9 Ways To Care For Yourself When Recovering From An Eating Disorder
I woke up on the right side of the bed this morning. That is, until I attempted to get dressed and couldn't zip up the skirt I'd worn comfortably prior to a summer of travelling and barbeques. After a string of curses, I chose a more forgiving skirt and attempted to practice self-compassion and find perspective.
I've learned ways to dance with the demons that emerge when I compare my current body to a previous one or someone else's, but sometimes it can feel like a full-time job!
My clients are no different; many of them are recovering from eating disorders and express their feelings of defeat and frustration: I've been coming to counselling for years, and I still hate my body/still binge/still restrict.
Here's the thing: For most of us, accepting our body when when recovering from our ED demons doesn't just happen and then we never think about it again. It's an active process — two steps forward and one back. It's filled with frustration, conflict, shame, anxiety, and fear. We can't just go to a 50-minute counseling session once a week and then go back to our destructive ways for the other 167 hours and 10 minutes. So, when you're outside the therapy room, here are 9 tips to to keep in mind:
1. Say to yourself what you'd say to a friend.
Be compassionate with yourself. I can't say this one enough. Empathize with your feelings of anxiety, frustration, and defeat. Acknowledge the courage it takes to stand up to an eating disorder. Understand that we're all imperfect — that's what unites us — and that we're all in this battle together. Practice mindfulness. The yoga room can be a super helpful place to practice this stuff, and to start accepting your body.
2. Notice the media influences in your life that are on ED's side.
You might have to stop reading some of those women's magazines that encourage you to chase unrealistic ideals. You might stop watching the Victoria's Secret Fashion show, or unfollow your favorite fashion or diet blog. You might not pick up that celebrity tabloid at the checkout.
When I began my recovery journey, I cancelled my subscription to a popular women's magazine. Five years later, when I read the occasional issue at the gym or hairdresser, I see the content through a very different lens.
3. Get rid of your "skinny" clothes.
Trying to fit into those clothes is hindering your process, and trying on clothes that are too small just makes you feel like crap (as it did for me this morning).
4. Do something different than what feels right and normal in your routine.
Eating disorders thrive on scaring you into thinking if you do something different, the world will end. Try ordering at a restaurant without Googling the nutritional info. Try skipping the gym for one day and seeing what happens. Try giving yourself permission to indulge in the brownie without beating yourself up, or try sitting with the discomfort of bingeing and refraining from purging (despite what your eating disorder is telling you to do).
5. Stop the body shaming/observing.
If every time you go into a bathroom, you lift your shirt up and judge your stomach in the mirror, try going into a bathroom and skipping the body shaming portion of your ritual.
Try going out in public without looking in a full-length mirror before you leave the house. Try permitting yourself to wear tights. Or shorts. Or a tank top. Or whatever you might not have let yourself wear before. We're up against enough in our effed up world of body shaming. Let's give ourselves a break from it within our relationships to ourselves.
6. Assess where ED is thriving in your life (at your gym, in your work, with your friend group), and do something different.
Is ED reinforced when you have hang out with a particular friend? At your gym? Several years back, the manager used to call me "Hardcore" at the gym I went to, as I was there every day come hell or high water.
One day, after beginning my recovery journey and drastically reducing my gymtime, the manger said, "Hey! Hardcore! Where ya been?"
Although I initially felt shame and guilt for "slacking," I held my head high and said, "I've been enjoying my life, and it's been awesome. You can start calling me Softcore, now." (At the time, I didn't realize that adjective is pretty much reserved for porn, which is probably why that nickname thankfully never stuck.)
If you keep doing what you've always done, you're going to get what you've always gotten. Step out of your comfort zone and do something different.
7. Acknowledge there is grief associated with losing your "skinny" identity.
The first five times someone commented on how "healthy" I looked after I returned to a non-restricting weight, I cried. But once I realized I was worth more than my pant size, I relaxed.
Now, when someone I haven't seen in a few years comments on how healthy I look, I give them a great big smile and say, "Thank you. I feel healthy."
It's natural to grieve the part of your identity you believe you've lost when you put on recovery weight, but try to remember what else you've gained that the scale doesn't measure (e.g. sleep, warmth, calm, freedom, social connection, dessert, etc.).
8. Bring positive media influences into your life.
Start following feminist blogs or wellness websites that promote wellness over fitness. A few of my favorites are Elephant Journal, Upworthy, Huff Post Women, and of course, mindbodygreen! Pick up Scientific American or Psychology Today to replace the aforementioned model-filled mags.
9. Make the choice, again and again: Life. Connection. Health. Freedom. Calm. Love.
Every now and then, I find myself tempted by an old ED demon trying to seduce me into thinking I'll be happier if I lose some weight. And when that happens, it only takes a few moments to remember why I chose life over skinny.
I've never been as miserable as I was when I was at my thinnest — in the throes of depression and anxiety, avoiding social situations for fear I might have to eat, chained to the gym, monitoring every move I made and beating myself up if ED didn't approve of my actions. When I hear ED trying to bait me, I remind myself that I choose life over skinny.
Megan Bruneau, M.A., is a therapist, executive coach, and wellness writer based in New York City. She received her bachelor of arts in psychology and family studies from the University of British Columbia and a masters of arts in counselling psychology from Simon Fraser University. She is a registered clinical counselor (RCC) in British Columbia, but now works with clients in New York and globally via remote work. Drawing inspiration from her own experiences, Bruneau has contributed to The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Thrillist and has appears on Good Morning America and New York 1 Morning News. She is also the host of the podcast Better Because of It.