This past weekend, I had the honour of participating in Eating Disorders Awareness Week here in Edmonton. I was asked to sit on a Q&A panel with three other esteemed colleagues at an Eating Disorder Symposium that was attended by health professionals and future health sector grads.
This was WAY outside of my comfort zone, but it was an opportunity that there was no way I could pass up, and I'm so glad that I didn't.
Each of my colleagues who sat on the panel with me came from a different background in eating disorder treatment. Through the questions that they answered, I learned something new from each of them which I am eager to write about (paraphrasing my own interpretations of their comments).
From a medical/science perspective: Brain imaging has shown that people with eating disorders can lack the ability to filter out mental chatter that others tune out. For example, you're in a meeting or listening to a lecture and there is a subtle inner dialogue in your head, commenting on how your clothes might be feeling tight or your stomach might be feeling full. Hopefully your brain is able to label this as irrelevant information that is not needed right at that moment, allowing you to tune it out and focus on your task at hand. People with eating disorders lack this ability, and are much more likely to be tortured by the intrusive stream of dialogue. They are unable to escape it and so they ruminate over it which drives up their anxiety as a result.
From the perspective of someone with a lived experience: A crucial part of the recovery process is learning to accept and love parts of you that the eating disorder tells you are unacceptable (i.e. your body) while at the same time learning to accept the parts of you that you don't like and have limited ability to change (i.e. certain personality traits such as the tendency to think in black and white, perfectionism, sensitivity to intense emotions that build up). These are all aspects of personality that a person can inherit, and while you can learn and practice new skills to manage them they can never be eradicated. They are simply part of who you are and what makes you unique.
From a psychological perspective: It may seem at times that an eating disorder sufferer is not motivated to recover - that is, to change the behaviours that are keeping them ill. This can be a very frustrating and helpless feeling for loved ones and caregivers. Another perspective however, is that they are highly motivated - but whatever emotion that they are able to avoid by engaging in the behaviour is a GREATER motivator. It outranks their desire to shed the eating disorder and overrules their desire to do so in the moment when they have a choice to engage in the behaviour or not to. This is why therapy that focuses on recognizing, allowing and tolerating difficult emotions can be a highly successful method of treatment.
I was blown away by all of these precious insights, and can relate to all of them. I see parts of myself in all of these, and with things that I have struggled with throughout my life.
I still experience the non-stop critical brain chatter that I struggle to filter out.
In the past I have labelled myself as a "failed perfectionist", one that was never good enough to be considered a true perfectionist.
My emotions and moods are intense and change rapidly, and I have a hard time adapting sometimes.
I still default to all-or-nothing thinking, and while I've put a lot of effort into practicing mindfulness, self-compassion and flexible thinking, I know that I must accept that to some degree these are traits are here to stay.
How about you? Do you relate to any of these like I do? If so, how do you deal with them so that they don't interfere with your vision of how you want to live your life?