yelling too.  Yelling at my father.

Timely.

Yes, it was time to allow the rage to flow through me.  I was ready for it.  Years of therapy and spiritual work prepared a path for it to travel.  Years of clearing out old beliefs and doubts made space for the rage to do its dance.  Because it must.  It must have its way, and like a fire it must also be handled with extreme care.  Years of healing work created a safe space for the flames to erupt.  This anger, evidence of my growth, was good news.  It pronounced a new iteration of me, one I’ve been preparing for.  But there is still soot and ash around me.  There is pain from stretching out of old skin.  The new skin is raw and bare.  I am naked.  But here I am.

The flames burn but they don’t consume me.  I’m safe because of the Ocean I embody—the place where many of my wounds were baptized and transmuted.  The place within where I go to be born anew, over and over again.  The place inside which I come home to.  I float on its waves, bobbing up and down, surrendering to its current.  If I resist I will drown.  I’ve learned to trust myself to the waves, and float.  This Ocean…Spirit, Presence, Source…God.  It mothers me.  It folds me in its arms and says it is safe to wail, and scream, and cry out for all the times I didn’t, and for all the times my child self couldn’t.  I am lost in this Sea of healing, but I surrender to its depth.  It is carrying me to shore.  I don’t know when or where I’ll land, but I will.

I am still healing, and I won’t judge it or put a timeline on it.  This is my process and I must go through it with as much grace and compassion as I can.  I must allow myself to grieve a relationship with my father I never had and will never have.  I must model the journey for my daughter.  I owe it to her.

See, the pain she was expressing that morning was my own.  I birthed it through her.  The seeds of who she is were planted in soil overridden by weeds.  I’m clear how intergenerational trauma works.  I’m clear that I was too late in preventing the weeds from weaving themselves into her roots.  I was dealing with the weeds of my mother and father’s lineage, strangling me.  They almost won.  I almost gave up on life.  But here I am.

My daughter will have to come face to face with her own rage, and in many ways she already is.  She is many steps ahead in that regards.  She has more tools than I had.  I had a compassionate mother who modeled grace.  My daughter has a warrior of a mother modeling grace as well as the journey of healing for her.

I want to end this in some nice sounding way, but I’m not sure that I can.  I don’t have words of forgiveness to impart.  I’m not a foo-foo-shi-shi coach who presumes to have all the answers.  I don’t.  I’m just a human being committed to her growth, and committed to sharing what tools I learn along the way with others.  I am still angry.  The anger I feel is exacerbated by the fact that I still love my father.  I cannot escape him.  I feel his face in my face.  Many of the gifts I embody I inherited from him.  In many ways I’m grateful for him, even grateful for how those hardships shaped me.  The pain I experienced gave me a depth of compassion most people don’t allow themselves to feel.  But guess what?  I don’t feel compelled to clean this piece up either by acknowledging those things.  Something dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) taught me is that it is okay to have all of my feelings.  I won’t cherry pick the ones which sound nice and neat, the palatable ones.  There is an array of complex emotion here.  Life is complex.  Grief and forgiveness are not linear, black and white, one-shot deal concepts.  To some degree we are all figuring ourselves out inside of forgiveness, and grieving never really stops.

I thought that by understanding people’s motives, I could absolve their behavior and even dismiss my pain.  But that’s not quite how it works.  I can have compassion for my father and the hardships he endured, but not at the expense of myself.  I get to have compassion for myself too, and properly tend to the wounds which still require healing.

I don’t only owe it to my daughter.  I owe it to myself too.

Choose Love. Choose Joy.

In my journey of personal transformation, I’ve learned the things we desire most, like wealth, love, and happiness, don’t happen by accident, but by consistently practicing thoughts and habits that align with those states of being. 

Many of us are waiting for circumstances to change on their own so that we can feel better; as a result, life is a mixed bag of highs and lows.  We are at the mercy of whatever comes our way, living in constant reaction to events taking place and feeling helpless.  But when I observe people who are happy, wealthy, and in love, I see something in common with all of them: they proactively CHOOSE happiness, wealth, and love.

As someone who suffered from depression nearly all of my life, I had a lot of resistance to the idea that I could choose joy.  I got used to being at the mercy of my unpredictable mood swings.  Some days were spent in bed because of the depression, and others were spent in a state of unexplained euphoria.  I had no control over which one it would be from day to day, and I resigned myself to the belief that I had an unspecified mood disorder which would run my life forever.   

That began to change when a friend invited me to participate in a joy challenge with her.  The idea was to journal things that brought me joy for 21 days.  I wanted to tell her to “go somewhere with all of that,” but there was an ache in my heart whispering for me to try.  I had nothing to lose.

I went to Barnes & Noble looking for a journal and found one with a picture of a bee on it, and the words, “BEE HAPPY.”  I smiled so hard when I saw it.  In that moment, it occurred to me that maybe joy wasn’t so hard to find if I went looking for it.  So for 21 days I went on a JOY scavenger hunt.  I Googled pictures of objects and scenes that made me feel good, printed them out and taped them into the journal.  It became a scrapbook of beautiful images, phrases, and reflections.  In 21 days I learned that joy is a habit–a practice.  And that was only the beginning.

