Supporting yourself through eating disorder therapy
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Choosing to enter therapy for your eating disorder means choosing a difficult, though rewarding, path. Whether or not you realize it, you are probably struggling with conflict about the decision. While part of you wants to change, another part of you isn’t ready to be different. It’s still holding tight to those familiar patterns, even though you know that they are also destructive. With each obstacle – whether it is within you or in the “real” world – you will probably feel frustrated and lose patience. You may become harshly critical of yourself – and this can prove to be your biggest problem. When you turn against yourself, you become your own worst enemy and your biggest obstacle to becoming healthier.
Rather than waging an inner war, try a gentler, more understanding approach. By being kind to yourself and attending to your difficulties in a compassionate manner, you become your own friend, support, and advocate.
To clarify, consider the following scenario: You come across an abandoned child (or dog) in an alley. He cowers fearfully in a corner. And you want to help him. If you approach him as you might approach yourself – with accusations and anger – he will probably respond with pulling back further into the corner or attacking. So, instead, you approach him slowly and with a quiet, reassuring voice. With time and patience, you can probably win his trust and guide him to getting more help.
This is the same approach that you need to take with yourself. Using this analogy, do the following:
Identify a self-criticism: Think about a trait or situation that prompts you to be self-critical. For instance, you might focus on how you tend to be extremely critical about your body. (Limit your time thinking about this. You want to identify your self-critical thoughts, but not get pulled into repeating and reinforcing them.)
Imagine the victim in you. As a third party observer, watch how your ‘inner bully’ criticizes your ‘inner victim.’ See the victim part as a hurt or scared child. Then try to really connect with, and have empathy for, what that victim part of you is feeling.
Practice self-compassion. Choose to be gentle and reassuring with her. You might find it comforting to imagine hugging that part of you, or just placing your hand on her shoulder. If you have trouble doing this, visualize the scene with someone else feeling victimized and approaching that person with compassion. When you’re able to feel compassionately toward that person, you can practice showing the same compassion toward your child self. With practice, you can then develop the ability to feel compassion for your present-day self.
Take time to practice this exercise. Repeat it. And just as you can calm, reassure and embolden a frightened child or stray dog with kindness and patience, you can be the same loving force in your own life. Share your experience of this exercise with your therapist, who can help you build on the developing self-compassion or overcome obstacles preventing you from feeling self-compassion. By nurturing this inner love and support, you will feel better about yourself and will have the resilience to persist in the journey toward a healthier you.
About the author –
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD is a licensed psychologist who treats individuals and couples in her private practice in Basking Ridge, NJ and presents nationally to lay and professional audiences on relationship problems and self-criticism. She is the relationships expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community; writes for WebMD’s “Relationships” blog; and writes another blog called “Making Change” for Psychology Today. She is the author of Insecure in Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can Do About It (New Harbinger Publications), which was released in May 2014. She was also the consulting psychologist for the book Love: The Psychology of Attachment (DK Publishing, 2016). Read more at www.drbecker-phelps.com.