The Stories We Choose

This is an 8-minute read.

Stories. The stories we hear and tell ourselves on a daily basis contain within them immeasurable amounts of power. They determine how we move through our everyday life, the way we see our future and how we relate to our own story, our past.

Do we trust or do we hide? Love or hate? Show compassion for those we do not understand or turn a blind eye to all those we label as “other?”

I have been doing a deep dive into my own story recently, re-examining my history and the lens through which I view it. It is often a somewhat uncomfortable process, this questioning of all the things we hold as truth. Honesty is one of my highest held values, but I’ve learned that in order to be honest with others, I must first learn to be honest with myself.

For someone who values honesty, I am incredibly good at ignoring facts that are staring me right in the face. I habitually lied to myself for a long time, and I find it hard to forgive the person I was during those years I spent under my own spell. The narratives I told myself often hid in plain sight, simmering somewhere just below the surface. I was too scared to dig anything up for fear of the turmoil it might cause within my life. So I bottled things up, put on a brave face and carried on. Until I couldn’t carry on any longer.

During my teen years, I struggled with my relationship to my body and, inevitably, the food I ate (or didn’t eat.) When I was eleven, I injured my back and as a result, gained a lot of weight and began to look like a woman, the one thing every young female gymnast fears most. My comeback was a struggle until I learned my body could change if I increased my cardio and hours of training while choosing to eat fewer carbs, so that is what I did. My coaches told me how good I looked, and everything was well. For a time.

As the years progressed, I became anorexic at a severity that was just mild enough I could continue to function and train at a high level, albeit not that well. I figured I was still eating food, so there was no way I had become “anorexic.” The word brought about images of girls tied to hospital beds, stick thin and fighting for their lives, and I resisted this idea, hard.

I was determined to be strict with my diet and exercise regime because it made me “feel better” within my body. Nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong. You can be a “healthy eater” and still be anorexic if the amount of calories you burn in a day far exceeds the fuel you take in. My body began feeding on my muscles when my fat reserves had dropped to something nearly non-existent. Still, I held on.

For a long time, every single decision I made was made out of fear.

I chose to eat the way I did in an attempt to control my body. I feared I might get fat if I ate any other way. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a girl who was still too bulky, not the shell of myself I’d become. I was never elegant or pretty or thin enough for my idea of beauty. So I restricted myself and kept on running.

Eventually, my parents intervened at a point when my obsession was becoming life-threatening. I began to understand only months into my recovery how thin I had really been. The image I’d seen when I looked in the mirror did not match what other people had seen at all. This scared me more than anything else – the fact that the mind could play such a huge role in my perception of reality terrified me to the core.

Recovery has been a long, winding road with many tears, twists and turns. As I nourished my body with wholesome foods, I put on weight and began to have more energy once again. I had good people in my life there to reassure me when the mind games became too much, and their love helped me find a way through. No, you’re not eating too much. No, you’re not fat. Remember, you trained for five hours today? 

When I came out on the other end, I had treated the symptoms of anorexia. This was a huge accomplishment in of itself. But the underlying root of the problem that had caused this threat to my life, it was still there.

Hidden within the stories I told myself was a deeper belief that was holding me back from living a life of true joy.

Sometime in my early teens, I developed the belief that nothing I did was ever good enough. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t worthy of a beautiful life. I wasn’t worthy of love. Having grown up in the cutthroat world of women’s artistic gymnastics, my definition of success relied heavily upon outward appearances and one’s ability to be at the top of their field. I may have told myself these things didn’t matter to me, but the stories I’d consumed growing up were embedded in my mind. I didn’t believe in my own story of success – not yet.

My fractured relationship with myself gave space for others to sneak in and further undermine my confidence. I thought I didn’t deserve respect, so I didn’t stand up for myself. I felt I had “failed” in the past, so I told myself I was a failure. I had been known to act out of fear at times, and so I labelled myself a coward.