I learned that joy was a result of my focus, not my conditions, BUT…

I came to realize that factors in my environment could influence my focus. 

So the challenge evolved from finding things that made me happy to curating my environment so that I *only* experienced the best life has to offer.  I took inventory of my internal and external surroundings.  What media was I consuming, and was it contributing to my joy?  I paid close attention to how I responded to songs I listened to, articles I read, and social media posts I followed.  I also looked at my friendships.  What people were in my space, and were they making it easy, or hard to maintain my joy?  Who was I holding onto out of obligation rather than genuine connection?  I had to take all of this into account as I began the practice of deliberate creation of my life experience.

Whatever you want in life can be yours.  I believe that.  I live it.  But before you can get anywhere, you have to do a quick assessment of your physical and emotional surroundings to see if you have the right support systems in place.  These systems include your interpersonal relationships (familial, romantic, platonic, etc.), your physical surroundings (is your place messy, dirty, or clutter-free?), and the intangible things you expose yourself to which may trigger negative thoughts and emotions subconsciously/consciously.  You might have the greatest intentions, but if something in your inner or outer environment is off, the imbalance will throw you off your path.

Here are some tips on creating an environment that supports the life you want:

  1. Relationships: It’s vital that we take inventory of all of our relationships (friends, lovers, co-workers, family members, social media followers, etc.) and come to terms with what type of influence they have over us.  Some people are supportive and encouraging while others are “energy vampires” draining us of precious time and energy.  These people poison our dreams with their dissenting views and words of discouragement.  Sometimes their trolling is subtle and disguised as a joke.  Pay attention to how you feel around people, because sometimes you won’t be able to pinpoint or prove the interaction is toxic, but you must rely on your intuition.

    A word of caution, though–before you go around cutting people off, do an honest check-in and make sure YOU aren’t the source of the toxicity.  Projection (the practice of accusing others of behaviors & thoughts you are guilty of) is insidious and hard to notice.  We are all susceptible to projection, so we must take an active and authentic look at ourselves.  If you avoid doing the deep work around your relationships, you’ll find yourself endlessly cutting people off and finding others to recreate the same issues repeatedly.  Questions to ask yourself:

    i. Is this person really the problem, or is it me?

    ii. If the problem isn’t me, what is it about me that allows or invites this type of energy into my life?

    iii. What is this person mirroring in me that I judge myself for and needs to be forgiven?

  2. Physical Surroundings: Our physical surroundings are often a manifestation of what’s happening in our minds.  A messy room may reflect disorganized thoughts and feelings.  While what’s going on within can affect the way things look on the outside, the inverse is also true.  When my home is clean and organized, I feel at peace and energized.  What do your physical surroundings look like and how do they reflect/affect your emotional and mental state of being?  Do you need to de-clutter or reorganize your surroundings?  Do you feel a sense of ownership over your space?  Do you feel safe, stable, and comfortable?  If not, what steps can you take to improve your situation?

    A couple years ago, I changed the black blinds covering my bedroom windows to beige.  This allowed more light into my bedroom.  The affect was an immediate mood boost.  I also painted the walls a beautiful shade of amber with streaks of gold.  I bought new linens and pillows for my bed.  The room went from being the place I slept to a haven.  It was my Goddess sanctuary.  My brother came to visit me one day and said it was “bastion of femininity.”  I laughed, but enjoyed his feedback.  The space became so sacred that it made certain people uncomfortable to be in it.  They felt out of place in my room.

    Make your space so sacred that those who don’t belong in it, or don’t know how to honor it, won’t enter it.

  3. Media Exposure: What television shows do you watch, if any?  What books do you read?What’s on your music playlist?  What do you feed your mind/spirit with?  Is it edifying, or draining?  How is your Facebook news-feed looking these days?  What are you exposing yourself to day in and day out?  And how do you feel these things influence your state of well-being?  We live in the age of information–there’s a wealth of info flying around–we can choose to expose ourselves to things that nourish our hearts and minds.

Lose the Weight of Limiting Beliefs

As a Behavior Change Coach who focuses on health and fitness, I’m trained to help my clients work through their resistance to change, but it’s not easy.  Like pulling weeds, unearthing all the debris in a person’s mind–clutter getting in the way of realizing one’s deepest desires.–takes time, effort and a lot of grace.

I remember working with one client who came across as uninterested in working with me despite initiating the relationship.  Her goal in working with me was to lose weight without sabotaging her results, which was her pattern.  But during our meetings, she’d answer questions with one-word responses while checking her phone. It was hard not to personalize her seeming disinterest.  At times, I was so discouraged I wanted to give her a refund and end the relationship, but I endured.

One day while sitting with this client, a “knowingness” washed over me and I was suddenly filled with the understanding that she was abused as a child (Intuitives and Empaths know exactly what I’m referring to).

