Finding Contentment when Life is not ‘Perfect’

Finding peace and fulfilment when life is messy

Contentment, like a balanced life, does not magically appear one morning when you open your eyes. Life is not perfect. People are not perfect. Sometimes you cannot change your circumstances but you have control over your choices. You cannot change other people but you can do the work – deep inside yourself. Sometimes, that inner work is about letting go and walking away. It means acknowledging and making peace with that which will not change – like the fact that you will always have an eating disorder (ED) or mental health issues that you will have to work at.

So why do we struggle so to find and hold onto inner peace? Is it truly that elusive? Is there anything we can do to improve this? Fortunately, there are things we can do.

May I have a magic wand, please?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we can somehow print the perfect images we hold in our minds of how we want events, our social and love relationships, or our environments to work out on a 3D printer and import it into our lives?

When we cling to these fantastical snapshots the following things tend to happen:

  1. We may be perceived as clingy and controlling and in the process, we may push those we want relationships with away.
  • We may try to force situations to turn out the way we want them to be and in the process, we close ourselves off to new or better opportunities.
  • We stay in bad and unsafe situations for longer than we should and when we DO get out, we may find ourselves getting into more of the same predicaments.
  • We may make excuses for ourselves or others despite clear evidence that this is bad for us.
  • We may make assumptions that others feel exactly like we do, without asking and actively listening to them and their needs.
  • We put people on pedestals from which they are bound to topple because could live up to our expectations.

What do you do with big feelings that you think are not allowed?

When our fantasies of ‘the great life’ or when the perfect relationships we long for do not materialise as we wish them to, we may feel

  1. Disappointed and dissatisfied
  • Lonely and misunderstood
  • Helpless and fearful of losing control

The above may make us feel guilty and angry because we may recognise at some level that we are doing it to ourselves and that it is not the other person’s fault.

When our eating disorders haunt us

Many people with eating disorders turn their negative feelings inwards; they take it out on themselves. If you have a distorted relationship with food, eating and nurturing, your ‘go-to’ may be to punish yourself through starving yourself (If you have Anorexia, you will know what I am talking about). You may try to bury your feelings by binge eating. This may lead you to feel extra guilty and ashamed and so you purge yourself by throwing up. (People with Bulimia will know what this is like.) We have to make peace with the fact that we won’t get it right every time and that we can always try again.

Secrecy is dangerous

If you have received treatment for your Anorexia, Bulimia, or other unhelpful eating habits, you know that those you love and care about and who love and care about you will most likely be worried and even disappointed if they realise you have had a relapse. Even admitting it to yourself may be difficult. You may rationalise it. You may come up with excuses. You may make promises to yourself and others that you will stop as soon as (fill in whatever reason holds true for you).

So, how do we go about fixing this?

  1. Find support

Coping with ED is not all about what you eat, when you eat, or how much you eat. You need to examine the underlying problematic relationships, thought patterns, traumas, and coping mechanisms. You cannot do this on your own! It is important to receive counselling, therapy and rehabilitation that is geared towards people with eating disorders.

You may require inpatient treatment at a clinic such as IMANI. Here you will not only receive counselling that will help you look at the root problems but also have psychosocial support from experienced and well-trained rehabilitation workers. Going to (or returning to) the clinic is not a sign of failure or weakness. It means you have the insight and the strength of character to admit that you need help.

You may find it helpful to attend a twelve-step fellowship on an ongoing basis for your ED. Some of us also attend other twelve-step fellowships to deal with unhelpful addictions and behaviours like alcohol, drugs, gambling, or sex addictions.

  • Switch gears

Many of us struggle with ‘all or nothing’, ‘black and white’ thinking. So, when you catch yourself experiencing strong emotions that may seem disproportionate to the event that triggered these, take a deep breath, step back, drink some water or excuse yourself for a few minutes. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I catastrophising? Am I able to look at all sides of the issue without jumping to conclusions? Can we find the middle ground or a mutually acceptable alternative to the current situation?
  • What is it that I truly am feeling? Can I truthfully communicate that without blaming or attacking those around me? (Remember, anger is a secondary emotion. Try to feel what lies underneath it. Fear? Loss of control? Disappointment? Irritation?)
  • What is it that I honestly need right now? (Remember HALT – Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?) 
  • How can I provide what I need for myself right now or who could I ask for support?

3) Nurture yourself

Many people grow up with the idea that food is a tool for self-soothing, reward and punishment, depending on the situation. If I am happy, I celebrate with something sweet to eat. When I am stressed, I comfort eat. If I am angry, I lose my appetite or deny myself yummy things. If I feel scared or hurt … you get the point! Society supports these unhelpful ways of eating. Think about a birthday party, a funeral, a graduation, a wedding, a movie night with your bestie, the first night alone after a messy breakup …

Can you plan ahead for your bad/sad/mad/glad days?

You need to identify ways to nurture, reward, comfort, and care for yourself that does NOT involve food. These should not only be for bad/sad/mad/glad days but should be part of your regular self-care routines. In fact, you should ‘indulge’ in these so often that they will come to mind spontaneously when we are facing big emotions!

Stimulate or calm your senses

  • Do a full-body scan and feel where in your body you are carrying stress. Tense your muscles in sets for a few seconds and relax all your muscles, from your head to your toes. Do you need a longer body break of some sort?
  • Relieve eye strain by looking around and counting all the red, blue, or yellow things.
  • Listen out for all the different sounds you can hear and where they are coming from. How do these sounds make you feel? Can you/do you need to change it in some way? Could you turn music on/off, up/down?
  • Are you thirsty or hungry? Drink something cold or warm – focus on the taste and the sensation of it in your throat and mouth.
  • What can you smell in your environment? Do you need to open or close a window or door? Do you have some soothing or invigorating aromatherapy oils? Maybe a favourite hand cream or room spray?
  • Embrace gratitude
  1. Start a gratitude journal

Buy a blank journal. Decorate it with a collage of things you like or a picture that holds meaning or inspire you. Test out all the pens in the stationery store. Pick one (or many!) that ‘feel right’. Reserve it only for your journal. In the front section write down at least 3 things that you are grateful for, every day.

In the back, draw three columns. In the first, make a list of all the things you have enjoyed throughout your life. In the second, mark the ones you would like to do again. Think about opportunities you could create for yourself to do these. In the third, tick them off as you do them and put the date next to it.

  • Write your own ‘State of the Nation’ report every 100 days

Write yourself letters in which you give yourself specific feedback about things you have done well/overcame/resolved.

Schedule body breaks – stretch, do some deep breathing exercises. Drink some water. Go for a little walk – even if it is only to another room in the house. Do a body scan before you return to your regular activities. Stretch and do some breathing exercises again!

Set regular alarms for waking up, mealtimes, and medication. Also set an alarm for an hour or half-hour before bedtime. Dim the lights, turn off your devices and get ready for bed. Write in your gratitude journal and flip through the list of things you have enjoyed. See if there are any you could plan to recreate the next day.

  • Find reasons to celebrate others

Loneliness and isolation are a global mental health issue. This is even more true in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. One way to overcome loneliness is to reach out to others. Not to complain about being lonely though! Affirm others as you want to be affirmed. It is often easier to find the good in others than in yourself. However, the more you focus on finding and celebrating others, the easier it will become to recognise and celebrate those positive parts within yourself.