“Trick or Treat” - How Your Eating Disorder May Be Playing Tricks
Author: Justine Rickard M.A.
There have been many adjectives used by our clients over the years to describe their eating disorder. Some of these include “slippery”, “sly”, “deceitful”, “manipulative”, “sneaky”, and “tricky”.
One of the biggest tricks the eating disorder tries to play is conning individuals into believing that somehow choosing recovery would leave them feeling worse off and more anxious, hopeless, or lonely than living daily with an ED, and that staying in the ED would be more "treat" than “trick”. As we know, this can create fear, hesitancy, and ambivalence around the recovery process and make it difficult for individuals to make choices that are in their best interest and most aligned with their authentic selves. Let’s break down some of the biggest falsehoods and “tricks" we have heard from eating disorders over the years:
1. Recovery is too hard, not worth it, and/or not possible
We know and believe that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Buying into this belief can influence someone’s level of willingness and ability to tolerate the distress and discomfort of challenging the ED. If this were true, it would be easy to fall into a state of hopelessness and make it significantly harder to move forward with recovery actions. This is a “trick" due to how well this belief works to maintain the ED. Recovery from an ED does take a lot of hard work, but it also possible and so, so worth it.
2. Recovery means losing control (of my body, of food, my life…)
One of the biggest tricks the ED plays is convincing individuals that it gives them a sense of control in their lives. In reality, the ED takes away individuals’ autonomy and choice, often leaving them feeling helpless and completely out of control. Part of recovery is about releasing the need for control and focusing instead on regaining one's autonomy and agency. When we feel in charge of our own lives and able to act in ways that align with our personal values and beliefs, the need for control around body, food, and life subside.
3. The eating disorder keeps me safe
The eating disorder often disguises itself as a knight in shining armer to come to the rescue whenever someone is faced with a challenge or perceived threat. The ED wants people to believe that it keeps them safe as this is another way it can ensure it’s survival. The reality is that living with an eating disorder keeps our bodies and nervous systems in a perpetual state of threat. There might be a temporary sense of safety that comes as a result of ED behaviours or beliefs, but this is often due to the numbing or avoidance from intense emotions that occurs as a result of engaging in the ED. Numbing and avoidance are not the same thing as emotional safety. Learning how to tolerate distress and regulate and cope with emotions are ways of increasing resilience and safety in the face of difficult emotions and perceived threats.
4. I can keep aspects of my eating disorder and still recover
Another way the eating disorder tries to ensure it's survival is by tricking individuals into believing that they can keep some aspects of it (e.g., restraint, food rules, compensatory exercise, etc) and still reach full recovery. Although full recovery may look different person to person, holding onto aspects of the it by having one foot in the ED and one foot in recovery allows the ED more opportunity to kick the door wide open. This is why calling out all the sneaky and insidious ways the ED may be creeping into your recovery is important for strengthening and protecting your recovery.