Acceptance Without Condoning

My most recent chewy personal development issue has been this:

How can I accept those things I do not like without condoning them?

Like my lower self – how can I love and accept that part of me that is greedy, angry and spiteful without condoning those behaviours?

Like my kids – how can I love and accept them, even in those moments when everything is chaos and I’d rather check out and come back later?

Like my partner – who is fallible and human just like the rest of us?

I struggle so much with this. My default mode is to withdraw or punish when faced with the painful reality of failure, and this is directed towards myself just as much (or perhaps more) than anyone else. When I fail to live up to my own high standards of behaviour, I feel like gentleness, forgiveness and love towards myself are indications that I’m condoning whatever poor choices I made. Like my self-love is conditional, and if I fail to work hard enough and be perfect in everything, then too bad, I’ve lost that privilege for now.

Which sounds pretty horrible now that I write it out.

Intellectually, I know that acceptance without condoning is the essence of The Work. My brain understands that it is perfectly possible to accept something as the way things are without approving it. I can accept without condoning when I feel like the issue is somewhat removed from me. I can accept that global warming is the state of the environment without approving of it. I can accept that two out of my seven chickens aren’t laying eggs without being happy about that. But it is SO HARD to accept that I will be hurt by others or fail to live up to my own standards without feeling like acceptance equals approval.

It’s like my body takes over at that point and hijacks my brain in the name of self-defence. Like some part of me believes that attaining perfection is the best or only way to be safe.

What would it look like to be able to accept my own failure, while still aiming for my highest standards? What would it look  like to accept the failures of others, while still holding them accountable for their behaviour? It feels like needing to be two opposing things at the same time. Please be discerning and expansive right now. Please be weak and strong. Please be your wounded self and the one who cares for your self. Please be immediate and patient.

Please find your nondual essential nature and live from that place in this world of dualities.

Everyone Really Does Need Empathy

Empathy for Everyone

I picked this phrase for my blog title because it reflects a dream that I have for myself and our world. Personally, I want to develop my ability to give empathy to the point where I can feel empathy for anyone, no matter how different we may be. On a wider scale, I want to live in a world where everyone has access to empathy, from their very earliest days. This may feel like an impossible dream at times, but it’s one that I feel is nothing less than our birthright as human beings.

The human brain is wired for empathy

Our brains expect to receive it. Our infant brains are primed to use the emotional responses of our primary caregiver as our template for emotional regulation throughout our life, and this sensitive period is at its peak between 10-18 months of age. If we don’t receive warm, resonant empathy consistently in those first months of life, our brains and bodies change in response to that lack. We are more easily stressed, lack the ability to effectively comfort ourselves, and spend longer in states of distress and dysregulation. Over time, we may no longer feel those feelings, because we have learned to live in our left hemispheres in order to avoid the pain of loneliness and emotional abandonment. That doesn’t mean the pain isn’t there. It’s just the elephant in the room that nobody talks about, which has been there for so long that we have forgotten that it could be any other way. (The Effects of Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation and Infant Mental Health)

Consistently not being met with empathy may constitute trauma.

When we think of trauma we imagine earthquakes and car accidents, sexual abuse and physical violence. But trauma can be quiet. It can be socially acceptable.

Trauma is defined as an experience or event in which:

  1. The individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or
  2. The individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity. (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995, p. 60). (What is Psychological Trauma?)

This means that trauma is subjective. The other important thing to notice is that trauma is anything that causes a person to experience a threat to life. What actually constitutes a threat to life? It doesn’t have to be a masked man with a gun. It could be an infant, crying alone in a dark room. The infant’s nervous system does not know it is safe from predators or abandonment. In that moment, the infant’s nervous system is detecting the fact that it is alone without a caregiver close by.

This is a threat to life.

When we expect empathy (as our brains are wired to do), and we are met with a blank face, absence, scorn, criticism, advice, blame, distraction or judgement, we experience abandonment. Just like the baby crying alone experiences abandonment. And when this experience overwhelms our ability to integrate it, with enough intensity to trigger feelings that we may not actually survive this abandonment, the result is trauma.

Imagine how many people are carrying some kind of trauma of this sort.

