Author’s note: this is the third part of a four part series on how eating disorders affect unique populations.
Eating disorders can develop from feeling “not good enough” or “different than”. Many people who are members of the homosexual community can go through stages of feeling different and “lesser than” the dominate heterosexual society and its standards. Other issues related to eating disorder development include low self-esteem and feeling a lack of control over one’s life. In the gay community, there is no control over your sexuality; you are who you are and that is a beautiful thing. However, embracing the beauty of being in a sexual minority group can be extremely challenging and can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem.
Miles Cohen, MD wrote a poignant article about the causes of eating disorders in gay men. He talks about the vulnerability of being gay in a straight world and undergoing the stressful process of coming out — a process that could reasonably elicit rejection from those who are less understanding of the gay lifestyle. If friends or family are included in those who reject the gay person, this can lead to self-hatred and the desire to isolate and internalize the pain of not being accepted. This is more commonly known as internalized homophobia.
Another aspect of the coming out process is yearning for acceptance from the members of the homosexual community which you want to join. The task of accepting yourself for who you are — which may be something that has been hidden for decades — elicits so many emotions: joy at feeling the freedom to be yourself, and anxiety/fear about being accepted by others for being your true self. A reasonable fear is that relationships you feel very strongly about may change or be negatively affected by the revelation of one’s sexual identity. A large aspect of expressing your true self comes in the form of physical appearance: looking a certain way to gain acceptance. This is a strong underlying issue for eating disorders in every population, but when coupled with the intense experience and expectations of the coming out process, it can become an obsession. Dr. Cohen’s article speaks about this in gay men specifically — how there is an intense need to look lean and svelte or strong and muscular to fit in with the stereotypes of the community. Cohen states that “gay men condescend to other gay men if they are perceived as anything different than the stereotypic masculine ideal”, creating a cycle of continual body dissatisfaction and pressure to achieve unattainable bodies — leading very easily to eating disorder symptoms.
Studies have consistently found that the prevalence of eating disorders in gay men is more than twice the number of eating disorders in straight men. New research continues to be conducted on this population — and as I was poring through articles, I had a hard time finding much information on eating disorders in the lesbian or transgender population. This, it appears, is an area that warrants more attention. I would propose, though, from my own thoughts in this issue, that eating disorders have a high prevalence in lesbian, bisexual, and transgender populations as well. Trying to wrap one’s mind around gender stereotypes and how they shift and intensify when applied to the LGBT community is difficult since everyone is unique and has their own story. But it appears that with the pressure to “come out” and yet also conform to societal expectations and look a certain way — let alone deal with the judgment that could be very hurtful and damaging during this process — it can be very tempting to engage in eating disorder behaviors as a way to manage emotional pain and control physical appearance.
Finding peace and acceptance within yourself is a challenge that all people with eating disorders must face when on the path to recovery. There are unique components to this for all of us — family history, other mental health issues, histories of trauma, age, or feeling “different”. This does not have to prohibit anyone from finding a true and lasting recovery, and the joy of recovering from an eating disorder can be intensified by coming out as you truly are and accepting all parts of yourself. I admire greatly those who are faced with complex stories and who persevere towards the health and freedom that we all deserve.
Read more: Gay men and eating disorders – through a filmmaker’s lens. This is an amazing first-person account.
Author’s note: this is the second in a four part series about how eating disorders affect unique populations.
Contrary to popular thought, eating disorders do not simply affect young women and adolescents. Though eating disorders may be ‘glamorized’ on television and in magazines in the young female population, millions of others who suffer just as greatly are left in the dark. Men. Older generations. Multicultural populations. Homosexual populations. Eating disorders are a reality for people of diverse sexual orientations, genders, and age groups and the numbers of individuals affected by these devastating disorders only keeps growing.
One of the scariest facts about eating disorders is that if recovery is not sought and fought for, the disorders can follow us into all stages of our lives. Many women and men relapse in their eating disorders in middle age or come to therapy in distress that “I have had an eating disorder my entire life”. What can trigger a relapse into an eating disorder after years of recovery? This is a scary thought; one that creeps into the nightmares of those who have fought hard for recovery. Relapse is a very real part of recovery and it is important that a relapse does not mean that one is fully back into the eating disorder. To me, a relapse can be a signal that we have become less aware and that we need to focus back inward.
