I’ve been writing a lot lately about the importance of self-love and how it relates to food, weight and health. I’ve talked about how you can’t flog, demean or hate your body into changing, whether it be to lose 10 pounds or heal from disease. But some readers have asked me “How do you learn to love yourself?” That’s a good question; most of us don’t know. The first place to begin is to just notice how you relate to your body’s physical needs in general.
Every time you deny your physical needs–you stay up just a little longer when you need to sleep, or work right through the flu, or “hold it” when you really have to pee–you send the message to your body that it’s not important. We do this all day long with food; we shovel down breakfast on the way to take our kids to school, or we rush through lunch so we can get those last few emails sent, or we skip dinner because we’re dieting. Then we expect the body to perform for us, like a dog doing tricks.
You must make yourself be a priority, if for no other reason than your desire to eat better and/or lose weight. Begin by recognizing that you are your first relationship. I’m not saying to ignore your child, neglect your friendships or run roughshod over the needs of others. I’m saying to make yourself one of your friends, and treat yourself like a beloved child. Here are six ways to begin.
1. Act as if. The quickest way to feel loving toward yourself is to act loving toward yourself. Some 12-step groups say “you can’t think your way into right acting, but you can act your way into right thinking.” If you don’t know what that would look like, try this simple but profound exercise from Louise Hay: on the top of a sheet of paper, write “I love myself, therefore,” Then list all the things you do, or would do, out of love for yourself. These might include “I love myself, therefore I feed my body clean, wholesome food,” or “I love myself, therefore I refuse to starve myself.”
2. Eat when you’re hungry. Hunger signals mean the body needs to be refueled; ignore them long enough, which we do when we’re busy, stressed or dieting, and they’ll become blunted. I hear so many people say “I never get hunger pangs.” That’s not the only physical sign of hunger; lack of focus, irritability, nervousness and light-headedness can all indicate the need for food. Food provides nourishment, and to deny yourself food is, literally, to deny yourself nourishment.
Now, here’s a fine distinction: people say “So I should eat every time I’m hungry, even if it’s all day long, nonstop?” To that, I would ask, “What are you really hungry for? Is it really food?” You’d be surprised by how often “hunger” is really the body calling for rest, or sweetness, or some kind of attention that has nothing to do with food.
3. When you eat, eat. Don’t read, watch TV, work, drive or engage in stressful conversations. Just eat. Be present with what you’re doing and mindful of the food and your body’s sensations. Look at your food; smell it, notice how it feels in your mouth, really taste it. Most important, pay attention to how it feels in your body. Is it working for you? Your body will give you feedback if you just slow down and get quiet enough to hear. Which brings me to the next point:
4. Slow down. Part of that feedback loop includes the body’s message that it’s full. Sometimes, that message comes long before the plate or bowl is empty, even mid-forkful. But you’ll miss that signal if you’re rushing through your food. Related to this idea is to sit down for meals. I know so many people–usually moms–who eat most of their meals standing up. Sit down, every time, even if it’s for “just a few bites.” If all you want is a spoonful of ice cream, take a spoonful out of the container, put it in a small bowl, return the container to the freezer, and sit down at the table with your small bowl. Eat it slowly and mindfully. You may actually be satisfied with “just a few bites.”
5. Eat what you’re hungry for. I can almost hear you saying “What!? Are you nuts?!” I realize this is discouraging or even frightening for people with food issues and sensitivities, like allergies, certain food addictions, diabetes and people on strict weight loss diets. Let me explain: examine your desire and see if there’s something in the food that you’re specifically craving. For example, if you’re yearning for Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, what is it about that food that you need or want? Is it the coldness, or the creaminess, or the sweetness? Is it the bits of cherry, or the chocolate? Once you identify what exactly you’re craving so strongly, you might be able to find something else that satisfies those sensory taste needs.
6. Treat your body with respect. Mindless binging, shoveling food into your mouth or chomping on a fast-food burger while you’re driving your car are disrespectful, even demeaning, behaviors. Treat your body as you would a beloved child. Feed it gently, attentively, with care. And feed it clean food. We say we want to “indulge,” and then we do it with too much cheap, low-quality food: fast-food fries, donuts, oversized restaurant meals, chips by the bagful.
If you want chocolate, and you’re a person who can eat chocolate, then have chocolate; buy an expensive bar of the highest-quality stuff you can find, drive all the way home with it still in the wrapper, sit down with it, unwrap it slowly, break off a small piece, smell it, place it on your tongue and let the warmth of your mouth melt it against your palate. Notice the sensations you experience in your mind and body. It’s a completely different experience than snarfing down a Snickers bar on the way out of the grocery store. And one that’s very loving.