This kind of trauma is quiet, and cumulative. It shows up in our physical health and immune system, our physiological responses to stress, and our implicit assumptions about ourselves and how we relate to others. It is written into the very structures of our brains. (Schore (2000) ‘Attachment and the regulation of the Right Brain’ Attachment and Human Development. Vol 2, no 2.)

But there is always hope

Those structures in our brains that may have been shaped by dysregulated attachment in our first year of life are among the most neuroplastic parts of our brain. We can change them at any point in our lives by relearning how to be in relationship with others, by learning how to give and receive empathy, by having surprising new experiences that disprove old assumptions about ourselves.

So, I’m learning how to give empathy to others. To myself. To those closest to me, which is often the most difficult and humbling. Learning how to make empathy part of everyday life, and how to shuffle around the priorities of my everyday life so there is time and space for empathy. Because everyone really does need empathy.

The Accidental Foodie (Or: How I ended up on AIP)

I was never much bothered about food.

I just ate what was there for the vast majority of my life. When I was growing up that was the typical Standard American Diet: sandwiches, pasta, steamed veggies, cookies. The low point in my diet was probably the years between High School and early University, during which I lived on pizza pops that had been microwaved in their plastic wrappers, bagels, cup o’noodles also microwaved in their plastic cup, and copious amounts of coffee and donut holes (when you’re a starving student, eating for free at your workplace seems like a good idea, even if it’s donuts).

The vegetarian years

Then I met my future husband, who actually cared about what food tasted like and how it was prepared. He introduced me to new, exotic flavours and cultures in food, like South Indian curries and Vegetarian cooking. For a year he was employed primarily in cooking amazing dinners for us, and so of course I became a vegetarian. It was delicious! Much better than cup o’noodles.

This shift still didn’t change my fundamental view of food as being primarily fuel, a necessary chore that needed to be done to permit the continued functioning of my body. I was, however, learning to actually cook whole meals from scratch, using fresh herbs, soaked beans and lentils, and trying to pay attention to the nutritional composition of the meal.

Maybe I don’t want to live in pain if I don’t have to

Ten years passed between that point and the birth of our second daughter. By the time she turned two I was beginning to realize that what I had up until then passed off as “just the way I was” might actually be something that was a problem. My finger joints were increasingly painful and swollen. I was regularly being kept awake at night by painful restless legs and aching hips. I was losing my temper frequently and riding an emotional rollercoaster every month. I couldn’t remember basic things, like my neighbour’s name or my online banking password. I blamed it on baby brain as long as I could, but it all came to a head when my daughter started getting sick.

I first noticed a rash on her bottom after the first time I gave her a piece of toast. I remember seeing it and thinking, “Oh, there’s no way she’s allergic to bread. Tom and I are both fine with bread.” I ignored it. Then, the week after her MMR vaccine, she started getting sick. Her stomach became sore and bloated, she had very strange oily, smelly, pale poos that made me really worried. And she went from being a bright, happy, easygoing baby to being an unhappy, crabby, irritable toddler. One day we went out for a walk, and while her older sister ran and played through a labyrinth someone had made in the sand on the beach, toddler Claire huddled under a blanket in her stroller. When I asked her if she wanted to come out to play, she said, “No. I hurt.” And I watched as she withdrew under the blanket and inside herself.

Something had to change.

We went to the doctor. The doctor said, “It’s February, so she probably just has gastroenteritis. Chances are it will go away on its own.” I decided to go ahead and try eliminating foods without a doctor’s orders. We tried eliminating dairy first. It seemed to help for a little while, but the digestive trouble and crankiness continued. I plugged symptoms into online diagnosis tools and got Celiac disease, again and again. We happened to have a neighbour with Celiac at the time, and so I tried eliminating gluten. She got better. Within three days the happy, bright, easygoing child I knew was back.

At this point food changed for me. I started to realize that some foods were not just “unhealthy” in some kind of mostly benign yet annoying way, like a child misbehaving in a public place, but could actually cause harm. I also realized that if Claire was so profoundly affected by gluten, that chances were high that either Tom or I were affected by gluten also, since it has a tendency to run in families. I took everyone off gluten for a week and noticed the same dramatic difference in myself that I had seen in Claire. Within three days I felt like a completely different person. For the first time EVER I actually remembered my neighbour’s name.

