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

When is Enough, Enough? How to Navigate the World of Unreasonably High Expectations

This is something I’ve struggled with for almost my entire life. As soon as I knew what it meant to do a “good job” with something, I knew almost immediately afterwards what it felt like and meant to not add up in some way.

What’s strange though, thinking about it now, I don’t really remember much about how I didn’t meet the mark. Only that I just never met it. I can remember doing chores when I was younger, maybe eight or nine. I would vacuum the downstairs carpets, wash the woodwork around the base of the floors and dust the furniture for a small allowance every week. The chores started shortly after I experienced trauma that would change the course of my life, adding another layer of impossible expectations to an already daunting list, but I don’t ever remember being shown or told how to do them or if I was doing an adequate job.

The same was the case for school work. I remember before I gave up on school completely in the tenth grade, doing projects and homework, always on my own. Of course I was alone almost all the time, so this wasn’t new. But what I hadn’t realized at the time was that my situation was not normal. At some point it seems like there should have been someone there to help catch me, before I fell through the cracks, or just to help at all. But that just wasn’t the case with my situation.

And what’s more, I was consistently criticized for the poorly done work that I was doing. Again, thinking about it now, from the perspective of a fully functioning adult, I can see how maddening the whole situation is. Not only from the perspective of my younger self, trying to navigate life and discovering how I fit in the whole concerning other’s expectations of me, but also the fully actualized perspective of my adult self, I was just being asked too much of. From people and caregivers that had not only high standards, after all having a high standard can be a good thing, but impossible ones to meet. Asking me to meet their standards would be akin to asking a seven year-old to grocery shop and cook for themselves for the week while staying in budget and hitting their nutritional necessities. Impossible.

Later, I was however, excelling at meeting other of my caregivers standards. The ones where I would drink until I was so sick, I couldn’t see straight. Or being judgemental and cruel for no other reason than to fit in with the image of how my caregivers where acting. Thinking back now, I would have much rather have studied and done well in school, but when your very belonging is on the line with the people that are supposed to love you no matter what, you’re going to do whatever you’re able to, to feel a sense of love and belonging. Including trying to live up to not only impossible standards, but contradicting ones as well.

Because if you don’t feel like you belong, you don’t feel safe. And that’s when your survival instincts kick in. For me it was studying my caregivers like a detective, to try to read their minds of what it was that they could possible want from me so I could meet their standards and feel safety in belonging. I was also experiencing a fair amount of abuse from them as well, which added an extra layer of confusion. But when you’re in survival mode, nothing else really matters. Even the abuse.

These experiences were the foundation of the impossible standards that I in turn, adopted from my caregivers. I later, would set the standards so high for myself, that I was left paralyzed in not knowing how to move past where I was. If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t worth the effort, in my distorted view of how I learned to navigate my internal world of expectations. And I believe that I really thought perfection was something that was obtainable! This blows my mind now, to think of it. I was trying to achieve something that just doesn’t exist and tearing myself apart in the process. This was no bueno.

And it wasn’t just me, I was being told this impossible standard was possible not only by my caregivers, but most of the culture as well. I remember vividly sitting in an empty room with a desk I bought from some expensive retailer, with a decanter of whiskey and a few glasses next to it, thinking to myself, “just a few more pieces of furniture, and the right body, and clothes, then I’ll be who I want to be.” There was a sinister air about this affirmation. One that I associated with success, only in a way that was measured against someone else’s expectations. This was one of the ways I became my own abuser. By setting my self worth at something that was outside of myself and unobtainable. Because I wasn’t already enough to my, and everybody else’s measure.

So setting the standards too high, I discovered, was really an act of abuse. Trying to achieve something I never would, to gain acceptance from people who couldn’t accept me because they didn’t accept themselves. This was punishing. And to add to the confusion, I didn’t even know what I was doing to myself. So if it was this impossible standard I was pitting myself against, how did I wake up and realize that I was never going to meet it? I think I’m still finding out what it means in some of the areas of my life, to be happy with my efforts and self as I am and they are. But I know it has a lot to do with listening inwardly to myself. Knowing how I’m feeling and sitting with the uncomfortable feelings instead of trying to push past them when it feels like too much. When am I pushing myself too hard and are these really reasonable expectations I’m asking myself to meet.

