Jessica Flanigan seemed to be the perfect parent living the perfect life with her family — then everything fell apart. As her life collapsed around her, after she felt intense despair and anger, she found something quite unexpected: love. With this discovery came a revelation about the power of love for overcoming not only emotional adversity, but also physical ailments. Flanigan, a clinical nutritionist and author of The Loving Diet, sat down with WellBe to discuss how facing adversity transformed her outlook, what living with a chronic illness shares with emotional hardship, the power and limitations of the autoimmune paleo diet, and why practicing self-love is the answer to almost everything.
Flanigan was a married mother, actively engaged in her community and living the picture-perfect life. She thought nothing could go wrong, and that if it did she would have the skills to handle it. But then, her husband cheated on her, eventually leaving her and marrying the other woman. They lost their home. She became a single parent. And she didn’t know how to handle it.
“Before my life fell apart, I had been meditating, I had been doing yoga. I was a class parent. I was a prominent member of my community. I volunteered. I checked off every single box that I thought was what I was supposed to do,” says Flanigan. “Then, when the rug really got ripped out from underneath me, I found out that I did not have the skills to move forward. I didn’t even know what the first step would be.”
This was particularly shocking to Flanigan because, like many of us, she was taught that the better her life looked, the better she would be able to cope when she was facing adversity. When this turned out not to be the case, she knew she needed to find a radically different approach.
After much soul-searching, she discovered that the only effective option was to fully accept and even embrace her circumstances, to investigate how her life was serving her rather than how it was hurting her. In other words, she needed to love everything that had happened and everything she was experiencing, no matter how impossible that seemed.
When she put that realization into action, everything became better, easier, and happier, and the seed was planted for her book, The Loving Diet. In the book, she explains that when you’re facing adversity, practicing self-love is often the most transformational and healing tool you have. This applies to emotional hardship, as she experienced, but also to physical hardship and diseases. “I wrote the book for anybody who is trying to figure out how they can use something for themselves instead of against themselves, even when it feels like their life is being torn apart,” says Flanigan.
Practicing Self-Love to Handle Life’s Challenges
Accepting and embracing — and loving — her circumstances may seem like it was a tall order given what Flanigan was going through. But eventually she was able to get there, and the way she found that love and acceptance was by starting with herself and practicing self-love.
In the months after her life began to fall apart, Flanigan was completely grief-stricken, and this pain was compounded by her own judgment of her sadness. One part of her brain would be thinking, “Poor me. Why did my husband have to cheat on me and leave me?” while the other would be thinking “Why can’t you get through this? Why can’t you just get through your grief?”
This all changed one day, on a normal trip to the grocery store to pick up some groceries. Suddenly, she made the choice to stop judging how she was handling the situation, but rather to simply be with herself as she experienced her sadness. “That was the key,” Flanigan says. “I had never allowed myself to be present in a nonjudgmental way with the parts of myself that were sad, the parts of myself that were grieving.”
She began practicing self-love by wholly embracing that sad part of herself. She did visualization exercises while meditating or while in bed, imagining herself holding the hand of the part of her that was in pain. She would talk to this part of herself, encouraging and comforting her. Up until that point, her mind and heart had been occupied with judgment and hatred for her husband, for the other woman, for her life, and for her own feelings. “I was doing all the human things,” Flanigan says. “So I just stopped judging my humanness. I stopped trying to be a superstar when, really, I was just on the ground moving inch by inch.”
In other words, she was practicing self-love by being with the parts that hurt instead of trying to fix them — and, through this, she was able to reach a place of peace, acceptance, and love with regard to her life and the people in it (yes, even her ex husband).
When working with clients, Flanigan presents a three-step process for coming to terms with difficult circumstances in their own lives, be it a challenging relationship, a chronic illness, or something else. The process, which is its own form of practicing self-love, goes like this:
Become curious. Become curious about whatever it is that you’re grappling with. Curiosity allows you to look at the issue without judgment, and to perhaps learn something useful about it.
What is your relationship to your circumstances? Understand and define how you relate to whatever it is your grappling with.
What did you decide? This is the step where you can look at the assumptions and judgments you may hold and identify if there is anything there that’s not true or not serving you.
As an example, Flanigan offers someone diagnosed with a chronic disease like lupus. They would first become curious about the disease, about what it is and how it works and how it affects them. They would then examine their relationship with the disease, which may be a difficult and contentious relationship, where they feel angry and resentful at the illness itself. Then they would look at the decision they’d made about their circumstances. They may think that God is punishing them with their illness.
By practicing self-love through each of these three steps, a profound transformation can occur. Through a lens of curiosity and non-judgment, a person can begin to see how an illness may have awakened them to something they would not have understood or experienced otherwise. They can see the negative and untrue decisions they’d made about their life and their worth. They can discern the ways that they had been compounding their own unhappiness.
“Oftentimes, it’s as simple as, ‘Oh, this illness has awakened me to the parts of myself that were hurting,” says Flanigan. “Or, ‘Oh, lupus helped me to start advocating for myself because I never did it before, because I didn’t think I was worth it. From my perspective that’s what loving ourselves is.”
