girl in high grass on a sunny day. self-compassion

Cultivating Self-Compassion in Eating Disorder Recovery

I recently asked a friend who is in recovery from anorexia how she feels towards her now inactive but once powerful eating disorder. Squinting past my shoulder into the distance—perhaps into her distant past—she paused in silent reflection. Several moments later, she returned to the here and now, and responded:

“Years ago, in treatment, I was taught that the eating disorder was not me—not the ‘real’ me. This was very helpful, at the time, to see my eating disorder as some sort of evil creature who possessed me. I needed to ‘fight’ this demon in order to ‘win’ back my health. I do think this story helped, in early recovery…

“But at some point, it stopped helping and started harming. I felt depleted by the hatred I had grown towards the eating disorder, which—as it turned out—I came to see as a part of me. Not the primary part, but a part nonetheless.

“As I progressed in recovery, and discovered it is bumpy and imperfect, I realized that my eating disorder was going to accompany me all the way along the healing path.

“And I came to appreciate that it had emerged for a reason. It was born of a need for protection, and comfort. Although its strategies for protecting me did not actually work in the long run, it was not evil—just misguided.

“I started seeing my eating disorder as a small, confused child who did not know how to take care of itself. And so my ‘recovery self’ assumed a parenting role to this little eating disorder self—acknowledging when it was freaking out, soothing it, but not allowing it to make decisions about food.”

Essentially, my friend was describing how self-compassion helped her recover from her eating disorder. The term originates in Buddhist psychology, and has become a popular concept in contemporary Western wellness communities.

What exactly is self-compassion?

Kristen Neff, author of Self-compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, is a leading researcher in the field. From her studies, she has identified three core elements of self-compassion:

1. Kindness: Love heals! Instead of ignoring or condemning ourselves, when we are suffering is when we most need to be kind to ourselves.

2. Shared Humanity: You are not alone in your suffering! As humans, we are all imperfect and we all suffer.

3. Mindful Awareness: Be curious, not judgmental! When we meet our most challenging thoughts and emotions with curiosity (in other words, with mindfulness), instead of judgment, we do not over-identify with them, and thus do not become consumed by them.

How can we cultivate self-compassion in eating disorder recovery?

If you have had or currently have an eating disorder, consider reflecting (in writing or aloud with a trusted companion) on the following questions:

• What is your relationship like with your eating disorder, whether it is presently active or in your past?

• How do you speak to your eating disorder? Does it feel like speaking to it in this way serves your recovery, or is there another way you might like to try?

• If a friend of yours was struggling with an eating disorder, and came to you in distress about their body or a choice around food, what care and concern would you offer them?

You can also practice cultivating self-compassion by using these guided audio meditations.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists can help. Call 1-866-525-2766 or fill out our contact form and someone will be in touch with you soon.