With hesitation, I asked if she was ever abused.  I worried that my question was inappropriate and irrelevant, but she said, “Yes.”  Her childhood was laden with traumatic experiences which caused her to feel vulnerable and fearful.  We explored how those experiences were influencing her attitude towards her body.  Eventually she admitted she was afraid to “let the weight go” because in her mind it was protection.

When it comes to obesity, there’s a tendency to focus on one’s habits rather than on the beliefs, attitudes, fears, and familial/cultural pressures at the root of it.  We prune the leaves without uprooting the weeds.  Like weeds, irrational beliefs suffocate our desires, keeping us locked in cycles of self-sabotage.    As was the case with my client, the idea that the excess fat on her body could  protect her was irrational; but it was true for her—so true that it controlled her decisions without her awareness.

Forcing ourselves to make a change despite feeling unmotivated is necessary at times; however, “force of will” alone is not a long-term solution for people struggling to make any change.  Our subconscious works like an ocean’s undercurrent, undulating uncontrollably, hurling us in different directions.  Confronting those overpowering psychological forces requires looking beyond the surface of consciousness, diving within to explore our internal programming.  This is a more valuable approach than imposing changes on ourselves that we aren’t emotionally/mentally prepared to make or sustain.  Enforcing a lifestyle we’re not ready for is like running with extra weight strapped to our back: how far will we get?  Wouldn’t we run farther, faster, if we released that burden altogether?

Mixed race woman holding out cupped hands

Tony Robbins said, “People are not lazy.  They simply have impotent goals.”  Nothing deflates our goals like limiting beliefs.  The solution to feeling unmotivated isn’t imposing seemingly worthy goals on ourselves, but challenging our outdated beliefs.  They linger like monsters under the bed, only for us to turn on the light and find nothing there except old pairs of shoes and broken toys.  What old and broken things are you holding onto?  Let the first few pounds of weight you release be the heaviness of beliefs which are no longer useful.

3 Signs You Aren’t Loving Yourself

What is Love?

Love: a loaded word with extremely subjective meaning.  Some of us see the word and feel inspired, while others of us are triggered by memories of disappointment, abandonment, or an extreme sense of longing.

Love, despite its subjectivity, is a universal concept.  People all over the world are reaching for alignment with it every day.  We can’t quantify love, but we can qualify it based on our experience.

Yes, love is experiential.  

We experience love through our emotions (admiration, appreciation, connection, elation, joy, forgiveness, etc.).  

But, love is also expressive.

We express love through our actions and behaviors.

The Physicality of Love (Psycho-Somatic Responses)

We can’t measure love by any scientific or mathematical standard, but there’s a way to qualify it.  We know love is present (whether we’re feeling love or expressing it) by the sensations we experience in the body.

Feeling tightness in your chest?  Fists clenched?  Jaw rigid?  Tears stinging your eyes?  Chances are love is not in the vicinity of your experience.  

It’s important to pay attention to your emotions, not intellectually, but physically.  Emotions are physical, and are signposts or indicators of what we need.  When tuning into what you feel, connect to your body.  Is anger a lump in your throat?  Is sadness an inexplicable tiredness?  Is unexpressed rage a clenched fist?  Is anxiety a tightness in the chest?  

Identifying emotions in the body is an excellent way to not only connect with them, but release them.  By giving your attention to the sensations in your body, you can directly apply a loving touch where it’s needed, healing the discomfort and releasing trapped energy.

When we ignore our feelings, the energy becomes trapped in the body and can manifest as disease, aches, pains, and fatigue.

Disconnecting From The Body Through Substance Abuse

A number of us use substances like drugs, food, and alcohol to disconnect from our emotions.  We also engage in self-gratifying behaviors as a way to flood the pain with pleasure.  The result is a never ending search for the next “high.”  And in seeking out these highs, we miss out on so much that is taking place in the present moment, both good and bad.  Our closest relationships begin to lack depth, connection, and emotional intimacy.  We lose touch with our core needs and desires.  In between the highs, life sucks.  We aren’t living, just existing until the next bout of relief comes.

I know this isn’t news, but it’s something to think about as it relates to connecting to sensations in your body.  Many of us are cut off from these sensations because of substances and escapist behavior.  This disconnection translates to an inability to experience intimacy, with ourselves and others.  

Intimacy is a type of closeness we achieve through vulnerability.  It requires exposing parts of ourselves which we usually keep hidden.  Emotional intimacy can never be experienced if we are cut off from our feelings to begin with.  An unwillingness to be in tune with and experience the fullness of your feelings dampens your experience of life, and ultimately your expression of love.  

Emotions are a compass.  When we are cut off from ourselves, we are cut off from our deepest desires, our intuition, and our needs.  And when we aren’t in tune with what we want, need, and feel, we have no direction.  This lack of direction can be felt in our results.  Look around.  Do you feel grounded, or in constant fear about what’s going to happen next?  Are you self-assured, or do you feel powerless to the circumstances in your life?  Are you growing, or are you feeling stuck and stagnant?  The difference between either experience is in our ability to harness the power of our emotions.

So, What’s Love Got To Do With It?  

