There is a spectrum when it comes to decision making: at one end is using an internal locus of evaluation and at the other is using an external one. A person lucky enough to have an internal locus of evaluation, my oldest daughter, for example, makes decisions by consulting herself. She always has! I joke that she raised me and not the other way around, except that it isn’t a joke. When Abi was 6, she decided that animal consumption was immoral and cruel, and in my maternal ‘wisdom’, informed by mainstream thought about meat, protein and growing children, I persuaded and cajoled her to continue. Sorry, Abi! But by the time she was 9, she pointblank refused, and I realised that she really was going to exist on potatoes, pasta, vegetables, baked beans and toast unless I intervened. So I joined her in the meatless way of life but persuaded her to continue eating fish and dairy and eggs, for protein and Omega 3.
Abi continued to consult herself on these matters, doing research and ordering informative leaflets from a range of animal welfare organisations, and made it increasingly clear that she considered fish eating also immoral and bad for the planet, as well as dairy and eggs. She presented me with information that corroborated her internal suspicions, and she educated me about the reality of the egg industry (which involves shredding up male chicks) and the dairy industry (which involves shipping unwanted males off for veal or just shooting them in the head at birth or a few weeks old). By the time she was 12 we were vegan. I couldn’t unknow the facts that she had presented me, and we have been vegan ever since – her more successfully than me as I have had the occasional unvegan day.
My point is this: up to the age of 30 something, I had believed all the nutritional advice that I’d been taught, never questioned it, did the same as everybody else and didn’t question the status quo. Having a prophet in the family – somebody who is prepared to stand on the hill and speak truth loudly and clearly – somebody who is prepared to question the status quo and ask: ‘Is this right? Does this sit right with who I am on the inside?’ isn’t always convenient but I am deeply grateful for her. She has brought me to a more ethical life and one that is better for the planet. Without her, I would undoubtedly not have made those choices all those years ago. She has also brought most of the family to her way of thinking and made a significant difference to our carbon footprint as a result. All because she has an internal locus of evaluation.
I have always had a largely external locus of evaluation. This isn’t to say that I haven’t followed the light of inner knowledge, because I have. I managed to get a degree, train as a teacher, leave a bad relationship and become a better partner as a result of that, learn as a parent and choose a career path that suits me and my needs. But there’s still a hell of a lot of worry about what people think of me. I ask my husband: ‘Do YOU think this is OK? Was that BAD? Should I have said that? Do you think I upset him/her?’ I sometimes spend bloody hours after a conversation analysing what I said or didn’t say, and worry that the person will think less of me or not want to see me again, regardless of how much or how little of a role they actually play in my life. I also spent years of life hyper focused on my appearance, which was always, always about how others perceived me because I honestly do not care how I look to myself in the mirror. I really don’t. I was always looking at myself through the lens of imaginary other people.
When we have this external locus of evaluation, we become performers for the benefit of others. We have performative sex instead of loving fun together with our partners. When we light candles so our partners won’t see the wobbly bits, who are we in this except bodies to be looked at? A person with an internal locus of evaluation would ask: ‘How does this feel? What do I want to do right now in this moment?’ Not, ‘What do I look like?’
And when it comes to food and eating, this has to be the biggest personal one for me. If we’re counting calories, following a plan, using a food log, tracking fat, macros or carbs, doing the 5/2, intermittent fasting or any other form of rule based eating, what has happened to our inner knowledge? Our awareness of who we even are? We were born with an instinct to eat until we were satisfied and then stop and rest and then eat again until satisfied. As children, we chose an apple sometimes and a piece of cake at other times. I used to give my kids a plate that they called a picnic, with bits of sandwich, cubes of cheese, little chocolate buttons, a few crisps, some raisins, some slices of apple and a few iced gems. Sometimes they didn’t even touch the chocolate buttons! They were using their internal locuses of evaluation – before being whipped into obedience by external expectations about their bodies, their choices and their autonomy.
Our gendered behaviours and expectations are also external. I didn’t care about being slim, toned and sexy when I was charging around the park like a feral chimpanzee aged 10. I was fit, strong, happy and full of energy, free of all that expectation. That all came later and I forgot my identity in a confusing whirlwind of trying to be whatever a girl was supposed to be back in the 80s. I recall that having a ‘good body’ was a part of that but heaven forbid actually enjoying said body because we weren’t supposed to be a ‘slag’ and I don’t think much of that has changed, sadly, for our teenage girls today.
I just want to be free of all of it now. I want to be able to look inside and ask myself: ‘What do I want to eat? How much of it do I want?’ I want to go out without any makeup and not give a crap what anyone else thinks of my face. It’s a 51 year old face: sometimes its tired and sometimes its pale, and nobody suggests that my husband hide his eye bags or spend time making himself more agreeable for others to look at and I’m damned if I’m going to suggest that to myself. I have no issue with people wearing makeup, high heels, glamorous styles, nail varnish and fake eyelashes. I have no issue with people having botox, face lifts, breast implants, tummy tucks or acrylic nails. Your body, your choice. Do it if it makes you happy and makes you feel good. Do it for yourself. Do it because it makes your heart smile. Don’t do it for anybody else or for some societal expectations about how a person ‘should look’.
So, where is your locus of evaluation? Most people are going to consult others and care somewhat about their opinions. None of us live in a vacuum. We do need to consider our loved ones and perhaps our colleagues. Using deodorant and refraining from unlawful behaviour are pretty useful external expectations that help us all. But for most of us there is a vast amount of material going on in our minds that we really could shed. In the words of Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls: ‘Lose your mind and come to your senses’.