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Eating Disorders

Having Self-Compassion in Eating Disorder Recovery

Recovery is hard enough; you don't have to make it even harder for yourself.

Key points

  • Eating disorders are often rooted in perfectionism and rigid beliefs about how you "should" be.
  • In recovery, self-criticism can transfer from the rigid eating disorder rules to rigid recovery-focused rules.
  • Self-compassion is an important practice for eating disorder recovery that involves self-care, self-respect, empathy, and accepting our flaws.

If you’re human, the chances are good that you’ve felt “not [fill-in-the-blank] enough” at some point in your life. We all have. Some of us learned from a young age that love and belonging were conditional upon meeting certain expectations. You might have learned that in order to be acceptable, you had to look a certain way, act a certain way, or feel a certain way. Even if logically you know this is not true, it’s hard to unlearn this at the emotional level.

 Body Liberation Stock/Body Liberation Photos
Cultivating a self-compassionate inner voice is vital to eating disorder recovery.
Source: Body Liberation Stock/Body Liberation Photos

Many mental health struggles, including eating disorders, are often rooted in beliefs (both conscious and unconscious) about how you “should” be. I often notice in my clinical practice that this self-critical attitude carries over to recovery. They shift from trying to be “perfect” at following their eating disorder’s rules (“I’m still not thin enough,” or “I ate too much”) to trying to be “perfect” in the recovery process (“I should be recovered by now,” or “I didn’t use the coping skills I should have used today”).

Simply shifting your self-criticism from one set of standards to another isn’t going to facilitate true healing. The key to unlearning that sense of “not enough”-ness isn't to beat yourself up more. It’s to discover that you are, and have always been, enough exactly as you are.

This is what the practice of self-compassion is all about. Self-compassion is a concept coined by Dr. Kristin Neff, who discovered that treating ourselves with empathy in the face of our perceived inadequacies can improve our well-being.

Here are some considerations to help you create a kinder inner dialogue.

Self-Compassion Isn’t Self-Indulgent

My clients often balk at the idea of treating themselves with unconditional kindness. They worry that they’ll get complacent, lazy, or self-indulgent if they’re not constantly berating themselves or watching their every move with glaring intensity. They’re afraid that if they are gentle toward themselves, they won’t grow or improve.

Self-compassion doesn’t mean you are being self-indulgent or that you have a free pass to do whatever you want. It isn’t about justifying or excusing actions that go against your values. It means that instead of offering yourself harsh criticism and self-hatred when you make a mistake or act in a way you regret, you learn from the experience and move on. You forgive yourself for not always meeting whatever standards you think you should meet.

Self-Compassion vs. Self-Confidence

Self-compassion is different from self-confidence. While self-confidence is often contingent upon our mood or the validation we receive from the outside world, self-compassion is an ongoing attitude. Confidence is fragile; it can shatter with one harsh thought or one piece of negative feedback. Compassion can survive judgment and criticism because compassion involves the awareness that you’re only human. You have flaws, you make mistakes, and you feel pain just like all humans do.

Instead of striving to feel totally confident about your body, your productivity, or your relationships, you can strive to demonstrate compassion. This way, whether you feel like you’re totally crushing it or like you’re sputtering, you’ll still treat yourself with kindness and respect. Self-compassion does not depend on performance. You don’t have to achieve some arbitrary metric in order to be worthy of love or kindness.

For example, when you struggle with urges to engage in eating disorder behaviors, instead of saying, “I know better than this! I’m so stupid for doing what the ED told me to do,” you might respond with compassion. “I was really struggling today, and I used a behavior that I’m trying to move away from. Everyone struggles sometimes, and everyone makes mistakes. What can I learn from this experience that can help me make a different choice next time?”

Self-Compassion and Self-Respect

Self-respect is critical to self-compassion. When we treat ourselves with respect, we are choosing to honor our very human needs, even on days when we don't love everything about ourselves.

Having self-respect involves:

  • Keeping yourself safe physically (taking medications as prescribed, getting enough sleep, food, water, and movement, practicing safe sex, seeking care for illness or injury, etc.)
  • Keeping yourself safe mentally (prioritizing social relationships that are mutually respectful, setting boundaries when you need to say “no,” seeking mental health care when needed)
  • Treating yourself with compassion and kindness (forgiving yourself for being a human and thus making mistakes, allowing yourself to prioritize things that bring you joy, etc.)

Acting in ways that are respectful to ourselves allows us to be more respectful to others and sets an example for others in our lives to emphasize that we all deserve to be treated this way. If you wouldn't want your partner, your child, or your best friend to treat themselves with harshness, criticism, and rigidity, then it's important to practice what you preach.

Reject Perfectionism

Perfectionism has been repeatedly linked to the development of eating disorders. Many of us living in Western, individualistic cultures have been instilled with the belief that we are all capable of exceptionalism—and if we don't have the accolades yet, we just aren't living up to our full potential.

As a culture, we are terrified of being average. Yet, "average" is not a dirty word—it's literally impossible for all of us to be above-average at everything! By definition, only 50 percent of people can be "above-average" on a certain characteristic, and 50 percent are below-average.

This information can be difficult to accept, but we can also use it to be kinder to ourselves and our bodies. You will always be above-average at some things, below-average at other things, and just average at still others. In other words, it's more than OK to strive for "good enough" over "perfect."

In fact, honoring the reality that you simply cannot excel at everything will allow you the freedom to focus on what truly fulfills you. You might even discover that the things you were trying to achieve weren’t even things that mattered to you all that much!

Letting go of those perfectionistic beliefs can also help you connect more deeply with others since we’re all messy, complex, flawed beings. Vulnerability, self-compassion, and self-respect can pave the road to recovery and gently guide you away from those old beliefs. You are—and always have been—unconditionally worthy of love and belonging.

References

Bardone-Cone, A. M., Sturm, K., Lawson, M. A., Robinson, D. P., & Smith, R. (2010). Perfectionism across stages of recovery from eating disorders. The International journal of eating disorders, 43(2), 139–148. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20674

Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: William Morrow.

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