Love has everything to do with the things that matter most to humans, like relationships, health, and even our financial success.  Love is the thread which beautifies the tapestry of our lives.  We’ve all seen “loveless” marriages; we’ve met rich people who are miserable; we’ve worked with successful people who’ve become estranged from their friends and family members; we’ve interacted with (and maybe we are) people who sacrificed their most cherished values for things that look good on the outside, but feel bad on the inside. 

We’ve also heard of people facing debilitating illnesses, injuries, poverty, and grief express joy and gratitude in spite of their suffering.  People with every reason to wither away in darkness, shining their lights on the world instead.  What makes the difference between having it all and feeling empty, or having nothing but feeling fulfilled? 

Love. 

Love is available to us in every moment, unconditionally. 

My goal here is to emphasize the importance of our experience and expression (physical and emotional) of love within ourselves. 

Our experience of life is a result of our inner world: beliefs, attitudes, fears, desires, etc.  When love is the lens with which we view life, it’s beautiful.  But when love is absent, we cannot thrive.

So, how can we enhance our experience and expression of love?  Where do we start?  We start with ourselves.

Yes, I know, the concept of “self-love” has  been used so much that it has begun to lose its meaning.  Raise your hand if you roll your eyes whenever you see the phrase, “No one can love you if you don’t love yourself.”  *raises hand*

Despite how watered down the concept is, all cliches are founded upon a fundamental, unshakeable truth.  The reality is, you cannot realize love in your life if you are not experiencing and expressing love with yourself.

Life is a mirror.  Relationships are mirrors.  The way we treat ourselves will be reflected back to us, not only in our circumstances, but in our bodies.  Making the connection between physical reactions and your feelings is the absolute best way to tell when love is missing from the moment.  As you cultivate this sense of yourself and the way you experience emotions in your body, there are a few signs you can look for to see if you are actively hindering the fullness of love’s expression in your life.  

3 Signs You Aren’t Loving Yourself

1.    Saying “Yes” when your heart is saying “No,” and vice versa.

When we ignore our core desires and gut instincts for the sake of looking good, avoiding conflict, refusing to face our fears, laziness, or for a quick fix, we’re demonstrating betrayal.  By dishonoring our truth and leading inauthentic lives, we live as liars.  How does this affect us in the long run?  Think about people you know as liars.  Do you trust them?  Are you open with them?  Your relationship with them is likely strained or nonexistent.  When we betray ourselves in this way, we lose our ability to trust ourselves. 

Saying yes to things you don’t want to do, like ignoring/de-prioritizing your needs to please others; engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors despite the painful after-effects; and, depriving yourself of the things you really want because you don’t feel worthy is evidence you are betraying yourself and blocking your expression and experience of love with yourself.  

Pay attention to what you feel in your body when faced with a choice.  Learn to get a sense of what “yes” feels like, and what “no” feels like.  “Yes” might feel like your chest rising, while “no” will feel like your chest tightening up.  Everyone is different.  As you pay attention to your body, you can literally feel when you are honoring yourself or not.

2.    Obsessing over past hurts and disappointments.

Healing from trauma is extremely personal and sacred.  Healing is also not a linear process.  We may believe we’ve moved beyond a painful situation, only to find ourselves unexpectedly gripped with pain over it.  It is no one’s right to tell you when and how to get over something painful in your life.

At the same time, many of us hinder the healing process, often subconsciously.  Reliving painful experiences over and over again is a form of self-preservation.  Pain is useful in that it can serve as a reminder of what to avoid, but sometimes this form of self-protection becomes maladaptive.  In the process of preventing bad things from happening to us, we hinder the good.

A prime example of this is within our relationships.  We’ve all experienced some kind of hurt at the hands of another from the moment we are born.  There’s no escaping life unscathed.  But some of us have developed so many defense mechanisms against pain that we fail to let love in.  We sabotage opportunities to be successful and joyful in order to prevent potential disappointment.  We catastrophize, envisioning everything that might go wrong and disallow the potential rewards from becoming a reality.

Something to be mindful of is our habit of personalizing and internalizing the bad things we’ve experienced.  It is very common for us, especially as children, to create labels about who we are because of the way others treated us.  This serves to perpetuate the pain and prevent healing.  When working through trauma, loss, and grief, ask yourself what belief you made up about yourself as a result of the experience.  We cannot live beyond the barriers of our beliefs, expectations, and identities.  If you’ve created an identity around suffering, you will always suffer.

As you heal, tune into your body’s reaction to painful thoughts and memories.  I was abused as a child, and at times I can tell a past memory is triggered because of sensations in my body–parts of the body which were beaten.  I recall being punched in the chest so hard that I fell backwards and the back of my head slammed against the floor.  To this day, I feel fear and sadness in my chest.  When healing from the trauma of abuse, I’ve had to physically rub and soothe my chest with my hands, and even hold pillows and teddy bears close to my chest to provide a sense of relief from the energy that has been trapped there for years.

3.    Lack of Kindness (Towards Ourselves & Others)

One of my favorite quotes is from Samuel Johnson: “Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.”  In life, there will be people, places and things we dislike or are not fond of, but through acceptance, we can exercise unconditional kindness in spite of it.

