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Being Different

I was talking with a client about her discomfort eating differently than other people which led to discussing why divergence and nonconformity produce fear and shame in her. Many of you may encounter these feelings. To move into emotional health and eat “normally,” it’s vital to enjoy, value and feel at ease with your authentic self.

In terms of evolution, there are major reasons why humans desire to be like others or be different. For safety and security reasons, we want to conform and blend in, in short, be part of a group. There are also times when we want to stand out—to take charge, right a wrong, innovate, or act for the good of the group in ways which may appear counter to their norms. I know that when you’re out with friends you’re not thinking about evolution, but if nonconformity causes you discomfort when safety and security aren’t concerns, you may not be able to be the “normal” eater you’re striving to be.

So, back to my client’s eating struggles dining out with friends. My suggestion was to order and ask the waitstaff to serve only half the meal and box the rest to be given to her when she paid the check. Her first reaction was fear of what her friends would think of her and the second was how they, who also struggle with food, might feel badly if they cleaned their plates and she didn’t. Talking things through, she realized that being different, especially being perceived as in some way better than others, was triggering a whole mess of yucky feelings.

If you’re uneasy being different in a group, how did that come about? As a child, were you praised or punished, accepted by or excluded from family for marching to the beat of your own drum? Did being “better” threaten family members so that they withdrew love or shamed you for it? What were your family’s messages about difference?

Basically, “different” is a value-neutral term, that is, neither inherently good nor bad. The shame you feel in the present is a memory about previous experiences. Frankly, it’s unreasonable for family/friends/co-workers to expect the adult you to be like them or to get upset if you’re not. You have the right to chart your own course and make your own self-enhancing decisions. If you’re more clever, intelligent, creative, brave, sensible, self-nurturing, etc. than others, well, too bad for them. Remember that others can’t make you fearful or ashamed. Of course, you don’t want to be different just for the sake of it either—that’s rebellion. But do allow yourself to stand out from the crowd, especially when you do so because you’re thinking for yourself about food or weight. Go for it!