I know you’re going to want to see a simple list of easy changes I made that resulted in quick and permanent change in my mind, body, and soul.
I AM SO, SO SORRY TO TELL YOU THIS IS NOT HOW IT WORKS. Truly.
I want this to be the way it works so badly that my eating disorder was made worse for years because I thought I was just dumb or weak for not being able to snap out of it.
This is a long list of paradigm shifts, attitude adjustments, EXPECTATION adjustments, coping skills, knowledge gained from working with a dietician, and things I learned from journaling and noticing patterns in the way I feel and eat. If you want a tl;dr, it boils down to a lot of ways I’ve learned how to be more compassionate with myself.
I want you to know that I was resistant to pretty much every single one of these at first and thought they were totally bogus and wouldn’t work for me. Thankfully I was wrong!!! I was willing to try, and that willingness went a long way. (Tip #1, if you think something is bullshit, spend 24 hours being willing to see if maybe it’s true. This is also great if you suck at accepting compliments).
I am not a doctor or a therapist. My qualifications for writing this post are simply that these things helped me. This is (unfortunately) not a before and after picture. I’m not living a mythical happily ever after. I still struggle with food and body image and my emotions. But I’m doing a lot better. I have more tools to help myself when I mess up.
A year ago I was binge eating every day, at least once a day. It was so bad that my doctor wanted me to be in a day program. I didn’t end up doing that for practical reasons, but I did listen to her and I started seeing a therapist who specializes in helping people with eating disorders. I also saw a dietician regularly when I started and I’ve gone to various classes and groups to help me as well. Today, on a weekly basis, I usually don’t binge eat. Through my ~*~ eating disorder journey ~*~ I’ve done just about every eating disorder symptom out there, and I don’t do any of those, either. At least not regularly. I mess up, that’s part of recovery.
I’ve done as well as not having any symptom use for 60 consecutive days, and the more magical part about those 60 days is that when I did have symptom use on the 61st, I didn’t on the 62nd. I didn’t get totally derailed and thrown off by making a mistake. The instances are rare, and singular. I’m a lot better and I’m becoming okay with not being perfect.
Hi and welcome to my emotional food journey. Here is a very long list of things that have helped me in the last year:
[*] I work on being more intentional. My mantra is “Admit it, name it, and take action in the face of it.” If I struggle, instead of feeling like I have failed (and especially, “now it’s hopeless, I should give up completely until I can start over from scratch”) I try to learn from what happened so that the results might be different next time.
[*] Through this process I strive to be curious rather than judgmental. I remind myself that I am on a fact-finding mission to uncover patterns in feelings and behavior so that I can work to change them and be healthier.
[*] A weird way I envision this is that I am on my own “team”. It seems obvious, but it shifts my questioning from “Why are you such a fuck up” to “How can we be better next time?” I try to be a cheerleader for myself. Instead of fighting against my subconscious, my emotions, or something like physical hunger, I want to know how we can all achieve a goal that satisfies all competing interests involved.
[*] Another good way to help yourself be more curious than judgemental is to redirect your thoughts with the question “is this helpful?” I’m a worrier and I truly can spend hours debating with myself about whether a guy didn’t want to spend time with me today because he doesn’t like my body, or whether engaging in bingeing or overeating last weekend means I will never, ever recover. For some questions, it’s helpful for me to realize that true or false isn’t as relevant to me as to whether the conversation itself is helpful.
[*] These conversations take place in a journal. I cannot tell you how many epiphanies I have had while journaling about food. When I’m agitated and I don’t want to sit and write out a lengthy entry, I’ll just make a list of what I’m feeling and thinking, not worrying about how it sounds. I surprise myself by the things that come out, even if I’ve been thinking it over in my head for a long time prior to journaling.
[*] The prompt I use to journal whenever I am tempted to use symptoms of my eating disorder (or freak out in general) is “what is the feeling I am trying not to feel?”
[*] I don’t know if I would have told you a year ago that my eating disorder was about trying not to feel things, it doesn’t sound like a practical enough reason to me. But the more I allow myself to be vulnerable and peel back the layers, the more I understand how my disordered eating has insulated me from painful experiences. It’s been a hobby I can immerse myself in spiritually, physically, and emotionally. When you’re spending hours blaming yourself and obsessing over how much you ate, there isn’t a lot of time leftover for worrying about other stuff.
[*] At the very beginning, I went to a dietician and followed a meal plan. The meal plan made me eat 6 times a day, a lot of food, and a lot more variety than I was used to. In truth, it wasn’t “a lot” of food, it was around maintenance level and it really helped me cut down on overeating and binging and relearn portioning and hunger and fullness cues.
