When we take the time to deepen our understanding of ourselves, we expand our capacity for compassion and understanding towards others. When we are able to look inward and find love and self-compassion for all of the places that we struggle we get better at accepting the differences and struggles of our fellow humans. I have heard it said many times that the things that we are triggered by in others are really triggered for the things we don’t accept in ourselves. I believe this to be true, although I dismissed it until I was ready to hear it. When something triggers me about someone else, it is mirroring something I have yet to reconcile fully in myself. Have you ever noticed how a friend can do something that irritates you, but your partner doesn’t even notice your friend is doing it? That’s because whatever your friend is doing that is triggering you has more to do with YOU than it does your friend. This was hard for me to grasp at first because it forced me to take a look at myself more closely and get really honest about my triggers. I had to ask myself better questions. What is this triggering in me? Why am I having such a strong reaction to this? What is the truth behind it? As I gained a deeper level of understanding about myself and my triggers, I was then able to look upon others with more acceptance and compassion. I was able to see beyond my frustration and irritations and connect to that person on a different level, finding understanding and empathy rather than judgment and criticism. After all, they were being human just like me.
Asa part of my series about “Learning To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Eliza Kingsford is a Licensed Psychotherapist specializing in body image, disordered eating, weight management, and obesity. She has over a decade of experience helping clients improve their relationship to themselves, to food and to their bodies. Eliza is intensely passionate about helping clients create new identities mentally, physically and emotionally. Eliza received her graduate degree from the University of Colorado and has spent time working in eating disorders facilities, coaching and agency settings. She was previously the Executive Director for Wellspring, a weight management program for teens and young adults, where she published her first book Brain-Powered Weight Loss. This book focused on the behaviors and cognitions necessary to make lasting change with food and weight struggles. She then went on to create Empowered Wellness — a nationally recognized health and wellness company looking to change the way we look at weight issues. She emphasizes change that comes from the inside out and focuses on the ability to find love and self-compassion within while making consistent healthy choices that will ultimately show up externally as well. Eliza believes sustainable and lasting change is created through the science of nutrition and the psychology of behavior change. Eliza has been featured in numerous news outlets such as CNN Health, Mental Health Weekly, WebMD, MindBodyGreen, Prevention, SHEKnows, and LiveStrong. She has appeared on talk shows such as Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, and numerous news broadcasts. She also speaks regularly at conferences.
Thank you so much for joining us! I’d love to begin by asking you to give us the backstory as to what brought you to this specific career path.
Iknew I wanted to go into the field of psychology from a very young age. In high school, I became fascinated by the social climate and how people interacted with one another. It seemed I was always stepping back and looking at things from a meta-cognitive level. I wanted to know WHY people treated others the way they did. I noticed insecurities and social positioning very early and was fascinated by it all. At the same time, I was struggling with my own body image, insecurity and self-acceptance issues. I wanted to know how I was going to work through them and come out the other side stronger and more confident in who I was. I really began to focus specifically on disordered eating behavior in graduate school. I gravitated towards classes that taught me about eating disorders and their origin. After I completed my graduate studies, I took a post-masters internship at the University of Colorado. I did an immense amount of work on my own body image struggles, understanding where my hurt was coming from and how to heal. The more I healed, the more I wanted to help others heal as well. I could intimately understand what people were going through and I was receiving the most cutting edge training on how the brain works and how true behavior change is accomplished. Fast forward to today, I love helping those struggling with their weight find peace with food and body image issues.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?
In 2017 I launched Empowered Wellness — a health and wellness company teaching clients how to heal from the inside out. We run a summer camp program for teens and young adults (12–24) that combines the science of nutrition and the psychology of eating. We also have online digital programs for those unable to attend a full immersion program. These digital programs are designed for young adults with special modules for parents as well. We will be adding workshops, weekend retreats and more very soon!
At our summer programs, campers come together to learn how to overcome their body image struggles and weight issues. We use empirically validated methods and curriculum that teach campers HOW to change their relationship to food and their body. This is NOT your typical diet and exercise “weight loss camp”, we are teaching campers how to change from the inside out and become lifelong lovers of health. We teach practical methods for changing self-concept and increasing self-compassion. Our mission is to help people find peace with their bodies, heal from the inside out and live their happiest and healthiest life.
Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self acceptance?
My mother died 3 days before my first birthday and I believe my nervous system was on the fritz ever since. My whole life I had a hard time attaching to people, my nervous system kept me in fight or flight mode. Subconsciously, I didn’t trust anyone to stick around, so I made sure that I didn’t get close enough to begin with. I was never consciously aware of this fact, it grew out of a set of internal beliefs that were reinforced time and again throughout my childhood.
