Authentic Discomfort / by Michelle Cowan

Sitting down to write this blog entry, two ideas come to mind:

  1. What is most comfortable is not always what is most authentic.
  2. We must push our limits to figure out what is best for us.

I’ll start with number one.  Just because something comes easily does not mean it accurately represents who we are.  There are many things I do, not because they are true self expressions, but because I’ve learned that they are means to be accepted and get rewards.  It basically amounts to rerouting my desires to please other people. 

Society teaches us that to be successful, we must adhere to certain social mores or participate in particular activities so that others will accept and promote us.  Because of this, many of us have trained ourselves—since childhood usually—to say what we think others will like rather than what we truly feel.  Even if we don’t want to do X activity, if someone says we must and that it won’t hurt anyone, we do it. 

Over time, these alternate responses overshadow our natural inclinations.  For people with eating disorders, this can mean always choosing the “good” food rather than what we are really craving.  Often, the decision to select the “good” food or the “healthiest” food on the menu is so engrained that we don’t even think we want anything else.  Many anorexics (including myself) say quite honestly, “But I don’t LIKE cookies,” or, “I don’t LIKE cheese,” or any other kind of food that might be frightening. They may not realize that fear is fueling these responses.  The anorexic may actually like cookies, but she doesn’t like the anxiety that comes along with eating them. 

It takes time to decipher which foods we honestly don’t like from those that we have simply decided, at some point, are not an option for us.  It’s okay to genuinely dislike cookies, but I suggest testing the assumption of dislike first.

For me, I had to try all kinds of foods I thought I hated, consequently discovering that I actually enjoyed many of them.  I had to face those fears.  Now, I can choose foods I truly like, even if it might be food that scares me a little.  I can usually tell now when I want something but am simply afraid.  That’s an opportunity to push my boundaries.

And so I come to number two.  We have to push our limits to know what we are truly comfortable with.  Sometimes, the most authentic thing we can do is test our own boundaries.  Even as children, we intuitively know that when it’s time to grow, it’s time to push things.  Kids eat too many cookies and learn what is enough for them.  Kids act out emotionally in public and wait for responses to tell them if it was appropriate or not. 

Kids try to climb things they’ve never scaled. They wear impractical outfits and find out later why their mother tried to make them wear layers.  Kids run as far and as fast as they can, eventually learning just how much they can push those limits so that the next time, they can run a little farther and a little faster.

We have to do the same thing.  Again, I’ve demonstrated this with food.  To know what full feels like, I had to eat beyond it.  Of course, when overeating becomes habitual, something is off-kilter, but to reach fullness, a person has to know what it feels like.  Only then can a person appreciate all the different levels of satiation that feel good to her.

To learn to eat new foods, I have to actually try them. To learn what I feel comfortable wearing in public, I have to purchase and put on different clothing.  To refine new songs, I have to play them in public. To learn how to trust, I have to open up to trusted friends.  These actions all feel uncomfortable at first.

Discomfort isn’t always a signal that something is wrong.  It’s a signal that something is happening that we don’t know what to do with yet.  Sometimes, we need to pull back and reach a more comfortable spot.  Other times, we need to try that new thing, sit in the discomfort, and see if we find peace instead.

I know it’s time to push my limits when a little urge inside of me crops up repeatedly, asking me to try something new.  Often, that urge scares me in the beginning.  But if it stays with me, I know I have to try it.  With the eating disorder, the urge may have been to eat a brownie fudge sundae.  In other areas of my life, it was to try a new singing style, to reach a new level of honesty, or to visit a place where I’d never been.

So many things in life are uncomfortable.  That discomfort doesn’t mean that what we’re doing is wrong or doesn’t express our true selves.  Going beyond boundaries is how we find out whether those boundaries are safety guards or prison walls.  Sure, I may eat too much now and then.  Sure, I may say things I regret.  Sure, I may end up going to places where I am utterly bored and disappointed.  But after those experiences, I know how much is enough, what is truly me, and where I feel most alive.  I can also learn to ask forgiveness when my tests infringe on someone else. 

When it’s time to grow, it’s time to get honest, ask ourselves if we are really being authentic, and live in different that reflect our true selves a little better. Stretch yourselves, people!  I’ll be right there with you.