In my last post (2/28/14), I went over some of the lines of thinking that commonly interfere with recognizing and honoring personal needs among people with eating disorders. Today I discuss some ways these lines of thinking can continue to make trouble even when you’re not struggling so much anymore with your symptoms.
Lingering effects on the way you deal with food
In recovery, many of you will have left the days of overt eating disorder symptoms behind you. (There are many paths to recovery; it’s just as common to surrender ED symptoms a little bit a time over a long period.) Yet the reluctance to experience yourself as needful, or to have others witness you meeting your needs, may still show up as a very cautious approach with food; for instance: Are there still foods you will only eat when you’re by yourself? Do you watch your companions to decide how much it’s okay to eat? Are you still more governed by outer markers of what’s the right amount than by internal signals of satiation?
Ways you think about yourself
Most people with eating disorders have internal critics whose fierceness would make the Monster that Devoured Cleveland look tame. The internal critic is that voice that berates you, calls you names, and predicts a miserable future for you whenever you make mistakes or fall short of the mark. It was probably a part of your inner world before you even had an eating disorder, and it made no small contribution to your ED’s development. That same critic is probably still lecturing you or flooding you with unpleasant feelings about yourself not only about indulging food desires, but any place you are confronted with choices about meeting your needs, wants, desires.
Your critic, as I’ve stated in previous posts (Dethroning Your Inner Critic in Eating Disorder Recovery: Part I&II), thinks it’s helping you by shaming and scaring you . It believes this will keep you on the straight and narrow. It wants you to behave in ways that will make others love and admire you. But since it developed very early in your life, it has a child’s view of how to accomplish this. Especially, it’s stuck in black–and-white thinking, where things are all one way or another; for instance, you’re all good, or all bad, you did things perfectly or you failed completely, you’re either totally lovable or everyone hates you, and so forth.
When it comes to your needs and wishes, your critic brings this black–and-white way of thinking to two particular themes. The first is control: you’re either in complete control or you’re totally out of control. This applies to obvious issues like consumption (food, alcohol, drugs) and exercise. But it can apply any place internal discipline or time management are concerned, like school work, job assignments, or household tasks. For many people control issues come up around experiencing and expressing emotions: you numb out or you risk being flooded; you stuff it or you risk losing it. If control is an issue that lights up your critic, part of solid recovery for you will involve developing a more reliable inner gage, one that can measure all the nuances in between totally in control and totally out of control.
The second theme your critic has in mind in regard to your needs and wishes is selfishness versus selflessness. Black–and–white thinking is particularly pernicious when it comes to your needs in competition with others. Your critic attacks your very goodness and moral character if you indulge your wishes and needs in even minor ways; heaven forbid you should ever put yourself and your needs first!
Selflessness has a major impact on your relationships, though not just the intended ones. It was devised by many of you long ago as an unconscious security strategy; that is, a way of relating intended to make people want to be with you, to hold onto the relationship with you. As a security strategy, it makes you a hostage to one-sided relationships in which you do all or most of the giving. There is only one way for such a relationship to end up: in a heap of resentment. You will sooner or later experience anyone who colludes with you in one-sided needs-meeting as communicating that only they and their needs matter. Selflessness is a good quality only when it’s optional, when sometimes putting yourself first is also an option. The big, scary risk is asking others to treat you as if you and your needs and wishes matter as much as theirs.
Issues of self-care
Many people who are doing a fine job with regulating food intake in eating disorder recovery find that they are repeating their symptom patterns in other areas of self-care, such as:
- Getting enough sleep
- Getting needed medical or dental services
- Engaging in therapy as needed
- Getting and keeping personal finances in order
- Creating a comfortable living environment
- Taking time to relax and recharge
- Nourishing hobbies or passions
Any form of neglect of yourself or your life reads as a message to your unconscious that you don’t deserve attention and care, more basically, that you don’t matter. On the other hand, tending to your needs via self-care reads as a message to yourself that you do matter! Treating yourself as if you matter helps build self-esteem and thus contributes to a stronger recovery.
So here’s what I’d like to invite you to do: Think of one way you can treat yourself as if your needs and wishes matter, ideally something you can do today—and do it! If you think of something but find you experience resistance to actually carrying it out, this can provide a great place to start exploring your relationship with your needs. Either way, you’re net ahead!
Good luck and warmest wishes,