Kindness vs. Self-Flagellation: How to Address Eating Disorder Recovery
Being hard on yourself when you binge or purge may seem like the best way to keep yourself on track with recovery, but current research suggests that kindness is more successful than self-flagellation.
Many women worry that the only thing keeping them motivated in recovery is the harsh self-talk and perfectionism with which they are already so familiar.
Kindness and Maintaining Goals
A study conducted in 2007 asked dieters to go easy on themselves in the face of giving in to a sweet snack or candy. People who were first rated as "highly restrictive" ate less after giving themselves a compassionate message than those who did not.
Christopher Germer, Ph.D., who mentions this study in his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, explains: “When dieters' heads are ‘not cluttered with unpleasant thoughts and feelings,' they can focus on their dietary goals rather than trying to improve their mood by eating more food."
A recent article by the New York Times, “Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges,” presents the opinions of women dieters on giving in to their urges, and many of their comments are not surprising. Almost universally, these women declared that they were afraid that if they “went easy” on themselves they would stop caring about making any real progress in the future. In the mind of the dieter or binge eater, the only person worthy of success is the one who is perfect and well-disciplined. This kind of mindset only confirms negative thoughts that are responsible for eating disorder behavior and allows a person to think he or she may not be worth the time, care and effort to recover.
Furthermore, negative thoughts and feelings can clutter the mind and make it harder to be rational. It may be more difficult for a person to reflect on the triggers responsible for relapse when he or she is preoccupied with self-flagellation. Reflecting on the root of the problem is essential to preventing future problems, and this principle is at the heart of relapse prevention and cognitive-behavioral change programs.
Learning to Be Kind
It is hard to let go of familiar patterns, but self-flagellation only works to reinforce negative ideas for dieters, binge eaters and anyone trying to recover from an eating disorder. Making changes can be difficult and may appear messy at first, but learning the practice of mindfulness can help during the process. You can practice mindfulness by observing your responses to food non-judgmentally, and staying in the present by becoming aware of your breath. Learning skills like cognitive restructuring or affirmations can also help you to avoid self-flagellation and to deal negative thoughts and behaviors.
In order to begin a more successful path towards recovery, it is important to accept the fact that kindness is not complacency. Embrace the paradox that change is more likely to follow acceptance rather than resistance. Learning to be kind to yourself is important to eating disorder recovery because it touches on the root of the problem: the struggle with self-loathing. Caring for your own emotions first is important to find peace and to avoid harmful eating disordered behaviors.