The underlying fear of abandonment is that you are unlovable or unworthy. My unconscious fears of being unlovable or unworthy manifested in the way I felt about my body, a perfect breeding ground for finding validation that I was not good enough. After all, starting at a very young age, you can find any number of magazines, media messages and societal pressures that will tell you why you don’t measure up. I struggled with body image for almost 20 years of my life, starting when I was just 12 years old.
When I was in my late 20’s I was working for a company providing clinical treatment for teenagers struggling with obesity. I was helping teach these young men and women about a positive body image and learning to love yourself just as you are. All the while, I would stand in front of the mirror and pinch and prod my body, hating the way it wouldn’t just do what I wanted it to do; how it wouldn’t just conform to the perfection I saw everywhere else but me. If you looked at pictures of me at that time, you’d see a perfectly healthy and normal-sized female (I know this because I’ve since looked back at pictures of myself and wondered how I could have seen something so intensely that was never there.) This created a growing dissonance inside me. How could I possibly help these teenagers find peace with their bodies if I couldn’t find it myself? Was I a fraud? That dissonance grew and grew until I finally reached a point where I’d had enough of myself. Brene Brown talks about how she has never seen anyone truly change until they get tired of their own s#!t. This was definitely me, I got tired of myself and vowed that I would heal from the inside out so I could teach others to do the same.
And I did. I’ve spent nearly the last decade healing from the first 2 decades of my life and I can honestly say I am more at peace, and feel more confident in who I truly am than I ever have before. This process took time, commitment and a whole lot of vulnerability (something I struggle with), but it was worth it. It changed every single aspect of my life, not just my body. My relationship with my husband, my friends and my daughter all improved. My career and my life’s work became clear and purposeful and, most importantly, my relationship with myself feels real, authentic and sacred to me now.
According to a recent study cited in Cosmopolitan, in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?
We are trained, from a very young age to be unhappy with our appearance; women even more strongly than men. Our culture promotes an “ideal” body shape and size and we are conditioned through advertising, the media, social media and various other forms of marketing that we aren’t “enough” unless we look a certain way or maintain a certain shape. Billions of dollars each year are spent in the diet and weight loss industry selling us products that will help us “fix” ourselves. Nearly every advertisement you see shows only people of certain body shapes and sizes (this is slowly changing but still overwhelmingly true) and seeing this sends the message to our brains that this is what we are “supposed” to look like, or that we are not worthy or beautiful unless we look like this. When we grow up not recognizing ourselves in any of the ads we see (we look different than the models), and we see thousands of ads a year telling us there is a product to “fix” something that is wrong with us, our subconscious repeatedly digests the message that we are not enough. When our subconscious repeatedly hears this, its job is to seek out evidence to support the message and will bring into our consciousness even more evidence that make us feel like we are not enough. While advertising may not start out with malicious intent, when we are repeatedly told over and over again that we need something to fix our weight, shape, face, looks, hair, eyelashes, clothes we begin to believe it’s normal to look outside of ourselves for our self-worth. It becomes a perpetuated cycle of cat-and-mouse, constantly chasing the next product, weight or clothing that will finally make us feel ok with who we are.
For some, this subconscious signaling can be more problematic than others. For instance, for those who are not also experiencing other life stressors, traumatic events or emotional difficulties these messages may not create a negative emotional response. For those being triggered by other environmental factors, the emotional impact may be more severe — explaining why some people don’t seem bothered at all by body image struggles and why some suffer so significantly. This is often referred to as firing and wiring. The more significant the emotion when a negative event occurs, the more strongly the wiring of the synapses in the brain that signal that event being negative. For example, if you were being bullied at school and had a particularly hard day with it, then went onto social media and saw a picture of a teenage girl that you deemed “perfect” and who looks nothing like you, you might have a particularly strong emotional reaction to that picture on that day because of the negative emotion you are already feeling. Because your emotions are running high, it is going to wire that event (the social media picture and subsequent feel of unworthiness) differently than it would have if you were having a wonderful day with your friends. Repeated exposure, over time, to these negative emotions is what causes your brain to memorize the feeling of unworthiness and dissatisfaction.
As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?
This complicated relationship that we have with our ‘self’ is the most important relationship we have. It is the only guaranteed relationship there is. I believe it’s so important because we underestimate the ability we all have within us to change the things we experience as negative. If we truly understood how powerful we are, none of us would settle for the negative emotional states and high level of stress and anxiety we experience today. Learning to love yourself goes well beyond just cultivating a positive emotion, it can change the entire course of your life.
Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?
I don’t think there is one simple answer for why people stay in mediocre relationships. However, I do know that when you don’t feel lovable and valuable internally, you inadvertently teach people to treat you as though you are not loveable and valuable. When you do not feel like you are worthy, and when you suffer from low self-worth, you subconsciously look for validation of those negative beliefs. For example, if you don’t believe you are good enough for your partner, when your partner puts you down or degrades you, you tell subconscious says “see, it’s true, this proves that I am not good enough for him, he is treating me this way because I deserve it”.
Your subconscious is always looking for ways to validate your internal beliefs, whether they are beliefs that are serving you or beliefs that are getting in your way. Your subconscious doesn’t care. Its job is to keep you alive, and therefore will continue to reinforce patterns and beliefs that maintain the homeostasis of where you are RIGHT NOW. So, if you are in a relationship that you cognitively know is not serving you, but you can’t seem to walk away, know that you are likely battling a set of internal beliefs that are driving your behaviors. If you want to change how people treat you, you must first examine and then change what you believe about yourself.
When we talk about self-love and understanding we don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?
I think it’s a misunderstanding that self-love or self-acceptance means we have to be in a loving and positive state at all times. To me, having self-acceptance means that I am willing to take an honest look at my situation and circumstances, be honest about my part in things, stay curious about what life is always teaching me, and have confidence that I have the tools internally to deal with whatever comes my way. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever feel negativity or that I don’t experience difficult situations, but it does mean that now I know I have a choice in how I react to every experience in my life. That feels empowering.
I recall when I was first starting out on my journey to healing my body, I had to continually ask myself one question over and over “Has being mean to my body EVER produced a positive feeling?”. The answer was always ‘no’. And wasn’t that what I was looking for? A positive feeling? If putting my body down and hating the way it looked in the mirror never produced a positive feeling, why would I continue doing it? At first, I couldn’t see the path to feeling positive about my body and it was a bit scary to believe that treating myself with love and kindness would produce love and kindness towards my physical form, but I knew hating myself wasn’t getting me there — I’d had many years of practice which proved that. So, what if……….?
Now, when I tell my clients to ask better questions of themselves, these are some of the things we explore:
1. What is the feeling you are looking to get to? (especially when it comes to weight, it’s never about a number, it’s about a feeling)
2. How would you know if you were suddenly healed from the inside, what would be different? How would you experience your life differently?
3. What are you willing to own in this situation?
4. What might this situation be trying to teach you?
So many don’t really know how to be alone, or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?
Filling your time is ok, but fear of being alone is just another indicator that you are uncomfortable with your ‘self’. While it’s true that some people find energy and feel more fulfilled when they are around others, it’s important to recognize whether you are spending time with others to fill you up or to avoid being alone. Those are two very different things. Avoidance is always an indicator that there is something more to learn.
There is nothing wrong with spending time with other people, you just want to be sure the time is actually fulfilling, and not just filling a void. The key to understanding this better is to start asking yourself good, honest questions. What happens when I am alone? What am I avoiding when I am alone? Is the time I am spending with others truly bringing me joy? Do I feel fulfilled after the time I spend with others? If I am alone, what types of thoughts start to come up for me? How do I feel about these thoughts? Getting curious about what happens when you are alone can help jumpstart the process of evaluating your internal landscape.
How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?
When we take the time to deepen our understanding of ourselves, we expand our capacity for compassion and understanding towards others. When we are able to look inward and find love and self-compassion for all of the places that we struggle we get better at accepting the differences and struggles of our fellow humans. I have heard it said many times that the things that we are triggered by in others are really triggered for the things we don’t accept in ourselves. I believe this to be true, although I dismissed it until I was ready to hear it. When something triggers me about someone else, it is mirroring something I have yet to reconcile fully in myself. Have you ever noticed how a friend can do something that irritates you, but your partner doesn’t even notice your friend is doing it? That’s because whatever your friend is doing that is triggering you has more to do with YOU than it does your friend. This was hard for me to grasp at first because it forced me to take a look at myself more closely and get really honest about my triggers. I had to ask myself better questions. What is this triggering in me? Why am I having such a strong reaction to this? What is the truth behind it?
As I gained a deeper level of understanding about myself and my triggers, I was then able to look upon others with more acceptance and compassion. I was able to see beyond my frustration and irritations and connect to that person on a different level, finding understanding and empathy rather than judgment and criticism. After all, they were being human just like me.
In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?
