“Say hi there, to my bad body double. My bad, bad, bad body double.
She’s trouble, I can’t shake her. And I hate her, I hate her, I hate her, I hate her.”
My heart rate was up – way up. I was sweating so profusely you could wring out my clothes and the face staring back at me in the mirror was approaching beet red and breathing heavily. What sounds a little bit like a heart attack, though, was actually me having a fabulous time at an aerobics class I was trying out, after not having exercised for over a year. This wasn’t your run of the mill aerobics class – this was an “aerobic affirmations” class, which is what I call jumping-around-like-crazy to a rhythmic call and response of statements of strength, commitment, purpose, and self-love and acceptance. “Yes I am committed – to live the life I love – I want – It want it –I really really want it. I believe – I will succeed.” Folded hands to head, we say, “I accept responsibility for my thoughts”. Folded hands to heart. “I accept responsibility for my emotions”. Folded hands pointed to the floor. “I accept responsibility for my actions.” “Every day- in a very true way- I co-create my reality”. Now the jumping around part comes and lasts for an hour.
At the end of class, the instructor murmured words of loving and accepting our bodies “as we are – right here – right now – where we stand in this moment”. My friend, whom I had brought to the gym with me for support and to call 911 if needed during the class, lightly slapped my arm and quipped, “Look at them. Look at these bodies. What’s not to love?” Scanning the room, I had to agree. While there were some exceptions, I easily had 20 years and 40 pounds on most of them. “Right”, I laughingly agreed. “Perfect bodies – what’s so hard to love about that?” OK, I know that even people who seem “perfect” and oh-so-easy-to- love on the outside don’t necessarily feel that way on the inside, but I was in no mood for emotional generosity and honesty. Looking in the mirror, I thought, “How am I supposed to love THAT? How can I be OK with THAT?” Yes, I know what I want and “I really really want it”, but I’m not good at loving the present package, being OK with “what is” right now and my relationship with the gap between “what is” and “what I want” is not filled with self love and acceptance, but self loathing.
So I look in the mirror, and the Voice starts, you know that inner critic, that secret self-talk so vile and contemptuous and filled with so much hatred and ridicule, that if we spoke to others that way, we would have no friends, no spouse, and our children would be taken away from us. We get so used to the Voice, it’s like a constant loop and it’s usually below our level of awareness, so that while we feel the negativity and shameful meaning of the message, we are not consciously aware of creating it or even allowing it to play in our head. But even if we did, we actually think the Voice has a role to play in helping us become better. We think that NOT hating ourselves, or at least some aspect of ourselves, is a weakness, because we are afraid that if we love ourselves, if we can get to being OK with ourselves, we will never change, and that’s simply intolerable.
So, let me ask you this – who have you changed through hatred or contempt? What positive shift have you caused to occur – or what unwanted situation have you caused not to occur – by dint of your negativity, by shaming yourself or someone else? You can threaten, you can manipulate, you can coerce, but can you authentically or permanently change anyone that way? Has it ever worked on you? Accept this fact as absolute truth from on high – the Voice is not our friend, it is not meant to make us better people, it will never promote connection or wellbeing and it will never help us achieve or manifest anything positive or loving. It will only do the opposite and it is good at what it does, so good, in fact, that it has fooled your brain into thinking that you want this, that you want to hear these words in your head, and in a way, the Voice is right. It’s like a google search (or is google like the brain since the brain came first)? Anyway, just as a computer “knows” what is important because of the number of times you have made the same search so that it takes you to these sites quickly at the mere typing of only a few letters, so does the brain instantly load the self-hating shamed-based inner messages. Our brains think these thoughts are important to us, because we have flagged and tagged them. But the brain goes further and it links together similar thoughts and thought patterns so that whole clusters of brain activity are activated at one time. In the words of Dr. Rick Hanson, “neurons that wire together, fire together.”
So we have to create a new Voice, new pathways, new connections, we have to optimize healthy sites in the search engine operations of our brains. And paradoxically, that’s actually the beginning of the healthy change process, one that’s transformative, expansive, and real. Step One.
