In Part 1 of this blog series, we dove into the capacity of emotional intelligence as it relates to embodiment.
We unpacked the following questions, and I shared a personal story about how I became disembodied, essentially operating as a “floating head,” like the dietitian and therapist duo and founders of The Center for Body Trust have described.
Whether you have read that first blog or not, the questions below would be worth reflecting upon. Grab your journal if you’re so inclined!
What does it mean to be intelligent about my emotions?
What would it feel like to have a relationship with all my emotions that is kind, compassionate, respectful, and honoring?
How would I be in the world and in my relationships if I was skilled in being able to meet my emotions with an allowing and welcoming spirit?
How is emotional intelligence related to healing from my disordered eating, how can I practice it, and why is it integral for becoming a whole human?
If you haven’t read Part 1, it’s a great starting place, and you can find the blog here.
In this second part of the series, we will peel back the layers of another important capacity for rebuilding from disordered eating, food fear, and body shame—self-regulation.
Just as with the concept of emotional intelligence, you will find many definitions and explanations, depending on the context, for self-regulation. For our purposes, it’s important that we consider how this capacity is often commodified and pedestaled, but from a diet culture lens.
At a foundational level, self-regulation is not synonymous with, but is often misunderstood to be related to, discipline in the sense of denial, avoidance, or the pushing away of certain types of satisfactions, pleasures, or desires. If you are “on a diet,” for example, you are admonished for not having enough self-regulatory skills (often misconstrued as willpower or self-control), or the ability to say “no” to decadent foods. Eating (and even craving) specific foods or types of foods is considered a failure of self-regulation. Perhaps not ironically, one of the most iconic studies of self-regulation to date, was performed with a marshmallow to see how a child could regulate the impulse to eat it.
If you’re not familiar with the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, you can check it out here. What kid wouldn’t want to eat that marshmallow and have a difficult time saying no to it? But besides that, why would it be important to say no to a marshmallow in the first place? To that pleasure? The experiment has since been debunked, and there are a huge number of factors that contribute to it being faulty, but what’s important is that self-regulation is about so much more than (and largely unrelated to) avoiding a certain action, especially those that might promote a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction.
Additionally, the effect of denying ourselves certain foods or types of foods, just leads to a preoccupation with those foods, severely compromising a more general ability to self-regulate when self-regulation is noble, necessary, and most importantly, value-based.
We might ask ourselves questions about the things we’re saying no to, why, and who/what have informed our choices? What effect is the self-regulation we’re engaging in having on our behavior, our relationships, our ability to be present, passionate, and engaged in our lives?
There’s a little known (or perhaps denied) concept in food psychology literature called habituation. The more we allow and welcome in certain foods to our nutrition, the less we feel pressured or pulled to eat them or eat a lot of them. Why? Because if they are around all the time (and when we eat them, we don’t compensate with punishing ourselves by doing extra exercise, restricting our food, or shaming ourselves for eating said foods) we are able to be more choiceful about eating them or not!
I implore you, if you are feeling incredibly pulled to eat a lot of a certain food and feel like you cannot say no or not now to it, to examine whether there is restriction lurking in the vicinity.
Are there compensatory behaviors at play, like extra calories needing to be burned, like less food the rest of the day or the following day, like fear of gaining weight or of your body changing?
And… if you feel addicted, I hear you. I imagine you do! But please know that addiction is not a thing when it comes to food. What is a thing, are the very real physical and psychological consequences of restriction and denial where nutrition is concerned. You need to know that you are not broken, you do not have a willpower or self-control problem, and you do not need fixing. You do need support, compassion, and a new awareness of all the factors that play a role in your feeling deficient, less than, and desperate.
Understanding self-regulation can help in this development of awareness, because it gets us closer to and serves as a bridge between our minds and our bodies. Self-regulation works closely with emotional intelligence. First, we may notice an experience inside of us (this is part of emotional intelligence), and then we may wonder what to do with it or how to be with it (self-regulation is a skill for meeting the emotions, thoughts, and sensations with yourself, especially the unpleasant or uncomfortable ones, with kindness). To have this type of relationship with our inner experiences though, it helps to understand our nervous systems. For many of us, the experience of an unpleasant emotion pushes us toward avoidance, but as you learned in the previous blog, this is often not the wisest of responses. There is a quote that explains why— what we resist, persists.
The desire to avoid what feels uncomfortable inside of us is often due to our perception of that thing. In other words, what we think about it, becomes our guide for how we act around it. So, we need a new way of orienting our attention around “the thing,” right? A more open, undistorted, and less skewed way of seeing it.
For example, recently I was sent a list of topics that I’d be addressing in a podcast interview. They included the following:
1. Dealing with stress around holidays: around food you don’t usually eat, less time to exercise, etc.
2. Dealing with stress around holiday weight gain.
3. Dealing with stress around seeing family and perhaps getting body or weight comments.
4. Strategies to approach the holidays to set yourself up for success.
5. Strategies for dealing with family members.
When you read these, what’s your immediate impression? Are you feeling nervous and stressed?
It is not the topic itself that causes stress. It’s how you are perceiving the topic—the stories you have about the topic or a particular situation you are recollecting from your memory and the emotions associated with it; your beliefs (often unconscious but operating in the background and influencing how you behave) about weight, about weight gain, about food, about holidays, about exercise, about families and holidays together, and about success. Your personal definitions, rules, ideas, memories, beliefs, associations, thoughts, desires, etc. all play a role in your perception/perspective about these topics. And they are what create your emotional response.
Food is not stressful. Food is just food. It’s what provides calories to nourish our bodies. Your ideas about food, about what foods are “bad” or “good”, about what foods will “make you fat” or “healthy,” and your relationship with food (be it respectful, easeful, wise, and freeing OR rigid, scary, love/hate, or fraught).