I get asked often: “is it possible to truly recover from an eating disorder? how do you know when you are recovered?”. The answer to the first part is YES, and to the second: it’s each individual’s unique process. However, relapse — whether it is in later life or not — can indicate that we are not approaching underlying issues (those that may have contributed to our eating disorder in the first place) with honesty and directness. Eating disorder relapse later in life is traumatic, and can be caused by: sudden changes, grief and loss, financial stress, relationship issues, and natural changes to our body as it ages.
What about those that develop eating disorders at age 40 or older? The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders cites that increasing numbers of women and men age 40 and older are seeking treatment. Though we do not yet have specific data for this age group or defined causes for the disorders, eating disorders can develop as a way of coping with issues that have affected us our entire lives — or new issues depending on our life stage. People who have gone through divorce can be at-risk for eating disorders because of the stress and anxiety associated with the loss of a marriage. A study done a few years ago polled older women with eating disorders and they commonly agreed that they felt discriminated against in treatment programs that are designed for younger women. The study also underlined the increased risk of anorexia developing (or relapsing) during menopause. Estrogen is lost in large amounts with menopause, and if fat cells are also disappearing due to restricting and losing weight, estrogen can dip even lower. This puts older women at a strong risk of developing (or speeding up) osteoporosis and bone weakness.
As women age and risk feeling “less attractive”, the desire to remain thin and beautiful can intensify. Plastic surgery and eating disorders can spread throughout circles of women who feel lost and forgotten. In elderly populations, eating disorders and especially anorexia can be a very dangerous concoction. According to some studies, anorexia in the elderly populations is the most deadly – the elderly count for 78% of all anorexia deaths (2001). This can be due to physical health denigration, loss of motivation, depression, and other issues such as dementia. It is difficult to differentiate signs of anorexia and signs of other issues going on that may contribute to loss of appetite. Some of those signs are outlined here: Eating Disorders and Older People.
Eating disorders are physically and emotionally dangerous. The rate of eating disorder development is increasing, as well as the death rate caused by these disorders. It is particularly alarming when an eating disorder is coupled with issues affecting those in later life such as: loss of memory, physical health issues, depression, and lack of motivation. When older people are isolated and lonely, the risks intensify. If you know someone who is at risk of developing an eating disorder or relapsing (or who might have had one for many years but does not realize it or admit it), ask for support. There are many resources to help those with eating disorders and their families. Mobilizing those support systems will save lives.
Author’s note: This is the first in a four-part series on how eating disorders affect unique and under-voiced populations.
Nobody wants to talk about it. But it’s an unpleasant truth: men suffer from eating disorders just as women do, and this fact not only breaks gender expectation barriers (in an unhealthy capacity), but it in turn builds walls that for some men may seem too high to scale. As men are supposed to be “stoic and strong”, for those that suffer from disordered eating it can feel to a man as if he is utterly alone — and ashamed.
It is estimated that 10 million people are currently affected by eating disorders in the United States, and that 10% of these people are men. Given that eating disorders are historically “women’s issues”, I am willing to wager that many more men than is reported have eating disorders and they are just too afraid to open up about it. I really enjoy working with men in a therapeutic environment, and recently have had an increasing percentage of men seeking out counseling for eating disorder behaviors. It breaks my heart how lonely and “different” these men feel; that they should be John Wayne and not pouring out their heart to a therapist. It also makes me wonder how many more men are out there who do not have the courage to seek treatment and who are suffering in silence (alongside the millions of women who are also compromised by their eating disorders).
What issues are specific to the male eating disordered community? According to research by Arnold Anderson for his book Males with Eating Disorders, while many women who develop eating disorders feel fat before the disorder develops, men more often are overweight and medically at-risk before the eating disorder develops. Disorders such as compulsive overeating or binge eating are overlooked in men more than women because society tends to “accept” overweight men more than it does overweight women. This is judgmental and unfair to women, but it does allow women to seek treatment for eating issues more easily while men may be suffering but feel as if they cannot ask for the same help.
