Being an Empath Can Make Eating Disorder Recovery Seem Unbearable

Eating disorder recovery is exhausting, and for empathetic people it can seem downright unbearable. Being an empath adds a layer of difficulty to the recovery process, because we eat or restrict to stuff our constantly-changing feelings along with the emotions we pick up from other people.

I once considered myself an extrovert, but since being on my recovery journey I’ve realized I prefer to be alone or with my closest loved ones the majority of the time. When I was working full-time as a nursing home activity director prior to becoming a writer, I would come home mentally exhausted and never really know why.

A few years ago, I heard the term “extroverted introvert” and it resonated with me. I don’t mind being out with friends and acquaintances from time to time but, with a few exceptions, being with people tends to drain me. I need peace and quiet to recharge my batteries. Unfortunately, browsing my Facebook feed or seeing heartbreaking stories on the news can be just as exhausting. Just this morning I stumbled across a news article about a little boy who was left in a daycare van and died from the heat. I didn’t open the article, because the details would have taken over my thoughts and wrecked me emotionally for the rest of the day, but I was overwhelmed with grief just from reading the headline.

One more example: A few weeks ago, my ex-husband’s wife got sick and he needed to bring the kids home. He told me how bad he felt that he had to cut his time short with the kiddos. When I heard the sadness in his voice, I took on that emotion. Then I thought about his wife having to make the decision whether to send the kids home, and I felt bad for her. I felt additional sadness for the kids, because they hadn’t seen their dad much that week. I also felt bad for my husband, who was looking forward to our evening alone together. Finally, I felt frustration and guilt for being disappointed that I wouldn’t have time to re-energize myself with some R&R before the kids came home. By the time they got here, I hadn’t dealt with my own emotions at all because I was too filled with everyone else’s feelings.

In the short-term it’s much easier to cope with difficult emotions by using food, excessive exercise, or other behaviors rather than attempting to sit with them and let them pass. Unfortunately, stuffing the emotions or avoiding them ensures that they’ll continue to pop up again and again. I know this because the same issues popped up for me for over 15 years. I binged and dieted to avoid them, but they always came back.

These days, I know it’s time to deal with an emotion through journaling or reflecting or talking it out when a hurtful comment or unresolved issue keeps unexpectedly interrupting my thoughts and altering my mood. I continue to struggle with this part of my journey, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. I do know that recovery for empaths takes additional work… It adds twists and turns to the recovery labyrinth, but I believe it’s possible to emerge from the other side.

If you are an empath and struggle with disordered eating or an eating disorder, know that you’re not alone. If you’ve found any books, blogs, or other helpful resources, please share them below. We’re all in this together, and I’m so grateful for that!

Kelly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What To Do After an ‘Aha’ Moment

I’ll never forget the night that I pieced together my cycle while journaling in bed. I had been reading Geneen Roth’s When Food is Love – a book that wound up being life-changing for me.

In her book, Geneen explains that our disordered eating patterns are a metaphor for how we live our lives. I could easily recognize that I had been restricting and binge eating for years, but I had never considered that every aspect of my life followed a similarly dysfunctional cycle.

I grew up in a turbulent household, and while I have many fond memories, I remember always being on edge. Along with being physically abusive to my older brother, my father was incredibly moody. He often made hurtful comments that still pop into my mind as an adult. He told me I was selfish on a regular basis and that I was killing my mother. We lived in a rural area with no houses within walking distance, so if I wanted to go to a friend’s house, my mom had to drive me. She never seemed bothered, but Dad would later tell me I was exhausting (and killing) her. I always felt torn when a friend invited me over, because despite knowing I was “killing” my mother, I wanted to escape. My friends’ parents always seemed so “normal.”

On a good day, my dad would be funny and sing songs, take the family out for a drive in his old convertible, and spoil us with “stuff.” I was more on edge on good days, because I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. The good times never lasted long, and I always felt a heaviness that my friends didn’t seem to feel.

On that day several months ago while I was journaling in bed, I realized that I had continued my childhood cycle without even realizing it. If things felt “too good” in my marriage, I would find something to worry and gripe about, which would inevitably lead to an argument. I never felt safe or settled with my husband, because I kept him at arm’s length and got mad at him for insignificant issues.

I landed an amazing job as a news writer last year, but I couldn’t celebrate my success because, upon landing the job, I was already in fear of failing.

If I started to feel overwhelmed by a friendship, I’d pull away and quietly end it, or I’d let minor irritations build up until I blew up in anger. I always thought something was broken in me – that I was incapable of maintaining friendships. Looking back, I see that my parents had the same pattern of ending meaningful relationships. Their emotional immaturity resulted in my own stunted emotional growth.

I’m still working through this part of my recovery journey, but what I’ve learned so far is that my thoughts were very black and white. I was either obsessively dieting or having a free-for-all. My house was either impeccably clean or in chaos. I either agreed with my friends or pulled away from them. There was no middle ground.

It makes sense that I grew up to be someone who saw the world in black and white. When I was 18, my parents got mad at me over something trivial, and they stopped talking to me for a year and a half. Over the years, they divorced me multiple times for minor disagreements – all of which could have been worked through with an honest conversation. I had seen them cut people off throughout my life, but it was deeply wounding for me – their daughter – to be the one they discarded. Fortunately, I’ve seen their pattern, and they will no longer have the opportunity to hurt me by disowning me. While I’m on a constant mission to reflect and improve myself, they have no desire to change.

When I began piecing my cycle together, I felt an overwhelming sense of excitement and sadness. I mourned the life I could have lived, and I was hopeful for the future. What confused  me, though, after my “aha moment” was the emptiness I felt mixed with that joy and sorrow. Sure, I had worked out my patterns, but knowing how to move forward proved to be the most difficult part.

I asked my therapist why I felt so confused by my newfound knowledge. Sure, my curiosity had led me to that epiphany, but my question was, “What now?” She explained that my awareness would change everything and the process would take time. I waited for months for answers while I continued to read people’s recovery stories and listen to inspirational podcasts. I became aware of everything; I felt I was in a hyper-sensitive state, but I had no idea what to do with my awareness.

Then one day, I realized I hadn’t binged in a couple of weeks, and I was actually feeling my feelings. Although I had a lot of uncomfortable emotions to deal with, I wasn’t pushing them away. I was opening up to my husband, and although I still freaked out occasionally and we’d have arguments, I didn’t hold onto the anger nearly as long. I was processing my feelings and dealing with them rather than sweeping them under the rug just for them to resurface later.

Although I had been in therapy for a couple of years before my aha moment, my recovery journey took an important turn that night as I wrote in my journal. I needed to become aware of my confusion to find the answers.

To My Readers,

I understand that sometimes it feels like you’re not making progress. There were days in my journey that I felt I was back to square one. I assure you, you never, ever have to start over! All of the work you’re doing is adding up, no matter how insignificant your efforts seem.

If you had a tumultuous upbringing, I recommend Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, by Lindsay C. Gibson. This book will help you to understand why your parents are the way they are, and it will add awareness to your recovery journey. Gibson tells stories of grown men and women who have dealt with emotionally immature parents. It’s truly an enlightening resource.

I wish you the best as you continue to navigate the labyrinth of recovery. You’re not alone on the path. One day you’ll look back and be amazed at just how far you’ve come!

♥, K

 

 

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.