‘Sticking points’: Finding Freedom From Eating Disorder Limbo
Imagine that your recovery is a garden. To keep the garden happy, you need to water it, care for it, and keep on top of the weeds. If left to grow, these weeds threaten to creep up and take over the garden. I call the roots of these weeds ‘sticking points’ – leftover pieces of the ED personality that can lie dormant underground for years after treatment.
Whilst you might be at a "healthy weight", perhaps you still follow rules about calorie limits at mealtimes, good and bad foods, or the number of hours you spend doing exercise. The longer you follow these behaviours, the deeper their roots become in your garden. After many periods of lapse and relapse post-treatment, I realised that I had never properly pulled up some of the weeds in my recovery garden, and I was sitting in limbo between my darkest days and a happy recovery.
This limbo is where many people, including myself, find themselves stuck for many years. Not terribly sick, but not truly free. For a long time, I still faced terrible food anxiety and low self-esteem, avoided stress-provoking situations surrounding food, forced myself through a rigid and exhausting exercise routine, and continued to suffer many of the physical complications of an eating disorder.
You can live like this – I did, for many years – but it is not recovery. All the time I was in limbo, I still wasn’t happy with myself and my relationship with food. I was still following disordered thinking, a product of deep-rooted sticking points.
It was only when I took the time to reidentify and readdress my sticking points – when I pulled up the weeds - that I began to take steps out of limbo and towards real freedom.
My sticking points
1. Safe foods
It took me a long time to learn a very important lesson for recovery: you will not recover if you only stick to ‘safe’ foods.
I spent years trying to restore weight whilst trying (in at least some capacity) to stick to foods I deemed as "safe". I’d tell my partner that I was trying hard to restore weight, then five minutes later eating a low-fat yoghurt for dessert or munching on a rice cake to suppress my hunger. These decisions felt unconscious and fine to me, after all, I was eating. But to my partner, it didn't add up to "recovery".
Sure, technically, you can restore weight whilst sticking to safe foods, but you can't recover. Weight restoration is just a small element of recovery, but the psychology that underlies an eating disorder which involves rules, beliefs, and ideals, that's the part a lot of people forget about. You can be working towards weight restoration (an essential part of recovery, of course), but you are neglecting the bigger picture of recovery – rewiring the connections and beliefs of the brain. If you stick to your safe foods, you’re not teaching your brain that it’s ok to choose something simply because you like it, or because it’s tasty, rather than because it’s a "healthy" option or sits in some ED-determined calorie range. By trying to recover whilst sticking to safe foods, you are actually reinforcing the idea that you don’t need to explore those "scarier" foods, and you are depriving your body of the essential nutrients often removed from low-fat or low-sugar options that are required by your organs to keep you healthy.
I didn’t properly address this sticking point for years, and so I faced masses of anxiety in situations involving ‘unsafe’ foods. My brain didn’t know how to deal with foods by eating disorder deemed "unsafe", and so the eating disorder coping mechanisms (e.g. restriction, overexercising, etc) – would creep back in. It was only once I found the courage to challenge the rules forcing me to stick to "safe" foods that I began to take steps towards a sustainable recovery.
Of course, breaking down these rules is a gradual, step-by-step process, and things must be manageable. It took me months – years, even - during which I would compensate, struggle with difficult thoughts and emotions, and feel totally out of control before ideas about labelling foods as "safe" or "unsafe" started to fade.
One thing that I found helpful was listening to my body. If it really wanted something that I feared, I stopped trying to give it some kind of "safe" second best, like a bagel thin rather than actually having a bagel. This just meant I felt unsatisfied and my mind couldn’t stop focusing on food all the time. I learned to listen to and trust my body again. It’s important to understand that this is not losing control; this is reacquainting yourself with and honouring your body’s needs. This is tricky and it will take a different amount of time for everyone; but remember that, ultimately, "safe" foods will not support your recovery.
2. Self-criticism and comparisons
The nature of an eating disorder is to compare, over-analyse, and be ruthlessly self-critical. This trait was a sticking point I didn’t seriously address, and so made me very unhappy with myself, for many years.
For me, one big trigger for this trait is social media, which has a dark side that my eating disorder LOVES. It relished making me spend hours looking at accounts of friends, influencers, models, celebrities, and fitness bloggers – most of whom I’d never seen in real life - whose lives, bodies, and food looked ‘perfect’. The problem is though, is that everyone has a different idea of "perfect". Therefore, trying to achieve "perfection" is impossible, because you can never meet the ideals of everyone.
