"You're ugly," I told myself as I looked in the full-length mirror.
As if that wasn't enough to crush my spirit, I added, "and fat too."
It had become my morning ritual: to look in the mirror and express a cruelty toward myself that I would never express toward another living or dead being. I must've been doing it for so long that I forgot I was even doing it.
It had become an unconscious habit, like turning off the stove when you're done cooking. Sometimes you get to work and wonder if you turned it off and you replay the morning through your mind, but you don't remember because it's so automatic, you don't even think about it anymore, you just do it. And then your mind starts racing and you worry that you might return home to a charred pile of burnt memories.
Whether it was turning off the stove in the kitchen or emotionally mutilating myself in the bathroom mirror, most of the time, I didn't even notice I was doing either.
But you can bet I felt it, every single time, without fail. You can bet a part of me shrunk into a tiny ball of massive shame discarded like a piece of lint picked off someone's sweaty gym sock.
As a Highly Sensitive Person, I feel EVERYTHING.
And I REMEMBER every feeling.
So you can bet that fragile acne-ridden 12 year old me who was teased in the school cafeteria for having a face that looked like the pizza on her plate felt it.
You can bet that dreamy 22 year old me who was told she could never model because she was too short and fat (at 5'4" and 110 pounds) felt it.
And you can bet that strong 42 year old me who was looking back in the mirror, pretending not to notice, felt it too.
I don't know when I started verbally abusing myself and using food for comfort but I didn't realize it until last year when I turned 44.
Until then, I didn't fully own up to it or the devastating effects it had on me.
After all, emotional eaters aren't petite, so I thought.
And is it really verbal abuse if you don't say it out loud, if you just think it?
The answer for a Highly Sensitive Person: YES. A resounding YES.
The answer for everyone else: YES. A resounding YES.
Abuse is abuse, any way you justify it, no matter who you are.
I always thought I was sweet, kind, compassionate and loving. Turns out that was only one side of me. It was the side directed toward everyone else except the one person who truly matters. The one person who will be with me, every moment of every day, from birth until the day I die, and maybe even beyond. The one person who affects everything in my life.
To that one person, I was cruel, unforgiving and relentlessly harsh.
My wake up call happened when I had an allergic reaction to something I ate and my face swelled up. I went to the doctor and when I got on the scale, as I was watching the intake nurse push the little weight further and further to the right where the higher numbers were, I heard a dry, matter-of-fact voice say, "You fat cow."
Startled, I looked around to see if someone nearby had said it even though I knew there was no one else around. My bloated stomach dropped as I suddenly realized and finally owned up to the fact that it was my own voice in my own head.
And I was talking to myself.
How could I possibly treat myself with such detached cruelty? Me, who meditates every day, who preaches self-love, self-care and kindness, who teaches others how to love themselves unconditionally?
In one sweeping moment of realization, standing barefoot on a manual metal scale in a doctor's office at 10:00 on a Monday morning, I suddenly knew why none of my past relationships had worked, why my previous business ventures crashed and burned and why I was constantly overachieving but never satisfied.
It was because I was being mentally, verbally and physically abused.
By none other than myself.
I physically abused myself by consistently putting unhealthy foods in my body. By binge eating and shoving entire bags of potato chips manically in my mouth, crumbs flying in my hair, during bouts of emotional distress. By not taking care of my body when it came to food and rest, by not giving it the nourishment it needs to function and thrive. My eating habits were just another expression of the self-loathing I carried inside me.
I couldn't process my painful emotions in a healthy way so I loaded up on processed, unhealthy food.
On the surface, I looked like a well-functioning, successful business woman. I got dressed every day, put on a big white smile, combed my hair, interacted with people, made six figures and had multiple personal achievements worthy of anyone's envy.
But if you looked closer, you'd see a slow motion trainwreck doomed to happen. You'd see someone desperately grasping to numb her feelings of unworthiness with dark chocolate, potato chips and ice cream. You'd see someone who may have looked healthy, at 5'4" and 130 pounds, and eaten healthy in public, but when no one was looking, would devour an entire bag of Ruffles Cheddar & Sour Cream potato chips in 5 minutes.
Sometimes I'd even dip my potato chips in ice cream.
It wasn't until I invested in myself and hired a health coach that I learned how to stop the spiral of self-abuse and finally start loving myself deeply.
My coach, Nagina Abdullah, had been featured on Fox News and MindBodyGreen and was highly regarded for her quick, dramatic results and healthy recipes. Through her coaching, I recognized that I was an emotional eater. And more importantly, that my emotional eating was merely a symptom of an even bigger problem.
Shame. Guilt. Anger. Insecurity. Doubt. Hurt. Unworthiness. Frustration. Fear.
All of it hidden underneath the guise of making the best of things, positive thinking and looking on the bright side.
I was too spiritually enlightened to think of myself as having, let alone hoarding, those feelings. I was an emotion coach, a healer, an admitted self-help junkie who spent thousands of dollars on seminars, retreats, courses and workshops. I was always positive.
Heck, I had even been featured in a 3 page spread in Positive Thinking magazine.
How can someone like me harbor any of those weaker vibrations?
And therein lay the problem. I was unwilling to accept that I actually did harbor them. I did feel them, even when I numbed them out with food. The feelings were always there, lurking under the surface.
It wasn't until I took a cold, hard and painful look at myself and brought all those emotions to the surface could I finally process them and let them go. Through my business, I teach people how to deal with their deep emotions and love themselves so they can thrive. Why couldn't I do this for myself?
It turns out, I can.
But not until I fully own and take absolute responsibility for my abusive behavior toward myself.
That was my first step.
I no longer eat out of emotional pain. I haven't had an eating binge in months. I've lost 10 pounds and 8 inches off my waist. I feel lighter, sexier, more energetic than I've ever felt.
I don't have all the answers, but I know one thing for sure.
When I look in my bathroom mirror now, I see nothing but beauty and love staring back at me.
And a small voice whispers, "you're beautiful."
Tree Franklyn is the author of The Ultimate Emotional Survival Guide for Empaths and Highly Sensitive Women Who Feel Deeply. You can get her free guide here and learn how to transform your sensitivity to create the life you want.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.