When I was knee-deep in dieting and thirsting for thinness, I couldn’t see much else. Of course, I loved my family and I loved learning. But in retrospect it felt like a superficial life. Not my family, and not my schooling. But my perspective on what fulfillment meant. And the places I was searching for contentment.
I was so concerned about my body that I didn’t dig much deeper beyond wanting to be thin, which I saw as a panacea for all my problems. I viewed the world through the lens of my body image issues: Nothing mattered much if I didn’t lose weight or have a mostly flawless figure.
In their book 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder: Effective Strategies from Therapeutic Practice and Personal Experience, psychotherapists Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb note that individuals with eating disorders can miss the meaning of life. They write:
If you have an eating disorder you are, on some level, living a superficial life. We are not saying your life lacks meaning, but rather, you have lost track of the true meaning of life. Whether it is a number on the scale, a flatter stomach, or some other obsession with food or your body that has caught your attention and stolen your energy, you have lost track of what is truly important.
(Of course, eating disorders are serious illnesses; they are not a conscious choice – working toward recovery is. An eating disorder can make your life smaller and smaller, so you forget the true value of life.)
But this doesn’t just concern individuals with eating disorders. It’s relevant to all of us who live by numbers and believe that thinness or dieting will give us beautiful things. That we’ll finally have happiness, security, pride and self-confidence all day, every day.
But it’s a mirage.
Because after we reach a certain weight or size or whatever, the deeper problems still persist. They don’t magically disappear as we get smaller, have tighter abs, become more muscular or change our appearance in another way. And the deeper questions remain unanswered: Am I loveable? Do I love myself? Are my relationships healthy and fulfilling? Am I truly fulfilled? What does a meaningful life really mean?
(Not to mention that our confidence and sense of self are temporary and depend on shaky and ever-changing factors like the number on the scale.)
Thinness doesn’t buy meaning. We know this. But it’s one thing to know it, and another to change our ways and stop searching for the secret to weight loss, and thereby the “perfect” life. And to stop fixating on supposed body flaws.
Our concerns with our bodies may show a deeper problem. In their book, Costin and Grabb feature a quote from Kim Chernin from The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness:
The body holds meaning . . . when we probe beneath the surface of our obsession with weight, we will find that a woman obsessed with her body is also obsessed with the limitations of her emotional life. Through her concern with her body she is expressing a serious concern about the state of her soul.
So how do you dig deeper? Costin and Grabb discuss four ways to lead what they term a “soulful,” or more spiritual and meaningful life. One way is to pay attention, closely, fully and non-judgmentally.
What we pay attention to, according to Costin and Grabb, impacts the quality of our lives. As they write: “Whatever you are thinking about, or paying attention to, like ‘my thighs are fat’ or ‘my thighs are strong,’ is where your energy goes and from those thoughts, certain feelings are created, which then lead to behaviors.” They ask several key questions:
What do you devote the most attention to? What grabs your mind? Where does your focus go several times a day? Are the things you are paying attention to bringing you joy and happiness? Do you focus on things that make you feel better about yourself?
They suggest readers pay attention to (and record on paper) “soul moments,” which are amazing moments that touch you deeply. Costin and Grabb give examples like watching a sunset, participating in a ceremony or listening to a choir. They explain:
Keeping track of soul moments is keeping track of life’s sacredness. Soul moments remind us how easy it is to find a way to be moved, and reminded of the connection to something greater than ourselves. Keeping track of soul moments will help you remain grateful for things that might be ordinary in some sense, but are still full of wonder when you take the time to fully pay attention to and appreciate them.
They also suggest a powerful writing activity where you talk about your body using objective, in-depth descriptions. “Write about what the body looks like, the many parts and how they function, what purpose the body serves, and how it works or moves.” Here’s a beautiful response from one of their clients:
My body is a vehicle for my soul, my spirit, my energy. I have four appendages, which carry me through life. The two lowest, the legs, support me, ground me, and connect me to the earth. They enable me to run, jump, walk, they are strong, and they are curvaceous and feminine. My torso, the core of my body, holds messages of love, connection, creativity, and spunk. From my torso extends the two other appendages, my arms. My arms give and take, they have five-fingered hands at the end, which grasp, touch, caress, feel and help. My arms are strong, they are connected to my torso by my shoulders, also durable, but they have the tendency to tighten when I experience emotional fluctuations. The other extremely feminine parts of my body are my breasts. They give life, sustaining nourishment to my offspring. —KM
Today, I focus much less on my body, and more on the soulful moments in life, more on how my body helps me (instead of supposedly hurts me by not looking a certain way). I try my best to pay attention to the big and little things in life: sunshine after a rainy day (which we’ve had a lot of in Florida), a day spent with loved ones, my body’s abilities, and the belief that there’s something way greater that myself.
What has helped you lead a more soulful or meaningful life? What are your soul moments? What do you pay attention to?
* This post was written as part of Psych Central’s World Mental Health Day Blog Party. Please check out other posts here!