I’d stand in front of the mirror pinching and comparing parts of my body to theirs. I’d fixate on posts and photos taken in the gym, or in front of a plate of salad with ‘#cleaneating’ in the caption, and on blogs about how a strict gym-training-and-juice-diet routine, with X squats and Y push-ups per day, was ‘the secret to success’. And targeted social media content, like a plague, snowballs - the more I clicked, the more I’d see.
These images of ‘perfection’* have always watered the roots of the ED belief-weeds about shape and weight in my mind’s garden. Even today, the more exposure I have to social media content, the easier it is for my ED’s voice to pipe up and start making those unhelpful comparisons.
So, how did I address this sticking point? One thing that helped was to limit my ability to obsessively compare. I binned all my full-length mirrors (and have never bought one since) and tried out various levels of social media detox. I use barely anything now and honestly don’t miss it one bit! It’s taken me a while, but I’ve found a happy medium that prevents me from seeing reams of triggering content and has quieted the obsessive comparing that was a sticking point for so many years. It has also helped me nurture my relationships (another area of recovery that’s super important); if I want to find out what one of my friends has been up to, I have to pick up the phone and have a conversation rather than take two seconds to scroll through their Instagram feed!
The balance will be different for everyone, but I can assure you that finding it can help to silence that nasty, self-critical voice that compares you to everyone else. If giving up social media is something that you really struggle with, try to remember that a lot of what is posted is fake; people post what they want others to see, not a depiction of their real life. Additionally, instead of removing yourself from social media, you could cleanse your feed and mix up who you follow. Rather than just following aesthetic or food-based accounts, you could follow some accounts that align with your other hobbies or interests too.
3. Thinking that others value me based on weight, shape, and food
Obsessing over how others perceive your weight, shape, and diet is a real sticking point.
For years whilst I was recovering, I’d worry about whether my family or housemates would think I was greedy for eating a pre-bed snack. I’d fret over what my partner would think about my meal plan – he didn’t always eat when I needed to, so would he see me as a greedy pig? I’d even think, “How can my partner believe I’m sick if I’m eating so much?”
Eventually, I learned that these fears are eating disorder-rooted and had become sticking points that were still influencing my confidence in recovering. Other people probably won’t see me as greedy, because they don’t follow the bizarre eating disorder rules about restriction. My partner knows I’m sick, because he has witnessed the many effects of the eating disorder that have impacted my life and our relationship. The worries were coming from the eating disorder’s deep-rooted obsession – the sticking point - over judging my worth through my food and diet choices.
Of course, people can say unhelpful things – there’s always someone in the office who is ‘on a diet’ and chooses to tell everyone about it. I remember once someone made a throwaway comment about my lunch: “Oh, that looks so good, but I can’t touch carbs this week.” That comment stuck with me forever. Should I not touch carbs? Did they think I was greedy and fat for eating bread?
For a long time, comments like this would make me endlessly question my own recovery plan, keeping me in limbo, until I began to consider the rationale behind this thinking. Was this person a recovering anorexic? Not that I knew of. But even if they were, that’s their life and I needed to focus on my own recovery rather than comparing myself to others. Therefore, I needed to stop listening to their dietary choices and letting them influence mine. I would also worry that would base their opinions of me on what I, which was undoubtedly eating disorder how the eating disorder valued me, but I had zero evidence to suggest that it was also how others did.
As much as people’s comments still frustrate me (I don’t think it’s ever acceptable to comment on what someone is eating), by addressing the sticking point that’s at the heart of why remarks stick with me, I find it easier to shrug them off and not let them become a barrier to my recovery. At the end of the day, you’re never going to be able to control what other people say, but you can control how you respond to these comments. In a recent podcast on The Eating Disorder Therapist by Harriet Frew, she explored how to identify unhelpful language and how we can adapt it to be more recovery-friendly (although, it would make good listening for us all – we need to change how we talk about food, but that’s a conversation for another day!).
So, try to stop worrying about what other people might think - your recovery is about you and no one else!
What are your sticking points?
Wherever you are on your recovery journey, I hope this has given you some ideas about identifying your ED’s sticking points. Their roots might be deep, but weeds must be pulled up to stop them from growing back and taking over the garden!
In all of this, however, remember that recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Change takes time. While challenging the eating disorder is crucial, things need to be manageable. However, whenever, you choose to challenge the eating disorder’s sticking points, you are taking a brave and bold step, and every step counts towards the marathon! 😊