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Do you remember learning to ride a bike? Or maybe now you care for a small child who is learning to pedal for the first time (helmet on, of course 😉). Picture this small child on their hand-me-down bike, discovering the art of balance aided by training wheels on each side. My guess is you wouldn’t tell this child using training wheels is “cheating.” You wouldn’t shame this kid saying “there’s something wrong with you because other kids don’t need to be supported by extra wheels.” And I doubt you would harshly criticize this child for getting upset or hurt when they inevitably fall off the bike.
A common trait
It’s so interesting. The more I talk with people who are struggling with TBI, the more I see a pattern emerging. Maybe it’s just because the people who are more interested in nutrition are the ones reaching out to me, but many seem to have a number of nutrition goals in common. For example, many have told me they want the best for themselves, for their family, and for the planet. They might say they want to eat “clean” and “natural.” They want to do the research to find the best foods for brain health. They want to cook with fresh ingredients. They are constantly searching for ways to improve their health. And they want to do so making only the “healthiest” choices that are conscious of both environmental and social justice issues. Plus, they want to do it all themselves.
In other words, a common trait I am seeing among other survivors is the want to BE PERFECT.
Does any of this resonate with you? It is absolutely admirable to strive for a lifestyle that not only supports yourself, but those around you too. And it’s hard, because logically you know that perfection is unachievable. You know that there truly is no one perfect way to eat & live. You may have even come to realize that perfectionism itself can be harmful — a quality that can lead to burnout, body dissatisfaction, mental health issues, and disordered eating.
Yet here you are, stuck striving for perfection with many others! And doing so even with an added challenge that supersedes the more everyday obstacles — a brain injury that cramps you capacity, making that image of perfect “healthy eating” just that much more sabotaging.
Not that long ago I was talking with another TBI survivor. The topic of self-compassion came up. This concept had recently arose a lot for this other survivor, and they were confused by what they had heard.
“I was told that when you’re thinking about how bad your situation is, self-compassion says you should switch to thinking about how there are other people in the world who have it far worse than you… But I don’t like this. It makes me feel like a bad person or like I’m putting down someone who has a harder situation.”
This perspective is what this other survivor had heard. I would be confused too! After all, this is not what I know of self-compassion.
“The way I understand it,” I replied “is that self-compassion is really acknowledging that I’m struggling and then allowing myself to have help. Self-compassion is going easy on myself at a time when things are hard. It means not beating myself up for needing the support.”
Is it your self-critic talking?
When I work with my TBI clients and we start to talk about strategies that can make it easier to prep food and get in some added nutrition, I hear my clients speak objections like this:
“But buying a pre-prepared meal or having someone else cook is cheating.”
“But I see all these other people posting about fresh and local recipes. There’s something wrong if I use canned or frozen foods.”
“But I just feel so bad buying those kinds of foods because I’m not sure if they are contributing to environmental issues, and I want to be a responsible consumer.”
I validate that these objections are important to my clients — they are not to be dismissed! But I also need to bring awareness that these objections may be ways my clients criticize their inner child learning to ride a bike. Just like that child needs help to ride independently on a road full of obstacles, you need help to nourish yourself on your path blocked with brain injury barriers. And if any of this is resonating with you, then your first barrier to overcome is likely your own harsh self-critic. To do so takes some self-compassion.
What does self-compassion look like in nutrition for TBI?
When you hear the term self-compassion, maybe what comes to mind are things like bubble baths, meditation, taking time for just you, getting a mani-pedi, and telling yourself in the mirror “I love you.” Yes, those might be acts of self-compassion that do you good. But when talking about self-compassion for nutrition and TBI, it might look like this:
- microwavable meals
- pre-chopped veggies and fruit
- pre-cooked meat
- canned beans
- asking for help cooking & shopping
- ordering food
- getting help washing the dishes, etc.
In a nutshell, food and nutrition acts of self-compassion may simply be allowing yourself to eat in a different way. It may be freeing yourself of the pressures to achieve a standard you maybe didn’t even set for yourself!
Reflecting on it, I wonder who painted this picture for my clients of unachievable “perfect healthy lifestyle choices?” Why do so many feel they are bad people for simply choosing the foods that are available and accessible to them? Why do they feel personally responsible for fixing, as well as taking the blame, for these massive systemic issues? Why do they beat up their inner child for falling off the bike when trying to navigate dangerous roads with lots of cracks and potholes?
Why do so many feel they are bad people for simply choosing the foods that are available and accessible to them?
Put it to practice
Let’s do an important exercise. Imagine your best friend. Even if this is far from reality, imagine your best friend has become a single parent who just lost their job. They have picked up lots of poor paying random shift work, and your best friend is barely scraping by to pay the bills. Now ask yourself this: would you harshly judge your best friend in this situation for buying prepackaged meals, just to ensure their kids are fed between tight shifts? Would you think of your friend as a lesser person for choosing canned over fresh foods? Would you tell your friend they should only buy from local markets, which are far away and much pricier than the corner store they depend on? My guess is that largely your answers are NO, you wouldn’t.
You wouldn’t criticize your best friend because you know in this situation they are doing the best they can. Because you know that cost and availability of food is out of your best friend’s control. Because you don’t criticize or fault your best friend for the hard times put upon them.
Because you have COMPASSION for your best friend. So why not treat yourself the same?
At a time when your TBI symptoms are really bad, maybe you’ve had a setback, you can’t follow a recipe to save your life, and chopping vegetables takes too much of your energy, self-compassion might be as simple as giving yourself the permission to just eat. Because if your choices are either:
A) wanting to cook everything from scratch on your own with only local foods, but then not actually eating anything because it was too overwhelming to follow the recipe and source the ingredients,
B) having a friend pick up groceries and help you cook some pasta with a sauce from a jar and pre-cut frozen veggies…
Eating SOMETHING. Getting in SOME NUTRITION. And still HAVING SOME ENERGY AFTERWARDS will always be better than none at all. Plus having some of that extra energy reserved means that these acts of self-compassion are not just good for you, but for those around you too. The more compassion you are able to give yourself the more you are able to give those around you as well.
So don’t let food and nutrition perfectionism hold you back in your recovery. Humbly acknowledge that the situation you are in is hard! Give yourself some grace fumbling through the steps needed to get towards your picture of “healthy eating.“
Allow for self-compassion!
Embrace your training wheels. Be kind to yourself as you learn to ride that bike again 🙂 ❤️
Best in your nutrition & brain health,
Do you find food & nutrition self-compassion a challenge? Do you want a step-by-step guide to move you from not being able to cook and eat the foods you want, towards achieving a picture of healthy eating that is right for you?