Don’t confuse kindness with being a pushover, and please don’t mistake acceptance for putting up with unacceptable behavior. 

Acceptance: the practice of observing characteristics and conditions without internalizing or assigning judgement or meaning to them. 

Kindness: the practice of honoring others without dishonoring ourselves.

Kindness and acceptance are offshoots of love.  Think about the people you are fond of.  Most likely you accept and even embrace their imperfections.  Kindness and acceptance are easy practices when it comes to people we like, and seemingly impossible in the face of people and conditions we really dislike, even abhor.  But the better we get at bestowing ourselves with unconditional kindness and acceptance, the easier it is to see the good in others and in the world.

As I mentioned earlier, life is a mirror.  Your experience of it is a reflection of your internal world.  If you find yourself looking out around you and seeing only the worst life has to offer, check in with the way you look at yourself.  How gracious are you with yourself when you make a mistake or fail?  How forgiving of yourself are you?  How authentic are you with yourself?  Have you acknowledged, accepted and embraced all of you, or just the parts of you other people like?

While grace, kindness and acceptance are the children of love, judgement is often a secondary emotion, a reaction to fear.  If you sit back and look at your judgements, you can find your biggest fears just beneath the surface.

Love or Fear is the basis for every action we take.  They are opposing energies and as such, cannot co-exist.  Many of us are living in reaction to our fears.  We are not striving towards our desires or looking at solutions; instead, we are actively avoiding the things we fear and focusing on problems.  Fear-based living does not leave space for love to thrive.  And in the absence of love, we wither.

Pay attention to where you feel fear, anger, and judgement in your body.  These emotions are usually associated with “closing” up.  For me, I clench my left fist, my throat closes up and my jaw tightens.  I’ve learned to associate these reactions with failing to express myself authentically to the people in my life.  Once I realize that, I’m able to address what it is I feel is missing or needed, and I use that to find a way to communicate with kindness–expressing and honoring my needs without dishonoring others.

The process of identifying and acknowledging emotions in the body takes time, practice, and lots of grace.  But giving yourself the room to cultivate emotional awareness is one the most sacred acts of love you can bestow on yourself.  Some suggestions for going through this process, especially if it’s new for you:

  1. Seek Support: It’s important to establish a community of love and support in your life, period.  If you the people in your life are not contributing to your overall good and well-being, why are they there?  In addition to ensuring you are supported and loved in your relationships, it is especially helpful to seek professional support, especially if you are working through trauma.

  2. Write it Out: Journaling has been such an amazing tool for connecting to my thoughts and feelings.  I liken it to trying to sort laundry while it’s in the bag–it can’t be done!  Your best bet is to dump the clothes out and sort your clothes that way.  So it goes with the thoughts in our heads.  We try so hard to sort things out in our heads, where the problem usually began in the first place.  Journaling is a way of “dumping your laundry” onto the page so that you can look at yourself from OUTSIDE of yourself, and sort things out.

  3. Practice Self-Care: Downtime, rest, and finding constructive ways to feel good are essential to leading a balanced life.  This is especially true if you’re in recovery from addiction and looking to find healthy ways of experiencing joy.  Listen to your body and your heart.  Nourish your mind.  Take good care of yourself, the way you would someone you love and care for.  Self-care means you honor the needs and desires of your highest self.  

Thank you for reading!  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.  Feel free to reach out anytime.  Until next time, take care!  xoxo

5 Tips for Better Skin

Lately, I find myself receiving compliments about my skin.  At first this surprised me because my skin is prone to hormonal acne, cystic acne, dryness, and hyper-pigmentation.

Over the years I’ve learned how to care for my skin and minimize these problems.  While the recent compliments about my skin have been surprising (at first I thought people were being shady…), their words of praise forced me to give myself some credit for the consistent practices which have greatly improved my skin’s condition.  Again, my skin isn’t flawless, but it’s now clear enough for me to feel comfortable leaving the house completely bare-faced on occasion–something I would have NEVER done 2-3 years ago.

These are the steps I have implemented to address MY specific skin problems.  This is not meant to be prescriptive, so take these tips with a grain of salt and do what works for you.  You’ll notice these are preventative measures used to preserve the skin’s health and prevent adverse reactions.  If you have an active, severe skin condition, try to see a dermatologist.  I went to a dermatologist over 2 years ago and learned a lot of what I’m sharing here.  While she did prescribe medications for my face which helped to treat active skin problems I had at the time, using these measures has helped to MAINTAIN the results I attained from using prescribed skin creams.  I haven’t used any medications to treat my skin in 2 years.

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Tip No. 1: Cleanse

Choose the right cleanser: Find a cleanser that is designed to address your skin’s condition.  If you have sensitive skin, use a cleanser for sensitive skin.  If you have oily or dry skin, find a cleanser that addresses those issues.  If you have sensitive skin and decide to use a cleanser that is too abrasive, it can create cracks and cuts in your skin where dirt, dead skin, makeup and facial oils can get trapped, causing breakouts.  Dry skin types would do well with creamy, hydrating cleansers, whereas oily skin types need a cleanser that has a more drying effect on the skin.

