Using journaling to unite brain with body in eating disorder recovery
The start of a new year traditionally comes with resolutions and promises to improve or do better in some way. Before I was deeply entrenched in an eating disorder (ED), my go-to resolution was to lose weight. This was the popular thing to do, and still is, according to the weight loss advertisements that litter the airwaves and Internet. After maintaining a low weight for nearly two decades, I no longer made this resolution. The ED remained, warning me not to become too comfortable or complacent, but the way I saw it, I didn’t have to diet or deprive myself of foods I loved; I deprived myself all the time.
The irony was, along with my pride about not “having” to diet, I felt I was on the outside looking in; I didn’t belong. The ED was tricky, convincing me that I might never fit in, so I better let it keep me in line.
Since I’ve been in the recovery space, the weight loss ads that clog the airwaves every January make me feel targeted and triggered. I hit the mute button on the TV remote multiple times an evening to avoid hearing the grandiose promises. I avert my eyes too, so I don’t see the “now-happy” thin people, acting as though they’ve never been so full of joy; only after losing weight do they deserve to smile. I feel angry and sad at the same time.
My brain and body sometimes seem like strangers
My body sometimes seems a stranger since I’ve restored some weight. While my brain tells me to be proud of myself for working to overcome the ED, there is still work to do on my spirit. Most days, I don’t feel particularly proud of how I look. I understand that self/body-image can be the last part of ED recovery. The ED hangs onto it the longest, well after the physical self is healed and weight has been restored. It is the ED’s last hope of staying in power.
This year, my primary ED recovery goal is to work on this last piece of recovery: my self-image, my body image. This is what is holding me back from experiencing true freedom and joy. Frankly, it seems a lofty goal.
My challenge is to embrace myself now, not later when I feel like my self-image is healed more completely, but now. At 67, I’m not getting any younger. Why wait to truly love and accept myself? Why wait for the joy and freedom self-acceptance will bring? I can’t think of any reasons to wait for that.
Saying goodbye to people-pleasing and hello to self-compassion
One obstacle is my deeply ingrained tendency to be a people-pleaser. Many of us with eating disorders suffer from this self-defeating habit. The desire or need to please others makes me compare and despair. I compare myself to another person and if I don’t measure up, I feel shame for not pleasing them. Keep in mind, this person could be a stranger or someone I know. It doesn’t matter. Remarkably, I usually suffer most when I don’t know the person and will probably never meet them.
Why do I care what others think? I love the phrase: Your opinion of me is none of my business (I need to cross-stitch that onto a pillow). Afraid that I’m projecting judgmental behavior, I’ve explored that possibility and have made a point of practicing more compassion with the world around me. Now I must learn to be compassionate with myself, which is proving more complicated.
For many women, the concept of body image involves beauty standards that have been foisted on us by our culture in one way or another. At the core of the goal to embrace my new self, is the belief that my body is my own and it never makes me more worthy or less worthy of dignity and respect, no matter how it looks. After being told by ED for so long that I was worthless unless I looked a certain way, internalising this belief is a challenge, but I’m ready. I’m ready to accept being a softer, cuddlier woman, no longer defined by sharp angles and xylophone ribs. The thought of becoming strong and robust, instead of weak and frail, intrigues and inspires me.
Using journaling to discover qualities and values not related to my body
My method for attaining my goal is journaling. Journaling is helpful not only in getting the thoughts out of my head, but in being able to reflect and note my progress. While venting in my journal can be cathartic, I’m making a real effort to focus on the positive aspects of my self-image instead of the negative.
The negatives have been imbedded in my brain for so long, there’s no need to rehash them; I know them by heart. What I don’t know by heart or accept as easily, are the positives. I need to reiterate these more often. By positive, I don’t mean the tangible as much as the intangible—the qualities and values that make me who I am, despite my body.
