While writing our book, Almost Anorexic, my coauthor, clinical psychologist Jennifer J. Thomas, and I stumbled upon the popular blog, Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Written by clinical psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld, we knew right away that we wanted to quote her blog in our book:
“My contention is that every woman has an eating disorder—not necessarily anorexia or bulimia per se, but a fixation on food/weight/shape that is unhealthy, unwanted, and undying.”
Thanks, Dr. Rosenfeld, for allowing us to share your words in Almost Anorexic. Also, thank you for sharing an excerpt with us from your new book, Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Your words below are such an important message about self-compassion!
How do you speak to yourself? Do you operate out of self-love or self-abuse? I’d argue that you cannot make a change beginning from a place of self-abuse. The self-loving part of you will always step in and sabotage your plan (as well it should!).
Right now, a big push in psychology (including in the work with eating disorders) is the concept of self-care. How do you comfort, soothe, and show kindness to yourself? Are you compassionate, gentle, and patient, or are you harsh, punitive, and unyielding? What language do you use with yourself? Is it angry, hurtful, and condemning?
So much behavior, particularly related to eating and our bodies, is motivated either by self-care or self-abuse. Eating when you’re hungry? Self-care. Exercising when you’re tired or sick or because you have to get rid of the fat? Self-abuse. Allowing yourself to have a food you crave? Self-care. Eating when you’re stuffed? Self-abuse.
Refusing to eat certain items, to bring certain food items into your home (especially those you crave) or to have just a couple of cookies (because that would mean you wouldn’t stop) communicates, “I don’t trust myself.” Exercising to the point of discomfort, pushing yourself when you’re tired, sick, or just don’t want to communicates, “I deserve to be uncomfortable and to be punished.”
I know that access to certain foods can lead to overeating, but that just raises the need to address why the overeating is happening. Yes, sometimes exercise can be enjoyable or lift your mood when you’re down, but it’s not fun when you’re tired or weak or pushing yourself beyond what your body is willing to give.
Think about what you’re saying to yourself when you make decisions that feel like deprivations or corrections. I don’t deserve what I want. I can’t trust myself. I need to be punished. If you repeat these over and over, your self-esteem doesn’t stand a chance.
Karen Horney, a pioneering psychoanalyst who followed in the footsteps of Freud, spoke of the “Tyranny of the Should,” the self-haunting that occurs when we compare how we are to how we think we should be. The solution, according to psychologists, is to avoid the use of “should”— and to be more compassionate with ourselves. The next time you have one of the following “should” thoughts, try to reframe it in this style:
I should exercise for an hour today. (I might choose to exercise for an hour today if that feels right for my body.)
I shouldn’t eat that doughnut. (I’d like to eat that doughnut, or I get a sugar crash after I eat a doughnut, so I’m going to choose not to have that now.)
I should get the salad. (I prefer to get the salad.)
Beware also the relatives of “should:” “have to,” “need to,” “want to” (with sufficient angst). Why are these words so damaging? They set you up for unrealistic expectations. The truth is, it’s sometimes challenging to exercise consistently, avoiding pleasurable foods can rob you of satisfaction, and it’s difficult to shrink your body below its natural weight. When you get caught up in the “should” (instead of the “could” or the “would like to”), you set yourself up for disappointment and self-reproach, both of which play an integral role in sabotaging your personal goals and unsteadying an already shaky self-regard.
Instead of issuing “should” statements to yourself, I’d like you to take another approach: Can you forgive yourself for being imperfect? For making mistakes each day? For not getting it right? For failing to meet your expectations each and every time? For just getting by when you wanted to excel? For walking when you wanted to run? For eating more than you’d like? For weighing more than you’d like? Even for engaging in unhealthy measures to control how you look?
Those who struggle with eating problems often have significant difficulty with self-forgiveness. But consider the costs of not forgiving, criticizing, punishing, and self-attacking. This stance is likely to create more of the original transgressions. I work with a large percentage of my clients on practicing imperfection. For most of us, this is a life skill that must be learned. Practice and you will get better at it. When you make a mistake, reframe this as an opportunity for you to get more comfortable with imperfection.
If you work on this one practice alone, you’ll be a happier, more content person. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
How do you speak to yourself? How do you want to speak to yourself? What is one kind statement you can make to yourself today?