You are NOT your eating disorder: The importance of separating yourself from your ED & building
We all have a voice inside of us that tells us when we could have tried harder. It points out when we've made a mistake, or how we've hurt somebody else. We can harness that voice in a compassionate way to help us grow and become better versions of ourselves. This voice never goes away, it's part of our moral compass, our superego, our conscious....Whatever you want to call it, it's part of our uniqueness in the animal kingdom as human beings.
When you have an eating disorder, this voice gets hijacked and used against you in self-destructive, spiteful, and outright mean ways. It might start off in a relatively benign way, maybe by harnessing negative thoughts about a specific body part and encouraging you to try and change it through diet and exercise. If you listen to it, you might feel a temporary sense of relief and begin to trust it. But the more you listen to it and act on it, the more it grows in to something malignant. Before you know it, that voice will be criticising everything about you: your personality, your style, your intelligence, your relationships, your contribution to the world...your existence. Slowly but surely, it will chip away at your self-confidence and your self-esteem. It will drive you toward isolation and anxiety. It will dampen your spirit and your energy, and leave you doubting your intuition and identity. Soon, you're defining your identity according to the terms dictated by your eating disorder.
** Before I go any further, I just want to say that yes, it is your eating disorder. But it's also fundamentally an illness, and as such I prefer to say that you have an eating disorder as this implies that not having one is also possible **
So... when you have an eating disorder, you're essentially living with a bully inside of your head. It sounds like you, because it's a hijacked part of you.
But it not you.
Think about it this way...when you're driving a car, does that mean you are a car? No, it makes you the driver of the car. Well, it's kind of like that with an eating disorder: you're the car, the ED is the driver. Just because it's driving you right now, it doesn't mean that it is you. And this is great because it means that you have the power to kick out that mean little driver and get behind the wheel again.
You can reclaim the parts of you that your eating disorder has hijacked, and you can start by externalising that mean little voice and counteracting it with compassion. Recognising that the eating disorder as something external to your self is an important part of the recovery process, and I'll explain why...
I believe that we aren't born criticising and loathing ourselves, this is something that we learn in response to experiences and interactions with others throughout life. The eating disorder capitalises on this, and seeks to create more negative thoughts about yourself in an attempt to increase your suffering. This is important because eating disorders are fundamentally a way of coping with and expressing your feelings. By increasing the negative feelings that you're trying to cope with, the eating disorder can lock you in and make you believe that you need it.
Therefore, an important part of recovery is challenging that mean little voice by externalising it and seeing it as separate from your core self. Now, you might be wondering: What is my core self and how can I recognise it? Well, you can start by identifying the part of you that wants to change your relationship with your body and food, or the part of you that thinks: "maybe I should reach out for support". Ultimately, your core self is driven by an innate desire to grow, flourish, and seek out kindness - and these kind of thoughts are indicative of just that. Whilst you might not be able to gain a full sense of your core right now, it's in there and it's a part of you that the eating disorder can't hijack. Nourishing and reconnecting with your core self is a critical part of recovery, and this process starts by recognising its existence.
Recovery also involves re-connecting with with your feelings, learning how to cope with them in less self-destructive ways, and slowly building up your self-compassion. The latter is crucial, because the mean little voice that fuels the eating disorder cannot survive in a warm and compassionate environment. This might feel difficult to appreciate right now, but it's possible to learn to tolerate and eventually accept empathy and compassion from others. This paves the way for building self-compassion, and here's why:
Eating disorders thrive off of seeking external validation from others (and then giving you a hundred reasons to reject it), but it is possible to turn that process around and use it against the eating disorder. We are social creatures, and we internalise messages that are projected by the people we surround ourselves with. So, if you surround yourself with more people who are compassionate, empathic, and kind then you are more likely to start believing that you are deserving of compassion, empathy, and kindness. Fundamentally, if self-criticism and self-loathing are learned, then you can un-learn these ways of thinking and rediscover your core self - and the therapeutic relationship is designed to support this process.
Making small changes to your internal and external environments in these ways will help you to turn down the volume on that mean little voice and start to reconnect with a sense of compassion and empathy for yourself. And once you do, it becomes possible to see how your behaviours, thoughts, and experiences do not define who you are. Although you might refer to it as 'your eating disorder', that doesn't mean that it defines you as a person.
You are so much more than an eating disorder, and I know this because I see it every day. The people that I have the privilege of working with have incredible empathy - so much empathy that it can often leave them feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed. They are kind, generous, and compassionate - even though they direct these qualities to others instead of themselves. They are brave beyond measure - they've reached out to a total stranger and allowed themselves to be vulnerable with me. They are determined and strong - they have found a way of surviving despite the bully in their head that seeks to tear them down and they come to therapy and fight, hard, even though it can feel painful and scary. And beyond anything else, they have SO MUCH to offer this world. Once they can connect with self-compassion, they begin to realise their potential and their understanding of their existence expands beyond measure - and so can yours x
**Now, if you're doubting your capacity to change the way that you think about yourself, I encourage you to google: "Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of Insight". Her story is a brilliant example of our brains' capacity to heal, and of our ability to change, grow, and develop even in the most extreme circumstances.
Recovery IS possible xx