Self-Compassion and Recovery
She told me this memory from the beginning of her recovery process: she was laying on the grass with a Dixie cup half-full with raisins. She picked one up, held it in front of her face and started sobbing. She said she didn’t understand why it was so hard to put the raisin in her mouth. With her back on the grass, holding the raisin above her face, in the background she saw the blue sky and sun shining. For a brief moment, she said she recalled feeling the summer breeze blow by and the sun shine on her body. Maybe it was the awareness of her body that led her to have a sudden thought: she was at war with her body and didn’t know how to raise the white surrender flag. “I hate my body.” She said as she lowered her head into her hands in my office.
Sound familiar? For many people with eating disorders, it does.
Hate is a strong word, yet this is a word that many people with eating disorders use to describe their relationships with their bodies. It’s possible that body hatred is related to some of the scientific findings of relationship to the body among people with eating disorders: self-compassion has been found to be lower among people with eating disorders in comparison to people without eating disorders (e.g., Ferreira, Pinto-Gouveia, & Duarte, 2013). Research indicates that body dissatisfaction is a strong predictor of eating disorder symptoms (Tylka, 2004). These links make sense: people who are at war do not have compassion toward their enemies. But here’s the question: is the body really an enemy? If you’re open to the possibility that your body may not be your enemy, then read on. If not, maybe just sit with that question for a time and re-visit this blog in the future.
Among folks with eating disorders, the need to control the body appears to be high (Fairburn, Shafran, & Cooper, 1999). Some people argue that wanting to control the body is one of the very driving forces behind their urges to restrict, binge and purge. Especially for people who have had chaotic circumstances in their lives that have felt entirely OUT OF CONTROL (like traumatic experiences and chaotic home environments), it makes sense to grasp control over the thing that is always closest to us, which is the body.
And yet…the short-term gains that might result from controlling the body might ultimately be overshadowed by the conflict between controlling the body and long-term values. Do you feel this conflict?
When one is in a recovery process, taking control of the body likely gets in the way of healing and recovery. Is it possible to gently and slowly shift the relationship with the body through treating a bite of food as an act of kindness toward the body? The answer to this question is yours alone to be sure, however, there is preliminary evidence supporting that mindful eating may be beneficial as an additional treatment for people who struggle with eating disorders (e.g., Hepworth, 2004). Additionally, there are mindfulness-based interventions for eating disorders that have scientific support (Katterman, Kleinman, Hood, Nackers, & Corsica, 2014).
Back to my patient and raisins. We practiced mindfully eating one raisin at a time. I invited her to observe the raisin in her palm, describe in her mind what she saw and smelled of the raisin, and then finally invited her to observe and describe the feeling of the raisin in her mouth, the sensations of chewing, the tastes, and finally the sensation of swallowing it. She said that she felt guilty for eating it. I invited her to practice observing and non-judgmentally describing the emotion of guilt, and then say this sentence in her mind: “That raisin is a gift to my body.” Over time, and after much struggle, she said it was helpful. See what you think of this concept: eating one bite at a time, mindfully experiencing it and thinking of the bite of food as a gift to your body.
By Kristen Reinhardt