While labels can be helpful, they can also be harmful. And they become harmful when they become the way we define ourselves in the deepest sense. When we think of our eating disorder as who we are, we get tight, cramped and small. Our identity is hitched around this idea of, “I’m a sugar addict,” or “I’m a binge eater,” or “I’m depressed.”
While you may be addicted to sugar, and while you may struggle with depression, is this who you are? Is this the sum of who you are?
My “broken self” trance
I struggled with decades of eating disorders. I’ve also coped with a highly sensitive nervous system, chronic depression and anxiety for nearly all of my life. Some combination of biology, psychology and life experience has intertwined, resulting in a tender, tender being who needs tremendous love and care. (Don’t we all?)
I care for my anxiety and depression every day. Many days, I’m fine – I laugh, I find gratitude, I find joy. I wear the mantle of “anxiety” or “depression” loosely. I tap into a greater sense of identity.
But other times – especially when I’m tired, sick or under stress – I don’t hold onto the identity of “depressed person” lightly. Rather, I embody it – I inhabit a mental and emotional space of “a broken, deficient self.”
I start comparing myself to others – or to my own expectations of how I “should” be. When I compare myself to others, I can find 10,000 ways that I fall short: whereas others seem to have an innate sense of belonging, optimism and confidence, I have to consciously work to hold onto positive thoughts, to feel my belonging and to feed my optimism. What comes naturally to them takes tremendous effort on my part.
What the “broken self” trance looks like
When I’m in the “broken self” trance, these patterns of feeling, thought and behavior play themselves out:
- I feel less than others. I feel small, meek, powerless.
- My posture is often small. My shoulders round. I slump. I cave in on myself like a turtle.
- I doubt my abilities, my sense of self, or who I am. I don’t trust myself.
- I feel too vulnerable – not vulnerable as in real and authentic and open, but vulnerable as in, “Exposed. Hurting. Raw.”
- I doubt my own worth and goodness.
- I feel unloved, unworthy, alone. Separate. Closed off from others. Different, deficient.
What about you? When you’re in the broken self-trance, how do you feel? What do you believe is true about yourself? How do you relate to yourself and others?
The controlling self
The broken self has a partner – “the controlling self.” In fact, the controlling self likes to go to war with the broken self – telling the broken self all the ways it “should” be different. (They then feed each other.) If you asked the controlling self what it believes to be true, the controlling self would say things like:
- I should be in more control.
- I should be in charge.
- This shouldn’t be happening.
- I should be more together.
- There’s something wrong with you and you need to fix it.
- And, its core belief: and all of this is all your fault.
Where the controlling self comes from
The controlling self is the voice of a small child – a child who believes the world revolves around him. If a seven-year-old’s parents get divorced, the child might say, “It’s my fault mommy and daddy got divorced. It’s because I didn’t eat my broccoli, or because I didn’t clean my room, or because I made my mommy and daddy mad. If I would’ve been a better child they wouldn’t be divorced…”
[After my six-year-old son’s pet fish died, he refused to go to after school care – something he’d been begging to go to the week before. As it turns out, Pablo (the fish) had died while he was in after care. He believed that if he hadn’t stayed at school, then Pablo wouldn’t have died. He was believing it was all in his control, and all his fault.]
The controlling self feels guilty and at fault when things don’t go its way. It feels ashamed, as if it should’ve been able to control the outcome…
The controlling self wants so desperately to be in charge – to have everything go its way – because it doesn’t believe that it can handle the pain and loss of life. It doesn’t want to feel the inherent vulnerability of being a human being: that our small, sweet ego selves are not in charge.
And so it does everything it can to try and extract a measure of control over life.
My controlling self
My dear, sweet momma struggled with depression throughout my childhood. And my response to the pain of her depression was self- perfection. I remember being young and naive and thinking that I would certainly control and manage my life so that I never felt depressed. I certainly could do better than she did. (Oh, ouch, the arrogance….)
And I remember thinking that I would be so together – so together that I would never hurt my children or loved ones (or anybody for that matter). I was going to arrange my life so I never had money problems, hard times, weight struggles or health challenges.