She’s quick to point out that practicing self-love doesn’t mean being happy all the time. What it means is being willing to acknowledge and be with all the parts or yourself, even the hurt or ailing parts, and to not judge them. It means looking at the ways that life can work for instead of against you, no matter how unfair or difficult your life circumstances might seem.
The Emotional Component of Living with Chronic Illness
While Flanigan’s journey to love her life circumstances may not seem connected to the idea of living with chronic illness, she asserts that they’re two sides of the same coin. In fact, she says, many chronic and autoimmune conditions have emotional components or may even originate out of an emotional trauma — which seems somewhat intuitive when you remember that an autoimmune condition is one in which your body is actually attacking itself, suggesting an internal struggle or disharmony.
Flanigan explains that when difficult things happen to a person, the science shows that it predisposes them to experience chronic disease later in life. She references the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conducted by the CDC and Kaiser as an illustration of this point. The study, which included over 17,000 patient volunteers, looked at whether or not a child had experienced any adverse events — such as an alcohol parent, homelessness, or abuse — and then tracked the incidence of health issues over a long-term follow-up period.
“What that showed is that humans who go through difficulty earlier in life have a higher propensity for chronic disease,” says Flanigan. What’s more, the more adverse experiences a person had, the likelier they were to develop a chronic disease.
This connection between living with chronic illness and difficult emotions is central to Flanigan’s life ethos and work. It also helps explain why she moved away from her initial approach to healing, which revolved around the autoimmune paleo protocol and other diets used to heal chronic conditions.
The Limitations of the Autoimmune Paleo Diet
When Flanigan began working with patients, she would often recommend the autoimmune paleo diet as a way to heal certain conditions. But over time, she came to see that this diet (and other restrictive diets) have many limitations, and can actually be harmful in the long run. Practicing self-love, on the other hand, has neither of these downsides.
“Loving ourselves doing hard things doesn’t have a shelf life, but all diets do,” Flanigan explains. Because of this, the actual nutritional diet component of The Loving Diet is very short and very specifically aimed at healing autoimmune disease and SIBO. She explains that the section on the autoimmune paleo diet doesn’t apply to everybody, but that for those with an autoimmune disease or SIBO, the protocol can be very helpful — but for short-term applications only.
In her practice, Flanigan has worked with thousands of patients who went on the autoimmune paleo diet. “After actually being on the front lines, I noticed a couple of things,” she says. “One is that a lot of people, from a very innocent, well-meaning place, took a diet that was meant to be a temporary elimination diet and they turned it into a lifestyle.” The autoimmune paleo diet, she says, wasn’t meant to be used for more than a few months, but people are staying on the protocol for years at a time.
The second thing she noticed was around gut diversity. When people go on the restrictive autoimmune paleo diet, the main goal is to reduce inflammation, and in that single-minded effort, things get missed. Colon infections, bacterial infections, parasites, viruses that lead to leaky gut: they can all be overlooked. At the same time, the restrictiveness of the diet means that the gut loses diversity over time, which negatively impacts gut health.
According to Flanigan, these two factors combined create a “perfect storm” for getting locked into a very limited diet and becoming unable to reintroduce foods. As she explains, when someone goes on a restrictive diet like the autoimmune paleo protocol without cleaning up their gut first, they begin to lose tolerance even to healthy foods. At the same time, the restrictive nature of the diet can lead to an unhealthy obsession with foods, which is then reinforced because the body’s new lack of tolerance means it genuinely can’t handle most foods.
“I started to see a startling amount of women who developed disordered eating where they became frightened and afraid of food,” says Flanigan. “Because any food they looked at, even the foods that are autoimmune paleo-approved — like carrots, chicken — they started to react too. They were afraid they were going to mess up and eat the wrong food, so they became scared of food. Healthy food became their enemy.”
The solution to this, Flanigan says, is to use the autoimmune paleo protocol only for a short period of time to heal a specific issue, such as SIBO or an autoimmune disease. She believes that people are not meant to be on such a restrictive diet for a long period of time, and that such a mindset offers people a false choice between their health and living a life with pleasure, socializing, and community around food. Once the diet has served its purpose, people can continue on their healing journey by practicing self-love and acceptance that allows them to find a sustainable diet that nourishes their unique body in the long-term.
Are you able to practice self-love when things in your life are challenging? If so, what are your techniques? If not, what could you try in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Watch our full interview with Jessica Flanigan to learn how she came to love her ex-husband and his new wife, why it’s so essential to release the idea of outcomes, why seeking safety can be a bad thing, what the concept of “againstness” is and how it applies to your life, the most effective tools for loving the worst things in your life, and more.
Jessica Flanigan is a clinical nutritionist with 25 years of experience, as well as 15 years of spiritual training with Dr. Robert Waterman. She holds a B.S. in Environmental Biology, attended the Master’s Degree Nutrition program at Bastyr University, and is a certified Noetic Practitioner. She is an expert on the autoimmune paleo movement, and has written two books related to the topic, The Loving Diet and AIP One Dish. You can read more about Jessica Flanigan here.