Clean Your Plate!: How Healthy Boundaries With Food Can Help Us Heal From Old Wounds

Every Tuesday night, I make a special self-care dinner for myself With the types of food I know I’ll love. Usually I’ll search for a recipe, something that has caught my eye during the week. Then I’ll go shopping for my meal that night and take my time while cooking my meal. I do this to really savor the time I take preparing something I know I will enjoy. I even had a co-worker make a special bowl for my weekly ritual. And I usually make a large batch of what I’m making, so I have leftovers to eat during the week. And last Tuesday was no different.

Clean Your Plate

However, there was something different about my meal last week. I made a tortilla soup topped with corn chips, cilantro, avocado, cheddar and sour cream. It was tasty, but that wasn’t what was different. What had changed was, by the time I got to the end of my bowl, I felt as though I was forcing myself to finish my meal. I had at some point stopped enjoying my meal and began forcing myself to finish.

This was confusing. I make these meals so I can enjoy and connect with the experience of cooking something I like, while also nourishing myself in the process. Why am I now forcing myself to enjoy something? After I had already enjoyed the process and what I had of it?

The more I think of it, the less sense this made to me. The bowl I had my friend make was the second bowl she made for me. The first one was too small. I wanted something I could fit a lot of food in. Additionally, I usually make and served myself way too much food. while having three to four drinks and a dessert to follow and a tea to round out the meal. I wasn’t concerned about my portion control, only how much I could consume.

What’s on Your Plate

This switch, from a ritual I created to forge a new and soothing relationship with the food I’m making, to something that was not as enjoyable as I had initially planned it to be, had me feeling uneasy. Then I realized there was more beneath the surface relating to my food consumption than what I was experiencing.

What I started to notice first was my portion sizes. I was serving myself way too much food. So much so, that I felt as though I was muscling through my meal rather than enjoying the experience in a relaxing way. I was using my experience with food, the joy I received from making the meal, to sitting down and relishing in the flavor combinations, like a drug. And from this perspective, more equals better. But I was also covering over some other feelings that had been left unattended. The feelings of how I learned how to relate to my food.

Digging in a Little Deeper

When I was growing up, my experience in relating to food was not an enjoyable one. I do have some fond memories of holiday meals being prepared. The smells of rosemary and roasting meats wafting through the house as family gathered to celebrate. But a majority of my time spent with meals was not so steeped in revelry. I would often hear from my caregivers, “clean your plate” as a way to say finish the food that was given to me.

I also spent very little time with my caregivers during meals. And the time I did spend with them, was filled with petty arguments and cutting insults. A thousand tiny cuts. They would prepare meals for me, but family mealtime ended for me by the time I was 12-14 years old. My caregivers were gone until 2am most nights. Leaving me to fend for myself when it came to nourishment. It felt more like survival most nights. This is a bit of exaggeration, but the loneliness mixed with not knowing how to cook for myself or how to pick healthy meals that would leave me feeling my best was anxiety provoking and confusing.

Mixed Messages

And when we were together, my caregivers referred to me as a “human garbage disposal”. This was also confusing and a direct contradiction to my prime directive which was, “clean your plate.” I was confused. Paired with no direction on how to please my caregivers, it seemed that everything I was doing was somehow wrong or unacceptable.

And to further drive home the ire my nickname carried, my caregivers were more than a little intolerant of overweight persons. This was also confusing. Because my caregivers and I were also overweight. There was literally no sense to be made from any of these interactions.

One of my caregivers went so far as to offer me money to lose weight. I believe the arrangement was 40$ to get down to my ideal weight. I agreed, but what 13 year-old wouldn’t want 40$? Though with no support on how to lose weight and being fed the same foods that got me to my then, current weight, I didn’t stand a chance. This left me feeling like a failure.

Past Lessons Inform Future Food Choices

Fast forward to my mid twenties and I was overweight and had zero boundaries with the food and alcohol I was consuming. But I stayed faithful to my caregivers instructions of wanting to be thin and to look good naked. I chose Brad Pitt’s character from the movie, “Fight Club” as my role-model. This was how I thought I should look… What hurts so much now thinking about all of this is, that I had no idea how unreasonable these standards are and were. I thought these were perfectly normal and reasonable aspirations. Mostly because they were expected of me by my caregivers.

