I received a comment on one of my posts a few days ago that I can’t stop thinking about, and it made me want to address a topic that I’ve danced around a few times but have never gone into concretely.
What do you do when, even though you know that you are at a healthy weight, you can’t stop the voices from telling you otherwise? How do you take control of your own mind again?
I wish there were an easy answer to this.
The most insidious element of any eating disorder is that it takes place in your own head. One of the biggest misconceptions about EDs is that they’re about food: they’re not. They manifest themselves in our relationships with food, but they’re not caused by the piece of pizza sitting on the plate in front of you. They originate in our heads, and once they take root they’re incredibly difficult to get rid of. How many of you have heard that whispering voice in your head, when you least expect it?
You look horrible today. Take off those jeans, they make you look like a whale.
You can never be as skinny as she is, because you’re fat and you can’t stop eating.
Don’t you dare eat that. You don’t deserve it.
You’re a failure. Everything you try is a failure. Just stay in the house and don’t talk to anyone, they don’t like you anyway.
The most infuriating part about these voices? It’s almost like we’re all expected to have them. According to a semi-recent study by Glamour magazine (let’s not talk about how Glamour may or may not be perpetuating the problem and focus on the results…), a terrifying 97% of women have at least one negative thought about their body every day, with the average number of body-negative thoughts coming in at 13. That’s pretty much one negative thought for every waking hour. Oh, it’s 3:00. Time to hate my body again.
What are these negative thoughts doing for us? Only making it more difficult to live our lives to our full potential. If you’ve ever tried to drive with a nervous passenger, you know that constant judgment and critique makes you perform worse than you ordinarily would. And if you get stressed and inefficient in this basic situation, think about how much worse it becomes when you never get a break.
Like I said, I wish there were an easy answer to reclaiming your inner thought-space. But even a year into active recovery, there are still more moments than I’d like to admit when the voices pop up again. I’m not that far off the average, let’s put it that way.
There is a difference, though, between hearing and listening.
Here are three tips for taking back control of your mental soundtrack:
1. Externalize the Demons
Remember when you were five or six years old, and your older brother would take your hand and smack it against your chest while taunting, “Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?” (I hope I’m not the only one with this childhood trauma…)
Did you believe for a second that you were actually the one causing yourself pain? Of course not. It was the external force of the antagonist hurting you, not you. Negative self-talk is the same way.
You are not the voices in your head.
Can you think of moments when you distinctly heard your own voice? Maybe it was a reaction to a book or a TV show that you love. Maybe it was how you felt in a conversation with a loved one. Maybe it’s the gentle drift of consciousness you slip into while laying in the sun doing absolutely nothing. Get to know this voice. Recognize it when you hear it. And then recognize when you don’t.
Some people find it helpful to name their negative voices to see them as detached from themselves. Jenni Schaefer uses this strategy in her book Life Without Ed, to great success. It’s not you that’s insulting you, it’s the voice of your eating disorder, which Schaefer called “Ed” for the obvious reason. For most people, it’s easier to reject being insulted by someone else than to challenge your own cognitions.
Personally, I never found naming the voice helpful, though it does work for many. However, I do have an image of a person in my mind to whom I associate my negative thought-track. I know exactly what my eating disorder would look like, if it were a person. This might sound weird, and heaven forbid I ever meet someone who looks like this, but it’s helpful in creating distance between self-care and self-destruction.
You are not your eating disorder. Step one is learning to tell the difference.
2. Pay Attention
Remember when I said earlier that eating disorders are not about food, but food is a manifestation of a different psychological problem? Negative self-thought, likewise, is not caused by there being something actually wrong with your body. It’s a manifestation of emotions that takes itself out on your body. And that’s not fair.
Notice what you’re doing when your negative voices come into play. What else is going on in your life? Are you taking on a lot of new projects at work? Is there an illness or another stressful event going on with your friends or family? Are you nervous about work, family, responsibility, being judged by others? Are you sleeping enough? Are you physically feeling ill?
I used to reject this advice out of hand, because I thought it made me sound hysterical and irrational. Obviously it’s about my body, I would tell myself, I’m not making this up! I feel fat and out of control and horrible because I am fat and out of control and horrible.
But with a little distance and mindfulness, I’m starting to notice patterns. When is my negative self-talk the worst? During big transitional moments. Travel. Beginning of the university semester. Moving. Family illness. New responsibilities. Any time I think I’m not going to be able to measure up. And so I take that stress out in the easiest way I know how: body hatred.
That’s not fair. And it’s impossible to deal with an issue if you’re avoiding it.
Not that the solution is easy in any case, but it helps to be working on the right problem.
3. Learn to Say No
This can mean many things in recovery. Learning to say no to ED behaviors. Learning to say no to others who want to take advantage of you, and to take control of your own choices. But in this case, we need to learn to say no to the voices in our head.
Sometimes out loud, if necessary.
Often, when we get caught up in mental negativity, it’s almost impossible to find the off switch. The spiral of thoughts goes on and on, getting darker and darker, until soon you feel so terrible about yourself that you don’t even want to get out of bed. One thought builds on another, until they’ve formed an unbreakable chain of horrible things.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Negative thoughts are powerful, but they can be stopped.
Just say “no.”
No, I am not going to listen to you today.
No, you’re wrong, there is nothing wrong with me.
No, I do deserve to eat, because you have to eat to be alive.
No, I am beautiful.
It’s not always appropriate to say these things out loud (it might look weird at a dinner party, for instance), but it’s helpful to hear your own voice if at all possible. Your voice is the real one that you can hear with your ears. It exists. The voices in your head? Not real. Why would you listen to something that doesn’t really exist?
If you can’t vocally throw a wrench in the works of negative self-talk, try movement. When I’m eating out (still difficult sometimes) and get stuck in self-doubt, I like to shake my head quickly, just to myself. It can look like it’s part of a conversation, or just a little shiver, but I know what it means. It means no, I’m not going to listen to what I’m hearing. I don’t need to believe it. No. You’re wrong.
You are a human being with your own beliefs, opinions, and knowledge about the world. You are allowed to disagree with people who are saying things you know to be wrong. And that includes yourself.
Progress is slow, and it’s difficult, and often it’s two steps forward and one step back.
But hopefully someday, the only voices any of us will be hearing will be our own.