Author: Breanna Mills R.D.
Unconditional permission is an important concept in eating disorder recovery. The eating disorder wants to keep you stuck in rigid rules about what, when, how much and where you eat. These rules only fuel and serve the ED and keep you away from a life of freedom.
It can feel really difficult to break free from the ways that the ED has ruled your life. This is where unconditional permission comes in. Giving yourself permission to eat all foods, all portions, engage in all eating situations and to not engage in ED behaviours is an important part of recovery. Unconditional permission means changing the internal narrative and dialogue from restriction to inclusion. If we are constantly telling ourselves that what we are doing isn’t okay or that we aren’t allowed to do it, it is going to make following through with actions that much harder.
It is also important that we are granting ourselves true unconditional permission. This means that permission is not granted based on what we have or have not done but rather giving ourselves permission in all situations and scenarios. Creating these conditions on when it is “acceptable” to allow ourselves freedom is just another way of creating and reinforcing eating disorder rules. This means it doesn’t matter if the only thing you did today was get out of bed, your body still deserves unconditional permission to eat whatever it wants and however much of it, it wants. Unconditional permission is also something that you give yourself and is not based on others. Of course, there may be times where it is helpful and strategic to check in with your team or support system about food or eating. We just want to ensure that we are not relying on someone else to grant us permission, because this isn’t true permission. Constantly seeking reassurance from someone else can keep us stuck in the cycle of not trusting ourselves and our body and is always basing permission off of an external force, rather than our internal wisdom.
Many people at the beginning stages of recovery rely on structured and mechanical eating in order to ensure adequate intake. Unconditional permission does not mean that we have to throw all structure out the window. We can still practice unconditional permission within whatever stage you are at with recovery. This could be giving yourself unconditional permission to follow your meal plan even if you aren’t having hunger cues, eat what you need even if you feel unwell, follow your meal plan even if you are having strong emotions, etc.
How do I give myself permission?
Unconditional permission may sound like a scary phrase; however, it doesn’t have to be. Giving yourself unconditional permission could start as simply as “I give myself permission to follow my meal plan fully.”
Here are some ideas that may be helpful to help to start giving yourself permission:
Talk to your team/therapist about coping strategies. Practicing new coping strategies is going to make challenging the ED much easier.
Visual reminder. Many clients have found it helpful to have a visual reminder of permission. Maybe this is a photo on your lock screen, a photo in your space, etc. You could even make it fun and create permission slips! These could go in your eating space or wherever you would find helpful.
Reframing. Giving ourselves unconditional permission requires changing our neural pathways and our internal dialogue. Your ED will likely be screaming at you that you can’t possibly eat in this way. Reframing these thoughts from the ED voice to coming from your healthy self is likely going to be helpful in combatting this.
Start somewhere. The ED likes to use fear of the unknown as a reason to stop taking steps now. The ED doesn’t want you to be free of it, so it is going to do everything it can to get you to hold on. The most important thing with giving yourself unconditional permission is to start somewhere! Taking that first step makes it easier to continue taking steps along the way.
It is possible to give yourself true unconditional permission with food and eating and have a life free from the eating disorder!