As individuals, we first need to be willing to be mindful. We need to slow down enough from our daily lives and routines and intentionally start observing how we interact with the world around us and with ourselves. How often do we feel joy? Anxiety? Depression? Happiness? Love? Fear? What are we doing when we feel these things? We must take a step back and make sure we are living our lives on purpose instead of mindlessly going along with them if we ever want to truly change. Acceptance starts first with awareness.
As a society, we need to start with a willingness to accept people who are different than us. We need to be willing to see people who appear “different” as the same. We all started from the very same origin at some point (an egg in a womb) and we came out very much the same as well — innocent beings with very primal needs for food, shelter, comfort and love. It is culture and society that makes us “different” somehow. Really, we are much more the alike than we are different. As long as we keep viewing the human race as “us” and “others” we create divisiveness, hurt, fear, anger and pain.
What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself, that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?
1. I meditate daily. I make time each day to intentionally slow down and connect to my “self”. This has become an important part of who I am, not just what I do. It makes me more patient, more giving and loving towards myself and others.
2. I say things that I am grateful for every day. Cultivating gratitude every single day helps me stay in a loving and peaceful state of mind, even when things around me feel hard. When creating a state of gratitude, I am able to see the bigger picture more clearly and stay on track instead of being dragged down by what can be heavy and difficult life events.
3. I move my body in ways that I enjoy as often as I possibly can. For me, movement brings me back to my “self”. Moving my body (whether that be yoga, a walk or hike, HIIT or lifting weights) makes me feel connected to my body. Creating a connection between my body and my brain is important for me to feel a loving connection to myself.
4. I get outside in nature as often as I possibly can. Being outside in the sunshine, in surroundings that make me feel connected to the earth makes me feel more connected to my body. I purposefully live in a place where I can be outside most days out of the year, and I get outside on purpose (a walk, hike, run, ski, climb, play) almost every day. This is not for exercise, it is for a connection to my soul that keeps me grounded and connected to myself.
5. I feed my body nutrient-dense whole foods. I know I feel better and more connected to my body when I feed it nourishing foods that make me feel good physically, mentally and emotionally. I don’t view foods as restricted or “good” or “bad”. I view them from a lens of what will make me feel nourished and healthful, and I eat as much of those foods as possible.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?
I love books by Dr. Wayne Dyer, who teaches about how powerful our minds are and how necessary it is for us to pay attention to our thoughts. I have both read and listened to “Wishes Fulfilled” by Wayne Dyer no less than 5 times. I also love books by Marianne Williamson, who really taught me about being connected to something greater than ourselves in this life. I use her book, “A Course in Weight Loss”, with a number of my clients. Jen Sincero’s You are a Badass series, is one of my favorite introductions to the Law of Attraction. She is witty and easy to read (or listen to) and simplifies a complex concept (our thoughts control our outcomes).
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…
In my line of work, I am painfully aware of the impact that a negative relationship with food and body image has on the rest of our lives. Obesity and overweight afflicts more than 70% of our country and it affects more than just our physical bodies. We are paralyzed by our thoughts of imperfection, thinking we can’t be (fill in the blank), until we look a certain way. This robs humanity of our unique gifts and contributions to this world as we hide behind the discomfort of our physical beings.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be to help others realize that we are so much more than our physical form, and that this negative relationship we have with our bodies is just a result of a painful relationship we have with our “self” somewhere within. I would continue to help people heal from the inside out by changing their internal belief systems and teaching them new ways of being. The results… a happier, healthier lifestyle, freeing people to be do and have whatever they want in life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by?
Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?
Two quotes have guided my life in significant ways. The first is a passage from Marianne Williamson’s book A Return To Love. You may have read it. The passage reads as follows:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
This passage has shaped and changed my life in profound ways. I believe that we are all born with a unique gift, but most of us are afraid to step into that light and use it. I know I have been afraid in the past. I return to these words every time I try and talk myself out of doing something scary or vulnerable. We were not put on this planet to be miserable and succumb to the daily grind. We were put on this planet to be a part of greater humanity, to experience joy and connection, and to shine our light.
The other quote I live by and teach daily in all my programs is by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.
I live by this quote each day. In my work with those struggling with body image, this quote becomes our immediate mantra. You cannot hate yourself into loving yourself. You cannot hate your body into loving your body no matter how hard you try. If you want love, joy, and connection surrounding your physical form you MUST start with love. Love from within will grow to love the outside, there is NEVER a way around this. I encourage my clients to start with small steps towards this ultimate goal, but it starts with putting a halt to the hate and negativity they engage in on a daily basis when they look in the mirror or compare themselves to someone else. Only love can drive out the darkness we feel. This applies to any area of our lives. You will never get to joy through hate, you will only ever get there through love.
Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!