“Go gently”, is the guidance I am sharing with my clients and my friends and trying to remember to follow myself. A phrase I hear often from a very good friend and wise Seabird.
As Covid restrictions lift, and there is talk of going “back to normal”, lots of people are questioning whether they can, and in fact whether they want to. My solace over the last 18 months has been the sea and my Salty Seabird community. But as things open up, I realise the crowds at the beach are large and full of people I don’t know who have discovered the joys of salted wellbeing since the first lockdown. I am not ready for the crowds, and have delighted in the quiet swims of the last few days, now the winds have calmed, the waters are still and the sun is shining. But the difference now, compared to a few years ago is that back then I would have blamed myself, thought I was being silly to feel overwhelmed by a crowd, or just ploughed on through and wondered why I felt so exhausted and low afterwards.
Nowadays I recognise the discomfort, I check in, and I take a moment. I listen to myself and make a conscious decision as to what I want to do. I take some breaths, and allow myself to feel the feelings.
This is what I encourage the women I work with to do. The first step to anything is learning to notice. I remember when I first learned about mindfulness on a memorable course a few years ago, the key message and my subsequent mantra was “it’s all about the noticing”. We get so swept up in our busy brains and busy lives that we don’t notice things inside and outside of us, often to our detriment.
When I work with my clients to overcome their negative body image, the first step is the noticing. We have grown up and lived with diet culture, beauty culture and fitness inspiration for so long and it is so engrained in our world that we don’t even notice it any more. I enable them to take off the blinkers, see how diet culture convinces us to shrink our bodies and to pay for products and services to enable us to do so, when diets don’t actually work in the long term. Over 95% of people who intentionally lose weight put it back on, and more, over two years. The sellers of the products and services convince us it is our own fault that we have put the weight back on, if only we had continued to stick to the plan, tried harder, had more willpower, we would’ve been OK, so we go back and throw more money at them. Or try something new. A different diet. Not seeing that diets are the problem.
How many times have you or those you love gone to a slimming club, or started a plan, got to your goal weight or dress size (or given up before you got there), then eased off and put the weight back on, or gone back up a size, so you’ve gone back, to try again or try the competitor? Weight Watchers and Slimming World are massively successful companies.
They want you to keep coming back. If their diets (or “lifestyle changes”) worked, then you’d do it once and they’d have no repeat custom. A less lucrative business model.
I help my clients see this for what it is, and the resulting negative talk that is in our heads “how did you get so fat?”, “you look awful in that”, “why do you look so old?”, “no wonder you’re single”, “no wonder your partner doesn’t fancy you any more”, “you’re so lazy, why can’t you just follow the diet and exercise plan, everyone else manages to?”, “what will your friends and family think when they see how much weight you gained in lockdown?” etc etc. Sound familiar? How jarring are these comments when you see them written down in black and white? How would you feel if someone said them to you? Would you ever say them to someone else? Probably not. And yet we allow them to bounce around our head. Do we really deserve to be spoken to like that?
Our incredible bodies serve us well. We take them for granted. We treat them like crap. We blame them for everything. We focus on the negative. We zoom in and only look at our so-called “flaws”. But think for a minute what has your body ever done for you? What does it allow you to do? How does it bring you joy? Do you like to dance, run, have sex? You couldn’t do that if you didn’t have a body (obviously, but then why do we take it for granted?). Do you like looking at art, listening to music, tasting great food? You couldn’t do that if you didn’t have a body. Have you ever been ill and recovered? Thanks to your incredible body. We give it such a hard time but we’d literally have nothing without it.
And our relationship with our body reflects our relationship with ourselves. It is intrinsically linked. But our relationship with ourselves is the only one guaranteed to last our entire lifetime, from our first breath to our last. So we can choose to make it one fraught with battles, conflict and hurt. Or we can notice how this relationship is serving us, or not.
Changing your mindset is not easy but it is possible. It starts with the noticing and it’s important to go gently. The first ingredient of all the work I do is compassion, for each other and for ourselves. Which is something I’ve struggled to offer myself until more recent years. But I’m getting better. And ironically, in my past I would’ve tried to be compassionate, and when I couldn’t, I would’ve beaten myself up for being unkind. So piling unkindness son top of the unkindness.
Now when I make time to notice I am not being kind to myself, I pile on extra helpings of self-compassion, instead. Starting to accept our body (which is the goal most of my clients set themselves, as loving their bodies seems so far off on the horizon and so unattainable) can be a slow process, but the slower we go, the more we can firmly embed the new mindset.
We go gently, we give ourselves kindness, and we notice what our body does for us.
As with getting out there as the restrictions lift and the world opens up, we need to notice, and not force. I encourage you not to do things that you really don’t want to do. Find that edge of gently stretching the boundaries of your comfort zone, but not so hard and quick that the boundaries burst. And that takes careful noticing – of how you feel, what is beneath the discomfort, and what brings you joy. If we stay well inside our comfort zone, we may avoid scaring ourselves, avoid the anxiety, but we never get to experience new things, discover new joys, and find new things our bodies can do. Push ourselves too hard and will want to crawl back into our shell and never come out again. So go gently, with yourself and others.
Go gently, and notice.