I avoid using electronic cleansing brushes because I learned that they can embed dirt and makeup into your skin and cause breakouts.  I think this is due to my skin type and the size of my pores.  I also wasn’t using the proper brush head for my skin.  People with closed pores would probably benefit from electronic cleansing brushes.  I could probably use them with a brush head designed for sensitive skin, but eh.  I do like using silicone cleansing pads.   I avoid using sponges and cloths because they collect bacteria.

Cleanse at least 2x daily: This was a hard habit to establish at first, but now I must wash my face before I go to sleep or I feel gross.  The reasons for why you should wash your face at night are self-explanatory.  Most of us know we should wash our faces at night, but we can be lazy about it.  At first I started using wipes to clean the makeup off of my face.  This doesn’t count as cleansing, but it was a step in the right direction.  After a while, the cleansing wipes alone were not enough.  I wanted my skin to feel fresh and clean, so I began to wash my face after using the cleansing wipes, and it has made a tremendous difference in my skin.  I also aim to clean my face before and after workouts or engaging in any activity that causes me to sweat.

Deep clean: I use muds and masks to draw out dirt and impurities buried deep in my skin.  Every other day seems to work for me.  I do not like the deep cleaning techniques used during some facials at certain spas.  Extractions cause me to break out and popping my own pimples causes scarring.  I’m sure this is due to my skin type.  Speaking of which, avoid discount facials.  It’s worth spending money on an Esthetician who knows how to work with your skin.

Tip No. 2: Exfoliate

Getting into the habit of cleansing my face every morning and night improved my skin greatly, but it didn’t address blackheads/whiteheads.  Exfoliating removes dead skin cells from your face, preventing them from clogging your pores.  I believe it also speeds the healing of dark spots and brightens your skin.  Exfoliate at least 1x a day using a gentle scrub.  Use circular motions, always moving the fingers in an upwards direction.

There are some gentle peels on the market which are also helpful at removing dead skin from your face.  Depending on the type of skin you have, you can use a peel every other day or 1-2x a week.  There are products out there which can be used daily, but I like to start out using them every other day to gauge my skin’s reaction to the product.

Tip No. 3: Tone

I use a toner like witch hazel after washing/exfoliating to remove any remaining dirt or makeup from my face.  Toners also help to minimize/close pores.  Speaking of closing pores, I splash cold water on my face to seal my pores after I have cleansed and toned.

Tip No. 4: Moisturize/Hydrate

I have dry, sensitive skin.  Keeping my skin moist and supple prevents cracks and cuts, where dirt and makeup would ordinarily get trapped inside and cause a breakout.  Also, excessively dry skin can create an overproduction of sebum (skin oil), which is also responsible for breakouts.  I moisturize 2x a day.  In the morning I apply a facial moisturizer with sunscreen (SPF 35).  Exposure to the sun has been shown to cause sun spots and rapid aging, and I’m trying to preserve my skin’s youthfulness!  In the evening I use a myriad of moisturizers depending on my mood and what free samples I got in my Ipsy bag.  🙂   Find a moisturizer that fits your skin type.  If you have oily skin, you would want to avoid greasy moisturizers.

Also, drink lots of water.  LOTS OF IT.  The magical ingredient found in the fountain of youth is plain old water.

Tip No. 5: Stress Reduction

Stress definitely contributes to breakouts.  This is especially true for women around our periods.  During PMS, estrogen reaches an all-time low, and an androgen known as dihydrotestosterone (DHT) surges.  Stress contributes to a rise in this androgenic hormone, which is also responsible for sebum (skin oil) production.  Excess sebum is at the root of the PMS breakouts we’ve all grown to dread every month.  Ugh.

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I’ve found that active stress management techniques like incorporating daily mindfulness practices into my schedule (e.g. meditation), and being committed to Emotional Self-Care has greatly reduced stress levels and nearly eradicated my PMDD symptoms, which were insomnia, uncontrollable hunger, severe mood swings, suicidal thoughts, and breakouts.  Yes, suicidal thoughts were a common part of my experience with PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder), so I understand how grave the condition can be.  I am in no way minimizing the symptoms of PMS/PMDD or advising that women should simply “chill out” and namaste their symptoms away.  But I do know that taking a proactive approach to ensuring my well-being (mind-body-and soul) has greatly improved my overall quality of life as well as my skin. I still have normal PMS symptoms, but they are moderate at worst and nowhere near as debilitating as they used to be.  (I will post about my PMS self-care regimen soon).

My self-care approach involves developing coping strategies for stressful situations, honoring my boundaries (saying NO and sticking to it), and putting my well-being first NO MATTER WHAT.  The amount of stress I am under has not decreased, but my ability to cope with stress, deprioritize other folks’ drama while prioritizing peace, joy, and my sanity has greatly improved.  The less stressed I am, the clearer my skin.

Speaking of Emotional Self-Care, this is a topic I talk about extensively with my clients, especially because it is how I have managed to overcome a debilitating mood disorder and deactivate the schemas at the root of my depression and anxiety.  I plan to do a Vlog about this topic very soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, what are some of your favorite skin care tips or products?