One of the exercises I did in my wellness coach training was called “The Internal Welcome”. The object was to “expand our internal space to include others in unconditional acceptance”. Our assignment was to go a public place and sit for 20 minutes while noticing and observing people, without judgment, silently greeting each person with the phrase “I welcome you as you are”, or any variation that we preferred, such as, “I greet the divine light within you”. The point was to stay in the space of acceptance and silent connection or empathy, if possible, with each person we saw, forging new neural pathways of benevolent reaction. Being an unrepentant multi-tasker, I decided to do this experiment not in a chair, but on my feet, while food shopping at the supermarket. Very quickly, I realized that I had upped the game by not merely sitting in a chair and watching the flow. When you are observing, the challenge is to accept and welcome what someone “is”. When you are walking in their midst, however, you have to accept and welcome what someone “does” – like, blocking the isle, obliviously talking on his cell phone, or asking the cashier to check and recheck and check for the 3rd time whether the sales price really and truly rang up on that bag of candy and could she see it again on the receipt, please. (Breathe. Just breathe. Now back to the loving place.) Most of the people were like passing shopping carts in the night and I didn’t bump up against them anyway. Being in the space of internal welcome freed me from the inner dialog that may have otherwise sounded like this: “I can’t believe you are buying that, because if I were buying that, I would at least have the decency to hide it under the case of artisanal water in my cart.” Staying present in that place of welcome let me be free of all that and I realized that using mental energy on so much junky thinking was like being at a traffic light, putting my car in park and just gunning the gas. At best, it was a waste of energy with nowhere to go. At worst, it could be so viciously mean. It felt much better to let it all pass in a state of peaceful co-existence, in neutral, engine humming. I am not suggesting that we go through our lives passively – quite the contrary. But start out from this place of centeredness, get your bearings, and then ask yourself this question – is this situation really calling for me to act? And if so, what kind of action? What will be the consequence of my action? What will I be manifesting or standing for, in the very next thing that I do, or fail to do, in this moment?
In the case of the guy blocking the isle, there were several possibilities, such as bumping his cart (not cool), or getting his attention, trying to get around him, or just turning down the isle instead of going straight. What I did was take a breath, because in the space of a breath, he moved on. How foolish would it have been to be fuming over a delay that really lasted the space of a breath? What about the case of the confused octogenarian clutching her coin purse and receipt at checkout? Nope. No possibility to make that situation change. But again, I took a breath and then a few more, I stood in respectful silence, and she moved on. Next time, I may add a silent blessing. Next time, I may ask if I can be of any assistance.
So, back to myself in the mirror. Can I look at myself and internally welcome what I see without judgment, to recognize and greet the essence of my own divinity? Can I give myself a silent blessing? Can I offer myself any assistance? Am I being called to action? And if so, what kind of action and what is my motivation? I know what it feels like to want to change because I am horrified at the number on the scale, and wishing now I could just be the weight I was that freaked me out years ago. Who knew that last decade’s bummer would be this decade’s wishful target? Who is this person looking at me in the mirror anyway? I think of the lyrics to “Bad Body Double” by Imogen Heap, that the image she sees in the mirror with dimply thighs and grey hair looks like her, but is not her. It’s her “bad body double”, who won’t leave her side, even for a moment, and so she sings she’s “got bad body double trouble”.
From what I can tell, there at least five of us in this aerobics class who I bet have bad body double trouble. Ladies, this is for you. Wait, on second thought, this is for everyone. Even if the messages are different (and I bet they are more similar than you would think), who doesn’t have some version of the Voice, that inner critic, that inner sabotaging mother-you know what. Take a deep breath. Lose the Voice. Lose it by noticing it and by disinviting it from the space in your head because it keeps you locked in the feeling of shame and shame will never be the vehicle to make you better, whole, happy, healthy, thin, or anything. Paradoxically, the only way to authentically change anything about yourself is to start from a place of acceptance, curiosity, self-love and compassion. And little steps.
