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When I began attending therapy about three years ago for emotional eating, I thought my problem was that I was addicted to food. And I was: there was no amount of food too large for me to eat in a single sitting and no apparent end to the gnawing hunger I always felt inside. Maybe I could sit and delicately eat a slice of pizza in the company of others, but I would then go home and eat an entire pizza on my own to fill the very real hunger that didn’t go away after one, three, or five slices. No matter how much I ate, it was never enough. Therefore, I clearly had an addiction to food. I imagine this is the same way alcoholics, drug addicts, or anyone else with an unhealthy obsession feels: they can’t stop doing the thing they want to stop doing, so they must be addicted to that thing.

It took me a long time to realize that the issues I had with food and my body had very little to do with either food or my body. I thought there were certain types of people when it came to food. Some had willpower and some couldn’t control themselves. Some ate to feed their physical hunger and some used food as a sedative. Some people could look at a plate filled with cheese and crackers, eat a few, and then walk away. Some wouldn’t be satisfied until the entire tray was gone, and even then they’d still want more. It took me such a long time to learn that the tray of cheese and crackers was not the issue. The giant chocolate bar was not the problem. The large pizza was not the point.

In reading the works of Geneen Roth and discussing them with my therapist, I finally realized the real point. The point is this: the way we eat is the way we live. When we feed ourselves, we’re giving ourselves what we think we deserve. How we feel about love, scarcity, fear, desire and change is reflected in the way we feed ourselves. Eating and eating and eating and eating is a way of saying I don’t think there’s enough love to go around so I’m going to grab onto whatever I can now. Depriving ourselves of food is a way of saying I’m not worthy of giving myself the basic fuel I need to live. Only allowing ourselves certain kinds of food is a form of punishment. Binging is a way of putting ourselves through a hell we already know instead of confronting the uncertainties that exist in our lives. Eating excessively is a way of fleeing or flattening our lives, of saying: I don’t deserve to be in this moment, appreciating its beauty, so I’m going to remove myself from it. The way we eat reflects the way we feel about our lives. As Geneen says, “We don’t want to EAT hot fudge sundaes so much as we want our lives to BE hot fudge sundaes. We want to come home to ourselves.”

The problem wasn’t the pizza or the cookie dough or the bagels or the cereal. The problem was that I didn’t love myself, wasn’t kind to myself, didn’t expect the world to be kind to me, and wasn’t particularly kind to others. The problem was that I had bought into this very American philosophy that suffering is the way to achieve success. Ignoring my body’s cues until I reached a physical point where I HAD to overeat to compensate for undereating was my way of letting the world know I didn’t think I was worthy of love, kindness, generosity, patience, or compassion — whether it came from someone else or from me.

Geneen summarizes it best: “For some reason, we are truly convinced that if we criticize ourselves, the criticism will lead to change. If we are harsh, we believe we will end up being kind. If we shame ourselves, we believe we end up loving ourselves. It has never been true, not for a moment, that shame leads to love. Only love leads to love.”

Our culture loves to encourage us to hate and shame our bodies and ourselves. It’s what drives the advertising market. If we weren’t on an ongoing quest to improve ourselves because we think we’re despicable, why would we ever buy products? Women’s magazines love to encourage us to hate and shame our bodies and ourselves. Hate and shame is an extremely marketable industry. Hate and shame can drive us to do irrational things like not eat for six hours and then be so hungry we have no option but to eat a whole pizza.

Again, I cannot emphasize enough how much the pizza is not the problem. The box of cookies on top of your fridge that’s haunting you is not the problem. The problem is and always has been that when we don’t take care of ourselves, it’s because we believe we’re not worthy of the goodness in life. As Geneen says, “Compulsive eating is only the symptom; believing that you are not worth your own love is the problem. Go for the love. You will never be sorry.”

I didn’t overcome a food addiction by eating certain foods or not eating certain foods or never allowing these foods in the house or using food as either a reward or punishment. I overcame food addiction by being kind to myself and believing I was worth the effort. In the process, I became kinder to others, too.

So here’s what it all boils down to: I believe strongly, wholeheartedly, and passionately that kindness is the answer to everything. Being kind to ourselves and others is essential for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. You will never reach your goals by hating, criticizing or shaming yourself. You will never feel better about yourself by putting someone else down. You will never be productive in this world by putting out a cloud of negativity. Kindness is the only way.

Honestly, I get a little tired of the barrage of questions I receive about food and exercise. As someone who writes a blog that centers around a healthy lifestyle, maybe that’s an odd thing to admit. But every time I get these questions, I want to say: It’s not about the food. It’s not about exercise. It’s not about weight loss. It’s not about calories or macros or crunches or sprints. Every single time, in every single situation, I believe it’s about being kind to yourself. Being gentle with yourself. Being forgiving. Being patient. Being supportive and loving and kinder than you ever thought possible. And then it’s about turning that kindness and love around on others because that is what life is all about. If we’re not here to treat each other well, what the hell are we here for?

I know we live in a world where terrible things happen. I know there’s terrorism and racism and homophobia and transphobia and I know there’s this horrible thing known as internet comments. And I know our lives are rushed and over-packed and we’re all exhausted and it’s not always easy to muster up the energy to say something nice when all we feel is overwhelmed or annoyed. And I know despite our best efforts, even the kindest among us will say and do things that aren’t very nice, hurting the people we love the most in the process.

But I also know we all have the capacity for kindness. And I know there are a lot of people in this world who aren’t interested in tearing each other or themselves down. And I think and hope there’s enough kindness in this world to drown out some of the negative bullshit.

There’s only one place it can start and that’s by being kind to yourself. There is no scenario in which hating yourself is going to lead to loving yourself. The only way to start loving yourself is to start loving yourself. The only way to be kind is to be kind. The only way to feel worthy is to believe you are worthy.

Whatever your goals, whatever you’re trying to do, whatever you’re hoping to achieve: start by being kind to yourself. Start by telling yourself you’re worthy of kindness. This means you’re worthy of eating real, filling meals. This means you’re worthy of sitting down at a table with a tablecloth and candles instead eating from a spoon while hunched over the kitchen sink. You’re worthy of taking a bubble bath or getting a massage when you feel frazzled. You’re worthy of moving your body in a way you enjoy and not punishing it. You’re worthy of spending time with people who love you. You’re worthy of giving and receiving love. You’re worthy of hearing yourself say “It’s okay” when you fail and you’re worthy of designing your life in such a way that it BECOMES the ice cream sundae.

This is my only answer. This will always be my only answer. No matter how many specific questions about food and exercise I receive, this will always be my only answer. It’s kindness. It’s always kindess.