How Kindness and Compassion Lead to Eating Disorder Recovery

There has been a quote clinging to my refrigerator for years: “Rule your mind, or it will rule you.” Just yesterday I realized how disordered my thinking was back when I bought that “encouraging” magnet.

For the 16+ years I counted points or calories and based my success in life on my weight, I tried to whip myself into shape over and over again. At Weight Watchers meetings, I remember looking at my blank food log and promising myself I’d have a perfect week on the program. I imagined everyone around me eating a healthy balance of protein, carbs, and a single dark chocolate square each night while I binged on Pop Tarts and cereal. They’d come back the next week with their meticulously filled-out logs, and I’d show up with blank pages (for the days I couldn’t face the truth) mixed with the occasional “perfect day.” There was no in between. My thinking was black and white back then.

Of course, I never had that “perfect week,” and the moment I went beyond my points or “fell off the wagon,” I’d throw in the towel, ridicule myself, and then pick up the pieces once again after my Monday weigh-in, promising to be an angel from that moment forward. And the cycle continued…

See, I wasn’t even kind to myself when I got “back on track” or when I “slipped up” for a perfectly good reason (try eating 20 points while on you’re period, ladies. It should be illegal). I never, EVER used a compassionate approach with myself. I either beat myself up or attempted to motivate myself with “tough love.”

Let me save you years of heartache and self-inflicted pain… My methods did not work. I spent years waiting for those short-lived glimpses of hope I would feel between hating myself for repeated failures. I was sure that I would one day have an aha moment and everything would click into place. I would live happily ever after in my cute, little body thanks to the time and effort I put into being hard on myself. I truly believed I’d get a much-deserved break once I was thin. Then reality hit.

I was thin for all of five minutes, and my life was just as difficult. The restricting and bingeing didn’t stop. In fact, I felt so much pressure to stay in my thin body that my disordered eating only got worse.

Let me fast forward to now. I’m emerging from the labyrinth of my binge eating disorder, and I’ve realized that the most crucial component in my recovery journey has been the way I talk to myself. This hasn’t come easy to me. I struggle with perfectionism, so treating myself with compassion after a fall has been an interesting learning experience. I’ve also struggled with body dysmorphia and an extremely poor body image, so my self-compassion muscle is constantly working these days. Some days it fatigues and I fall into old habits, but it’s getting stronger every day (even on days I feel like I’m making no progress or backsliding).

Because the majority of eating disorder recovery is a very abstract (and individual) process, there aren’t a whole lot of concrete steps that work for everyone. This makes the journey difficult, but once you realize you’re in the labyrinth, you’ll realize the only options are to stay in or get the hell out. My advice? Get out while you can!

As I mentioned, recovery isn’t a concrete, step-by-step process, but there are a few things I’d like to share with you that have helped me tremendously:

1. Love Your Wardrobe to Love Yourself: For years, I refused to buy nice clothes because I dreamed of being smaller. When I started recovering from my eating disorder, my dietician encouraged me to ditch my old clothes. I had been trying to squeeze into clothes that didn’t fit and hating myself for it.

I now have a beautiful wardrobe I love in my current size. I sold my old clothes on an auction website and used my earnings to invest in a gorgeous closet full of clothing. It’s much easier to be kind and compassionate when you’re not zipping yourself into jeans that are two sizes too small. (Side note: Start with replacing your bras and underwear… Trust me on this!)

2. Log Your Way to Compassion: When I started seeing my dietician, she asked me to describe my day to her. I told her my eating habits were completely disordered, and I truly believed I was broken beyond repair. But when I started ticking off the foods I eat throughout the day, she made me realize I wasn’t eating as dysfunctionally as I thought. She gave me a food log, not to count calories, but to help me see my patterns.

It’s much easier to be compassionate with yourself when you get real with yourself. I wasn’t nearly as broken as I thought I was. I logged my food for a couple of months and my dietician and I would look through the logs together without judgment. I soon learned that by giving myself unconditional permission to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it, and by being compassionate with myself when I binged or overate, those behaviors started decreasing. Kindness and compassion teach us to trust ourselves. I’m now aware of my hunger and fullness cues.

3. Write Down Your Soul: I often have difficulty organizing my thoughts. I am an anxious person by nature, so I worry a lot and am often unable to find perspective in difficult situations. Because of this, I have always relied on journaling. It has become an almost-daily practice for me, and I’m certain I wouldn’t be as far along in my recovery journey without it.

Write from your heart. Don’t edit your thoughts, and try not to be judgmental. When I sit down to write, I may have an idea of what topic I want to start with, but I almost always veer off in an unexpected direction. Writing about my thoughts and feelings gives me clarity.

Treat yourself to a nice journal or notebook, and start simple. Aim to journal from your heart for 5-10 minutes a day. Setting a timer works for some people, but I prefer to wing it. Do what works for you.

There’s one major downer about this recovery business. Because foods are no longer “good” or “bad,” eating isn’t nearly as fun. I rarely have an orgasm-worthy food experience these days, because I don’t deprive myself… ever. If I want a piece of cherry pie or a brownie warm from the oven, I eat it. Giving myself that freedom has taken away the urge to eat half the pie or pan of brownies. In fact, sometimes I don’t even finish my serving… That’s freaking freedom right there!

When I look back on those Weight Watchers meetings, I realize I wasn’t alone in my silent struggle. Hell, I was the leader; if I was struggling, my loyal meeting-goers were most-likely struggling, too. Looking back, I wish I had brought it up with them. I wish I had known that restricting my food intake would only lead to deprivation and bingeing. I wish I had known and taught my members that counting points or calories would lead to disordered eating for many (if not all) of us. Of course, I probably would have gotten fired, but I would have been truly helping people instead of playing into our society’s idea of what “normal eating” is.

I’m currently reading Self Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff. It’s not eating disorder specific, but it will certainly help you along your recovery journey. Friends, please stop beating yourself up for your perceived failures and imperfections. You’ve done your best with the tools you’ve been given. Give yourself a hug for all you’ve been through and a high-five for all you’ve accomplished, and get to work loving yourself. You’re worth the effort.

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