When all you have are critical judgements placed on you, it’s difficult to understand what a reasonable request is, or when we’re calling for something to ease up inside. Our internal voice becomes mute and we take on the harsh critic that we are so used to. We also seek out others to fill this role, of harsh critic, that we are so used to trying to satisfy. For me, it manifested in many of the jobs I took. I didn’t know my own self worth, or what the work I was doing had via the value I was bringing to my tasks. For example, my current employer is very vocal about what their expectations are, and how nobody ever achieves them. I’ve been there for about a year and a half, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard them compliment anybody for a job well done.

This is a difficult place to work, but in my case, it’s a place I was looking for because it is something that I’m so used to. Something I know well because I grew up under these conditions. Cold comfort. I already knew how to navigate this world, and the defenses that went along with it. The sense of superiority and indignation that came with thinking and feeling somebody else is inept because they are asking me to reach an unachievable standard, when I set the standard too high already. I would often think, “because they’re not meeting my standards they are inferior”. In other words, “you think your standards are high? I’ll show you high standards!” This is unhealthy.

But it’s how I kept myself at a distance from those I would have liked to have built healthy relationships with. Not only that, I was constantly disappointed, a little angry, ok, maybe a lot angry and never happy or satisfied with anything or anyone around me. While also burning bridges with people every chance I got. It is and was a very lonely place to be. And I’m honestly surprised that the few friends I have now stayed by my side.

For me, there was and is a lot to sort through. As I said above, the first and most important step towards releasing the impossible standards we place on ourselves, is listening inwardly when we find ourselves frustrated with ourselves. Where are the places in our daily lives that we get frustrated and disappointed. How are we feeling and what are we expecting from ourselves and others when we feel this way?

When the critic comes forward in my day to day, it is usually coupled with a sense of indignation. Most of the time I’m judging someone as selfish or insensitive and possibly inept, because they ignored the ways I expected them to act or respond to a situation. This is dangerous because; I’m measuring them up against a standard that they have no idea what I’m expecting, because they’re not mind readers, and I’m also expecting events to unfold the ways I think they would work best. This shows that I’m unwilling to change, and that I think my methods are the best methods for accomplishing tasks. This type of reasoning and thought train leads to black and white thinking, and isolating myself from others by feeling consistently disappointed in others.

To break this cycle, I have to be aware of my feelings, emotions and expectations when I interact with others. When I begin to feel frustrated, I need to make sure to focus on what is happening in the moment. I do this by acknowledging the emotion, clearing my mind of what’s happening in my thoughts, and ask myself, “where is this frustration coming from?” In some cases, there is a clear connection between my frustrations and what is happening in the moment. For example, while at work, if I’m expecting support from someone and I am left with little in the way of understanding how to proceed with a task or what their expectations are around the task, this is a frustration worth exploring.

But it is important to not take that frustration and discharge it towards the person you are experiencing the frustration with, or anyone or thing else. This is where many of us get tripped up, I know it was a sticking point for me for a long time. It’s important to feel the frustration, but then respond to the emotion inside yourself first. You can do this by asking it why it’s here, or what am I trying to tell myself? I know for me, if I feel like I’m not being listened to, or I’m not meeting the mark in some way, that can trigger some old emotions that are pretty charged. And if I’m not careful, that emotion can become destructive instead of constructive. So slowing down enough to listen to where the emotion is coming from and what it is trying to tell you is the first step to responding in a constructive way.

Then you can understand the emotion in how it is effecting you. Is this a situation that deserves this level of concern? Am I being too demanding of the other person? Is this a reasonable expectation that I am setting for another, or myself to meet? These are some of the questions that we can begin to explore when we aren’t so caught up in the initial reaction to the situation. And there will be times that you will need to respond in immediate ways with authority. But having this time to assess the needs for the situation could mean the difference between a situation handled with care or hurt feelings.

After we explore where the emotions are coming from, and what they are trying to tell us, then we can take the appropriate actions and begin the process of calming ourselves down. It doesn’t help any situation to react from a place of anger and frustration, especially where high standards are involved. This is where self soothing comes into the process and is an important part of communicating from a constructive place. Self soothing can help us to feel heard and taken care of. And coming from a place of knowing that our emotional response to a situation is valid, is important to us feeling as though we matter, in that we are part of the solution, and not just collateral damage in a situation.