This is why I say the stories we tell ourselves are so powerful: they literally have the ability to shape our reality, whether we would like it that way or not. We need to learn to seperate the things we experience in life from our deepest beliefs about ourselves.

Language is incredibly powerful, but we use it so carelessly at times. I would like to remind you that having had your heart or trust broken once is different from being broken. Having experienced failure within something you care about does not mean you are a failure. Your outward appearance does not determine your worth as a human being and more than that, you are so much more than enough.

The truth is, the heart is an intricate thing. In time, as we grow closer to certain people in our lives, the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ begin to blur. Susan Piver, an author and longtime Buddist practitioner, explains in this podcast how in any deep relationship, the way we treat ourselves becomes the way in which we treat others. If we learn to show up for ourselves with the acceptance that we are ever-changing human beings who can be strong and kind and fearful and angry all at once, we are able to meet our fellow humans with a deeper sense of compassion, knowing they too experience all these things.

In order to be gentle and understanding with others, we must first learn to be gentle and understanding with ourselves.

For me, this year has been a lesson in healing and the value in being honest with oneself. Satya, as it is known in Sanskrit, is the practice of truth-telling in all domains of life. As it turns out, it is easy to say you value honesty, but it is so, so challenging to practice it for yourself. It takes great courage to stand up for what you believe in when you know there is an easier way.

I look back now, and sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I hadn’t chosen bravery that moment back in January that changed my life. Sometimes you make a decision that sets off a chain reaction, and that’s exactly what I knew this moment was for me. Even then. It was absolutely terrifying but I couldn’t bear the thought of staying where I was a moment longer.

My life would likely look much different if I hadn’t tipped over that first domino that led to so much change and heartache. Would I have been truly happy? Probably not. Perhaps, in time. But I wouldn’t be standing in this beautiful moment sharing these words here with you. And that, for me, is enough.

In the end, fear never really disappears. It just manifests itself in different ways. The key is to learn to sit with our fears and doubts and give them space to breathe. Courage does not exist in the absence of fear, but rather, because of it. Do not let your fear write the stories you tell yourself every day. Do not give doubt the pen. You are the author of your own life, even if you forget now and then.

There is no right or wrong in life, only the path we choose. It is, however, vital for us to remember that one, simple fact as we go through our days: we have the power to choose.

So what is your truth? What story do you choose?

Lean In

(This post contains some facts about our current situation on Earth and what you can do to help.)

“Lean into the discomfort.”

This is one piece of advice I’ve gotten used to hearing over the last number of years. It seems to be a common theme among those looking to make a change in the world. As an artist and creative entrepreneur, this advice describes my job on a daily basis – I am to find the emotions and ideas that lie just beyond my comfort zone and venture into their territory. While I try to do this a little bit every day, I often find it’s easier said than done to push beyond the places I’ve been before.

How often do you lean into your discomfort?

If you’re like most people I know (myself included) the answer is not all that often. Deliberately finding the spaces that put us on edge is not generally something we like to do. Sure, there are those few adrenaline junkies out there who love the thrill of not knowing if they’re going to live or die today, but I think most of us can agree we prefer to do the exact opposite – we like to lean away from the things that make us uneasy. We like to walk very quickly glancing back over our shoulder with a smile plastered on our faces just to make sure no one is watching, then break out into an all-out sprint in the opposite direction.

Now, this isn’t entirely our fault. As humans, our brains are wired to run away at the first sign of danger, as fast as our two legs will carry us. It’s the very thing that kept us alive for so long in a world that saw us as dinner. Safety is one of the most basic human needs. But no matter what society would like to lead you to believe, safety is not the same thing as comfort. Sometimes remaining within our comfort zone is the most dangerous thing we can do.

I have been sitting with a lot of uncomfortable topics lately, topics that make me want to just look the other way. Of course, once you know the facts, it’s hard to do that. I know I find it extremely difficult to forget something once I learn the truth, especially within topics like these.

