Written by Anne-Claire Jedrzejczak
Have you ever noticed that you narrate most of your life? Something happens and you tell yourself different things about it.
"Kate stormed in my room this morning and looked angry. I wonder if she’s mad at me.” or, “sh*t I’m stuck in traffic again. Really?! Oh come on! Why does this happen to me? And today, of all days! Ugh I’m so frustrated!” or “oh this option on the menu looks good. But it’s too much. I can’t eat that. And look, Sarah already said she’s having a salad so I can’t have anything bigger than what she’s having. And that means I won’t have to make up for it later. Yup. Ok then. Salad it is.”
You are literally talking to yourself. Every day.
What if I told you that this is the starting point of the most powerful tool you could use in your recovery?
The battle is in you. Your healthy self will heal your eating disorder self.
Healthy Self meet Eating Disorder Self
Your healthy self is the core part of you, the one you were born with. Your eating disorder self is a part of you that developed over time, for a variety of reasons, as you engaged in disordered behaviours and thinking patterns. It is the part of you that judges, shames, blames, and suggests using disordered behaviours based on its rules, beliefs, and fears.
If you are finding it difficult to relate to this rather brief introduction, please know that you are certainly not the first human to feel this way when presented with them. Instead of trying to convince you that you indeed have two different selves within you, let me ask you a few questions.
Do you sometimes tell yourself “oh I really wish I could heal from this eating disorder and live my life on my own terms!” but also sometimes tell yourself “no, this is fine, it’s not that big of a deal, there is no healing to be done. I’m fine”?
Have you ever set a goal, for instance “on Tuesday, I will eat this food because I have wanted to for a while, and my dietitian said it is absolutely safe for me to do so” but then find yourself thinking “no, no, absolutely not having this. I just can’t!” when Tuesday comes around?
Do you use behaviours to avoid difficult feelings, for example, but when a loved one comes up to you telling you about the horrible day they just had and how stressed out, frustrated, and overwhelmed they are, you do not suggest “this brilliant (read: disordered) set of behaviours that will solve it all”?
If these scenarios sound familiar, then you may notice that there are different forces at play within you. Two narrators. One of them is your eating disorder self, the one that doesn’t want to let go of behaviours, and suggests you need those behaviours.
The other one is your healthy self, the one that whispers dreams of a recovered life, the one that would never make anyone else use disordered behaviours to “fix” something difficult in their own lives because that part of you knows what it is like to live in your body and mind, how hellish this version of life is, and wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else.
This cognitive dissonance is the starting point of this powerful framework. The end goal? Strengthening your healthy self and putting your eating disorder self out of a job.
An actionable framework
To strengthen your healthy self, you will need to be in touch with it as well as with your eating disorder self. As often is the case when aiming to create change, the first step will be focused on building awareness.
When and how do these two selves show up in real life?
One way to seek your own answers is to observe what you tell yourself when you come to the table, walk the grocery store aisles, or in any situation that typically makes you feel tense, anxious, or moody. Another one is to journal before (or after) using a disordered behaviour. These thoughts will probably be narrated by your eating disorder self.
With the help of assignments from the 8 Keys books or with the guidance of a CCI-certified coach, you can then start holding a conversation with that narrator by intentionally tuning into your healthy self and letting it express what it would say to a loved one in a similar situation.
How does this practice help with recovery?
With time and practice, you end up exploring the variety of functions your eating disorder self is trying to fulfil (either poorly or with too high a price) and the alternative skills and tools you may want to develop.
Your awareness moves from “what happens when I was hit by a tsunami-like urge to use a behaviour” to “what is happening in my life that is triggering thoughts that later lead to an urge.” As you move up the behavioural chain, you may notice that you have actually been narrating life this entire time and that the seeds of your unhelpful thought patterns were planted much earlier.
And when you can identify these earlier in the process, when events happen, when old stories rear in, when distressing feelings develop, then you get ahead of the tsunami. In other words: it gets easier not to engage in disordered behaviours and instead to practice newly acquired skills and tools.
That is how you put your eating disorder self out of a job, i.e. recover as the link between a stressor and disordered patterns is broken.
A compassionate framework
Do you ever feel like your eating disorder self/voice is bigger than you? I surely did. I struggled with automatic thoughts and behaviours that left me convinced this was “it”, without any other option to choose from. And some of the feelings I was trying so hard to avoid by reaching for disordered patterns definitely felt like they would swallow me whole if I allowed myself to actually feel them.
One of the gifts of Carolyn’s approach lies in the observation that if both your eating disorder self and healthy self are parts of you, then none can ever be bigger than you. You are reminded of your nature and your place: that of the seat of the observer, from which you are given the power to choose again. Maybe differently, this time.
Another meaningful piece of this approach is its focus on collaboration, not compliance. You are put in charge of your own recovery. Don’t get me wrong: I am not in any way suggesting that you should figure it all out on your own. But if anyone tried to step in and take your eating disorder (self) away, what would happen? You would probably get defensive. Rightfully so. No one can “make you” recover. We can, however, help you figure out why you choose to and how to get there. At the end of the day, this is your recovery, your life, and your goals. So, you need to be the one making the choices and remain in the driver’s seat.
“This is the first time I am hearing of this approach”
Consider going back to the questions I shared earlier to find your healthy self and eating disorder self.
What are examples of choices, beliefs, thoughts, or behaviours that seem to either be variable in time (“I told myself one thing and then did another”) or applicable to you but not others (“I should use this behaviour, but that’s only me, I wouldn’t recommend that to a loved one”)?
Add to this collection of thoughts the ones you observe right around the time that you reach for behaviours (i.e. when you want to restrict, binge, purge, weigh yourself or exercise compulsively). Awareness building is your starting point.
“I struggle with strengthening my healthy self”
Once/if you are aware of a few eating disorder self thoughts, start challenging them: what would you say back? What is your eating disorder self trying to do for you? How good is it, actually? What evidence does it have to support its function or belief? What price do you pay for the behaviours it suggests using? What are alternative options? What would your healthy self say if talking to a loved one?
This is exploration work and having additional guidance from qualified professionals on your team can make a big difference in terms of education, myth-busting, identifying patterns, cognitive distortions, and other barriers you will bump into.
“I want to explore this practice but feel I need more guidance”
If you are curious to learn more about this approach and build on these skills, I highly recommend looking into the 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder book and workbook, written by Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb. Carolyn Costin Institute Certified coaches are also specifically trained to help you explore all facets of this approach and a myriad of related skills and tools. You can find a list of all coaches here.
Recovery is far from easy.
Exploring and challenging your loud, disordered, and dissonant narrative is confronting work. It may also feel like it is adding complexity and hardship to your life, thus making you question whether it is working and/or worth it.
This will change.
It often gets harder before it gets easier.
But recovery is worth it.
Anne-Claire Jedrzejczak (she/her) is a Carolyn Costin Institute Certified Eating Disorder Recovery Coach, Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT500) and co-founder of The Recovery Collective. A former finance professional, Anne-Claire’s eating disorder recovery journey led her from the high-paced corporate world to the study of yoga, and eventually to eating disorder recovery coaching & mental health advocacy. She now guides others to meet their recovery goals, transform their relationship with food, their body, and themselves so they can live an authentic and fulfilling life.
This post has been adapted from:
Costin C, Grabb GS. Key 2: Your healthy self will heal your eating disorder self. In: 8 keys to recovery from an eating disorder workbook. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2017.
Costin C, Grabb GS. Key 2: Your healthy self will heal your eating disorder self. In: 8 keys to recovery from an eating disorder. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2012.
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