However, the shift into being gluten free still didn’t change my fundamental views on food as being a necessary yet boring chore. I embraced gluten free pasta and packaged breads. I tried my hand at baking, the one aspect of food which actually brought me enjoyment in the process of preparing it, and built up a collection of gums and emulsifiers. I had identified the harmful enemy as gluten, and knew how to read labels to keep it safely away.

Do we really need to do GAPS?

We continued on in this way for a couple of years, and while I did feel so much better than I had, I still didn’t feel consistently great. The insomnia, restless legs and achy joints started coming back. I started noticing that certain foods still bothered Claire, causing achy legs and mood/cognitive disruptions. We eliminated corn, and then eggs and coconut, but so much of the time I couldn’t really pinpoint a particular food that was the culprit. Taking it out seemed to help for a while, until the symptoms happened again. It wasn’t as black and white as gluten. I read GAPS blogs and thought about what it would be like if we tried to do GAPS in a vegetarian household. I put it off.

And then two things happened: new neighbours moved in next door, who had been doing GAPS for a couple of years. And I started having more and more digestive issues. Foods that never caused me digestive distress before started making me feel nauseous and bloated, or gave me terrible gas and loose stools. I started noticing that Claire would have episodes where she would “space out” and lose the ability to focus, and that they often followed meals that involved processed foods. I started to accept that I would either have to radically change the way Claire and I were eating, or we would have to live with unpredictable digestive/cognitive/emotional issues for the rest of our lives. And so in June 2014 I drove down to the local shop and bought a whole frozen chicken for the first time in my adult life.

We started GAPS intro in the middle of July 2014, the hottest and driest July on record in Vancouver. It was pretty traumatic. Claire and I both had “carb flu” and felt gross. Claire started refusing to eat soup. On Day 3 I broke down and gave Claire a bunch of foods that were GAPS safe, but not part of the stage of Intro we were at, and she was so, so sick. We tried introducing nuts and eggs and my joint pain came back worse than ever. I was so discouraged, and then I remembered reading somewhere about AIP. What was that anyway? I looked it up, and started the process of inhaling The Paleo Mom’s website and learning everything I could about Autoimmunity and gut healing.

Welcome to AIP

We switched from GAPS to AIP after about two weeks of being on GAPS Intro and almost immediately felt better. Food was still a source of stress and worry, although I was enjoying the presence of meat and animal fats in my meals. I was also spending a massive amount of time in the kitchen, cooking both vegetarian and AIP meals three times a day. I mourned the loss of easy, portable summer food, and kept day trips and beach visits short because I was so afraid of not being able to bring enough food with me. The rest of the summer is pretty much a blur of cooking, washing dishes and stressing out about food. We did manage to go camping for a week, and it was then that I realized that as long as I had access to fresh food and somewhere to cook it, I didn’t have to be trapped inside my kitchen. We gorged on fresh peaches and I was so grateful to be away from the house.

It’s only effort until it’s routine

And then gradually, oh so gradually, I noticed that preparing meals was becoming routine. Trips into the city were no longer massive expeditions that I would stress out about for days. It no longer took me twice as long as usual to prepare meals. I learned a few lessons about how to streamline meal plans and cook more efficiently. I started doing more batch cooking and freezing. I bought Mickey Trescott’s cookbook and realized that I could be making dishes that actually tasted incredible instead of just serving food that was safe. I started trying new herbs and vegetables. And one day I found myself daydreaming about different ingredients and how they might go together. I was surprised and delighted to find my creative energies flowing in the direction of food!

Now, almost one year from the point when we started on GAPS, I still cook a lot of meals that are more about filling bellies than they are about being a sensory delight. But I also have more of an appreciation than ever before of the pleasure of food that is both deeply nourishing and a delight to eat. I suppose I am an accidental foodie, having ended up in this place not out of natural inclination and passion, but out of necessity and daily practice.


What’s this new blog about? Let me tell you all about it.

This is a space for me to write about whatever I want. What I mostly want to write about is the intersection of the brain and body. How we affect our body with our brain, and how we affect our brain with our body. How the food we eat fuels both our brain and body. How the relationships we have change our brains and bodies too.

This is Neuroscience meets Nutrition. This is IPNB meets AIP. (Interpersonal Neurobiology and Autoiummune Paleo). This is microbiomes and forest bathing. This is parenting and living in the world with other people. This is getting hands into the dirt and planting out cucumber starts. This is philosophy and theology and chicken shit in the compost pile.