Compliments are interesting things. There are the generic “you look nice today” or “great job!” compliments that feel good in the moment, but are quickly forgotten. And yet these same positive affirmations can also elicit a negative reaction when the compliment does not align with the current state of being of the recipient. There are the compliments that are really insults in disguise. And there are also compliments that stay with us – compliments that direct our lives through our desire to live up to them. The two most generous and meaningful compliments I’ve ever received are: 1) If reincarnation exists I want to come back as your cat and 2) Your book reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
I had read Man’s Search for Meaning as a freshman in college. I remembered that it was a story of how Frankl had survived the Nazi concentration camps. But that was about it. I remembered that Frankl was an example of someone who could endure, survive and thrive. But I didn’t remember the lessons his book taught.
Perhaps Frankl’s work affected me more deeply than I knew. Or perhaps our work is shaped by similar experiences. It’s interesting that one of the comments frequently made about people suffering from anorexia is that they “look like they’ve been in a concentration camp.” Physically, it’s obvious in severe cases when the skin just hangs on the bones. But what’s not so obvious to the outsider is the mental, emotional, and spiritual toll eating disorders take. To be able to override every natural instinct your body has for survival, to be able to consciously and deliberately withhold food from yourself requires an “SS guard” in your mind inflicting mental torment. Frankl himself wrote that we all carry within us an “inner concentration camp,” and upon a recent reading of Man’s Search for Meaning there were many passages about which a voice in my head said, “check.” Either way, I now know what that person meant by that compliment.
Viktor Frankl had something to say. And his message was grounded in the reality of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Türkheim rather than in some abstract psychological theories. I too have something to say. And my message is grounded in the reality – and self-healing – of an eating disorder. Interestingly, we both essentially say the same things!
In Happy Calories Don’t Count I asserted that our primary, intrinsic motivation as human beings is happiness – that if we questioned ourselves and dug deeply enough, we would eventually discover that we want what we want (including the body that we want) because we believe that having it will make us happy. This pursuit of happiness is not based on some Freudian reductionist view of a “will to pleasure” based on instincts and drives – it is based on our deepest “hunger.” We are hungry for happiness – for peace, for fulfillment, for connection with that which makes us human – for meaning. And although I use the term happiness in my work, I am referring to the same intrinsic motivation Frankl speaks of in his – the search for meaning.
One of Frankl’s most famous quotes – When the situation cannot be changed, it is we who must change – directly describes my own story. In Happy Calories Don’t Count I wrote how – in the face of an untenable, unchangeable situation – I changed. I made a decision – a choice to be happy – and this choice paved the way for healing and transformation.
What is significant about this – from a weight loss and body image perspective – is that we are taught that the situation can be changed. We are taught (through our mass marketing media driven culture) that because we are responsible for what we eat and what we do for exercise, we can lose weight with diet and exercise. We are taught that we can get “a body like hers” if we just knew her “secrets” or had enough discipline. We are taught that our bodies can be something other than what they are. And it is this underlying belief that the situation can be changed that causes all of our pain and dysfunction around our body, our weight and our self-esteem. When we finally stop trying to change the situation, we can change. And when we change, our experience of the situation also changes. And ironically, once our experience of the situation changes, the situation itself can often change as well.
To help my clients begin the path of healing and self-transformation, I often advocate a “media diet.” In the era of Photoshop, slick marketing, social media, endless cable channels and 24 hour informericals, it is essential to distance ourselves from these strategic assaults on our self-esteem (at least until we’ve developed the media and marketing literacy tools to navigate them). Imagine my surprise when I read these words that Viktor Frankl had written in 1947:
We are living in an affluent society, and this is an affluence of not only material goods but of various sorts of stimuli as well. We are bombarded by the mass media. We are bombarded by sexual stimuli. And, last but not least, the information explosion represents a further, new affluence. Heaps of books and journals pile up on our desk. Unless we wish to drown… we have to choose between what is important and what is not, what is meaningful and what is not. We have to become selective and discriminating.
Frankl did not have to deal with the internet and all its glory – the click bait targeted advertising, the endless sources of information – including legitimate blogs and “fake news.” And his words are truer and more meaningful today than ever before. We must become selective and discriminating about what we choose to let into our personal headspace. We must develop media and marketing literacy skills. And we must take responsibility for ourselves, for our bodies and for our lives. We must take responsibility for our meaning as Frankl would say, and for our happiness as I put it. And we take this responsibility by exercising our freedom of choice. Frankl says it best when he writes:
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.
Perhaps my story and the teachings of Happy Calories really are grounded in an unconscious connection with Man’s Search for Meaning. Or perhaps the similarity between my work and Frankl’s is grounded in our similar struggles for survival. As a holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Frankl often wrote, “See, I have not kept my lips closed.” As a survivor of “the eating disorder from hell” and as a body image/weight loss coach, neither do I.