I should also mention that one of my caregivers top values is being attractive. Which, unfortunately for me growing up, was reinforced time and time again. So I wasn’t aware of how unreasonable their standards actually are. And to add to the confusion, these standards are backed by a society that is equally image obsessed. It took a great strength of will to even see past the idea that looking thin and attractive was not the most important aspect of life.

All of these unhealthy messages I received growing up left me feeling confused. Angry with myself for not being able to live up to these unreasonable standards and highly judgmental of others who couldn’t live up to my and my caregivers standards. As well as just plain unsatisfied. By the time I hit my early thirties, I was overweight and angry about it. My diet was the most unhealthy it had been at any point in my life. I also still had no clear direction on how to make healthy, lasting changes. Something needed to change.

Making Lasting Changes

Exercise

I started with exercise. I ran two miles every few days in the local commons. At the time I was going through a divorce and there were other major shifts happening in my life as well. One of the ways I was able to take some steps in a healthier direction and take control of my life was by getting out on the road and hammering out a few miles. This was the start of me making more health conscious decisions that would directly affected my life for the better.

Food

After I got into a routine of regularly exercising, I shifted my focus on what I was eating. This was particularly difficult considering the environment I was in. I was living with a woman who was in her early twenties, living life the same ways I was at that age. This should have been an indicator that I was moving backwards with my life choices. But I was under a considerable amount of stress and dealing with a life’s time worth of unchecked emotional baggage. I understand why I made the decisions I did, but would not make them again. Needless to say, our eating habits were not ideal.

I was, however, able to make healthier food choices and change my habits while I was living in less than ideal circumstances. I began grocery shopping as I would for a family. Planning and preparing meals for us for the week. I was roasting whole chickens and preparing other whole foods. Straying away from fatty and sugary prepared and processed foods of my past. I was taking control of our nutritional needs and moving us in a healthier direction.

Coffee & Alcohol

This was also around the time I decided to reduce my alcohol intake as well. My change stemmed from me taking a conscious effort to part ways with the habits and patterns of my caregivers.

And as soon as I stopped drinking so much alcohol, that’s when my health really started to take shape. I was less sluggish. I was losing weight due to the sudden decrease in caloric intake. Not only from a lack of the unhealthy foods I was eating, but also the empty calories in the beer and mocha-lattes I was drinking. And speaking of coffee, I also lessened my caffeine intake. I was drinking around 4-5 double or quad shot mochas a day! This was excessive by any standard. Not to mention the money I was saving!

So in the course of two years, I had turned my eating habits from something unhealthy, to exercising regularly, watching my alcohol and caffeine consumption and eating healthier in general. All in all I had made some pretty remarkable changes in my personal life. So fast forward a few years and I’m still defaulting to some of my old habits. Why was this so?

Revisiting the Past

From what I am able to tell, my patterns stem from avoiding my old feelings of not adding up to my caregivers growing up. I was still looking for the external validation by living up to my caregivers unreasonable and contradictory standards. The ones that I adopted as my own that told me to clean my plate but be thin. All the healthy eating and diet changes were a way of trying to live up to my caregivers impossible standards. The difference now is, I have tools, such as drive, that I never had before. Now I know how to please my caregivers by putting a plan into action.

But this is still an unhealthy way of living. Trying to live up to impossible standards is exhausting and dangerous. One night, after working a full shift (10 hours) without eating breakfast or lunch, I ran three miles and did thirty minutes of yoga as well. I was so exhausted, that when I got out of the shower and bent over to towel off, I passed out on the bathroom floor. One of the people I live with, came into to the bathroom to see if I was okay. I clearly was not.

So I’m still holding on to these conflicting and unhealthy messages from my past. Which all stemmed from, “clean your plate”. Even after all this work, I’m still holding on to some of these lessons. Why?

What am I Holding On to?