Life had other plans. I dealt with all of these, and more. I, too, have failed to meet many (!) of my own expectations. Through these experiences, life showed me that my dear sweet momma did the best she could, and my own sweet being has done the best I could.
So when difficult things show up in our lives – like depression or sugar addiction – how do we respond?
Unhooking from the broken self
We can start with awareness. We can stop and pause and ask ourselves, “What am I believing to be true about myself?” I’ve spent a lot of time in the broken self-trance, so it’s a space that’s very familiar to me. This familiarity means that I can recognize it and name it — “Oh, this is the broken self-talking.”
Just naming something gives us some space, some breathing room. We can step back and observe ourselves in the broken self-trance rather than embodying it. We can unhook and find a new sense of identity – an identity that is so much greater than our challenges, or our weight, or our body or even our health.
None of these things – depression, anxiety, the body, our health, our thoughts, feelings or eating habits – are “me” or “you.” And if none of those things are me with a capital M, then I don’t have to take my broken self – or any of my flaws – so personally. The fact that I feel depressed, or anxious, or that I’ve had eating disorders isn’t so personal to me. It just is.
Moving from shame/guilt to loving care
And if it just is, and isn’t about me, my, or mine – a source of ownership and therefore a source of shame - then the window opens to possibility. Instead of feeling ashamed and broken, we can respond with tender, tender care. So rather than nailing ourselves or feeling ashamed of ourselves for feeling anxious, or for feeling anything that flows through our tender bodies, we can care for it as a mother cares for a child on its lap.
We can hold those tender feelings with exquisite kindness.
Which is what everything – every part of me, every part of you, every part of life – most deeply wants.
I wonder if this is how we love the world – by loving the most challenging things that flow through our lives. If we don’t love these part of ourselves, who will? If we don’t love our most challenging parts, how can we love the challenging parts in other people?
Opening to our challenges
I remember watching the Olympics this past summer, and feeling bowled over by the talents of the athletes – and the incredible amount of work and heart it took to cultivate those gifts into gold medal level excellence. We think of our talents as gifts – something we can choose to cultivate and grow. We often feel proud of those things that are “good” or that our culture lauds.
But what if our deepest struggles are also gifts? Something that is ours to cultivate – to love, to care for? Something neither good nor bad, simply something to love? Can we care for them with the same kindness and care as we do our “talents”?
Finding compassion and belonging
Unhooking from the controlling self leads us to forgiveness, and ironically, belonging. Franciscan monk Richard Rhor put it this way: “When we fail, we are merely joining the great parade of humanity that has walked ahead of us and will follow after us.”
Ah, do you feel the relief in that statement? We don’t have to make ourselves any bigger or any smaller than we are.
When I step out of the broken self-trance, I remember my deepest nature. Yes, I have a small “I” self, who makes lots and lots of mistakes, and who copes with anxiety and depression, and who can be kind and cruel and all measure of in between. And this is not who I am.
My deepest nature – my true self – is my big s “Self.” This is the part of me who steps back and cares for the controlling self and the broken self – with kindness and levity and so much compassion. It’s the part of me underneath all these messy, messy layers – the part of me who says, in wonder, “If you could only see who I am…who I really am….”
It’s the part of me that love can call out, and elicit – and love back.
As I release this small identity of broken, failing self, and I inhabit this greater sense of who I am, I take my place inside the circle of belonging. I recognize our shared common humanity: I am no better or no worse than anyone else. I am simply a part of our tender, imperfect humanity: and I belong.
As do you.
And from that space, we find freedom. As we reconnect to our deeper belonging, our identity of “broken” self softens. We, too, find that we have 10,000 ways to respond. We embody our wholeness, not our brokenness.
In love and care,
Karly Randolph Pitman teaches men and women how to create a loving, peaceful relationship with food, their bodies, and themselves so they can heal the emotional roots of eating disorders and rest in their goodness. She’s the author of several programs on gentle healing, including the bestselling Overcoming Sugar Addiction, Overcoming Sugar Addiction for Life, The 30 Day Lift, Heal Overeating: Untangled, and Heal Your Body Image. You can find Karly on her blog at www.firstourselves.org and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/firstourselves.