As I have mentioned, the basis of my recovery from anorexia, bulimia, compulsive exercise, and negative self talk was learning to like myself.
First, I had to learn how to like myself in very logistical ways:
I had to eat.
I had to not exercise for more than an hour a day.
I had to not puke.
I had to not lie to manipulate my schedule in order to meet the needs of my eating disorder.
I had to not cancel plans because food was involved.
Just these five goals took years to accomplish.
There is nothing quick about unlearning a series of behaviors developed to make yourself feel as if you are an okay person. There is no easy way to completely change your mindset about very basic survival skills.
It was the less logistical ways that I began to treat myself well that got me well enough to eat, exercise moderately, not puke, quit lying and keep my plans. Those were as follows:
I started to change what I did to treat myself well depending on the circumstance: This is perhaps the first way I learned to honor myself. I accepted that different activities (self-care things, foods, exercise, etc.) would be appropriate depending on what was going on in a given day. I stopped demanding that I journal by the ocean when I felt bad when I actually wanted to watch documentaries about Tiny Houses and Ocelots. I stopped insisting I run as fast as humanly possible when I actually needed the kind of slow sweat that a hike brings. I taught myself to tune in to my needs in each given moment by practicing doing so again and again and again
I tapped into my dreams: learning to like yourself means acknowledging that sometimes what you think you should want to do with your life is different than what you actually want to do. In my case, I thought I should want to be a teacher because that was a very viable career given my degree, it had a stable income, and it looked respectable on paper. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy my teaching position and I knew I wanted to make money by writing and helping people to treat themselves well. I also knew I wanted to be able to be completely transparent about where I’ve come from, and to cuss whenever I wanted to.
When I quit teaching to start Super Strength Health, it was the best thing I ever did in terms of treating myself as if I were of value. It is likely you will want to do something different than what I did, but no matter what, I think you should start taking steps to live your dream. Go for the mother fucking gold. You’ve got this.
Take walks: lots of walks, slow walks or fast walks, or any kind of walks really. In a previous life I refused to exercise unless it wrecked me. Spin class and CrossFit yes, yoga and walking: waste of time. This ignored the fact that there is a whole big wide cool world out there, and that it is very informative when you open your eyes to pay attention. I walk as much as I can now, with no goal in mind, because I like to see my community and my town. Treating my environment with reverence has helped me to treat myself the same way.
Show up for other people the way you used to show up for your eating disorder (or other annoying, shifty, selfish behavior): Listen. I want to take the judgement out of the word selfish. It took me a long time to acknowledge that my eating disorder behaviors were selfish because I felt sad that I did the things I did, and I felt that I didn’t WANT to be doing the behaviors. How could doing something I hated be selfish? It just didn’t compute.
Now that I am able to see my eating disorder with more of a bird’s eye view, I have the perspective that I was searching for. My eating disorder was selfish, because the behaviors I had were designed to soothe my own anxiety about being a human in this world in a body. Watching my eating disorder go down was extremely painful for the people around me, and was actively hurting my friends and family. Once I started showing up for the people in my life as if they had the same power the eating disorder did, I started to gain self esteem. (Remember, self-esteem comes from esteemable acts, which can often be helping your loved ones out when they’re in a bind.)
Other acts that can help you to like yourself are as follows:
Say innumerable nice things to yourself. With every moment be your own cheerleader. Say “you’re doing great, you’ve got this, I love you” 100 times a day if you have to.
Practice a hobby: Get working on something that is funny and fun and doesn’t have a lot of emotion wrapped up in it. (origami, skipping, cursive, rearranging your room, sewing, bouquet arrangement, etc.)
Buy yourself some fucking flowers, goddamnit. Or plant a garden. or just go sit under a tree. Plants are visually awesome and they truly help.
Stick up for yourself when need be: Don’t let people talk down to you, ask for money when people owe it to you, etc. Taking the emotional charge out of sticking up for yourself is good, too. When someone cuts you off you can speak up about it without being pissed and have a whole different experience of self-advocacy.
