I think that most people can identify with the feeling of being thrown off balance at given times throughout life. That feeling you get when you’re deep in a relationship, or work, school, trying to catch up with bills or just plain old busy – times when so much of your energy goes into just trying to keep your head above water. It can happen when life throws you off track – like when you experience the loss of a loved one, or you lose your job or go through a divorce – or even start a new job or get married. The worst of course is when trauma happens (little t or big T) and it truly does seem like you need to rely on time to heal wounds. But the more I do the work that I do in this field and the more that I learn about theoretical approaches, the more I recognize the need to help people become centered again and reestablish the sense of Self that seems to get lost. As Carolyn Costin says in her book, 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, “Your healthy Self will heal your E.D. self” and I couldn’t agree more. Of course that may be easier said than done when the act of reconnecting with one’s sense of Self often requires a lot of intention, and yes, sometimes a lot of time too.
For many people this act of centering is just a matter of grounding oneself through things like meditation or connecting with a similar sense of flow through loved activities such as sports or art making 🙂 . But for others, the process is a little more elaborate when Self seems to have taken a hiatus. I regularly meet women who are terrified of letting go of their eating disorders because they feel that their E.D. is their identity and what will become of them without it? I get it, I know it’s a lot of trust to ask for, but I truly believe that once you start looking for healthy Self, you will find it.
Some of the wise women I’ve worked with have been able to describe the healthy Self as an inner spark that they’ve had a sense of since childhood – the part of themselves that knows right from wrong, that knows they are innately good, healthy and deserving people. Sometimes, I’ve been told, this part of themselves has had to be shelved in order to adequately deal with hostile environments – when using one’s voice may have meant violent repercussions. And so Self goes quiet, internally, perhaps until safety returns and treatment is sought, and only then is one able to take action.
As far as I can tell, curiosity and exploration are essential when it comes to reawakening Self. In Buddhism, Beginner’s Mind means cultivating an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions – and I believe these are absolutely qualities needed to discover Self again. Become curious as if you are exploring aspects of yourself for the first time – and know that Self is doing the exploring. What are your values as opposed to the values that may lead you towards dysfunction? What are some strengths that you have? Although it can be helpful at times, I believe that Self doesn’t ultimately need to rely on external validation to know its worth. Even the most rudimentary of strengths are worth identifying. Mindfulness teaches us to observe our thoughts as clouds going by in the sky. Self is the observer. Self is the one high up on the mountain where it can see clearly all that is happening below. True Self knows what feels toxic; it knows the difference between survival mode and thriving. It knows when competition feels healthy and when it’s more of a hindrance. The healthy Self is a like a good friend who wants to encourage you to do and have what’s best for you. It takes your physical, mental and emotional well-being into consideration and takes you down a path towards health and wellness. It might feel a little angelic or as though it’s a higher power. The healthy Self knows the difference between enabling and nurturing because it knows the values that are true to you. It knows your soul. It knows that living a life of secrets and lies will be more harmful than helpful in the long run. Your healthy Self knows what’s keeping you sick, and might also understand that there’s a reason for the actions you’ve taken in life and why things have played out in the way they have, and it can do this all with a sense of care and compassion.
If you’re not there yet, you can always try what Costin suggests and use your imagination: simply ask yourself, If I had a healthy voice, what would it say? I believe that most, if not all, people have access to Self that can lead them through recovery. It’s the place where you can find clarity, perspective and freedom, where you can be with yourself in the present; it’s calm and confident, open-hearted and lighthearted. And I believe that it’s from this place that all other work can be done.
Copyright 2018 © Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.
Rachel Braun, ATR-BC Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA
Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.