Exercise is not stressful. It’s movement of the body. It varies in degrees of intensity and effect. Your associations with exercise, experiences with it, ideas and rules around it, and your relationship with it is what causes your experience of stress with it.
Whatever we think, in our minds, about something, will directly impact our bodies. Look at this as a top-down (mind to body; even though I view us as being one dynamic WHOLE, it’s easier to explain by looking at it as a dichotomy), and bottom-up system.
Top-down: communication from your mind/brain to your body
Bottom-up: communication from your body to your mind/brain
I've borrowed this beautiful image below to help illustrate these levels of communication.
Top-down: perception of fear communicates to your body that you are in danger and threatened, causing your muscles to contact and become tense.
Bottom-up: your muscles contracting, becoming tense and rigid, communicates to your brain that we’re readying ourselves to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn. Yes, there are 4 different responses within the nervous system that indicate threat is upon us.
Are you with me?
Now, what we often notice first is the change in our bodies, right? We feel our hearts beat faster, we feel the tension in our shoulders, we feel our stomachs tighten up or get fluttery. The sensations will vary for each of us, but tension is present. On the other hand, we might notice an inability to focus or concentrate, racing thoughts, restlessness, or agitation. That tension can be what I like to call an “indicator light,” just like on your car dashboard, that says, “check in.” Just like you’d pause and ask, “what’s happening here?” with your vehicle, you can do the same for yourself.
When you ask, “What’s happening inside?” you will notice tightness and contraction. Your task is to take care of it now. Pause, breathe deeply, drop your shoulders, shake out your hands, notice specifically where the tension is, and release. When our bodies are relaxed, they send a message to the brain saying, “we’re safe; no harm here.” Remember, this is bottom-up communication. The little “threat detector” deep in your brain receives this communication and does its work to reduce Threatcon-9 readiness!
Your second task now is to look around you. Let’s pretend you’re with your family, and you receive a comment about your body. Uncomfortable, sure. But also, are you safe? Is your life at risk? (Please know that I am not minimizing the impact of what can often feel very emotionally abusive). Comments obviously can sting, and I would advocate for you practicing setting boundaries if you are moving into a situation where this could happen! But on a very real level, your life is safe. Reminding yourself of this, gently repeating to yourself, or out loud in situations where it feels appropriate to you, “You are safe… you are safe…” sends a message to your body, that it can relax (i.e., top-down).
When we can move into this calmer space, we can think more clearly, logically, creatively, linearly, and we are much better problem-solvers. You are operating primarily within the parasympathetic nervous system space when you are here.
If, however, you continue to try to muscle your way through, growing more and more contracted, the little threat detecting organ deep in your brain, will keep raising the threat level concern, until you “flip your lid.” The area of your brain that helps you think clearly – the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—is like the lid of your brain. It covers your forehead area. And when threat becomes too dire (real or imagined!), it goes offline, to put it very simply. As far as your nervous system is concerned, the PFC doesn’t have to be active, because all it’s concerned about is your literal survival.
So, let me ask you now: how often do you feel like your reaction to certain situations is unhelpful, far too intense for the current circumstances, and impulsive? Do you feel it is an obstacle to your responding skillfully?
Self-regulation is understanding what I described about your nervous system and how you can work with it. It is also about recognizing how often you are constantly in a state of nervous system reactivity.
Let’s do an exercise: close your eyes and “check-in” with your body. Start at the top of your head and move down slowly, intentionally. Is there tension in your brow? If so, gently release it. Does it feel like your eyeballs are contracted? Gently release them. Continue down the length of your face, noticing any tightness in your jaw. Now move down your neck, gently tilting your chin downward. Notice your breathing. Personally, this is where I like to start. Whenever I do a check-in, I’m typically breathing very shallowly. Observe if this is true for you, and if so, gently inhale and fill up your lungs and your diaphragm, hold a few seconds at the top, and then feel your body release as you exhale, tension disappearing. Let all the air out. Continue down the length of your body, and if it’s helpful, visualize any tense, thick energy moving down the length of your body and into the earth. Let the earth absorb it.
For many of us, we have been so cut off from our bodies for so long, we have difficulty accessing how they feel. You can also create more tension in each of these areas, as you move down the length of your body. For example, pick up your eyebrows so you can feel what that feels like. Make fish lips or purse your lips. Put a scowl on your face. After you intentionally tighten, then release.
If you're a parent, practice this with your kids!
This, my friends, is how we can practice self-regulation, and importantly, embodiment. Consistent, and regular “check-ins” with our ourselves to engage in acute relaxation exercises, deep breathing, and reminders of our safety invite us to access the wisdom of our bodies.
Now, circling back, if you are restricting food, either psychologically or physically, or if you are bombarding yourself with criticism, contempt, and disparaging remarks, you are creating a sense of threat. We can use the skill like I mentioned above, to reduce the sense of threat, but would it not make more sense to remove the threat altogether? To learn how to treat ourselves like our best friends? In the next blog we’ll discuss just how to do this, via self-compassion.
1. What did you notice when you made the choice to check-in with yourself?
2. How are you coming to understand yourself better now than you did before?
3. In what sorts of situations do you feel you respond in ways that are inappropriate for the situation?
4. Where would you like to begin practicing responding differently?
5. What tool/strategies/methods have you used to help yourself in times of nervous system reactivity or feeling of overwhelm? (Let’s pause and thank the body for being so wise as to know that it needs soothing, even if you are not thrilled about the behaviors).
I would love to hear about your experience with regular check-ins throughout the day. Please remember that change requires time + effort + practice. Be kind (also something most of us need practice with) with yourself as you try approaching yourself in this new way.