[*] One thing that was very helpful about meal planning was the “safety” of knowing that if I was eating a food I liked and was worried I wasn’t going to eat enough to be satisfied, I knew I could eat the food again tomorrow as part of my plan.
[*] There’s a book for children with anxiety that I really love called Sleeping with Bread that tells the story of how children rescued during World War II had trouble sleeping because they thought they would wake up somewhere unsafe again. The solution was to give the children bread to hold while they slept, so they had security that when they woke up, they would have food to eat. This is kind of the same concept and I way I delay using eating disorder symptoms which, as insane as it sounds, make me feel safe. When I wrote in my notebook what I was going to eat tomorrow, I felt more relaxed. When I felt like I wanted to binge or purge or weigh myself or something, I could write down that I was allowed to do it tomorrow. Knowing that I didn’t have to do it right now, but I could still do it another time made me feel like I had a safety net.
[*] I logged what I ate along with what I felt like (if I was struggling with the urge to restrict, overeat or binge). I began to notice really helpful patterns. For instance, I noticed that every single day after I finished dinner I was “really hungry” and wanted to keep eating. However, 20 minutes later I’d completely forgotten that I was “really hungry” and felt satisfied. Knowing that this is a feeling I usually get helped me not overeat because I knew I wouldn’t feel the same way in 20 minutes.
[*] Another reason meal planning was helpful is that I planned what I was going to eat based on what my body’s needs were instead of my usual cycle of getting hungry and then thinking “what should I eat?” and making an emotional, spur-of-the-moment decision based on what my appetite was telling me.
[*] THIS IS A BIG ONE. I adopted the idea that there are no good and bad foods. THIS WAS SO HARD. I really believed there were good and bad foods. Kale and juices were good, junk food, sugar and carbs were bad. I still think some foods are probably better for me than others but allowing myself to make space for any food I want in my meal plan has helped me remove emotional feelings from food. If I want pizza, I eat pizza. The difference is, I plan for an appropriate portion in my meal plan, and balance it with other food. Instead of eating as much pizza as I need to make me full, I will eat a slice along with veggies and know that I can eat pizza again tomorrow if I want. I didn’t feel like this would work for me, but it did.
[*] For some reason, a year later, I’m still resistant to eating variety in meals — but I know it’s very helpful. When I want to eat something like pizza, I think it would be better if I just ate pizza and not anything “extra” since I’m already indulging in something so unhealthy/caloric. But eating some vegetables isn’t going to put me over the edge, and as much as I don’t think it will work this way, I won’t want as much pizza if I also eat vegetables. Here’s where journaling and tracking is helpful: as resistant to it as I am, I can always make myself do it because I know through tracking my progress that it works.
[*] A really insane moment in my recovery process was starting to keep junk foods in my house and not eat them. Before, I would never trust myself to keep foods I liked and might binge on in my house, but when I started telling myself that no foods were good or bad and working foods I liked into my meal plan, I started being able to keep them in my house. I introduced them one by one and gradually I got to the point where I have junk foods in my house I don’t even care to eat. They’ve lost their appeal to me completely, which seemed unimaginable a year ago.
[*] ANOTHER HARD ONE. I stopped counting calories. THIS WAS ALSO SO HARD. I stopped gradually. One week I just deleted MyFitnessPal from my phone. I learned to trust my dietician and her meal plan, which was based on exchanges, not calories.
[*] The thing about calories is that there is no “good” amount of calories to eat if you suffer from disordered eating. If you are okay with eating 1600 calories one day and meet your goal, you won’t be happy. You will aim for 1500 calories the next day. Realizing that I can’t win this game and that it sidetracks my progress instead of contributing to it helps me avoid counting calories. I struggle with it because calories are printed on a lot of packing and I can’t help checking, but I try not to give myself a daily number and track it obsessively like I was doing before.
[*] I also stopped weighing myself. WHICH SUCKED. But like calories, there was no number on the scale that would make me happy. If I lost a pound, I’d be happy for a few minutes and then I’d start obsessing about how I could lose 2 pounds the next time. Historically for me, this obsession lead to restricting, which would inevitably lead to overeating or binging.
[*] I started shutting out other people’s ideas about diet and weight loss. This was so, so big for me because I am a really hardcore comparison person. If something works for someone else, I’m extremely judgemental when it doesn’t work for me. It was hard to let go of this, and it’s something I work on every time I read an article or a comments section. I remind myself 1) there are things that are easy for me that are difficult for other people 2) people generally share successes and highlights, but not the effort or failed attempts that lead up to them, I’m not seeing the whole picture and 3) I am making progress doing what works for me.