Sensitivity to one’s ability to live up to expectations, feeling out of control, and low self-esteem are three of the underlying issues that can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. These three are again more accepted by society to be ‘women’s issues’. But men suffer from the exact same concerns and feel as if they shouldn’t. Men ‘should’ be the breadwinners, strong and independent without letting life’s stressors get past their thick skin. While men certainly deal with stress, anxiety, and depression, it is more common to see men cope publicly with these issues by using/abusing substances such as alcohol or drugs, or through an assertion of their manliness (for themselves more than anyone else) by exhibiting showy displays of sexual dominance and violence. Having an eating disorder as a coping method is “weak”.
This is upsetting in so many ways. Not only is it not an indication of weakness to have an eating disorder, I believe that the issues underneath an ED actually can highlight the inner awareness, beauty, and desire for love that the person who is dealing with the disorder yearns to discover so intensely — but does not know how. Men have these same qualities — but inner beauty is laughed upon by our male-dominanted society. So this internal conflict can lead to an eating disorder as a way to manage (or “control”) these conflicting emotions.
For men, it can be common for an eating disorder to develop or become evident in exercise-related behaviors. Men are held to a beauty standard just as women are: they need to be muscular and strong. When you are these things (for heterosexual men), the ladies will come running (similar standards apply for homosexual men). In high school or middle school, where hormones are running rampant and being accepted by the popular crowd can seem to be the most important thing in the world, men can devote themselves to weight lifting, wrestling, track and field, or other sports that can turn extremely unhealthy.
What starts as a desire to be accepted by peers, girls, and society can turn into compulsive exercising, restricting, and bingeing and purging. Some men may want to look ripped like Arnold Schwarzenegger, others feel they want to be thin like Mick Jagger, and still others desire the lean and muscular build of Andy Roddick.
We are all affected by society’s expectations. Millions of women and girls may feel like “they need to go to the gym” today after watching last night’s Miss USA Pageant. What I want to say to men is: you are not alone. You are not weak. You can recover from an eating disorder and release yourself from the shame and guilt. I am passionate about this work and hope to work more extensively with men with eating disorders and help build resources and community support for this hidden population.
Read more: Males and Eating Disorders Research.
Check back later this week as I continue my series on unique populations who are affected by eating disorders. Upcoming posts: eating disorders in the gay community; eating disorders affecting the aging populations; and eating disorders across multicultural and multiethnic communities.
Sunday is Father’s Day, a day that brings many families together to celebrate the value and gifts of fathers. This may be the first Father’s Day for a new dad, or it may be a yearly occasion of togetherness for a grandfather and his children and grandchildren. It also can be a time of reflection, loss, and mixed emotions as many fathers and children come to terms with the separation they have with each other. An article in today’s Denver Post describes the increasing challenges and diversifying roles that American fathers inhabit in today’s modern society. The statistics are staggering: nearly one half of the country’s fathers under age 45 state that they have had at least one child out of wedlock. The percentage of fathers living separately from their children is nearly double what it was just a few years ago. Why is this?
First, I think it bears meaning to look at what we expect from families these days and traditionally. We are no longer a society of traditional families in the form of father, wife, 2.5 children, a golden retriever and a white picket fence. Today, families are formed in such diverse capacities that each individual person defines family in his or her own unique way. A client once told me that she considers family to be not so much along blood-lines, but to be those people whom she has met on various walks of life that have shown her trust, honesty, love, and acceptance. Same-sex families are increasingly becoming more prevalent in society, as well as mixed-generation families all living under the same roof.
So what role does the father have in the family these days? The answer is complex. With the economic woes that we continue to experience, many adults — women and men alike — are working not only one but two or three jobs in order to put food on the table. The “breadwinner” is traditionally thought to be the father, while the mother stays at home with the children. This is changing as gender roles blur lines, but men feel even more pressure than before to provide for their families as times get tougher.
According to the Pew study cited in the article, men who struggle to provide monetary assistance to their families often become stressed and absent, leading to estrangement from children.
Beth Latshaw, an assistant sociology professor at Appalachian State University who researches changing paternal roles pointed to an economic advantage for college graduates hired at companies with better benefits and family-friendly policies, contrasted with the situation for the larger ranks of low-wage workers.
“As a result, many women now raise children outside of marriage or without a father figure,” Latshaw said.