This is the power of self soothing and how it can come to help us to communicate and be fully present with ourselves and others. We gain a sense of agency and confidence when we’re calm, and are better able to handle what the situation demands of us and how to respond to someone’s unreasonable expectations. And this isn’t a guaranty that you will get the support or help you need. For instance, my above example of not feeling or being supported to the necessary degree or if I’m meeting their expectations. I may calm down and recognize why I am feeling the ways I am in the situation, and I may even be able to communicate them from a clear and rational space, instead of expecting them to read my mind. But there is no way of knowing whether I’ll receive the needed support from those I ask.

The difference between doing the work to understand where your emotions are coming from and then sorting through them to know how best to respond to them, as opposed to getting angry at the person or situation is, you don’t take it so personal. You’ve assessed the situation and have done as much as you’re able to do. After you’ve done the work, it’s a matter of waiting for something outside of yourself to change for you to move forward in a situation. And this takes patients.

First with yourself. This is where sitting with difficult emotions comes into the picture. Especially those around feeling like we’re not meeting others’ expectations. And we will do just about anything we can think of to push past or numb that type of discomfort. For me it was drinking coffee to push past them, and alcohol at night to numb them. But other common modalities include, watching T.V., cleaning or constantly staying in motion, reading or constantly having your nose in a book, or constantly checking social media or flipping through your phone or some other device. Another one is ruminating or obsessing over something. Also thinking of how unfair the other person’s standards are and ways that you would right the situation if it was up to you.

What all these modalities have in common is, that we are trying to push past the discomfort of sitting in the emotion of feeling whatever is causing the discomfort. In my example, the discomfort is not feeling supported by those who I am supposed to rely on for help by never meeting their unachievable standards. This leaves me feeling underappreciated and slightly taken advantage of. These are the difficult emotions that need my attention and that I need to reconcile inside myself first.

Second, we need to have patients with those who we are in conflict with. This is also difficult, and really difficult if you haven’t found patients with yourself first. It helps if you or the other person are able to see different points of view from differing perspectives. But this isn’t always the case, and we need to have the patients necessary to help others to understand where we are coming from.

Unfortunately, this is where a lot of arguments spark. Misunderstanding another’s perspective can feel like, to the other, that you’re not listening to their point of view. So it also helps to add a healthy dose of kindness in the conversation. To help set the tone for an understanding mindset and defuse some of the tension that can arise in these types of situations, especially where unrealistically high expectations are involved.

And even with all these precautions, sometimes people will just disagree. It’s especially important in these situations to not take it personal. This was a tough lesson for me to learn due to being raised in an environment where everything was taken personal, regardless of the actual intentions. My caregivers never took responsibility for the ways they were feeling or how they responded to them. “Somebody made me feel this way” or “you made me do this” were statements I heard a lot in my youth.

Looking back, it’s no wonder I had so many issues with boundaries around whose feelings were whom’s. I was just never taught how to own a feeling and how to set healthy boundaries around them. And to add being unable to live up to an image of a perfect standard on top of that was just plain maddening.

For me, the process of creating these boundaries worked to help me understand what my responsibilities were, what healthy expectations are, and even what feelings were mine. I did this by simply labeling the feelings that were coming up in me as they were happening and then connecting them to an event while also telling myself that my best was good enough. The more I did this, the clearer it became what or why I was reacting to what was coming up for me.

So labeling emotions as they happen, followed by sitting with them through the discomfort and reminding yourself that your best is good enough, can help to loosen the grip that takes hold of us when we’re trying to push ourselves too hard to meet unreasonable expectations, from ourselves or others.

And it takes practice. LOTS of practice. As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve been dealing with these high standards for most of my life, starting in childhood! They don’t go away overnight. But the good news is that they do lessen over time. Practicing forgiveness is another way to help soften the edges of our unreasonable standards. In my daily affirmation, I tell myself, “I’m strong, brave, courageous and forgiving… it’s okay to be me, just as I am”. This helps me to gain a bit of much needed perspective. It allows me to put some distance between the expectation and the emotions that come along with them, long enough to practice some self-care and reality check what I’m expecting from myself.

I feel better knowing that I’m looking out for my best interests, while stopping myself from tearing myself down from trying to reach an impossible goal. And the more often I do this, the more trust I gain in myself. So if you struggle with impossibly high standards, just know that there are ways of easing up on yourself and letting go. You just need to be persistent and kind to yourself. Thanks for reading : ) peace.

Image Credits: “Impossible standards just make life difficult. #fortunecookie” by dziner is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0