Part Two. Little Steps. Most of us have been there. The scale tips past that number which is your personal line-in-the-sand or you get back some troubling lab work and a stern warning from your doctor, or someone gets sick or dies, or your spouse or significant other leaves you. Or someone takes your picture – from the side. Something wakes you up, but at the same time, makes you sick and tired of yourself and now you are sick and tired of being sick and tired of yourself. And so you resolve to make big sweeping changes. This makes the Voice go full tilt, and do everything it can to sabotage and undermine those efforts. Most people fail when they try to make big changes, because shame prompts them to set unrealistic and unobtainable goals. Or even if they initially succeed, they can’t sustain it, and they revert back to old behaviors, and the Voice is there to greet them, heaping even more scorn and shame. “Loser.” Being prodded by shame and self-hatred to make big changes is usually the best recipe for failure and staying locked in the cycle of more shame.
Get Part One handled. Welcome yourself. Love and accept yourself as you are this minute. Look down at your feet (if you can) and know that you are standing in the best place, the perfect place, to decide – with deliberate intention – what your next step will be. Imagine loving and being grateful for the gift of your body. Imagine acting from a place of wanting to protect that gift from harm. Imagine what food choices will feel right and good and nourishing of that gift, and what food choices won’t. Imagine feeling the aliveness and vibrancy of your very cells. Imagine feeding those cells with food that has vital life force. Imagine putting lifeless dead food into your body that will age you, hurt you, and make you sick. Imagine knowing that your body was created and designed to move, that movement represents the momentum of life itself. Imagine what choices will feel right when you decide to increase or decrease your movement, what will feel congruent with how you feel about yourself, and what won’t, which actions or choices will be in alignment with who you really are, and which won’t. But whatever steps you do choose, the idea is to keep it small, to make baby steps.
There is a brilliant little book called “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the Kaizen Way” by Dr. Robert Mauer. Dr. Mauer explains how when we take little steps we don’t arouse the Voice to sabotage our decisions. While it is true that we are created with a yearning to grow and evolve, we also fear change – yet another paradox to accept. There is a part of our brain which controls a survival mechanism, which can be misguided in what it interprets as a threat, and then it inappropriately tries to protect us by keeping us safe, or in line, or protected from the dangers of risk-taking, or the unknown. So the idea is to take such small steps that this part of your brain doesn’t think you are in any kind of “danger”, so it won’t try to bring you down. Imagine tip-toeing around a sleeping watchdog. Ssshhhhhh. Take a step and the dog stays sleeping. That went well. “Ah, success, I can do this. It’s easy. I can do this. Yes”. Take another step. If the dog picks up his head, ears alert, sniffing the air, you went a little too far. Take it down a notch. Find your stride, that sweet spot between “nothing’s happening and I’m bored and this is ridiculous” and “oh-oh, guess who woke up”. The point is to experience success enough times so that your brain is re-wired for positive thought patterns. Lao Tzu said that a Journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step. The Kaizen Way is to keep the steps small, small enough that you can even stay on that journey.
So back to the mirror again. I look down at my feet, my foundation, my connection to the earth and I think how they carried me into this gym today and have supported me for thousands of miles over 50 years. I look up and into the mirror. I am breathing hard, but I am breathing and I am grateful for the breath that sustains me and connects my body to my soul. I look into the mirror and I peacefully and lovingly accept what I see, and am grateful for this body and this life. My bad body double and I have declared a cease fire. At the end of this aerobics class, of course I am not where I ultimately want to be, but I am one hour stronger, one hour better, one hour more flexible and vibrant, one hour healthier, one hour more aligned with my core values, and one more hour living my truth. I am not the victim of anything or anyone. I am a woman of power and choice. I am responsible for my thoughts, my emotions and my actions. Every day, in a very true way, I co-create my reality. I choose to create well being.
Hanna Perlberger, JD.,BCC