Recognising and challenging your eating disorder thoughts
At the beginning of the recovery process, many of our clients worry about who they’ll be without their eating disorder. Oftentimes, the eating disorder has ruled over their thoughts, emotions and behaviours for so long that they fear it has permanently taken over their identity.
However, through the privilege of seeing many people recover, we know that this is not the case. Instead, as the person progresses through their recovery journey, what we actually see is their true identity becoming stronger as the eating disorder retreats.
This is where the idea of having a healthy self and an eating disorder self comes from. In this article, we’ll talk you through how to tell them apart and how doing so can help you in your recovery.
What is the concept of the healthy self and the eating disorder self all about?
The concept of the healthy self and the eating disorder self is based on the work of Carolyn Costin, a renowned eating disorder clinician, founder of the first eating disorder residential treatment program, and author of ‘8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder’. You can learn more about Carolyn’s incredible work here.
When we explain the idea of the two selves, many people resonate with it right away, clearly seeing it reflected in their own thoughts and behaviours.
The healthy self is the part of you that was in control before your thoughts and behaviours became warped by diet culture, trauma, fear and so on.
It is the rational, kind and non-critical part of you that, over time, has been hijacked by your eating disorder self. This is the part of you that is harsh, fearful and has a distorted view of the world and yourself.
To make sense of this concept, you might like to think of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, battling to be the dominant voice. This is similar to how your healthy self and your eating disorder self interact.
Ambivalence is incredibly common in eating disorder recovery. It would be very unusual to have a client whose commitment to recovery is steadfast throughout the entire process! This phenomenon a representation of the conflict between the healthy self and the eating disorder self.
When part of you wants to recover and part of you is terrified to get better, that is the two selves at work. When part of you knows that the eating disorder behaviours are irrational and part of you feels compelled to engage in them, that too is the two selves. As you become more aware of the two voices, they will become more distinct.
The ultimate goal isn’t to eradicate your eating disorder self – this is the part of you that alerts you when something is wrong, when you’re struggling to cope or when you’re feeling afraid.
Instead, the goal is to strengthen your healthy self and reintegrate the eating disorder self to form one single embodiment, where the latter continues to do its job of alerting you to problems. When prior you may have used eating disorder behaviours to silence these alarm bells, once the two selves are integrated, you will be able to use more constructive strategies to address the issues you are being alerted to.
How can I strengthen my healthy self?
There are several ways you can get more in touch with your health self, in order to strengthen this part of you over your eating disorder self.
One of the simplest ways is to consider what you would say to friend or a small child in a similar situation. For example, while your eating disorder self might tell you to engage in restriction to compensate for a large meal, we’re sure that’s not what you would recommend to your little sister! Your healthy self tends to emerge more strongly in your compassion for others.
Once you have identified the voice of your healthy self, you can use it to dialogue with your eating disorder self. In other words, you can come up with “healthy” responses to your eating disorder thoughts, either in your head or on paper. You might like to utilities this worksheet from EDIT™
As an example, if your eating disorder self says “If I gain more than x amount of weight, I’ll be miserable”, you may come up with a response like “The number on the scale does not define me and it won’t change the way I feel unless I allow it to”.
This can assist you in your recovery by helping you to turn up the volume of your health self and strengthen it over your eating disorder self.
Saying all this, be sure not demonise your eating disorder self. As we mentioned above, it has been acting as a coping strategy during a difficult time in your life. However, through the process of recovery, we can support you to find new, healthier behaviours to replace your eating disorder.
Remember that your eating disorder cannot be stronger than you are, because you give it all of its power.
The idea of the healthy self and the eating disorder self is, of course, just one way to look at and understand eating disorders. It may resonate with you and it may not!
If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this: you are not your eating disorder and recovery is possible.
Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how we can support you on your recovery journey.
Karli Battaglia MDiet, APD
EHL Team x