[*] Here’s the biggest thing about other people’s ideas about diet and weight loss: the idea is simple and something we can all agree on (eat less, move more), but most people are unwilling to question why it’s difficult for people to achieve weight loss beyond the fuzzy idea of “willpower”. This is not how we approach almost anything else. If there is a problem with a simple solution, but people don’t actually utilize the solution, we keep investigating with curious minds, instead of digging our feet in and being judgemental. In other areas, we listen to de facto human behavior and lean into practical ideas about how to problem solve. I have a few more things to say about this one because I dealt with a lot of shame over not being able to do something I perceived as simple:
[*] Something I think about a lot is how Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of god is formally valid (a distinction in the study of logic which means it is objectively a good argument) and yet it’s famous for not being an argument that converts anyone. We aren’t robots. We don’t make decisions and change behavior based on facts, as much as we like to believe this is true.
[*] Anyone who works in sales knows this is true. We make decisions based on our intuition and emotional experience. We think we use information to make the decision, but we actually use information to justify our gut feeling.
[*] If you still want to blame yourself, here is a helpful thing to remember: “Recovery from disordered eating begins with the understanding that the disordered eating behavior served you when your goal was survival.”
[*] This is all to say humans are complicated! This is normal and expected. You didn’t just start binge eating because you’re a dumbass or you don’t have willpower. You started because you needed a coping mechanism and in order to let go of it you need to learn how to replace the role it filled in your life with something healthy. It’s okay for your relationship with food to be hard, even though it’s “easy” to know what it should be like.
[*] I started prioritizing sleep. Getting enough sleep makes me feel sane.
[*] Also, when I have been really struggling with my eating disorder and it seemed impossible to not have any symptom use for the day, I knew another big health category (sleep) was already in place. I felt like I was starting every day already having done some work on being healthier, which made me feel calmer and more confident in my efficacy.
[*] Getting enough sleep can be as important as diet and exercise in weight loss (not because it overpowers your diet, but because people who get enough sleep have the wherewithal to make better choices).
[*] If you’re like me, you rolled your eyes at the above statement because you’re not like a regular person, you’re stronger than most and you can “power through”. I started noticing these tendencies to rewrite information I was given to make something my fault and place blame on myself. Instead of thinking that sometimes, part of my binging or overeating may be because of a lack of sleep (which is backed up by people who study this stuff), I clung to the narrative that willpower is the and all be all and I “should” be able to resist no matter how little sleep I had. This is called perfectionism, and you probably have it.
[*] When I first started reducing binge eating, I (begrudgingly) worked on reducing binge eating instead of stopping binge eating. I’m a perfectionist and my whole life I focused on stopping cold turkey. I would fail, freak out, and binge again to comfort myself. Then I would restrict my calorie intake for as long as possible to “make up” for it and the cycle would start over. It was EXTREMELY DIFFICULT for me to let go of the concept of stopping all at once and allow myself to make gradual change.
[*] Making an extreme change (when I started I was binging at least once a day, every day) is overwhelming. Binge eating was a big part of my life. It was a lot easier to feel okay saying “If I want to, I can binge eat tomorrow” than it was to think about never binge eating again.
[*] I embraced the 51% rule. When you want to change something in your life but it feels impossible, aim to do 51% better than you did yesterday. (Don’t freak out like I did about not being productive enough, some days you may stick to just doing 51% but many days you will end up doing a lot more than this).
[*] I remind myself as many times as I need to that gradual change is more likely to be permanent than dramatic change.
[*] I learned about the binge restrict cycle. It took me a long time to identify my binge eating for what it was because it was part of a cycle of restricting and binging. I didn’t know that cycle was textbook. I thought it was just me.
[*] This means that when I do binge or overeat, I focus on moving forward. One of the single biggest things that has helped me is not responding to a binge by restricting the next day. I go ahead with my normal eating the way I planned it. It used to take me weeks to get back on track after a setback, now a setback is typically an isolated incident where the next day has no symptom use at all.
[*] I have a lot of very difficult conversations with my therapist. When it comes to conflict, I’m an avoider. I hate talking about difficult topics and I cry and feel upset and anxious when I do. But the way to get rid of a monster’s power is to shine the flashlight in the closet and see it for what it is. Talking about a bad thing gets rid of any power that bad thing has.
