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. I usually search for a recipe that looks interesting, or something that has caught my eye during the week. I go shopping for my meal that night, and take my time cooking the meal to really savor my time preparing something I will enjoy. I even had a co-worker make me a special bowl for the weekly ritual. I usually make a large batch of whatever I’m making so I have leftovers to eat during the week. And last Tuesday was no different.

However, there was something different about last week’s meal. 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 the rest of my meal. I had at some point stopped enjoying my meal and began forcing myself to enjoy my meal.

This was a confusing place to be. I made these meals especially so I could enjoy and connect with the experience of cooking something I like while also nourishing myself in the process. Why was I now forcing myself to enjoy something, after I had already enjoyed the process and consumption of it?

And the more I thought of it, the less sense this seemed to make. The bowl I had my friend make for me was the second bowl she had made. The first one was too small for my liking. I wanted something I could fit a lot of food in. Further more I usually made, and served myself, way too much food, and had up to three or four drinks and a dessert to follow with some sort of tea to round out the meal. I was not concerned about my portion control, only how much I could consume.

This switch, from a ritual I had created to forge a new and soothing relationship with myself, to turning into something that was not as enjoyable as I had initially planned it to be, had me feeling uneasy. Then I realized there was much more beneath the surface to what I was experiencing.

It began with my portion sizes. I was serving myself way too much food. So much so that I felt as though I was muscling through the meal towards the end rather than enjoying the experience in a relaxed setting. I was using my experience with food, the joy I received from making the meal, to sitting down and relishing in the flavor combinations of a meal well prepared, like a drug. And from this perspective, more is better. But I was also covering over some other feelings that had been left unattended for a long time. The feelings of how I related to food.

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” in reference to finishing the food that was given to me.

I also spent very little time at mealtime with my caregivers. And the times I did spend with them was filled with petty arguments and insults. A thousand tiny cuts. They would prepare meals for me, but I believe that family mealtime ended for me around 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 an 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. I spent most of this time alone, not sure of what to do to take care of myself. It was a lonely and scary place to be for a preteen.

And the times we were together, my caregivers referred to me as a “human garbage disposal”. This was also confusing, and seemed in direct contradiction to my prime directive of, “cleaning my 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 unexceptable to their judgements.

And to further drive home the “human garbage disposal” nickname, my caregivers were more than intolerant of overweight persons. This was also confusing, as my caregivers and myself, were also all overweight. There was literally no sense to be made from any of these interactions. Again, a very confusing place to be.

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$? But with no direction on how to lose the weight, and being poorly fed with no direction on how to achieve my goals by the same people wanting me to lose weight, I didn’t stand a chance and felt like a failure.

Fast forward to my mid twenties, I was overweight, had zero boundaries with the food and alcohol I was consuming, but I stayed faithful to my caregivers instructions, and chose Brad Pitt’s character from the movie, “Fight Club” as my role-model of 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 because they were expected of me by my caregivers.

I should also mention that one of my caregivers top values is looking attractive. Which, unfortunately for me growing up, was reinforced, time and time again. So I wasn’t even aware of how unreasonable these standards actually are, and 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, highly judgemental of others who couldn’t live up to my and my caregivers standards, and just plain unsatisfied. By the time I hit my early thirties, I was overweight and angry about it and my diet was the most unhealthy it had been ever. Something needed to change.

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

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, who was living life much the same ways I was in my early twenties. 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 the healthiest.

That being said, I was however able to begin 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. I was taking control of our nutritional needs and moving us in a healthier direction.

This was also around the time I decided to reduce my alcohol intake as well. This change stems from my taking a conscious effort to part ways with the habits and patterns my caregivers had modeled for me in my youth. And ones I stayed loyal to, until I decided to make changes for the better.

And as soon as I stopped drinking as much alcohol as I had been consuming, 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 from not only the unhealthy foods I was eating, but also the empty calories in the beer and coffee I was drinking. And speaking of coffee, I also lessened my caffeine intake. I was drinking around 4-5 double or quad shot moccas a day! This was excessive by any standard.

So in the course of two years, I had turned my eating habits from something unhealthy to the point where I may have had health complications had I kept with my poor eating habits, to exercising regularly, watching my alcohol and caffeine consumption and eating healthier, whole foods. 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?

From what I am able to tell, much of it stems from my avoiding the old feelings of deficiency I received from my caregivers growing up. I was still looking for the external validation of living up to my caregivers unreasonable standards that I adopted as my own. All the healthy eating and diet changes were a way of trying to live up to my caregivers impossible standard. The difference is, now I have the tools I never had before. Now I know how to please my caregivers.

But this is still an unhealthy way of living. Trying to live up to impossible standards is exhausting and dangerous. I remember one night, after working a full shift without eating breakfast or lunch, I ran three miles and did thirty minutes of yoga. I was so exhausted from the day, that when I got out of the shower and bent over to towel off, I passed out on the bathroom floor. The person 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?

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, that I never received from my caregivers. There’s a part of me that is still looking for validation for what I never received. 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 starts, for me anyways, with my meditation practice.

During my meditation, I recite a set of affirmations that helps 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 not adding up meant feeling like I didn’t belong to my caregivers, which made me feel unsafe. Add some early childhood trauma to the mix and you have a recipe for a difficult set of patterns and expectations to break free from.

This reassurance also helps to let me know I’m not perfect, and that’s okay. When I was younger, I really thought my belonging hinged on the good opinion of my 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, as I no longer view their words as absolute law.

Also, being kind and patient with myself. When I was forcing myself to finish my meal a few days ago, I was already feeling uneasy and a little sad. I needed self-care then more than ever. Because there was and is a lot of confusion and mixed messages around food 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 of me. This will take some time for my emotional self to feel better about. And the only way I can come to terms with that is through being kind to myself and the feelings as they arise.

Exercise and healthy eating are still going to be 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, only the 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 wasn’t happy.

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. As I said above, I was most likely headed for some health complications due to my lifestyle. That wouldn’t have been good for anybody! 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 : )

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, because they liked The Doors, and Jim seemed to be living life like my caregivers. I had no idea how unhealthy this dynamic is and was. But I remember how lonely it was growing up, with no one around and not feeling loved or belonging. 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.

And it takes practice. Sometimes I still find myself wanting to conform to someone else’s ideal to be loved, to feel belonging. It’s in those moments that I remember the things that I do 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, that help to ground me in who I am outside of somebody else’s standard.

So if you’re struggling with a set of unreasonable standards you were presented with before you were able to form your own healthier versions, 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? Is it a song that you particularly are drawn to? 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 who you are. Be faithful to those and you will find your way : ) And as always, thanks for reading : ) peace.

Image Credits: “Stack of Clean Plates” by ljfullofgrace is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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