Perhaps most importantly:
Write a gratitude list: When I weighed 95 pounds, was almost unable to finish my studies in a subject I loved, and was dead fucking broke I found a thing or two to be happy about. Noting that I was stoked on my apartment and a movie I saw that week kept me alive, and built a momentum that I carry with me, even years later.
Living in gratitude is the #1 way to like yourself, I think.
What are your tools to treat yourself well?
Anorexia is not being able to look in the mirror. It’s cranking up the air conditioning in an already-cold gym and lifting tiny little weights again and again and again with your head looking to the side because the sight of the bones and veins protruding from your arms looks scary and wrong, and even you yourself don’t want to face it.
It is extreme panic paired with extreme banality, life as a choreography of musts that take all of your time and every ounce of your energy. It is day in and day out, wake, weigh yourself, measure your soymilk, drink your coffee, feel hungry, so incredibly hungry that there is no point in eating because you will never not feel hungry when it gets down this deep. It is eat your vegetables, remain hungry, eat your pear, remain hungry, drink your diet soda and remain hungry. It is closing your eyes to try to breathe through the hunger and wondering why you don’t just eat.
It is your mom calling you on the telephone and begging you to be well.
Anorexia is a fight, an extremely stupid fight, a selfish fight. You know this, but you’re brain chemistry is all fucked up and you’re scared of very very basic things.
Anorexia is embarrassing.
Anorexia is a severe fear of actually living a life. A life includes food, rest, running around, fucking hot people, focus, drive, friends. Life is showing up to birthday parties with gifts in your hands and celebrating other people. Eating the cake or not eating the cake and it not mattering either way. Life is quiet time, sinking into hot tubs and letting your mind go blank, enjoying the way it feels to be in your body. Life is waking up and knowing there is both purpose to your day and a chance of mystery.
Anorexia will have none of that.
There is no “enough” for anorexia. There aren’t enough sit-ups, or measurements, or regimens, or restrictions. There certainly isn’t thin enough, because eventually every moment is fraught with the reality that you will either gain some of the weight back or you will die.
Anorexia has you believe that both options are on an equal plane of terrible, and you will not know which one to choose.
I remember my entire recovery as making deals with myself.
I will get to 100 pounds, and then I will stop.
I will get to 110 pounds and then I will stop
I will get to 120 pounds, and then I will stop
When I see that eating makes my weight go up in a way that isn’t about the deals I make with myself, I will stop weighing myself.
It’s just too painful.
I will eat enough, but I will exercise manically.
I will take rest days from exercise, but then I won’t eat much.
I will sometimes eat a little too much, but then I will throw up.
I went like this, in my recovery, for years.
I couldn’t see that to truly recover, I would have to learn to like myself. I was so deeply ashamed of my actions that I couldn’t imagine a world where I had any sort of self-esteem at all. I felt guilty about my behavior, disgusted at myself in the face of my crying friends and family. I started trying to recover for them, to make them happy, to stop the tears.
One day I wrote down every negative though I had about myself or my body for an entire day. I filled six pages in my notebook and asked myself how I could recover while constantly telling myself I was a piece of shit.
One day I promised a close friend I would help her to set up her thesis exhibition. I hadn’t eaten enough in a couple of days and when the time came to show up I was so exhausted I couldn’t move from my bed.
I asked myself how I could recover when I was continually disappointing people that I loved.
I asked myself if the negative things I spent all of my time saying to myself were perhaps sparked by how disappointing it felt to let people I loved down.
Then, I asked myself a question, a question I consider the first real step of my recovery for me, the first question that spawned the recovery that stuck:
What is it that I need to do to like myself enough to be well?
I am extra humbled and grateful for this fact, because a good portion of my life up until the past few years was spent dealing with a significant amount of bullshit. Depression, abuse, isolation, severe anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, so much time on the elliptical that I forgot what it was like to have friends.
I spent a good deal of my teens feeling like no one in the world gave a shit about me. Much of my 20’s were spent freaking the fuck out, because how was it possible to live a good life with such a general cloak of persistent grief? I was convinced that I came from circumstances. The kind of circumstances that made it so that it wasn’t possible for me to be calm or happy. My eating disorder was the absolute pinnacle of that belief.
