A Dancer Turned Psychologistadmin
My Ballet Life:
Ballet was something I inherently knew I wanted to do very early in life. Although I tried other forms of dance and musical theater as a child, I knew in order to get anywhere with ballet, I would have to make it a priority. And so from 15 years old on, I made it my top focus, with school being a close second. Hours a day were spent training in a studio where tights and leotards were the standard uniform. Healthy teachers cultivated a safe space with constructive and positive feedback. Yet, this is not all what a young dancer is exposed to. It was not uncommon to be physically poked and prodded, and given critical feedback that bred a doubting mindset, especially when told to spot reduce weight and change body parts that are not able to truly change. When I grew up in the world of ballet, it did not support an inclusive body type. Thin, waif-like bodies were idealized and highly arched feet with slightly hyperextended legs created the ideal lines. Or so we were trained to believe.
And although I was generally thin, I did not hit all the required boxes – flat feet, a curved spine, and being slightly too tall for partnering was considered pitfalls. Physical features I had no control over. Sometimes this was said directly to me, sometimes it was just implied. However, I will never forget the day when I really “saw” my body in the mirror for the first time. And in a flash, I only saw imperfections. This initiated a loathing feeling towards my own body and a long, tormented relationship with food. I began restricting how much and what I ate. As I lost a little weight, I received mixed messages; some teachers voiced concerns, others thought I looked great. What is a young, impressionable, eager-to-please teenager to do?
The severity of the restricting rules became difficult to maintain and so, a binging – restricting cycle ensued. Now it became increasingly challenging to maintain such a low weight with these behaviors. The level of shame with my body and thinking about food constantly was exhausting. Many times I considered quitting ballet, yet something kept pulling me back in. I had high hopes of obtaining a contract to join the professional company associated with my ballet school. Although I often had leading roles within the school and understudied company roles, that day never came. I was devastated. All that time, all that pressure, for what I thought.
Never one to give up too easily and perhaps do more than necessary, I pressed on. I moved on to a college-level conservatory to expand my training. My relationship with food was still poor, yet I had periods where I thought it was under control. Mostly when the number on the scale was acceptable to me. Although deep in my heart I knew this was a false sense of feeling deserving, it was confusing when health didactics at school were held encouraging “liquid meals.” Although challenging, I continued to remain focused. Yet my body had other plans for me.
My second to last year up graduating, I found myself incredibly sick. Used to tolerating intense pain and being told by the local Urgent Care doctor that I just had the flu, I drug myself to sit and observe classes (typically required when not participating). The years prior to this illness, I had had occasional intense stomachaches that brought me to the ER. Each time, the results of causality were inconclusive. And so I thought based on my experiences, I just needed to tolerate this. About a week later, realizing I was very sick, I brought myself to an ER. It was discovered that my appendix had burst and leaked over a liter of poison in my body. Life was fragile at that point and it took me months to recover physically to be a normal functioning adult, let alone engage in a day long full of dance training.
Although I returned to school a few months later, I was physically exhausted. Dragging myself through classes felt impossible. At this point, my less than healthy mindset began to really worsen. I started to feel depressed and no longer passionate about dancing. As I was so close to graduating, it was what I felt like ‘I had to do.’ Prior to my last semester, the director told me they were taking away my performance scholarship, as I was no longer performing up to their standards. I was shocked. Not once did they come see me during the 11 days I was in the hospital. Not once did they check in on me when they most certainly observed my struggle to get through the days. I felt completely abandoned. Nevertheless I finished school because I refused to give in, but it came with a cost.
Transitioning into My Own Healing:
I quit dance, moved across the country and waitressed at a hotel. I was broken. I was depressed, experiencing panic attacks, difficulty leaving my apartment, and had extreme apathy for life. What was the point? I had lost an identity I had cultivated for 17 years. I was sad, angry, and totally lost. I distracted myself with partying, shopping, and dating. I sought everything outside myself to some how make me feel better internally, not realizing it was an inside job. It got to the point that I knew I needed help. And so I reached out to a therapist.
I learned so much from her. She helped me to begin to cultivate self-love, set boundaries, and rediscover who I was. I began practicing letting go of food rules and being more mindful when eating. I learned to release my judgments around food. Simultaneously, I began training to be a fitness instructor. The daily movement and community there was another huge piece of my healing. Looking back, the combination of talk therapy and moving my body again was key to my recovery. I was so fascinated by the process of therapy and interested in how the mind worked, that it seemed clear that going back to school for psychology was my path.
Still holding onto some of my dancer/fitness identity, I began my studies in Sports Psychology. I realized I still had healing to do as I often felt triggered discussing athlete issues. I sensed I needed a bigger shift, perhaps to let go of the dancer’s identity entirely for a period of time. So I transitioned to a traditional Clinical Psychology program. As I began to discover this new identity, I was uncertain and still held back. I did not enjoy presenting or speaking up in class. I now realize that I still struggled with trusting myself and finding my own voice.
Learning to Trust Myself:
I wish I could say it was a quick fix to learn to trust myself. Even though I was nervous to do many things required in graduate school, I continued to choose to do them. Slowly I gained some confidence in my abilities yet often still defaulted to trusting that others always knew more than me. I was heavily reliant on this, if someone seemed slightly confident, I always believed them over my own knowing. Even near the end of my training, supervisors continued to encourage more trust in my abilities. What did this mean? I had come from a lifetime of trusting others: teachers, coaches, directors, and professors to give me feedback. I still truly did not even know what my own voice sounded like.
Despite obtaining a doctorate and license in clinical psychology, I doubted what I knew and continued to seek more. It is clear to me now that no amount of outside degrees or reinforcement from others will truly fill one’s self-trust, it must come from within. I had my spiritual awakening in 2016 as I began studying Meta-Psychics, Energy Psychology, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. And although I think I will forever be a seeker, I am learning that I can teach along the way.
What I Have Learned to Help Cultivate Self-Love:
This is still a work in process however, I think a huge part of it is asking and listening to my body what it needs. Before, I had self-imposed rules and limitations that my body had no say in. It was like a one-sided relationship. Whether this is with food, movement, or rest, I have gained skill in listening, acknowledging, and letting go of judgment on what it needs. Learning to prioritize my needs has also been a learning process. For a long time, I thought being selfish was a bad thing until I realized I could not fully show up for others unless I had filled my cup first. Although I still struggle at times, I have learned to let go of the need to manage other’s emotional reactions to my limits. Part of this included refraining from over-apologizing from my past need to people-please.
And so in service of hopefully saving others time and suffering, here are my top tips for cultivating self-love:
Self-integrity: Make small commitments of self-care to yourself and keep them no matter what. Even if it means disappointing another, learn to be able to tolerate this. Make the commitment so small it feels insignificant and feels doable. Then grow from there. This practice will help you build self-worth and trust in yourself.
Allowance: Be in allowance right where you are at, flaws and all. When we are at peace with where we are at (even if we don’t like it) this will help us to shift out of it and transform more easily.
Set boundaries: This communicates your worth to yourself and others. No one will do it for you.
Mindfully live: When we are aware of the present moment, we have choices to change it. Practice shifting attention to more helpful thoughts.
Forgive yourself: Letting go of shame helps us to heal and move forward. Holding onto this stops this process.
Written by: Janine Kreft, PsyD