[*] A surprising thing about therapy (that I shouldn’t be surprised by, but am) is that every time I tell my therapist an insane thing that I’ve been too embarrassed to tell anyone before, she tells me how normal it is and how it’s in a cause and effect relationship with other things in my life (vs. a personal failing of mine or a lack of willpower). WHAT A FUCKIN RELIEF.
[*] I started keeping a compliment journal. I screenshot texts or emails that are nice and I save them privately to my Tumblr. I scroll through them when I’m having a difficult day.
[*] One day I dumped out all the old letters and cards I have in a memory box in my closet and got some colorful markers and wrote a list of nice things people have said about me. I felt a like a little bit of a baby for having to do it, but it did make a really dramatic change to my self-esteem to spend some time seeing myself through the eyes of people who love me.
[*] I went to group therapy and listened to a lot of people name all the same fears and experiences that were swimming through my head. There was such a surprising amount of power in just realizing I wasn’t alone.
[*] I continue to read a lot of eating disorder and weight loss memoirs, but I take them with a grain of salt. A way to sell a book is to tell someone you have a quick/easy/permanent answer instead of talking about how recovery isn’t easy or linear or something that you can stop working at once you get to a certain point. I read them to relate to someone else, but I don’t hold my own life up in comparison to their edited story. At least I try not to.
[*] I did a 12-week group where we learned the tools of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which I liked because it was more like taking a class, which I’m very comfortable doing. The purpose of CBT is to help you separate feelings from behaviors. I learned a lot of tools that I continue to use that help me tolerate bad feelings and have space between those bad feelings and the way that I think and act.
[*] I am compassionate with myself when I’m not perfect. Recovery is not linear. When realize I am using symptoms of my eating disorder I try to identify the reasons this might be taking place, and take action to deal with the issues that are surfacing instead of punishing myself for reacting to them.
[*] At this point I am practicing intuitive eating which I can only do because I took the time to crawl before I could walk and use meal planning to learn a lot about hunger, satiety, and choosing foods in balance.
[*] I grocery shop knowing what I will eat every day of the following week. I might have a few options for my meals, but I generally avoid the question of “what am I going to eat today?” I buy enough food so that that question can be easily answered, and I buy with portions in mind so that when I cook I’m making one or two meals, not an unquantifiable amount that I have to work on portioning in the moment when I’m hungry.
[*] I go with the flow. I eat a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast every day. This isn’t the healthiest breakfast I could eat but I learned through a lot of trial and error that it’s very important for me to have a breakfast that’s easy to make and I don’t have to think about much, or else I will either not eat breakfast or procrastinate it endlessly, which leads to overeating or binging. I eat convenience foods (which I have judgements about not being the healthiest thing I could eat) but having them in my freezer and being able to basically just heat them up saves me from either not eating or ordering food and overeating. I pick the fights that are most important (not overeating or binging) instead of aiming for perfection.
[*] If I am hungry, I eat something. Even though most days are planned out so I know I’m getting enough food, occasionally I feel hungry for more. After working for months on journaling and paying attention to what hunger feels like, I trust myself enough that if I’m hungry, I eat a snack and I don’t judge myself for it. Having done meal planning, I know what an appropriate snack is (a string cheese and an applesauce or a cucumber and an oz of goat cheese). Before, I’d be worried it was “too small” and I’d still be hungry. Because of my deliberate experience, I know if I eat that I won’t be hungry again for a few hours. It took me a long time to trust myself to eat when I was hungry!!! I wouldn’t have been able to jump right into this because when I started I was afraid that if I ate when I was hungry, I would be eating all the time. Now I know what hunger feels like, and when I’m just looking for an activity to numb out because I’m feeling anxious or lonely or stressed.
[*] If I want to eat something and I recognize that I am not feeling hunger, I journal.
[*] I let myself feel bad. This seems so weird to say, but I spent a lot of time worrying I would feel bad and trying to avoid feeling bad that I intentionally try to be present with feeling bad when I feel bad now. It’s weird. It doesn’t actually feel that bad. It’s not such a big deal.
[*] I’m watching a lot of This is Us right now. I’m searching out sad books and watching sad movies and crying over fictional characters. It feels like working out. It feels like something I need to do — to find a vehicle for all the stuff I’ve kept inside to get out. I would never have believed this is related to my eating disorder a year ago, but I listen to myself a lot more now. I’m in a phase where I’m learning how to feel my feelings like a healthy person instead of stuffing them back down inside. I can feel that it’s something I need to do, so I do it.