My rules, my calorie counting, my weighing and measuring, my food journal, my every-single-day-no-matter-what exercise gave me things to do when I felt there was nothing else to do. The control of my body was soothing, a total fucking life raft in the midst of a big terrible ocean. I truly felt that I needed food restriction and body scrutiny to survive, because it gave me what I thought was the closest thing to peace.
By the time my eating disorder started I had spent decades looking outward to find a way to feel like I was noticeable and valuable, and in some sense, the insanity gave me that feeling. By the time I realized that my behavior wasn’t sustainable or smart or interesting, the habits were deeply entrenched in my daily activities. I quickly realized that in order to make changes, I first had to get out of my own way.
Maybe you feel stuck in behavior patterns you don’t like, or you wonder why you can’t be happy, or you don’t trust yourself to succeed. That’s okay. I felt that way for a long time too, and much of the work of my recovery was finding ways to change my mind about myself.
To do the same, I suggest you:
Be gentle: If you feel stuck in thought patterns or behaviors that you don’t know how to get rid of, it is probably for a reason. I think the dialogue about habit change is both privileged and flawed, in the sense that it doesn’t take into account things like race, class, or brain chemistry. If you want to live a brilliant and joyful life and you’re totally fucking broke, working a billion hours a week doing something you hate to just scrape by, it is likely that you will be a little fucking depressed. If your body is simply not making enough serotonin, it is likely that your brain will be impacted. There are all sorts of totally uncontrollable factors that mess with our health and happiness, and I encourage you to be extremely gentle with yourself while you navigate around them.
Even if you simply have a habit of perpetual fear or constant and nagging feelings of unworthyness, those things are deeply entrenched and won’t go away over night. Go slow when getting out of your own way. Take little steps and don’t be a dick to yourself when it doesn’t work out right away. It’s okay. You’re still going to succeed in little ways, all the time.
Be disciplined: Discipline is different for everyone. For me it means I set an early alarm, often rising before the sun, so that I can do personal things (exercise, eat wonderful food, study my text books, meditate, write a gratitude list) as well as work my ass off for Super Strength Health. It ALSO means I am DILIGENT about my rest days from exercise, I ALWAYS sleep 8-9 hours, I DEMAND one meal a week out of the house and somewhere special, and I generally don’t work after I eat my dinner. I am disciplined in terms of my productivity, but I know that tasks will simply expand to meet the time allowed, so I also must be disciplined about my off time too. I find it extremely helpful to make a calendar for myself and to try to stick to it. In the past I have viewed myself as generally lazy, and taking the time to stick to a structure has been a huge part of letting myself be both accomplished and happy. It feels good!
Be confidant: This might take the most work of all, but it is so worth the effort. At some point I realized I was totally ashamed of my eating and exercise behaviors, specifically, so I had to change them in order to gain self-esteem. This took YEARS, and I consistently had to go back to my first suggestion (be gentle!) when I faltered. Confidence doesn’t come immediately, but a good start is to try to have integrous action most of the time, and to start saying nice things to yourself. Just telling myself that I think I am rad and smart on a daily basis has been tremendously helpful. It’s the little things!
Take risks: I honestly think that taking risks has made me be more confidant (as opposed to confidence allowing me to take more risk). Sometimes a good old dash of “I didn’t believe I could do XYZ, but I did it anyway” is totally appropriate and excellent.
Get grateful: Getting grateful for your circumstance is one thing you could do, but getting grateful for yourself is actually what I mean when I suggest this step. YOU, all on your own, want to get out of your own way, to accomplish shit and to feel good about yourself. YOU are taking the steps to enjoy your life. YOU are curious what it would be like to feel like you are killin’ it at living your life. A lot of people choose to never push themselves past what they already know. Be grateful for yourself, your intention and your effort.
I believe in you, even if you don’t believe in yourself (yet.)
Now get out there and crush it!