An interesting point in the article underlines that “as we approach Father’s Day, it becomes more and more apparent that our most valuable and solemn role is to provide childcare to our offspring.” But as more and more children grow up without a father, families and communities become changed as a result. President Obama has been one of the biggest advocates for fathers’ presence in their children’s lives and often cites how it impacted his own life to have a father who left him at a young age. Every Father’s Day, Obama takes special care to highlight the importance of fathers and this year he is focusing his attention on Latino families and men in the military who get to spend limited time with their children.
Education and responsibility for fathers of all ethnicities and socioeconomic classes are paths for healing rifts with children, Obama stresses. Here is a video from his speech on this day last year:
As we approach this symbolic day, I want to recognize the love that fathers and children share for one another. There may be economic, financial, and relational struggles that keep fathers and children apart, but these do not have to change the way that fathers and children bond with one another. Having an absent father, or being a father who cannot be near his children can spark resentment, depression, stress, and anger. Hold on to the hope of reuniting with your loved one if he/she is far away, and cherish memories that you once had with your father or child.
A woman meets up with some friends at a local restaurant and one of her friends that she has not seen in a while compliments her on her radiant skin. The woman recoils and exclaims: “you’ve got to be kidding! My skin is splotchy and pale; I could barely cover it up enough.” Have you ever had this reaction to a compliment or any type of comment on your appearance? For many, it is difficult to accept praise about how you look due to modesty and sometimes self-esteem issues. But for millions of other women and men (1-2% of the world’s population), it is nearly impossible to get dressed in the morning because they “feel too ugly to go out in the world”. A little-known but destructive disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder challenges the ability to function daily for those affected by body image issues, eating disorders, and any other type of mind-body disconnect. When does it cross the line from self-consciousness to life-altering body distortion?
What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)? BDD is a psychological somatoform disorder in which the affected person is excessively concerned about and preoccupied by a perceived defect in his or her physical features and body image. People affected by BDD may focus on one or several specific body parts or features, or he or she may experience a general sense of distress about their physical appearance. This can lead to (or already be connected to) other psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social isolation. Sometimes referred to as “imagined ugliness“, BDD can severely diminish the quality of life of the affected individual and the person’s perception of his/her body part can feel very real to that person.
What are the effects of BDD? Lowered self-esteem, obsession over the body part/feature, and consistent attempts to “fix” that body part through cosmetic or plastic surgery can be results of this disorder. But most of these attempts only bring on further emotional pain. According to the criteria in the upcoming fifth version of the diagnostic manual for mental health disorders, to be diagnosed with BDD a person must fulfill the following criteria:
One of the most distressing impacts of BDD is how alone the person can feel who is suffering from the disorder. When others do not see or believe that the “defect” is valid, the person can feel misunderstood, alone, and as if he or she is different from everyone else. Social isolation can intensify the feelings of being “ugly” or “separate” and can be linked to methods of self-harm as a soothing mechanism — and also as a form of self-punishment. Eating disorder and cutting behaviors typically link to a distorted body image, and when paired with BDD, these conditions can spiral out of control and potentially be deadly. Bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa can be qualified with feeling fat when in fact the person may be grossly underweight (more common in anorexia than bulimia). Losing weight and changing one’s physical appearance ultimately have the same goal: to find happiness with oneself, albeit in a dangerous and distorted manner. Therapy can help people with BDD and eating disorders find that the happiness they are looking for is not physical, but inner acceptance of his or herself as their naturally beautiful selves.
The most common areas of concern for people with BDD include:
Symptoms may include:
How is BDD treated? Art therapy can inspire healing. One creative way to realistically see the self includes having the affected person draw on a large piece of paper how they envision their body to look. Then, have the person lay on the paper inside of their outline, and draw how the person actually looks. This is often an eye-opening experience to see that the focus of BDD is in reality not as ugly or fat as the person thinks it is in their minds. Other helpful therapeutic approaches include somatic and body-centerered psychotherapy as well as psychoanalytic therapy that looks at some aspects such as early trauma or neglect that may have triggered BDD.