Lifting the Weight

Back in June of 2016, I had the privilege of being featured on one of my FAVORITE live radio shows, the “Keeping It BEAUTY Show,” hosted by Akilah C. Thompson.  Akilah, founder of I Am BEAUTY, Inc.  is a trained life coach whose “[…] mission is to empower and inspire girls and women to be BEAUTY. I am B.E.A.U.T.Y. aims to build self-esteem by helping participants love who they are, believe in the leader they can become and equip them with the tools needed to accomplish their dreams.“

 

As you can see from the above quote, Akilah inspires women of nearly all age groups to embody BEAUTY in all areas of our lives, not just appearance.  She herself is a striking model of beauty and is always striving for excellence.  It was a great honor to be featured on her show.

During the show, we talked about lifting the weight of depression, disordered eating, obesity, body image issues, and struggling to find acceptance with who and where you are in this moment.

Check it out here and let me know what you think!

Oh, and make sure you check out the other episodes!  xoxo

When the Personal Trainer Needs to Get in Shape

As it stands right now, when I weigh myself, the digits on my scale’s digital display show a number somewhere in the 180’s—still down 80 pounds from my heaviest; however, 30 pounds heavier than when I was my leanest and fittest.  And while the scale doesn’t accurately account for body composition and muscle mass, I’m still considered overweight—even obese by medical standards.

13 years ago, I embarked on a journey to a healthier me and lost over 100 pounds through diet and exercise.  2 years ago, I was in the best shape of my life, lifting weights 6 days and doing 5 hours of cardio a week, preparing for a body building competition.

And then I stopped.

I couldn’t bring myself to touch a weight.  Even a 5 pound dumbbell felt too heavy.  I was lucky if I could bring myself to run once a week.  It was the burden of a major depressive episode, weighing me way, way, way down.  It was hard enough lifting my body out of bed every day, let alone picking up a barbell.  The hardest part about it was feeling like I had no one to turn to, and no one who would understand.  I was the person everyone looked to for motivation, and yet I could barely motivate myself to leave my bedroom.  Curled up in a tight ball on my bed, I asked myself, “Who could possibly understand this?  They won’t.  They’ll tell me I am letting everyone down, including myself.  They’ll be mad at me and tell me I need to find some way to get past this.”  I was spiraling in a state of helplessness and despair.  “No one will understand how hard it is to move right now.”

The depression lasted a year and a half.  During that time, I had periods of minor relief, thanks to the antidepressant I began taking.  But I mistakenly tried to jump back into my old routine instead of approaching exercise progressively, and I hurt myself.  I knew better, but I was desperately trying to make up for lost time, especially as a Certified Personal Trainer & Behavior Change Specialist with active clients.  After a sprained ankle, tendinitis in both knees, an elbow sprain, and a strained forearm—each injury taking months to heal—I was forced to sit my eager ass down and try something different: radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is the practice of making peace with what is in each moment.  It is a mindfulness practice, involving an intentional and intense focus on the present, and only the present moment.  It is an abandonment of the past, and complete detachment from the future.  To cultivate this ability, I began meditating and practicing yoga.  As I continued to strengthen my spirit and my mind, the depression left me.  I stopped taking medication, and found a renewed sense of inspiration.

Now I incorporate this practice with the clients I work with, but I face an uphill battle.  The concept of acceptance is counter-intuitive, especially in our cultural fanaticism over physical “perfection” and the unrealistic ideal of having not one inch of fat to pinch anywhere on your body, ever.  But I offer that true transformation must first begin with acceptance.  Approaching our goals from a place of self-love and worthiness makes the process of transformation rewarding.  Exercise becomes a “get to” instead of a “have to,” and healthy eating becomes an empowered choice instead of a chore, or punishment for being fat.

Now that I’m renewed of mind, body, and spirit, I am setting new goals, and making moderate yet progressive changes to my diet and exercise regimen.  I don’t expect, nor do I want to yield fast results.  I’d rather employ and fortify the longterm lifestyle strategies which have allowed me to stay on the opposite end of “200 pounds” for over 13 years.  I know that I will reach my goals in due time.

But I have to be honest about something.  Despite my recent invigoration in the gym, I struggle with an element of shame.  I am self-conscious about rolls of back fat now protruding from my t-shirts, the bra bulge around my overly tight sports bras, and the size of my thighs.  But in those moments of judgement and shame I revert to gratitude—for all that I have overcome, for all that I am, for my body’s resilience, muscle memory, my sexy shape, and my ability to keep going and honor my 100% even when at one point in time, that 100% was my warm-up.

What matters is that I am my own voice of encouragement, shouting, “You are doing such a good job, Tam,” over all the other judgmental voices in my head.  And I think, as it relates to my ability to motivate others, it is better for people to connect to my humanity versus a perfect body.  A flawless figure is beautiful, but so is an imperfectly perfect body, doing the work.  What matters to my clients is not that I am perfect, but that I show them what it looks like, enduring in spite of obstacles and setbacks.  I think it’s my courage and willingness to be authentic about my own fallibility, (and how it doesn’t detract from my worthiness as a human being), that will touch, move, and inspire the world to get moving and be their best selves while embracing their own frailties and imperfections.

