Challenging the Eating Disorder Voice
The Eating Disorder Voice
One of the most challenging parts of recovery is being able to separate yourself from your eating disorder. Eating disorders can be all encompassing; blurring the line between a person’s own sense of self and their eating disorder. It can feel like you are your eating disorder. Many decisions are made to accommodate an eating disorder, and it can be hard to know who you are without it because of that.
A perfect example of the enmeshment between person and eating disorder is the commonly experienced “eating disorder voice.”
The eating disorder voice is usually experienced in the form of second or third person commentary about actions or future consequences regarding eating, binging, compensatory behaviors (like purging or exercise), weight or shape. Over time it becomes hard to separate one’s own motivations and desires from the perpetuation of one’s eating disorder, and it can even change how you perceive those around you. The eating disorder voice can present in a variety of ways through:
Bargaining: “If you go to the gym for 2 hours you can have a cookie after dinner.”
Persuasion: “If you’re thinner, you’ll be more likeable.”
Fear: “If you eat 100 more calories, you’ll gain weight.”
Self-criticism: “You’re lazy. If you went to the gym an extra hour you’d look better in this outfit.”
Warped perception: “Everyone is watching you while you eat.”
Denial: “I don’t have an eating disorder, other people have it worse than me.”
Recognizing the Eating Disorder Voice
An important tool for recovery is the ability to recognize the eating disorder voice and all the negative thought patterns that come with it. Before you’re able to fight, talk over and eventually silence your eating disorder voice, you first have to know what it sounds like so you can prioritize your true voice. The eating disorder voice often occurs through cognitive distortions and emotional reasoning.
Cognitive distortions are negative mental filters that impact how one sees oneself and others.
Also referred to as polarized thinking or dichotomous thinking, all-or-nothing thinking is a thought pattern built on extremes. Everything exists on one of two sides, with no space in between. This makes one unable to see the world, circumstances or even oneself as they truly exist: nuanced, complex and every changing.
Overgeneralization is drawing conclusions based on a single incident or outcome. It is based on the assumption that nothing will ever change and present circumstances will always persist. If it happens once, it will always happen.
Catastrophizing is blowing something out of proportion or believing that you are in a much worse situation (or will soon be) than you actually are (or would be).
Magnification and Minimization
Magnification and minimization go hand in hand. They occur when the importance of insignificant events is exaggerated and the importance of something significant is ignored. This frequently appears in the form of blowing small failures out of proportion while ignoring positive achievements.
Comparing is when you compare one part of yourself or your situation to another’s, which you don’t know well, so that it makes you appear in a negative light.
Emotional reasoning is when one is so strongly influenced by their emotions that they believe they indicate objective truth about a situation. Individuals usually use a combination of different cognitive distortions to rationalize their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary.
Fighting the Eating Disorder Voice
Fighting the eating disorder voice is difficult, and it can take a while in recovery before you’re able to completely ignore the eating disorder voice. Until then, you can fight it by sticking to the facts, not giving in, building a strong sense of self, identifying what you’re feeling and opting for a different coping mechanism.
Stick to the facts
Before you get to the point of ignoring your eating disorder voice, try sticking to the facts. Instead of believing your eating disorder voice and agreeing with it, ask yourself if what it’s saying is true and be critical of it.
Learning about subjects like nutrition and exercise can arm you with the information to challenge your eating disorder voice directly:
“That has too much fat, and fat is unhealthy.” – That’s not true, I know fats are an essential part of a balanced diet. They help me absorb vitamins and keep my heart healthy.
“You can skip one more meal.” – No, I know I won’t be able to function at my best if I don’t eat.
“Don’t be lazy. Keep exercising.” – I shouldn’t, if I keep going I won’t be able to keep performing at the same level.
You can also look back on your relationships, accomplishments and behavior to disprove your eating disorder voice:
“Everyone here is probably judging what I’m eating right now.” – No, my friends have never spoken badly about how I eat or commented on what I’m eating.
“We probably would have won our last game if I worked harder.” – That’s wrong. I tried my best and always commit to practice. Sometimes you just lose.
Don’t Give In
The next step in fighting the eating disorder voice is to not give in to it. The eating disorder voice has one motivation: to sustain the eating disorder. Controlling disordered eating behaviors is the hardest part of eating disorder recovery, partly because the eating disorder voice is quietly disparaging you with thoughts like “You’ll gain weight if you eat that” or “You can go for a run, there’s no one home.”
By trying your best not to fall back on eating disorder behaviors, you’re proving to yourself in real-time that you do not need to listen to the eating disorder voice and nothing bad will happen if you don’t. Over time, it becomes easier and is easier to see how wrong the eating disorder voice was all along.
“No one will like you if you gain weight.” – It’s wrong, my friends love me regardless and they’re supportive of my recovery.
“If you binge you’ll feel better.” – It’s wrong, there are other ways I can make myself feel better without bingeing or purging.
Build a Strong Sense of Self
Building a strong sense of self is another way to combat the eating disorder voice. Without a strong sense of self, decision making and finding direction can be difficult, and it can make one prone to people-pleasing and self-criticism.
Having a strong sense of self allows you to separate the eating disorder voice from your own and put yourself –your relationships, goals, priorities and opportunities – before your eating disorder. It also allows you to identify when an eating disorder may be interfering with your life and keep it in check.
Begin cultivating a stronger sense of self by determining who you are:
Who are you?
How do you want to evolve?
What brings you joy?
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Identify Your Feelings
The eating disorder voice can whisper things like “feeling fat” or “feeling ugly” but those aren’t feelings. They are placeholders for what’s underneath. Even though it’s illogical, feeling disappointed in a test score, lonely because a friend cancelled or frustrated because you’re having a difficult time at work can morph into “feeling ugly” or “feeling fat” at the end of the day and trigger disordered eating.
Instead of accepting what the eating disorder voice is saying, think about what you’re feeling in the moment. Are you angry, frustrated, disappointed, frustrated, hurt or lonely? It helps to maintain your sense of self-worth and separates feelings about your body from feelings about circumstances or events in your life, some of which you are unable to control.
Turn to Another Coping Mechanism
Just because the eating disorder voice is telling you to do or not do something doesn’t mean you need to listen to it. Instead of restricting, binging, purging or exercising, turn to another coping mechanism:
Calling a friend
Listening to music
Playing with your pet
Or you can do the following any time, wherever you are:
Short meditation exercises
Discreet fidget toys
1 How to recognize and tame your cognitive distortions - Harvard Health