Three Keys to Recovering from Your Eating Disorder
Three Keys to Recovering from Your Eating Disorder
by Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW
Not all eating disorders manifest in the same way, but all of them follow the same milestones on the road to recovery. As a believer in complete recovery, I know that my journey from chronic dieting, binge-eating and bulimia to “normal” eating and a healthy weight took much longer than I anticipated and was far more complex than I ever dreamed. After all, I always had thought that the reason it was called an eating disorder was that it was about dysfunction around food. Little did I know that it was about eating, sure, but equally about the flawed relationship I had with myself and the rest of the world.
At age 71, I’m more than half a lifetime recovered and with over 30 years as a practicing eating psychology therapist I have a solid overview of what makes people get into dysregulated eating—and what can help them get out of it. Most of what I know is contained in my podcasts, books, articles and blogs and I’m always delighted to share my understandings of what attitudes and practices propel and accelerate recovery.
Here are the strategies that worked for me and have helped the people I’ve treated.
Learn new life skills.
Sometimes I think eating disorders are more about a lack of life skills than about food. Life skills are the ways we learn to manage living in this topsy-turvy world. They are adaptive to context and develop over time consciously and unconsciously as we learn and practice them. Unfortunately, most dysregulated eaters, through no fault of their own, did not learn effective life skills in childhood or on their way to adulthood.
Please understand that everyone is learning life skills as an adult because no one acquired all that are needed as children. Some of us end up turning to food because we don’t have the ability to handle life in better ways, while others turn to other unhealthy pastimes and practices.
Life skills involve competencies such as self-soothing and self-regulation; setting and achieving goals; balancing work and play (rather than overdoing one or the other); surrounding yourself with loving relationships; consistently taking excellent care of your body and mind; recognizing, understanding and managing emotions effectively; living intentionally in the present moment (rather than ruminating about the past or anxiously anticipating the future); and using evidence-based practices for problem solving (rather than wishes, hopes or over-thinking).
To overcome my eating problems I had to learn to respect and pay way more attention to my emotions than I ever had, develop successful behaviors to soothe my internal distress rather than run to the cookie jar, value and respect my body and then take care of it well every day, and give up wishful thinking, including fantasizing and dreaming about a life I didn’t have and never would. I learned to do this through therapy and reading self-help books.
Resolve internal conflicts.
For the longest time, I had no idea that I had mixed feelings about my body size. Thin was what I thought I wanted, but a lower weight meant uncomfortable self-consciousness, approach-avoidance regarding attention from others, and feeling oddly vulnerable. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of how many negative associations low weight had for me, so every time I shed pounds, I gained them back. It wasn’t until I explored my psychic contradictions in therapy that I was able to lose weight and feel comfortable in a smaller body. As I resolved my conflictual feelings and felt more empowered, my eating improved.
I also had conflicts about other issues:
What did it mean to be slimmer? Did that make me cold and selfish? Did I now have to be perfect in every way?
Did I really want to give up comfort eating 100%? How would I manage to soothe myself without food? Could I actually learn to deal with disappointment, sadness and unhappiness without eating over my feelings?
Did I deserve to get what I wanted, that is, a healthy body and freedom from a food obsession? Did that mean I deserved other things I wanted as well such as love?
Was I ready to love myself and chart my own path rather than rebel against what others wanted me to do and be? What was my own path?
I realized in therapy that until I resolved these and other conflicts, I was never going to be a “normal” eater at a comfortable, healthy weight. But, slowly, as one after another of these conflicts dissolved, my relationship with food felt more natural and, well, normal. For example, for the longest time, I didn’t know what enough meant in so many arenas of my life. When I learned to trust myself to sense sufficiency, life became much easier.
Develop healthy personality traits.
Growing up, we may not think much about personality traits except when people
say, “She’s so cheerful and patient,” “He’s really good with people,” “She’s such a follower,” or “He seems so angry all the time.” In truth, our temperaments are in part genetic, but much of what we call our personalities develop in response to our childhood environment. If we need to be quiet, passive and nice in order to avoid getting yelled at, that’s what we do. If we need to take care of another family member to survive, we push aside our own needs. If our parents have all-or-nothing thinking, that’s what we adopt. If being perfect gets us praise, we strive for perfection. If Mom was highly distrustful of people, we might become wary of them too. If Dad was a people-pleaser, we might follow in his approval-seeking footsteps. Or we might intentionally choose to be the opposite of our parents and rebel against their norms and values.
Then there’s the role that gender plays in developing personality traits. We all get short-changed by gender pressures, men and women alike. Males feel the burden of needing to have it all together and be hard-driving and aggressive, while females often end up feeling a need to be nice and put others’ needs before their own. I was certainly a product of my generation and am a recovered nice girl. In fact, I’m proud to say that I’m not nearly as nice as I was in my eating disorder days and thank goodness for that. I couldn’t have recovered fully without learning to put myself first along the way. Now I am okay hurting others’ feelings if it happens in the service of self-care and feel less concerned about who likes me or what I do.
So, there you have my three keys to eating disorder recovery. Develop better ways to manage the ups and downs of life, free your mind of old conflicts about who you are and what you deserve, and toss out the personality traits which aren’t serving you while adding the ones that will bring you success. In short, build a better version of yourself from the inside out.