Here is a video that depicts what it feels like to live with this disorder:
In the second part of my blog series on burnout (see Monday’s post about signs you might be approaching burnout), I want to focus on techniques for absolving the symptoms of burnout. You may have deciphered that you are on the path to burnout in your work or educational life and you are looking for ways to rejuvenate that passion for your career that has somehow lost its luster. No one can run on empty forever. When we work too hard, push ourselves too far, and try to achieve “perfection” in life, we risk overburdening ourselves and losing sight of what is truly important to us. I play a part in this myself, and have had several instances in the recent past where I have needed to stop and check myself: what am I pushing myself so hard for? Am I really enjoying the work I do? The answer is yes, though sometimes I find it at the bottom of a muddy pond that is covered by weeds of my insecurities and workaholic ethic. I love what I do; it is my passion. I am very lucky to be helping people every day in a way that is fulfilling to myself and hopefully fulfilling to those that I serve. However, when I push myself too hard to be “the best” or to achieve some sort of unattainable goal, I am exhausted. That is when I approach burnout and find myself saying “yes” to the seven symptoms that I listed in my previous post.
So what to do? Take a deep breath. In my view, burnout is actually an opportunity to re-evaluate your life and to make choices that you might overlook and pass on otherwise. It is a way of forcing yourself to take a break and take a bird’s eye view of your life. What do you see? Here are several ways to renew yourself from burnout and to re-discover that energy that lies within you:
1.) Try to look at your life from a different perspective. Sometimes when I am feeling emotionally overwhelmed, I try to stop wheels spinning in my mind and to look at my life from a different perspective. I imagine myself floating above, watching me go through my day. What this brings to me is an observer’s stance: noticing how I go about my day in a way I had never thought of before. It also helps me to realize that my concerns or obsessions are not as consuming as I make them to be. This can help you ease up on yourself and make some choices that are most beneficial for your goals.
2.) Remember where you find your energy and passion – and embrace it. One thing about burnout is that it can taint your experience with things that you really do love. Your job, your school, a relationship — if you are burned out on these, you may lose sight of what you really love about them. Try to remember what brought you to love these things in the first place. Maybe it was reading a book about the subject, or watching a documentary. Maybe it was having a conversation with someone who inspired you. Go back to that place and memory in your mind. Sit with it. Write about it. Remember that you are still the person you were, and that the passion still lies within you.
3.) Define the stressors in your life and try to reduce them. When you feel like “everyday is a bad day“, it can be difficult to get up in the morning. What is causing you to feel this way? Is it the way your workplace makes you feel? Is it a relationship that you wish could be better? Sit down and try to think about what zaps your energy and happiness every day. Are there aspects of these things that do not align with your personal goals and values? Are you currently feeling engaged with your work? Try to make a game plan for how you can reduce the extent of stress in your life and manage your day in a healthier way.
4.) Think about how you measure and define success. Not feeling successful can be a leading sign of burnout. Whether it is in a job, school, or in a relationship, if you continually are feeling like you can’t quite reach a goal, it can be more and more difficult to try. Is your definition of success reasonable? Do you have small goals that you realistically can attain each day, or do you have huge ones that overwhelm you and cause you to shut down? Try to break down goals to smaller pieces. The feeling of accomplishment is great; it can be felt even with small steps and those are the ones that help you feel balanced and achieve bigger goals.
5.) Physically remove yourself from the source of burnout. We can get very stuck in our routines and we may have difficulty realizing that parts of our routine are contributing to our burnout. Sometimes the best and only thing to do to reduce burnout is to remove yourself from the triggering situation. Take a leave of absence from work. Go on a vacation to a locale that is strikingly different from your home locale. Surround yourself with people and environments that you do not normally interact with, and allow them to teach you their perspective on life. This can be very refreshing and can help you get back to the values, loves, and goals that are truly meaningful to you.
I hope that this series on burnout has been helpful. Burnout is a very real and common issue and can be avoided by taking care to notice what is going on within you. We all go through it and can learn so much from the experience. By healing what is exhausted within ourselves, we can re-energize and renew so that we are available to fully embrace our vibrant lives.
Do you ever have those days where you’re exhausted before you have even gotten up from bed? Does your list of tasks on your to-do list outnumber the time you have in the day? We are all busy people, with many opportunities and priorities continually being juggled. But how do you know when you just can’t keep all of those balls in the air anymore? What I am referring to is possibly “burnout” and it affects all of us to some degree at varying points in our lives. And trust me — it is both preventable and curable. Burnout is commonly defined as “the experience of long-term exhaustion or diminished interest.” I call it emotional exhaustion.
