I was telling my recovery story on a podcast the other day when I remembered a metaphor I’d thought of to describe my eating disorder many years ago. I shared it on the podcast, but wanted to write about it more here, as I feel so many of you will be able to relate, even if the metaphors you would use are different.
I remembered how this vision came to me of a bulldog inside me.... However, the bulldog was not my eating disorder.
The bulldog was my inner critic, my perfectionism, my ‘too hard on myself’, what I often called my inner taskmaster. And the eating disorder was the toy I could throw to the bulldog to give it something concrete to focus on rather than attacking me….
(Of course, I don’t have anything against bulldogs! But for some reason this was the image that came to me then).
Before my eating disorder I felt like this inner critic, this inner unforgiving taskmaster, would attack me for every little thing I did. It was so exhausting, and so disheartening, trying to live in such a way as to never give him reason to attack me - always vigilant against mistakes, always having to give everything 200%....
The eating disorder, in all of its pain, exhaustion and isolation, at least was something concrete that could reliably distract the dog…. I knew the rules, I knew what to do, and yes the rules might keep escalating but they were predictable and the dog would be distracted from attacking who I was as a person, as long as I got my eating disorder totally right….
It was extremely exhausting though, and there was no room for error.
One slip-up with the eating disorder and the dog would be on me.
But at least I knew what to do to get him off my back again…. be the most disciplined, have the most willpower, be smaller than everyone, exercise more than everyone…. (of course, I could never be smaller than everyone or exercise more than everyone, hence triggers and the need to keep upping the behaviours and pain….)
But it came to me one day.
I was spending so much mental, physical and emotional time and energy dedicated to distracting the dog, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere in the long run…. I had to sustain it indefinitely, the dog was never going to get softer on his own, I would never be free from having to distract him or from bearing the brunt of his attacks on me…..
And I gradually started to realize that the only way I could ever be really free from how bad my inner critic could make me feel, how cruel my inner taskmaster was to me, was to begin putting energy not in distracting it with how thin and disciplined I was, but in confronting it and softening it….
My New Approach
I did not stop my eating behaviours right then and there, very far from it.
Recovery took time, and it was anything but a linear journey.
But I began devoting more and more time and energy to things that I believed would help me to soften that inner critic, so that it would no longer be so painful to try to give up the eating disorder….
Before I took this approach, whenever I would try to recover, yes I would have some relief from my eating disorder behaviours that were making me miserable, but having to face my inner bulldog’s wrath towards me as a person often felt even worse…. It made the eating disorder seem easier than the shame and hate I felt for myself without it, and so I returned to it over and over….
But turning my attention to softening the inner critic bulldog itself - now I finally began to see a light at the end of the tunnel of these constant behaviours…. Challenging my eating disorder began to feel less painful and scary, because the dog wasn’t as ferocious as he used to be.
I began meditating, and this helped me to connect with a deeper, wiser, more loving part of myself that had always been there but had just been buried under all of my fear and self doubt.
I began reading every self-help book that spoke to me, mainly in the areas of self-compassion, inner critic work, spirituality, and other topics I wanted to develop in as a whole person.
And slowly, I started building a foundation on which to connect with a deeper part of myself, and on which to value myself more unconditionally so that even when my inner critic would attack me, I had a loving part of me that could comfort me and gently but strongly talk back to it.
I gradually began to develop a sense of myself that was greater and more solid than my achievements or eating disorder.
And with time and effort of putting my attention on these things, the bulldog got softer and softer, and the eating disorder behaviours and rules felt more and more unnecessary.
Of course, challenging them and the recovery process was still extremely difficult, but I began to strengthen a self-compassionate, wise, loving side of me who could meet my fear and pain in place of my inner bulldog.… and this made such a difference.
Everyone’s eating disorders will represent something different for them, and will be serving you in unique ways. But there is so much we have in common (the 'Real Issues’ from eating disorder therapist Carolyn Costin’s work which I will write on next), and so I felt inspired to share about my bulldog metaphor and recovery work with you here in case it might resonate and provide hope that there is a way out of the eating disorder cycle, even if your way out looks very different from mine.
- Are there any parts of the bulldog/dog toy metaphor that resonate with you or that have similarities with your experience of your eating disorder?
- While my recovery work felt like doing what I needed to do to soften my inner bulldog, do you have a sense of what yours might be? This can be hard to know sometimes, especially when the eating disorder is all we’ve given our attention to for so long.
- If there was one non-eating disorder-related self-help topic, or some other type of learning or support that might make recovery easier for you, do you have a sense of what this might be? Learning to soften your inner critic, developing self-compassion or a yoga or meditation practice, going to the bookstore and exploring the self-help section and choosing whichever book resonates with you, or something else entirely…. it will be different for all of us, and can be a wonderful new aspect of your recovery journey.
With so much hope for you and your unique journey of recovery,
Sarah Rzemieniak is passionate about helping people recover from eating disorders and body image issues. Sarah previously worked as an eating disorder dietitian before recognizing that her true passion was in the coaching and counseling aspect of the work. She then became a certified eating disorder recovery coach through The Carolyn Costin Institute, where she was supervised and trained directly under Carolyn Costin, world-renowned eating disorder therapist. Sarah recovered from her own eating disorder, which fuels her passion for this work. She provides individual coaching in Vancouver, BC Canada and online worldwide.
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