From what I’m able to tell, I feel a sense of accomplishment from “cleaning my plate”. This is the external validation I am looking for. Validation that I never received from my caregivers. So how do I change this unhealthy way of relating to myself and these unreasonable standards I’ve adopted? How do I learn to be okay, just as I am, while still striving to be the best version of myself in a healthy way? I think it started, for me anyways, with my meditation practice.

Meditation

During meditation, I recite a set of affirmations. Ones I’ve selected that help me to be the version of myself I want to be. One of the lines is, “it’s okay to be me, just as I am”. I need this constant reinforcement. To help to break the old patterns of not feeling as though I’m adding up. And to me, not adding up meant feeling like I didn’t belong to my caregivers. This made me feel unsafe. Add some early childhood trauma to the mix and you have a recipe for difficult patterns and expectations to break free of.

This affirmation also helps to let me know I’m not perfect. And that that’s okay. When I was younger, I really thought my belonging hinged on the good opinion of my caregivers. But when you’re a child, what else do know but the approval of your caregivers. Now that I know that my caregivers are just people, it’s a little easier to forgive myself for not living up to their standards. I no longer view their words as absolute law.

Kindness & Patience

Also, being kind and patient with myself is an important aspect I learned from my meditation practice. When I was forcing myself to finish my meal a few days ago, I was feeling uneasy and a little sad. I needed self-care then more than ever. Because there was and still is confusion and mixed messages around my food intake and sustaining myself. And my younger, emotional self is still holding out for that chance to make my caregivers proud of me. For doing what they asked. But this will take some time, for my emotional self to feel better and heal. And the most direct way to come to terms with my hurt emotional self is through kindness to myself and my feelings as they arise.

Exercise and healthy eating are still integral routines to my lifestyle choices. But for different reasons than they were before. It’s still okay to want to look and feel good physically. Only my perspective has shifted from looking and feeling good as being my top value, to being a means to living a healthy and active life. Because when I was living a sedentary lifestyle, overweight and drinking too much, I was unhappy.

Finding Satisfaction

I was drinking caffeine and alcohol to numb my emotions while watching T.V. and playing video games to avoid living my life. I was also overweight and unhealthy. And most likely, I was headed for some health complications due to my lifestyle. So knowing that I’m living my life, to be the best and healthiest version of myself, is now my number one value when it comes to health choices and making value based decisions. And this makes me feel healthier. My values are no longer set at how good I look naked. And that feels good : )

Perfection is not Prerequisite for Satisfaction

And finally, knowing that we are not perfect. This one was a difficult one for me to come to terms with. My caregivers focus on perfection was omnipresent. I felt as though, if I didn’t get that A, or wasn’t the perfect image of what my caregivers wanted of me, regardless of how impossible the image was (see Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club for example), I was unsafe and unloved.

I went so far as to study Val Kilmer’s, Jim Morrison from The Doors, because they liked The Doors. Also Jim seemed to be living life like my caregivers. I had no idea how unhealthy this dynamic is and was. But what I do remember is how lonely it was for me growing up. with no one around and not feeling loved or some type of belonging. Now I’m realizing that I don’t have to be somebody else. That “it’s okay to be me, just as I am”, has done so much good in remembering I don’t have to add up to someone else’s standard. That it’s okay to be me, flaws and all.

Practice Practice Practice

And it takes practice. Sometimes I’ll still try to conform to someone else’s ideal of what it means to be loved. Or to feel belonging. It’s in those moments that I remember the things that I’ve come to value. The friends I have who know and love me for me. The activities I find joy in. Like yoga and hiking. And the plans I have for my future. These all help to ground me in who I am outside of somebody else’s standard.

So know if that if you’re struggling with a set of unreasonable standards you were presented with before you were able to form your own healthier standards, you are not alone. And also, it’s not too late to change these standards. Be persistent. Take the time to learn who you are. Your likes and dislikes. What are the moments that bring you joy? Maybe there’s a song that you like to play. Do you enjoy a certain meal? Or maybe a treat you make for yourself on special occasions? These are the pieces, that when added up, make you satisfied in who you are. Be faithful to those and you will find your way : ) And as always, thanks for reading : ) peace.

Image Credits: “Clean Dishes” by Geoff LMV is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Updated 10/13/22

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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