Burnout is not recognized as an official mental health condition in the DSM, but it has the power to impact every aspect of our daily lives if we do not recognize when it is creeping up. Burnout is most commonly thought to occur in occupational or educational spheres (such as working too hard or too long), but I believe that it also can occur in our personal, social, and familial lives as well. Humans need a break from consistent tasks or stimulation — and “too much of a good (or not so good) thing” can lead to burnout. And allowing burnout to intrude too deeply in your life can significantly impact relationships with others as well as with yourself. It can also lead to more serious conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Have you ever said to yourself “oh, I am so burned out by this assignment…I can’t even think anymore”, or “I am so exhausted that I can’t imagine going into work and sitting at that computer for one more day”? We all can relate. Here are eight signs that you might be approaching burnout and some tips for putting a halt to it before it turns you to ash:
Eight Signs You are Approaching Burnout:
1.) You dread doing things that you normally love to do. Now this may sound also like a symptom of depression, which it could be and that is why I noted that severe burnout can lead to other issues. Burnout can take energy away from your career or favorite past-time, and it may be difficult to cut back on tasks because they are where you typically find joy and fulfillment.
2.) You are emotionally unbalanced. What does this mean? It could mean a variety of things and only you can be the judge for your own emotions. For some, it could mean that things that typically don’t upset you or impact you very much are somehow having a greater effect on your emotional state. For example, a minor conflict with a co-worker can create a heated discussion and cause one of you to leave in tears.
3.) You have trouble saying “no”. Now this is a tough one. How many of us have trouble saying no? I certainly do. This one incorporates #1 and #2 — if you are feeling emotionally unbalanced and lacking motivation to do things you normally love but continue to say yes to events or commitments that intensify the symptoms, this may lead to burnout. This takes a keen ability to sense your own limits and know when you need a break, which can only occur with practice and compassion for yourself.
4.) You avoid loved ones. Isolation is an indicator of many types of mental issues — depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and domestic violence to name a few. Sometimes this can mean physically avoiding loved ones, or it can mean (and more devastatingly so) emotionally withdrawing from them. Burnout can lead to feeling hopeless and overwhelmed and closing those feelings in yourself so that others do not have to bear them. In actuality, opening up and sharing the burden of the feelings can help heal burnout.
5.) You are making mistakes or consistently forgetting things. When we are filled to the brim with tasks and responsibilities, it can be difficult to make room for new learning and memories. Feeling burned out can appear in ways that might look like “I don’t care anymore” and lead to mistakes in paperwork or being short with co-workers. In reality, you really do care but are emotionally exhausted and cannot fit any more stimulation into your emotional and cognitive brain until you clear out some of the “junk” – or factors that are keeping you stuck.
6.) You become sick more often and to greater degrees. As I talk about often on my blog, the mind and the body are strongly connected. When one hurts, so does the other (and vice versa – when one is joyful, so is the other). When you are emotionally exhausted and spent, your body will feel it. Stress affects mind, body, and spirit. This could affect energy levels as well as physical symptoms. I have had clients who have developed hives as a way to avoid work (without their conscious knowing) because they are burned out. Listen to what your body is telling you.
7.) You are neglecting your own needs. This relates back to #3, but goes deeper than saying no. This can turn into assertively denying your own needs to meet a higher demand (or so the burnout wants you to do!). Working late or adding hours to your schedule that take away from personal time are indicators of this type of burnout. It is almost as if your own needs lose value and the influence of others’ needs (bosses, family, children, etc) make them appear to be more important. Nothing is further from the truth and this is an important lesson in avoiding burnout: never let your needs go unmet for long periods of time, and give them the same values as other needs in your life.
8.) You are reading this blog post. You wouldn’t be so curious about what leads to burnout if you didn’t feel some of the symptoms, now would you? Like I said earlier, we all have experienced some form of burnout and I encourage you to listen to your inner voice that may be asking for a break. Running yourself into the group with work, relationship dynamics, personal obligations, or other stressful situations will only hurt you in the long run and defeat the purpose of trying so hard in the first place. Notice that burnout is normal and universal and that it can be absolved.
