The Potluck Lot

One of the recurrent themes that I seem to return to with great frequency is my aversion to the preponderance of food in my workplace. I feel as though I live in a varying state of dudgeon over what I interpret as the unconscious perpetuation by those around me of the insidious and reprehensibly unhealthy values surrounding food, exercise, and body image that are so deeply ingrained in our culture. My righteous indignation stirs into a fiery fervor whenever the “Naughty or Nice Cart” rolls through my hallway. I feel like a zealot on a one-woman crusade against the political, media, and industry-fueled machine that drives perversions of what is considered “healthy” in our society. Sometimes, I wish that I could just shout, “Wake up! Wake up, people! Don’t you realize what is going on here?!” After so much cognitive behavioral work, so much practicing at identifying my distorted, all-or-nothing, black-and-white thoughts and then replacing those thoughts with more reasonable, appropriate, rational versions, I might be better at recognizing the pattern of extremism and alarm underlying my ruminations.

Yet, I still find myself sucked into a vortex of vilification and catastrophization on a not-irregular frequency. Why is it so difficult to just LET GO. Is the situation as tectonic as I paint it through my choice of language and the story that I construct in my mind? I am so sensitized to these issues due to my personal history that it is impossible for me to approach the problem from an unbiased, objective perspective. A frequent topic of conversation at my weekly therapy appointments is trying to decide just when to speak up and when to simply ACCEPT that I do not control the actions, opinions, behaviors, or beliefs of others. Can I acknowledge that, though I have a unique insight, I am not an expert, and I am not always right? Can I “choose my battles,” so to speak? Can I WILLINGLY tolerate the off-hand comments, insensitive remarks, and the possibly uneducated or uninformed, but not necessarily ill-intentioned, activities around me? I CAN… but it takes practice. And more practice. And more practice. And more and more and more and more practice.

My latest distress revolved around an office potluck-staff meeting. I wanted to characterize my workplace as evil and my co-workers as criminal because we must hold a potluck at every quarterly staff meeting… However, I ruefully acquiesced that the focus on food did not, of itself, make the environment hellish or the people wicked. In fact, I admitted to myself, a shared meal can be a very healthy activity! It builds bonds of connection and can be an expression of love, friendship, and joy. Unfortunately, in my personal experience as someone with binge eating disorder, these large-scale potlucks are too often derailed by eating just for the physical pleasure of consuming food, which shortly loses its pleasing effect. The sanctity of the meal is lost. The gratitude for nourishment and fellowship and the serenity that would follow from that sense of fulfillment erodes away when satiety is exceeded, the sugar crash sets in, and I begin lambasting myself for being such a fat, stupid, worthless cow in the privacy of my inner mind. I can’t speak for others, but I wonder if this is not a somewhat shared experience. Do we joke about how overly stuffed we are, the number of calories we just consumed, how many hours at the gym it will take to burn off our excesses, or the number of pounds we just gained in order to normalize, rationalize, and justify? Again, how can I expect to be objective? Sometimes, it seems that attention is purposely diverted to others in a scapegoating fashion. At the last office potluck-staff meeting, I listened in shocked horror as two colleagues made some of the most demeaning, dehumanizing “fat jokes” I could recall hearing since riding the school bus as a teenager. When I objected, one of the men laughed and stated, “It’s OK, because they’re fat. They deserve it. If they didn’t want to be made fun of, they wouldn’t be fat.” Appalled, I decided this was one of those situations I wasn’t going to be able to change (though I did speak to the supervisor later about the inappropriateness of those comments).

Perhaps it was this past experience that aroused so much discomfort and resentment in me as the day of the potluck approached. Recollections of previous struggles at similar office events were also, undoubtedly, contributing factors. Would this potluck-staff meeting be anything like those affairs? When I considered the looming occasion, words such as “awful,” “horrible,” “sucks,” “crap,” “problem,” “failure,” and “disaster,” sprang forward. Alternatives such as, “less than ideal,” “it is what it is,” “imperfect,” “opportunity,” “challenge,” “doable,” “growth,” and “surmountable,” were much less accessible to me. When I was able to string together a “rational response” to a doomful prediction, the thought was ephemeral, vaporizing almost as soon as it was conceptualized, while my negativity lingered.

On the day of the potluck, I summoned my courage and my coping skills. It wasn’t graceful. I always have this image of myself navigating distressing situations with perfect equanimity. Of course, using that ideal as my standard, I felt shamefully dejected. Fortunately, the wonderful supports to whom I reached out possessed the clarity and insight to point out that such a model is entirely unrealistic, and I was able to listen. Once I started admitting my small successes, it became increasingly easier to see the multitude of ways in which I did remarkably well under less than ideal circumstances that were beyond my control. My brain is expertly trained to instantly find the fault, the critique, the thing to improve upon. What I discovered following the potluck, or perhaps just stumbled upon again, is the need to preferentially look for my positives. My good qualities. My strengths.

So… these are my goals today. 1) Practice willing acceptance. Again. And again. And again. 2) Look for my positives. I hope you all can see your positives today, too!

"Hawaiian Sunrise 09," by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
“Hawaiian Sunrise 09,” by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
Featured Image Credit: “Ceremonial,” © NAEINSUN, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Feb 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

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