I was sinking deeper and deeper into the depths of an eating disorder. Weights on my feet pulled me under unable. Unable to come up for air. I could see my friends and loved ones living their lives. But I watched them from what felt like 10 feet underwater. The eating disorder continued pulling me down as I felt more and more powerless to fight the tug. I wanted to get out of the pool. To break out of the hell the eating disorder kept me in. I wanted freedom from the eating disorder, but I honestly felt powerless.
When freedom from the eating disorder feels impossible
I’ve heard warriors describe their struggles in so many vivid ways. From being locked up in a dark box, to imprisoned behind bars, one theme remains constant in the metaphors. A sense of being unable to break free. Caged. Imprisoned.
Because eating disorders are complicated, multifaceted and very often misunderstood- it’s no wonder finding liberation often feels impossible.
While I wish I had one secret simple solution I could offer you to get better, unfortunately that is not realistic. Eating disorders develop as a result of many factors including (but not limited to) genetic predisposition, environment, trauma, and living in a fat phobic world. There is no magic key I can give you to quickly and painlessly unlock the handcuffs cutting into your wrists.
A shift is possible
So, you may be wondering right now- what is the point of this article? If I can’t give you a quick fix. Wave a magic wand. Or pass you the key to those handcuffs that are digging into your wrists.
Most people struggling with eating disorders tend to think in all-or-nothing patterns. Perhaps you’ve heard of black and white thinking? The fancy term psychologists like to use is: cognitive distortions. Whatever you call it, I’m talking about thinking in extremes. When we think this way, we categorize everything into categories. Like you are either “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”, “sick” or “well.” There is a “correct” way and an “wrong” way. And if one thing doesn’t come easy or doesn’t “work” then what’s the point?
What’s the problem with all-or-nothing thinking?
This way of thinking is actually encouraged in our capitalistic world. As children we are taught to work really hard so we be “successful.” As if there is a destination called “success” we can only travel too if we “work hard enough.” And once we get there, we can unpack our lives and move in forever. Labeling every person, situation, and action creates a false sense of safety and of control. If we choose the “right” things, we will be “ok.”
For those of us who struggle with eating disorders, the destination we often seek is being “thin enough.” Obviously this causes so many problems. For one thing, there is no “thin enough.” The closer we get to the destination we seek, the farther away it moves from us. Also,
Life simply doesn’t not occur in all or nothing most of the time.
Our lives and the world are actually full of grey. Nuances. In between spaces where we can have a mix of various feelings and experiences.
Finding Freedom from your Eating Disorder
I challenge you to stop thinking about yourself as either “sick” or “recovered” and recognize that recovery happens along a spectrum. Some days you may be farther towards the struggle end of this continuum, but other days you find yourself moving towards recovery.
Recovery is not a destination. It happens along a spectrum.
All-or-nothing thinking permeates our attitudes towards food. Unfortunately this pattern of thought can take over our entire lives. When we stop labeling every food, every moment, every action, and every circumstance as either “good” or “bad”, we make room to allow the nuances in. The way we think is super important when it comes to recovery. Take this example:
I was recently in a very stressful situation. I noticed my stomach was tense and the familiar whisper of ED in my ear. Telling me not to eat. I put off eating breakfast. First for a few minutes. Then a few hours had gone by. Suddenly I realized I’d skipped my meal. If I choose to look at this through the all-or-nothing lens, I may think to myself, “well, I already messed up today. I am a failure. I can’t do recovery. I’ll probably just skip all my meals today.”
Another example of all-or-nothing looks something like this: I’m working really hard to listen to my body and eat intuitively. When suddenly I realize I’ve eaten several Hershey kisses in a row, with out even being hungry. If I’m committed to black and white thinking I may say to myself, “I can’t eat intuitively ever. I suck at this. I’m a failure.” You see where this is going? This could go in two different directions. Perhaps I just continue eating the chocolate because I feel like shit and subconsciously know tomorrow I will get back on the “only eat when I am hungry” bandwagon. Or perhaps I banish all chocolate and restrict myself even more the rest of the day. (thus setting myself up for more of the vicious cycle.)
Letting go of all-or-nothing thinking
Learning to let go of all-or-nothing thinking can help us move further ahead in recovery. Take my first example above. Instead of calling myself a failure for missing lunch, I could say to myself, “Wow Lisette- you’re so stressed today. You’re really late getting your lunch in.” When I don’t label myself instantly as a failure and instead allow myself to make room for the feelings, I make space to make a new decision in the present moment. Showing myself some compassion can open my mind to see the grey and make a different choice. The decision to nourish myself now.
And again in the second example above, instead of labeling myself a failure, I can notice- “Wow- I’m aware that I just ate chocolate without even tasting it. I am struggling to eat intuitively right now.” Once again, without labeling myself as a complete failure, I make room for the stumbles we all encounter along the path to recovery.
Making way for the grey
Recovery is a long process that requires we recognize life as we are living it is not working. And then we open ourselves up to making changes. Becoming aware of all-or-nothing thinking is the first step to changing this dangerous thought process and finding freedom from an eating disorder.
Here Are Some Clues You’re Thinking in All-Or-Nothing Terms:
- You’re using the words “always” or “never” Next time you catch yourself thinking “I never….” or “I always….” challenge yourself. Is it true or are you getting swept up in faulty thinking?
- Labeling foods, situations, or even yourself as “good” or “bad” Remember- humans are complicated, multifaceted, and imperfect. And in recovery- all foods fit. No one food is going to make or break your health or your recovery. Allowance of all foods is key to finding freedom from your eating disorder.
- Thinking or saying “I can’t” My favorite dance teacher had an expression. She always said, “Can’t doesn’t come through the door.” Saying you “can’t” do something is so solid. So final. And not necessarily true. Telling yourself you can’t eat a certain food, accept your body at a certain size, or even find recovery can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Just because you haven’t reach a goad, taken a risk, or stepped forward yet doesn’t mean you can’t.