With most things in life that I can think of, what our bodies want for restoring health and balance also feels good to us, both physically and mentally: quenching thirst with water, getting warm after being too cold, sleeping when tired…. It’s our body and our psyche's way of incentivizing us to do what’s best for our health and survival.
With all other illnesses as well that I can think of, we typically want to get better with no uncertainty, even if the healing process is difficult: taking medicine with challenging side-effects to overcome a diagnosis, going through painful physiotherapy after an injury....
So it can often seem confusing and frustrating when it comes to eating disorder recovery, both to others and to ourselves, because there is so much ambivalence and resistance to moving forwards.
However, upon closer inspection, this makes so much sense. With most other illnesses or imbalances, the recovery process either feels good both physically and mentally (drinking water when thirsty) or at least mentally (even though physiotherapy is painful physically, mentally we are excited at the prospect of improving our mobility). However, with eating disorder recovery, while it can often feel better physically (finally not feeling so cold and hungry, no longer feeling exhausted from binging and/or purging) it always feels bad mentally at least to a part of us.
This is a very hard part of recovery, and it can lead to a stuck feeling. You feel miserable continuing to do what you’re doing abiding by all of your eating disorder rules, but you also feel terrified of how bad it feels to go against them.
Recovery actions feel difficult, scary, painful and uncomfortable, both in the short term such as after challenging yourself to eat something new or not engage in a behaviour, and also in the longer term as you may begin to gain weight or not turn so much to your eating disorder behaviours to help you handle life and all of its challenges.
With recovery from most things such as a flu or a broken bone, you have not (in most cases) associated staying sick with a way to cope and feel better. So it makes sense that when you begin moving in the direction of eating disorder recovery and doing what part of you knows is right from a deep, wise place within you, it feels worse before it feels better. You are going against behaviours that have developed to help you feel safe and to cope in so many different ways, even if they appear maladaptive now or are making you unhappy. It makes sense that it will feel bad until your inner wise, healthy self is strong enough to fill the needs that your eating disorder has been.
When I used to feel stuck, like there was pain on all sides of me - on one side from continuing to do what I was doing in my eating disorder and on the other side from trying to change and defy the eating disorder - I would try to tune into how these two pains were actually very different.
One pain was the pain caused by continuing to do behaviours that felt like they were keeping me safe and sane but which went against what felt right in my heart. The other pain was caused by the fear of stepping into the unknown and having to face the harsh and fearful eating disorder voice in my head and of having to develop a new sense of myself and new coping mechanisms which didn’t give me instant anxiety relief like my eating disorder behaviours did.
Understandably so, recovery often feels terrifying and it doesn’t feel comfortable or even ‘right’ to the scared part of us that is so full of doubt of our self worth and of our ability to survive in the world without our rules and behaviours.
Deep down, however, I do believe recovery resonates with a part of us and feels right…. It’s just very hard to admit this to ourselves sometimes because the scared part of us is so fearful of what will be asked of us.
For me, it helped to admit that there was no easy way.... that continuing in my eating disorder was painful too, but at least the pain and discomfort of recovery had a light at the end of the tunnel.
I began to think of the pain associated with recovering as ‘clean pain’ - it’s hard and painful because it’s causing us to grow and change, in contrast to the pain caused from feeling stuck and giving our power to the part of us that is full of fear and self doubt.
I also began noticing this distinction for myself in all areas of my life: how doing the thing that would lead to freedom and growth in the long run almost never felt like the easy thing in the moment, yet deep down there was a part of me that resonated with it, that felt full of hope and excitement, even if just the tiniest spark....
There is initial pain and fear and it can last for a long time as you may have to adjust to accepting a new body that defies all your old standards and how you felt special, and as you develop new ways of relating to yourself and life without your behaviours to help you cope.
I worked on connecting with the part of myself that knew it was right and on strengthening that part of myself by reading books on spirituality and other areas I wanted to grow in such as self-compassion and relationship skills, as well as by meditating and going to therapy.
After some time, I began to be able to reframe the pain of recovering as very different from the pain of staying in my eating disorder. They were both hard, but eventually the pain associated with recovering and challenging the eating disorder felt very different… hopeful… proud of myself and my courage…. and eventually, excited about what life on the other side could look like.
- What are some ways you can think of for how your eating disorder serves you and helps you, and for how not challenging it is the easier path to take?
- What is it about continuing on this path, of not challenging the eating disorder, that brings you pain?
- What are the fears and discomforts that make it feel scary and overwhelming to challenge the eating disorder and move in the direction of recovery?
- If you close your eyes for a few moments and connect with a deeper part of yourself, the wise part of yourself that is often so present for others, can it shed some light on the differences between these two types of pain?
- Does this wise part of yourself have a message for you about the differences between these two types of pain and discomfort? The pain and discomfort of not challenging the eating disorder, and the pain and discomfort of challenging it?
With so much compassion and belief in you and your painful but courageous journey,
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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