Topics like the fact that there is a prevalence of race and gender inequality, even in our seemingly progressive world today. How women who don’t look like me face challenges I will never know and how if I am not actively part of the solution, I am part of the problem; how there is so much more for me to know.

Topics like my own experiences of rejection and what I am doing to move through that pain. How that pain relates to everyone else’s, and the way in which I treat myself becomes the way in which I treat those closest to me, and I would never choose to be so hard on them.

Most of all, I have been taking a deeper look at the world around us, at this beautiful earth we call home. Global warming is real, people. If we don’t start making changes now, it will have catastrophic results.

I sometimes wish I were one of those people who could make light of a really serious topic, because I believe humour is disarming. I’m working on it, but in the mean time I’m just that person who feels things really, really deeply and wants to take on the world all at once.

The facts are shocking. Only one out of every ten people breathe safe air, according to WHO guidelines. Air pollution is responsible for one in three deaths related to stroke, chronic respiratory disease or lung cancer – including premature death among children. Rising temperatures create worse storms, droughts and heat waves, which in turn leads to an increase in food shortages and malnutrition in countries already struggling to make ends meet.

But the good news doesn’t stop there.  Each year, at least eight million tonnes of plastic leak into our oceans. The world’s largest floating collection of trash lives in the ocean between Hawaii and California in what is known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Often described as larger than Texas, it is home to 79 000 metric tons of plastic. This waste is composed of the usual culprits: plastic bags, straws and bottle caps. What we’re not paying attention to? Fishing equipment. Abandoned fishing equipment makes up for 46% of the floating island, while a majority of the rest waste is fishing gear of a different kind. One in three fish caught never makes it to the plate, and one-third of all commercial fish species are overfished.

These facts are just the tip of the melting iceberg, but they are overwhelming nonetheless. So what does it mean for you? For me? For the seven billion people we share this planet with and the generations to come?

The more I learn, the more I see how everything is intricately, inextricably connected. An increase in air pollution means farmers will yield less food from their crops, thus increasing food shortage and malnutrition. When we breathe air that is filled with particles of black carbon that penetrate our bodies’ defences, we suffer from issues like asthma, lung cancer and stroke and must spend more on health care to solve issues that could be avoided in the first place. More plastic in our oceans means fish eat more plastic which means we, in turn, eat more plastic which could be not-so-good for our health. When we waste food, we produce more methane and further contribute to the issue of world hunger. And so the cycle continues.

The good news (the real good news, this time) is this: we, as individuals, can and do make a difference with the choices we make every day. If we reduce the amount of pollution we create by driving less and making a conscious effort with our trash, we will be able to breathe easier and produce more food in the long run.

Of course, these are extremely complex issues. But there are a few things you can start doing, today.

You can say no to straws, bring your own reusable bags and a water bottle wherever you go. You can take the metro or bike to work instead of driving your car and enjoy a little extra sunshine along the way. You can buy food that requires less packaging or no packing at all. You can reach out to your community leaders and bring awareness to the issues at stake.

These are little things, but they are important nonetheless. Start with these. If you’re willing to dive a little deeper, do some research. The truest answers are often the ones we don’t want to hear.

According to the Drawdown, a comprehensive list of the top 100 things we can do to reduce climate change, the single greatest thing we can do as individuals is this: reduce food waste. Food waste accounts for approximates 8% of emissions worldwide. In higher income countries, we waste an average of 35% of the food we buy each year. THAT IS A LOT OF FOOD for such a simple solution. All we need to do is plan a little better, and eat what’s in the fridge.

Related to this: compost. Natural waste produced methane, a pollutant 80 times more powerful than CO2 when it comes to heating our atmosphere. Regular landfills are not equipt to deal with such a potent compound, but proper composting facilities are. Composted food gets a second life – it can be put to use instead of rotting in a landfill somewhere. Ew.

