Sounds weird, right? That disordered or obsessive thoughts around food and body can actually be used to your advantage? One of my clients put it so well when she said it’s like taking “power moves” against that disordered voice. It’s something I learned to do during my own healing process and something I talk about often with my clients. This is a post for anyone struggling with disordered eating/ chronic dieting, an eating disorder or negative body image thoughts – or perhaps you know someone who is and may benefit from reading. Really, it’s for anyone whose mental space is taken up too much by thoughts of food, body and/or exercise.
“The Red Herring“
Disordered eating thoughts, whether coming from a diet mindset or an eating disorder, are usually there to distract or numb you from an uncomfortable emotion (sadness, guilt, anxiety, etc.) or situation (any life transition, uncertainty, crisis, unhealthy relationships, etc.). It SEEMS like the issue is about the food or your body. As therapist Anita Johnston says, it’s the red herring (it seems so much like it’s about this thing over here but it’s actually about that thing over there).
But if you can remember that thoughts are just thoughts, and that you do not have to believe in and/or act on every thought you have, you can see disordered eating thoughts as that – just thoughts – untruthful and unhelpful ones.
And I think it can be empowering to look at these thoughts as an emotional flagging system – an inner signal that something is off and you need to pay attention to yourself, your needs or your feelings, and address THAT. You can choose to actually work on the real life issue, instead of going on another diet (that doesn’t “work”) or using an eating disorder behavior, and believing those disordered food/body thoughts and letting them guide (and potentially destroy) your life.
The “Power Move“
Follow these steps (with an example) the next time you are having a disordered thought:
Identify the thought and put space between you and it. “I am having the thought that [ex. ‘I should not eat carbs today’].”
Remind yourself this is just a thought, and a disordered one at that. Disordered thoughts are never rational or based on good evidence. For this specific example, I would suggest reminding yourself of all the reasons why we need carbs (energy, satisfaction, etc.), and that carbs are our bodies’ and brains’ preferred energy source.
Tell yourself this thought is here to distract you from feeling an unpleasant emotion or to distract you from something uncomfortable. Ask yourself, “What’s going on with me? How am I feeling?” Imagine you’re asking your best friend this question – do so kindly and non-judgmentally.
Identify the emotion and actual issue. For example, “I am feeling anxious because I got in a fight with my partner yesterday.”
Deal with the actual emotion and issue. This includes feeling the emotion/s, safely expressing it/them and using healthy coping skills. It also includes dealing with the issue related to the emotion, instead of “dealing” with it by listening to what the disordered mind wants you to do (which is not dealing with it at all). So in this example, you’d feel your anxiety, express it in some way (such as journaling about it), use an anxiety coping skill (such as taking a slow walk outside) and then communicate with your partner about the fight – AND make sure you eat carbs throughout the day with the rest of your food groups.
To start, I suggest looking back on the last time you had a disordered thought and see if you can go through the five steps in past tense. Then, you can begin to practice in the moment. These steps are one “power move” you can take against your eating disorder or disordered thoughts (it works the same for negative body image thoughts). They are one key to taking your power back, healing your relationship to food and your body, and showing up for yourself, your loved ones and your life.
If you are struggling with your relationship to food, your body or exercise, I would love to work with you. Please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up a free discovery call to see if we are a good fit!
In true health,