You never know that a moment is coming that will change you forever. For me, it started simply enough – my wife and I were out running errands one weekend and we became hungry and decided to stop for an early dinner. After trying unsuccessfully to find a place we’d like that didn’t have a line a mile long, our “hungry” had morphed into “starving” and choice no longer mattered. We gave in and just went into the next restaurant we saw. “Come on”, she said, “I’ll buy you dinner.”
It turned out there was a reason for the lack of a line at the place we chose. Service was lukewarm and, to put it nicely, the food was horrid. Our comments to each other were things like, “How can you fu*k up beans? You take them out of a can and heat them up. How could that possibly go awry?!”
After just a couple bites, my wife pushed her plate aside. I, on the other hand, kept eating.
She watched me for awhile. I was hunched over my plate like it was a special meal in prison and I had to guard against someone taking it away from me. With compassion and understanding in her eyes, she quietly said, “You don’t have to eat that”. Without a thought and barely even taking a breath, I replied, “But it’s my dinner” and kept shoveling it in as quickly as I could. I hated every bite but had been conditioned that I had to eat it, no matter what.
Let’s be honest, despite me being brilliant at busting fear, if you see me, it is glaringly apparent that food and I have an unusual relationship. I am what doctors would classify as morbidly obese and although I truly love vegetables and lean meats, I also have a mad love affair with sugar and fried foods. In all honesty, I have a tragic, painful relationship with food that I have never disclosed, except to those in my inner circle – until today.
My mother was mentally ill. She never had a clinical diagnosis but if you knew her, you would readily agree that the synapses within her brain fired in a much different pattern that the average person. I was adopted by her and my father when I was four and a half.
By age 5, it was clear that if she put something in front of me, I had to eat it – no questions asked. If I didn’t, I would not only be punished but the same meal would be waiting for me the next time I sat down at the table, and the next, and the next, and the next, until I finally gave in and ate it. Our first instance of this lesson resulted in me going without ANY food for three whole days, in addition to being spanked and berated after every failed meal, because I refused to eat a plate of chitlins (chitterlings, aka cow intestines, for you more proper folk). I quickly learned that, if it is put in front of me, I must eat it – no matter what.
Many of us were raised with the “starving kids in Africa” paradigm so I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels compelled to clean their plate, whether it’s what your body or mind really wants or not but I then had another issue laid on top of that one.
When I was ten, I started to develop breasts. My mother decided I was fat. My father had passed away two years earlier so there was no longer anyone around to rein her in. She concluded the only way to keep me from being fat was to restrict my eating…so she did. I was allowed to alternate one egg for breakfast one day and a bowl of cereal (with powdered milk that went rancid long before I finished it) the next. That was my food for the day.
I started to love going to school, despite my social anxiety and difficulties there, because it meant I could move slowly enough at the end of our lunch period to sneak into the trash cans and gorge myself on the unfinished lunches of the other children. For two long years, school lunchroom trash cans became my primary source of food. When I was finally removed from my home at age twelve, I weighed a mere 50 pounds – the weight of the average healthy 7 year old. You could see every bone in my body, I passed out frequently from simple activities such as trying to stand up, and the doctors classified me as suffering from severe malnutrition.
Fast forward to me becoming homeless at age 19, where getting food and eating the scraps of others once again became my norm. Suffice it to say, when it comes to food, I don’t just have issues – I have an entire subscription. Not only do I have “mindlessly clean your plate” messaging firmly ingrained but I also have “I have to eat a lot now because who knows when food will become scarce again” mentality coded into every cell.
Having someone say, “you don’t have to eat that” wasn’t a sentence my brain knew how to comprehend…so I kept gagging down the food.
My wife gently touched my arm and interrupted its trajectory toward my mouth. She looked into my eyes and said again, more firmly, “You don’t have to eat that.” I stopped with my mouth still full of putrid, disgusting food, my eyes wide as saucers, as if she had just informed me that the world was round after my entire life of thinking it was flat. I wasn’t entirely sure what she was saying. I was confused and unable to do anything but sit there with my mouth hanging open.
She then said, “You don’t ever have to eat anything you don’t want again. You can stop at any point. I don’t care who made it or even if I bought it and it was really expensive. You don’t have to eat it. And you will never be in trouble and, as long as I’m alive, you will never go hungry again. Ever. So if you don’t like it, stop. Put the fork down and let’s go some place that isn’t disgusting and I will buy you a whole new meal if you want one.” Tears started to stream down my face.
I realized that hidden within what she said were four words that changed my life, “You have my permission.”
As much as we like to talk about being empowered and claiming responsibility for our own lives, almost all of us are heavily influenced by the beliefs and opinions of others. I realized I had spent my whole life eating food I didn’t really even want because someone had told me I had to and I had never questioned, even as an adult, whether I had the power to simply stop doing it. I have taken charge and kicked ass in many areas of my life but we all have our areas of weakness and I will readily admit that was one of mine. It was something so ingrained that I didn’t ever even stop to think about whether I had another choice, so I kept going the way I always had.
I’ve started losing weight since then. My body is releasing it slowly and begrudgingly but it is finally coming off. My only change is that I now stop eating when I no longer feel like eating, and I don’t justify or apologize for doing so. I simply stop. What a gift that has been!
Thinking about this, I started to think about all the work with people I do around their fears and how they can step through them to build successful businesses and empowered lives. I realized that at least a part of what I do is give people permission to make a different choice than the one of staying stuck in fear. I also realized that’s what many people in the personal development realm do. People are rarely revealing to you anything that you didn’t already know within your core; they are simply giving you permission to step into something greater than what you’ve allowed for yourself prior to that moment.
So, right here, right now, I want to share with you the same gift my wife gave to me. Whatever that thing is that you’ve been doing that you don’t really even want to do but you don’t feel like you have any choice – whether it’s cleaning your plate, smoking another cigarette, stifling your voice, dimming your light, dishonoring your wishes, or anything else that doesn’t make your soul smile – STOP. Stop now. As simple as that. In fact, you don’t have to do that thing ever again, if you don’t want to.
You have my permission.
Photo credit: Thomas Leuthard / Foter / CC BY