Now, I say these things, but I AM NOT A SAINT. I am only working on them myself. I am working on them one day, one step at a time. Honestly, I find composting gross. I’ve avoided it like a slimy sock until recently. I’ve realized how much of a difference it can make.

There is one thing I have found that collectively could have the most significant impact of all, but it’s something of a taboo subject. Are you ready for it? My third and final suggestion is this: move towards a plant-based diet.

GASP. Did I just say what you think I just said? Did I just imply the “v” word?

Calm down a minute. Please don’t leave this article because I might have just said something you might possibly disagree with. When I say going into uncomfortable spaces, the space of food is one of the tensest spaces, second only to any debates relating to politics. Food is deeply personal. Food is family and friends and good times and memories. Food is the thing that sustains us. Food is something different to every person on earth, but the basic fact is this: food is life. We cannot live without it, at least, not for very long.

I’m not saying you have to stop eating animal products. I’m not telling you to abandon meat. I am not here to bore you with the vices of the modern diet and virtues of veganism, there are plenty of sites out there to do that. But the one thing I will tell you is this: if you are serious about having an impact on our planet, consider adding more plants to your plate. Just think about it. When you do consume animal products, be a little more mindful of where they’re coming from. Maybe choose free-reign and local over the cheapest option out there. Maybe bulk up that meal with baked veggies and sauteed beans.

Food has been a touchy topic for me for several years. I am learning a new way to be mindful of what I eat. I am digging into the things that make me uncomfortable and why I feel that way. I am learning how I can give back to this planet that has already given me so much.

I am always learning. If you go through life with open eyes, you can too. Let these words give you the courage you need to look at something that makes you uncomfortable. Just a little.

Take one step today.

***

Intrigued? Check out these links:

Drawdown.org to learn about the top solutions to climate change.

BreatheLife to learn about air pollution and what you can do.

Deliciously Ella for plant-based recipes even carnivores will love.

Look in the Mirror

Sometimes I wish I could observe the world through another person’s eyes. Perception is such an intriguing topic – every last person on earth today experiences the world differently than you or I. And I mean this in the most literal sense. No two people can look at the sky and see the exact same shade of blue. To some, classical music is the most beautiful sound in the world, and to others, it will put them to sleep. One person may love the taste of mangoes, while another will be left at the mercy of nausea after one bite because of that one time in Guatemala when they contracted food poisoning and that was the last thing they had ate before they threw up for twenty-four hours, nearly nonstop, and they know they are not allergic but they just really do not want to relive that memory, thank you very much.

We all collect a series of assumptions as we go through life about the ways in which the world works, and we tend to expect everyone else to share those same set of rules, too. Even when they don’t.

Travel is one easy way to confront the very things you tend to take for granted on a daily basis. The culture we grow up in heavily influences so many of the decisions we make without thinking, relying on our subconscious brain to do the work. This set of rules is a sort of guidebook for how we should show up in the world, the language we should use and the way we should interpret others’ actions or words. It is so deeply ingrained in us we hardly ever stop to think about it or question where a certain belief came from, we just accept it as fact and move on. We need something concrete to build a foundation on, after all, something solid from which we can act.

Constantly questioning things is exhausting. There are certain evolutionary traits that exist in humans that have enabled us to survive for thousands of years, and this guidebook is one of them. It simplifies life for our brain, just like stereotypes do. Instinctively, we want to stick close to our tribe and avoid the “other.” So it is easy for us to get caught up in the business of living, to forget to reflect or question things at all, even when we become dissatisfied with the way things are.

This is because, until very recently, we simply couldn’t. Our brain was taught to ignore the fact that there might be another way, perhaps just beyond our doorstep. But times have changed. We can override our brain’s tendency to avoid other ways of life. First, however, we must be willing to venture out of our comfort zone and expand our point of view.

There are usually a few rules in our guidebook we skim over, never really taking a closer look into how they govern our life.