Want to know how? Read my blog post later in the week to learn techniques for breaking free of burnout – and how to keep yourself in a balanced and healthy state. Further tips: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/burnout_signs_symptoms.htm
Last week I was very fortunate to be invited to the ranch of Beyond the Arena where coach Devon Combs, who is specially trained in the gestalt method, works with horses “to empower clients to discover their capacity for healing, joy, love and self-acceptance, so that they may enjoy their lives more fully and experience more peace.” Set in the beautiful and tranquil mountains of Larkspur, Colorado, the ranch is home to six horses with unique personalities and healing powers. I have had limited opportunity to directly interact with horses throughout my life, but I felt very comfortable around these majestic creatures. One of the most fascinating aspects of Devon’s work is that you do not need to have any prior horse experience! Also, whether you feel completely at ease with horses or if you have some hesitations to getting up close and personal with the animals – it does not matter. Devon will utilize any emotion you present with to help you connect deeper with your inner motivations and to sense the horses’ feelings as well.
I don’t know if you are anything like me, but I have trouble taking my focus off of work and obligations just about every day. I enjoy my work immensely, but sometimes I forget to notice other aspects of my life that are just as important: say, for example, how much I enjoy being in the fresh air, with nothing blocking me from the natural environment except my own inhibitions. That is exactly where Devon starts: what are you feeling in your body right now? What comes up for you as you notice the horse in the stall next to you — his sheer size, the smell of him, the sounds that he makes? Devon gradually introduced me to Playboy, the alpha male of the ranch. Playboy, says Devon, is very good at sensing the meaning and emotion in your voice and especially in your body.
As I began brushing him, Devon asked me about what I brought with me that day. Anxiety and joy, I responded. As I began to tell her more about where my anxiety and joy came from, I came to a realization that I need to chase my joy and give it the same amount (or more) of power in my life as I seem to give to my anxiety. Playboy exhaled and turned to look at me. He agreed that joy deserves to be experienced fully and appreciated deeply. And he really wanted me to get that message.
I then went into a closed pin with another horse who was clearing out the grass. As I shared the space with this horse, I could feel some anxiety rise up in me. I did not know what she would do. Her actions, meeting this new person, were unpredictable — just as life is. She also could sense that I began to feel at peace in the environment and she came right up to welcome me into her home.
Devon coached me in assertiveness by having me lead the horse around the pin and then stop her. I was not aware of the rapidity of my gait until the horse asked to slow down. Sometimes, says Devon, you get just as far by stopping and resting as you do by running towards your goal. As we spoke about boundaries and control (two of my favorite and most personal issues), I became more uncontrolled in my own body as I spent increasing time with the horses who had their own rules for life — rules that did not require me to live within a certain standard or expectation. Finally, Devon created my “stuck place” with a circle of fluorescent cones. I stood in the confined area and felt my body tense up from being trapped into this ambivalent space where feelings such as frustration, disappointment, anger, and despair swirled around me. The mare came to my stuck place and promptly began chewing on one of the cones. She doesn’t like the way you have imprisoned yourself, notes Devon. What would you like to do about it?
I took one of the cones and threw it over the enclosed fence — sending my hesitations, anxiety, stress, and self-deprecation Beyond the Arena.
It was difficult going back to “reality” after my experience at the ranch. Devon gave me a keepsake — a card with a message encouraging me to celebrate small victories and accomplishments and a beautiful painting of a colorful and confident horse on the front. Since that day, I have consciously strived to remember all that I have accomplished in my personal and professional life and to give each of those steps the value that they deserve. As I went through the rest of my day, I remembered what Playboy had told me with the way he cocked his hoof and released his breath: energy is universal. The energy that I put out in the world is felt not only by me but by everyone (and horse) that I interact with, just as I take in the energy of those around me as well.
The lesson that I learned last week up in Larkspur is simple but all too difficult to remember sometimes: you cannot give to the world until you give to yourself. Positive energy radiates from a healthy soul — to share this with others, you must first embody it yourself. The horses know this, and they acknowledge energy as they sense it and communicate to you how your energy affects them. This is an invaluable lesson.
Later this summer, Beyond the Arena is getting a brand new indoor arena where workshops, meetings, coaching sessions, and so much more will be housed! Please check out the website at www.beyondthearena.com.
Also later this year: a collaborative workshop put on by Devon Combs and myself, utilizing equine-assisted coaching and therapy to help those affected by eating disorders find recovery.