Because perfection is an illusion.  And our bodies are just tools we use to interface with this physical reality…the larger part of who we are is much, much greater.

 

Fitness: One Size Fits All

In 2015 I put together a #Fitspiration photo shoot.  The idea was to broaden our perception of fitness, showcasing women of different racial backgrounds, sizes, shapes, fitness levels, and attitudes about what fitness means to them.

 

Many of us have an extreme, singular concept of what fitness is. We limit our idea of what it means to be in-shape to aesthetic flawlessness (i.e. not one inch of fat to pinch). This image perpetuates unrealistic expectations of what it means to be healthy, and alienates people who are looking to become fit.  People who struggle with obesity or lead extraordinarily sedentary lifestyles feel especially helpless.

I admire body builders, athletes, and fitness models.  I know firsthand the work ethic it takes to achieve the outstanding results we see in fitness magazines.  I have nothing but the utmost respect for people who model exemplary standards of fitness.  But there’s a bit of a gap between the Career Couch Potato, and the Former High School Track Star who can’t imagine NOT running 6 days a week.  There’s also a wide bridge between constant binge/emotional eating, and eating boiled egg whites with unsweetened oatmeal for breakfast every day.  Granted, it is a bridge which can be crossed (I’ve crossed it), but only through a series of steps, not leaps and bounds.

 

Fitness, in a technical sense, is characterized by muscular strength, cardio respiratory endurance, joint flexibility/range of motion, and an optimal body fat percentage (<31% for women and <24% men) . However, fitness as it relates to us on an individual level has various meanings and degrees of importance. For people who suffer from depression, exercise improves their mood and self-esteem. For dancers, movement is about self-expression, freedom, and joy. Some people value their exercise regimen because it allows them to focus on themselves, clear their thoughts, and connect to their bodies in a way we often don’t in our everyday lives.  So there is a psycho-emotional benefit to exercise and eating well which can far outweigh the benefits of having 6 pack abs.

 

Another misconception around fitness involves its execution.  When we think of what it takes to be fit, we picture ourselves running or lifting weights.  I personally enjoy running and lifting weights; however, there was a time when walking was a laborious task.  How did I get from barely being able to walk 5 NYC blocks to running 7 miles?  The key has not only been moderation and progression, but also finding innovative ways of moving my body and making the experience rewarding. NEWSFLASH: Exercise can feel rewarding!  It does not always have to be excrutiating.

Some people associate exercise with fierce physical intensity, but I lost my first 50 pounds dancing to my favorite music playlist for 20 minutes a day.  I was working up a sweat and enjoying every moment of it.  If we didn’t worry so much about the elitists who caution, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you,” we could stop trying to do what we think we’re supposed to do in the gym and discover a form of exercise we love.  Humans we are motivated by rewarding experiences. For the seasoned gym rat, the reward is in the challenge itself; however, for the beginner, the reward can be as small is showing up to class.  The challenge of intense exercise is a deterrent for newbies and is the reason for a 50% drop-out rate from new exercise programs.

I have witnessed some of the nastiest judgments aimed at people who go to the gym regularly yet still don’t “look” fit–as if their efforts are a waste of time.  I find this mentality to be extremely elitist and exclusionary.  What if the people who don’t meet your standards of fitness are actually happy with their bodies, and simply happy to be moving?  This is the prevailing mindset among some fitness enthusiasts who, instead of inspiring others, wind up alienating and intimidating them.  It’s the reason people who are overweight are terrified of going to the gym and either being judged, or worse yet, patronized: “Oh, look at that fat person working out.  How good for them!”  Both approaches can be humiliating.

 

This mentality plagued me, and for years exercise was a tool I used to punish myself for having an imperfect body.  I used it to try to fix what was broken.  Instead of focusing on the healthfulness of foods, I grouped them into two categories: foods that threatened my ability to keep the weight off, and foods that helped me stay slim.  I lived in fear of ruining my progress.

This was not how I began my journey.  Exercise and eating well was a meaningful and joyful experience.  But as I began to put my story out there, I faced a lot of criticism from people who told me I didn’t have the body of a fitness professional.  I heard a lot of unsolicited comments and tips on how to “tighten that up” or “get rid of this or that.”  I allowed these comments to strip my hard work of its beauty, pride, and triumph.  I veered from my joyful approach to health and wellness and became perpetually dissatisfied with myself.

Luckily I’ve done the work to transcend such a limiting mindset; however, I know a lot of people who work out religiously and adhere to stringent diets at the expense of happiness.  They’re driven by feelings like shame and fear.  It is an unbalanced view of health– it is unhealthy.

Fitness begins in the mind. A healthy mindset is unlimited in its capacity to inspire change. When the mind and the body are working together harmoniously, it doesn’t matter where you are on your fitness journey, it will feel good. This rewarding feeling is accessible to all of us regardless of where we stand on the path to fitness. It is for everyone.

What does fitness mean to you?