In Hawaii, the eel lives in a hole in the reef in the ocean. The lobster often makes its home at the mouth of this hole. This is a great arrangement for the eel – since it has a lobster at its doorstep with an antenna pointed outward, watching for predators. It’s a much more complicated arrangement for the lobster – because eels eat lobsters. So, what the lobster has to do is keep one antenna pointed outward, scanning for potential predators, while simultaneously keeping the other antenna pointed inward to watch out for the eel.
What I noticed in my experience with women with eating difficulties is that they are like lopsided lobsters.
After years of listening to the stories of their struggles with eating and body image, it became obvious to me that most of them had the most amazing, extraordinarily well-developed outer antennae! They could, more often than not, walk into a room, pick up on the vibes there, notice what others expected of them, and then respond to those expectations – even before the others had become aware of having had them in the first place! That’s how good they were at picking up on cues from their environment, and sensing what was going on with other people in their lives. And this ability often served them well, as it allowed them to anticipate trouble in advance, fly beneath the radar, and get out of harm’s way if needed.
The problem was that they typically had lousy inner antennae. This meant that they were way better at picking up on – and responding to — signals from their outer environment than they were at tuning in to themselves and responding to their own innermost thoughts and feelings.
If we are better at picking up on and responding the needs and feelings of others than we are at picking up on and responding to our own needs and feelings, it’s energetically akin to writing checks and not making deposits. Eventually our account gets depleted.
This depletion can feel like a pervasive emptiness, one which is often experienced physically. Those who struggle with eating and their bodies can mistakenly assume that it is food they need to fill up with, and then, when they discover (much to their dismay) that no amount of food can “full-fill” them, they conclude that there is something terribly wrong with them.
They don’t recognize it’s simply a question of Balance — rather than an indication that they are flawed, broken, or damaged in some way. We all need to be as equally attuned to our inner experiences as we are to our outer experiences. Our interoceptive awareness needs to be just as developed as our exteroceptive awareness. Not more, but definitely not less. Those that are finely tuned to the needs and feelings of others need to be equally tuned in to their own needs and feelings.
To find Balance, individuals blessed with fabulous outer antennae need to put them on “automatic pilot.” These antennae are amazingly well developed — and can continue to do an excellent job for them without much attention.
What is called for is more focus on strengthening the inner antennae — in two ways. One is through developing greater Body Awareness. This involves learning to listen to and respond to physical states of being by identifying physical hunger and fullness sensations, eating when hungry, stopping when full, moving when energized, resting when tired, going to the bathroom when nature calls — and not ignoring the body’s physical messages.
The other is by cultivating greater Emotional Literacy. This requires learning to listen to and respond to emotional states of being by recognizing, identifying , and expressing different emotions (with honesty and kindness), saying yes to what we want, and no to what we don’t want, not acting like things are okay when they are not — and not dismissing, denying, and disregarding our feelings.
To develop this inner awareness, we have to change the questions we ask ourselves.
Instead of asking:
- What’s he going to think if I do this?
- How is she going to react if I say that?
- What do they think of the way I am handling this situation?
We need to ask:
- How do I feel about what he just did?
- What is my reaction to what she said?
- How do I feel about being here with these people at this point in time?
Consistently checking in, checking in, checking in — rather than checking out — is what allows for us to be sensitive to our own needs while remaining sensitive to the needs of others. It keeps us from abandoning ourselves at the doorstep of relationships and allows us to remain connected to our authentic selves — while we engage with others.
Honoring our inner experience as much as our outer experience is what brings things into Balance, and puts an end to constant feelings of depletion and deprivation.
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This artcle was very comforting. I feel like I understand a bit more how to get more balance in my life.
Yes! This is how I have been feeling………..I am giving to my students and daughter without asking/checking in to see how I feel about the situation. I keep trying to do more and more to make others happy and I end up depleted and as I result I binge/purge. and yell at the ones I love. I am trying to work on taking care of me and create a better balance. Thank you for writing this. I heightened my awareness,
Lovely analogy. Simple and insightful! Thank you for a great perspective as the new year begins.
Thank you SO much for sharing this post. I met you a couple years ago I. Hawaii when I screened my short film about my experience coming up in the ballet world and entertainment industry. I have been feeling bad about having to go back into therapy but after reading this I understand that my last job was likened to a war zone where I had to have all my external antennas up in order to remain safe. Because it was a work environment, I felt I had no choice but to suppress my feelings in order to not burn bridges. This has evidently taken it’s toll on me. I suspect this will not be the last time I’m in a situation like thi so I must learn how to maintain better balance under these types of circumstances. Thank you again. I won’t be so hard on myself.
Thank you Anita and all of you wise women!
I can easily tune with the story…i m most of the time busy meeting the needs of others. .and it s much more difficult for me tuning inside…
this autumn i had quite a lot of difficulties with my body (a great fewer abd weight lost, a broken foot, severe insomnia…)…i feel they are warning from existence for me to slow down and center again on myself.
stopping when i m tired is one of the thing to learn (for example just this morning i was working quite hard cleaning the house….after hours i was ready to stop but i didn t….then as often happen i did broke a couple of things..one of which was a candle holder very cute, just received from a close girlfriend).always when i go beyond the limit i become destructive or self destructive!
For sure also listening to hunger and fullness is a point…..
i m also easily identify myself in the one that feels the vibe even before others (and often i feel alone because others don t feel in such a sensitive way)
Thank you again Anita! Great hints to keep on work and explore myself