By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Chances are, you came to this site because you’ve been struggling with an eating disorder. And chances are you are here because you have a desire to heal. If you are anything like I was, you might even have mixed feelings about healing; part of you wanting to get better and part of you that’s really scared about what that will entail. The good news is that all you need is some desire to get well in order to begin getting well.
You may already know that beating yourself up about your behaviors is not going to help heal them. Neither is ignoring them and letting them run or ruin your life. But adopting a curious, compassionate, kind tone and really trying to understand the purpose of your eating disorder, will help you reveal what you feel, and heal, for real!
I remember when I began to contemplate the possibility of letting go of my eating disorder. I had joined a support group in my early years of recovery and I heard someone say, “It’s really hard having an eating disorder and it’s really hard letting it go.” I thought, Oh, great… Isn’t there a door number three here? Isn’t there an easier route that’s not so hard? It turns out there isn’t. Living with an eating disorder is really hard and letting it go is really hard. But with the eating disorder, things usually get worse over time, whereas with recovery, life gets better over time… and better…. and better. And getting better doesn’t mean you don’t have pain or struggles in life, it just means you don’t use restricting, bingeing, purging, exercise, body obsession or self-harm to deal with the hard parts of life; you use inner and outer resources.
So how do you feel about letting go of your eating disorder? Do you tell yourself it’s not that bad? Is there a part of you that wants to heal and a part of you that is scared to let go of your habitual behaviors and thoughts? Do you have any desire to stop? Are you ready to stop now?
The following ideas can help you gain some clarity into what purpose your eating disorder has been trying to serve. Feel free to pick and choose from the menu and remember, being hard on yourself got you into this, being kind to yourself is what will help you get out.
Write for Insight
When you are in pain from the consequences of your eating disorder, it’s common to think, I am so ready to give this up. But how about later, or the next day, when the shame and pain wear off and you want to return to your habitual patterns? It’s not so easy to remember. Consider one of more of these writing exercises to help you gain some insight and strengthen your healthy internal soundtrack:
Write a Pro’s and Con’s list and take an honest look at what you are getting from your eating disorder and what it is robbing you of.
Write a specific list of all the areas in your life that have been affected by your eating disorder, including physical health, emotional health, relationships, work, finances, school, self-care, and future goals.
The next time you’re experiencing the painful consequences of your eating disorder, write a letter to yourself that you can read when you are considering turning back to your familiar unhealthy behaviors.
Write a goodbye letter to your eating disorder and include all the reasons you want to stop. Put it where you will see it every day.
Creating art can be a really useful addition to your healing toolkit. See if this activity can help you along your road of recovery. The first step is to get a piece of paper and a pen. You can also use markers or pictures from magazines or online to collage rather than draw. And by the way, there are zero artistic skills necessary here; just paper, pen and an open mind!
So, once you have your paper and whatever ways you choose to express yourself, close your eyes and see if you can get an image of what your eating disorder voice looks like. It’s okay if nothing comes right away but see if an image pops up for you. Then, using paper and pen or images you gather, create what came to you on your paper.
Now take a moment and see if you can get an image of your healthy self and then put that on paper in whatever way feels right to you.
See if you can give each part a name and an age.
Imagine that each part could take a turn and speak. Write down what each part would say. Then write what they would each say to each other.
Have each part finish the following sentences:
If you are in counseling or have another safe person in your life, you might consider sharing this with them. If not, hopefully you can continue this two-part dialogue rather than having the eating disorder do a daily monologue!
Reveal and Heal What You Feel
One of the reasons eating disorders develop in the first place is to mask painful emotions. Even though eating disorders themselves cause painful feelings, our behaviors and obsessions are often an attempt to numb or distract from deeper pain. Learning how to tolerate and express our emotions in healthy ways can be challenging but extremely rewarding. You will learn that all feelings pass, especially if we are kind to ourselves in thought and action!
Here are a few practical steps that will help you reveal and heal what you feel:
Practice making a distinction between your thoughts and your feelings.
As you become aware of a strong feeling, see if you can name it and locate the sensation of it in your body.
Imagine that your breath is like a warm tropical breeze blowing through that sensation and soothing it.
Remind yourself that you can learn to ride out painful feelings like you might ride out a physical pain. Chances are if you have a cramp or a headache, you know it will pass. So will our emotions. Especially if we are kind to ourselves. (Starting to see a theme here?)
Remind yourself that the last time you had huge feelings, they eventually passed.
Speak to yourself and treat yourself the way you would speak to someone else you truly care about.
Retrain Your Brain
The internal soundtrack of someone with an eating disorder is not usually the kindest playlist on the pad. Most people who struggle with an eating disorder have a very unkind mind. Oftentimes people turn to their disordered behaviors to try to distract from their unkind mind for a while. Others turn to their unhealthy patterns because they are believing the unkind messages their minds are dishing out. In order to heal, we need to upgrade the unkind mind and learn how to be on our own side instead of on our own back. Consider listening to a podcast on mindfulness. Fortunately, there are now millions to choose from. We are not responsible for the recordings that got put into our minds or what unkind thoughts pop up every day. But we can learn how to disagree with them, delete them, and upload new ones!
Meet the Need You’re Trying to Feed
Eating disorder behaviors are often attempts to meet some type of valid need. While they don’t usually work, we can find out what those important needs are and find healthy ways to get them met. Some people are deeply lonely and need more companionship and to learn how to be better company for themselves. Some people are filled with self-hate and need to learn how to retrain their brain. Some people are living in the past and need to learn how to forgive themselves and let go of old hurts. Some people are extremely dissatisfied with their lives and need to make some changes or work on more acceptance and gratitude. Some people are unsatisfied in their relationships and need to renegotiate old agreements and see if change is possible.
There are countless needs that an eating disorder may be attempting to meet. Once you uncover yours and discover other ways to meet your needs, you will no longer need your eating disorder. When we turn to eating disorder behaviors, we might temporarily feel some relief or distraction but then we usually feel worse afterward. When you truly get a need met, there are no negative or harmful consequences.
So, if part of you is wanting to give up your eating disorder and part of you is not quite ready yet, there is still so much hope. With support, willingness and positive changes, you can learn to feel your emotions fully until they pass and retrain your brain until it’s filled with kinder thoughts. You can learn to feed the needs that your eating disorder has been attempting to feed, and dialogue with your disorder until your healthy self is running the show!