During my recent trip to Iceland, I was confronted with one of these rules that owned me for several years in a way I wish it never had. When I was eleven years old, I sustained a back injury that put me out for several months. I had always been a very active child, running and playing both in and outside of the gym, and this sudden inactivity was a shock to my body. Inevitably, I gained a lot of weight in a short period of time. After several months of rest, I returned to the gym, no longer the little girl I’d once been. It was as if I’d become a woman overnight – I hardly recognized this body I was attempting to flip around. Add to this the skin-tight bodysuits and tiny teammates, and it was a recipe for some serious insecurities surrounding my physical form. Thus began a battle between my mind and my body that would last several years.

Sometime before adolescence, I’d had an image ingrained in my brain of the ideal body: that was, I should have thin, lean, long limbs and a tiny torso to accentuate my hips. I always admired the gymnasts who had this graceful look over the short, powerful types. When you’re an active kid, it’s easy to maintain this stature. But in time, I grew to envy these long lean girls who could eat whatever they wanted and not worry about putting on a single pound. My body type was something quite different, and I fought, hard.

When I was fourteen, I thought I’d discovered a way to hack my body type to get the look I craved. If I cut out all grains and dairy and ate a diet consisting purely of vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish and a few select superfoods, I found those lean limbs within reach. I started doing cardio five to six days per week in addition to my gymnastics and circus training, and I was terrified of the consequences if I missed a few hours or stepped out of line.

My devotion to this way of life came from all the wrong reasons, and I grew to fear my body.

I would stare at the mirror and pull at non-existent fat around my waist, sucking in my abs as much as I could. Anytime someone took a photo or video of me, I would inevitably hate the way I looked. In the few times I felt I was beautiful, I was nearly always at my skinniest, skinny to a point that scares me to look at now. Ultimately, the image I saw when I looked at myself didn’t match reality, didn’t match what everyone else saw when they observed this tiny girl grow tinnier with every passing month. People I hardly knew were worried about my well being. I was skin and bones and wiry muscle, constantly tired and hungry and cranky.

You are not your body – you are so much more than the figure that other people see. Somewhere along the way, I forgot this little piece of information, and my self-worth became inextricably attached to the way I felt about my body on any given day. I thought this was the only way for me to live; I never criticised others for their lifestyle, I never told anyone they should adopt my way of life. Maybe this should have been a huge red flag, but my brain never got the message. I’ve always been better at helping others than I have at letting myself be helped, and in this instance, it went far too far.

It is easy to lie to yourself for a period of time, but at one point you have to wake up. A little more than a year ago, my parents sat me down and told me this needed to change. For the first time, they managed to get me to see how unhealthy I’d become, how this way of life had become a dangerous habit that could actually put my life in danger if we didn’t do something immediately. Thus, the long road to recovery began.

I think many of our issues about our bodies stem from the stories we learn from the culture we grow up in.

Visiting the thermal pools in Iceland made me realize how much more comfortable people are with their bodies over there. In the pools, you are required to strip naked and shower before you put on your bathing suit and enter the water. Thing is, there are no individual stalls – it’s all communal showers. There is no hiding. But no one really cares what anyone else looks like. Women and girls of all ages adhered to this rule, going about their own business no matter their shape or size. I think it’s a healthy thing for young girls growing up to see this kind of attitude surrounding bodies. There is no fear, no judgement, just acceptance. Everyone has a body with their own strengths and flaws, that’s just the way it is.

While this ritual made me uncomfortable, it forced me to confront the messaging I’d accumulated growing up. This idea that we should all be air-brushed models and do everything in our power to reverse the ageing process is false. Bodies are not meant to be feared; they are meant to be loved and appreciated for all they do for us every day.

I’m not saying these body positivity campaigns don’t still make me uncomfortable. This issue is something I’m still working on like anyone else. I am a short, athletic yet curvy young woman who builds muscle easily with use, and I am learning to own this fact now.

Take a look in the mirror, really stop and look this time. Every body is a good body – so love yours just the way it is.