It’s okay to brag to yourself
My first step in this self-help venture has been to create a list of every positive thing about myself I can think of, and this has not easy. I don’t know if it’s my Catholic school background or what, but I was taught, above all else, to be humble, not boastful. I have been making this list in the privacy of my journal, and yet it has still been a challenge. My advice? Ignore the voice in your head telling you to stop bragging. The person you’re bragging to is yourself; it’s okay.
Having made my list of self-positives, my next step is to choose a word from the list each day and write about it. This process forces me to reflect on not only how I’ve seen myself in the past, but in the present and future as well. I feel liberated in embracing the positives I’m discovering as I write each day. It’s like getting to know a new friend, which is something I didn’t expect. Something else I didn’t expect, is that I look forward to getting to know this new friend every day.
One word on my list is: BRAVE
As someone who is afraid of mice, bats, large insects, birds and basically all wildlife, I’ve never thought of myself as being brave. I also quake at the thought of public speaking, rock climbing and ropes courses. Since I have been in recovery from anorexia, however, I have learned that I am brave and so is everyone else who embarks on this journey.
It is brave to face the fears that keep the ED in control and to defy the messages society peddles to us. It is brave to face the unknown in the quest to find inner peace and freedom. One way I’m incorporating the concept of bravery into my life is by sharing this message with others in any way I can. Sharing my vulnerability by writing this article is scary, but in doing so, I am reinforcing my belief that I am brave.
Another word on my list is: STRONG
This quality overlaps in many ways with BRAVE. There is strength in vulnerability because only by being vulnerable can we connect with others and heal. There will always be days when I don’t feel confident in my recovery, but if I can remind myself that I am strong, I can do this. As with anything, it takes practice. Also, strength is required to admit that it’s okay to ask for help or to take a break. Being strong doesn’t mean to power through no matter what. It means to be there, however the moment requires.
The first word on my list is: KIND
I didn’t mention it first in this story because I have needed to remind myself that I am brave enough and strong enough to say it. Kind is a quality that I feel uncomfortable to admit; I feel I’m bragging about myself. However, to reach my goal of healing my self-image, I need to say: “I am kind.”
Kindness is the value I hold most dear. My favorite quote, and one I strive to live by, is: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle ~ Socrates. To attain my goal, I must extend that kindness to myself because I’m fighting a hard battle, too. Recovery is hard. Being kind to myself by forgiving mistakes and accepting imperfections is one way to take the focus off how I look and redirect it to how I am. One way to keep this in perspective is to think of how I want to be remembered in my own eulogy. Do I want people to say: “She looked thin” or “She was kind”? I’ll take the latter, please!
Childhood labels can have a huge impact, so flip them on their head
Becoming bogged down, by who we think we’re supposed to be or how we think we’re supposed to act, is easy to do. Labels given to us, especially in childhood, can have a huge impact. For example, I was labeled shy as a child, and as a result, have always thought of myself that way. This belief that I was shy influenced and shaped my whole life because I believed the label. Shyness is not a character flaw, but often, it’s seen in a negative light. My “shyness” is intricately connected to my being sensitive, a characteristic which I have decided is one of my superpowers.
I’m all for flipping some of these labels on their heads and seeing the good in them. If your perception is your reality, try to perceive things in a different way, especially the negative stories you believe about yourself. After all, you’re the author—you can write a new story.
Become best friends with self from the inside out
In 2023, I’m working on getting to know and appreciate who I am from the inside out instead from the outside in. I tried the other way for far too long and it brought me nothing but heartache. Now I’m shifting the paradigm. I’m creating strong new pathways on which to walk to recovery. I’d love for you to join me.
- Has your experience in recovery of healthy self-image been similar to that of Nancy? What solutions have you found to be helpful? Have you found journaling to be helpful in overcoming different challenges? Would you like to share your story? I encourage you to write to me, Dr June Alexander, The Diary Healer founder and editor, by filling out and submitting the ‘Share your Story’ form:
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