top of page
  • Helly Barnes

Eating Disorder Recovery Need Not Be a Tug of War (Part 1)

The old analogy of eating disorder recovery as a tug of war where you are on the one side, trying to pull yourself towards your recovery (with wavering levels of willpower) and the eating disorder is on the other attempting to overpower you and lure you back to its disordered ways is one that I am sure you are familiar with! Let's be honest, recovery really can feel just like that. It can seem as if there is a massive internal conflict going on in your poor head and be overwhelmingly confusing, mentally distressing and exhausting.

What if though, eating disorder recovery doesn't need to be a tug of war and actually when it is feeling like that tug of war is raging in your mind, I tell you that it is time to walk away from the game...?

Yes, I know this is an analogy that is starting to become a bit complicated, so let me first take you back to before the tug of war games have even started.

Engaging in Recovery Tug of War Games is Progress

When you are entrenched in the eating disorder and fully following its dictatorship over your life then there are no tug of war games involved and in many ways (in sick, isolated and miserable ways) life can feel quite comfortable like that... Despite the fact that you are very sick, disordered and slowly dying, it can feel mentally safe and comforting to do all the things the eating disorder wants of you, because the alternative (eating more than it allows or resting more than it likes) feels chaotic, creates anxiety and is very distressing.

Therefore, if you are at a point of engaging in recovery tug of war games, i.e. contemplating giving up some level of restriction and other disordered behaviours, then that is progress and a reason for a little celebration!

(NB: Just to be clear, I am not criticising anyone who is in the entrenched in the illness / tug of war free space at the moment... I know how comforting it can feel and how trapped and powerless you might consider yourself to be in being able to get out.)

But the Tug of War is Exhausting!

Right then, before we celebrate too long and hard at the fact that you have progressed from being so entrenched in the eating disorder that you haven't begun to engage in a tug of war battle, to starting to pull on that rope in the direction of your recovery, it might now be time to understand that pulling at the rope is actually unnecessary and is going to quickly make you very tired and anxious.

Playing tug of war games in your mind between your recovery focused 'healthy' self and the eating disorder involves the mind games, the negotiations with the illness, the over thinking and if we are picturing that as a tug of war game, it might look like you putting in a half hearted tug here and there (eating a slice of pizza) and the eating disorder tugging back harder (getting you to restrict later AND go for an extra walk to compensate). These tug of war games are when your anxiety is going to be at a peak, it is when your frustration about recovery is going to be high and it is when your mental exhaustion will be overwhelming.

To my mind, if you are pursuing recovery and you are engaging in that mental tug of war, then you are playing games that are tiring, definitely not fun (not even for spectators!) and actually (happily) can be avoided.

Yes, that is correct, there is an alternative!!

Put. The. Rope. Down!

Have you ever watched a game of tug of war?

Both sides pull at the rope with all their strength and power in an attempt to topple the other side and claim victory because ultimately they have shown themselves and the other side that they are the strongest.

What happens though if both sides are tugging away but then one side decides to just not engage in the game any more, drop the rope and walk away?

What happens then?

Well, the opposite side will have no where for all that power and effort they were putting into tugging on the rope to go other than back on itself and it will fall quite hard and fast onto its backside!

And this is what can happen in the tug of war between you and the eating disorder.

Picture the scene: You are in the middle of a game with the eating disorder, each tugging away at that rope. Perhaps you give an almighty tug (yes, I will eat this full baguette!), the eating disorder will tug back (if you do then you will have to pay for it with less food later), you will tug again with a bit less strength (well, I’m going to eat half of it anyway..) and the eating disorder will get a stronger tug in (have the rice cakes, you know you love them). And the match goes on and on like this, for several hours.... Very exhausting and not really getting you anywhere (other than towards eating more bloody rice cakes when you know you wanted several baguettes!).

Then you have a realisation. You are 100% committed to your recovery and everything that means and you are choosing recovery action no matter what. Therefore, you can actually stop engaging in this tug of war game. Mid-game, you put the ropes down, turn your back on the eating disorder and determinedly walk away from all its mind games and manipulations.

You decide that you are just not engaging in those thoughts and negotiations... that you are fully determined and committed to eating, resting, not compensating and doing recovery YOUR way!

Wow, this is a liberating and victorious moment when you realise YOUR power.

At this moment, because you have stopped tugging in the game, the eating disorder who is still pulling at the other end is going to land with a hard bump onto its backside. At first when this happens it is going to be a bit stunned, probably with a bruised ego. It might watch you walking calmly away with disbelief, uncertain what is happening and what action it should take from here.

In real recovery terms, this is what it can feel like when you do first decide that you are not engaging in the eating disorder's games any more and put those ropes down.

Many people find that at this stage, the eating disorder can become eerily quiet for a time and you get a wonderful recovery honeymoon period where it can feel like the eating disorder has given up. When this moment strikes, make the most of it, giving your recovery a good push by eating all you can, resting and definitely enjoy!

The Eating Disorder Attempts to Lure you Back

Now as this is eating disorder recovery and so not quite so simple as put the ropes down and job done, realistically what is likely to happen next is that the eating disorder, with its bruised ego at having been shown up in the tug of war game, is going to want to get its own back and attempt to lure you into a new game.

To do this, it will use a variety of methods, which will include but are not limited to:

  • Taunting, name calling and persuading you that you are weak and pathetic.

  • Attempting to be sickly sweet and tell you that it will be fun and comforting if you decide to play again or if you just let it take control of your life again.

  • Using emotional weapons, including making you feel guilty, greedy, disgusting or self loathing.

  • Increasing your anxiety over other things when it realises you are not as anxious about things related to eating or weight gain as you were (this might look like increased compulsions, obsessions or fear based thoughts besides those that are food, movement or weight related).

  • Playing the FAT card (of course!)… Taunting you, telling you that you will be the size of a monstrous huge blob if you don’t come back to it and let it win.

  • Attempting the ‘health’ arguments… "If you keep eating like that then you will get SO unhealthy!"; "Every one knows that sugar is addictive and fat is bad for you" and, "You really can’t eat carbs because of x,y, and z".

  • Telling you that you will be unlovable if you keep progressing towards recovery and away from its restrictive habits.

  • Reminding you of the ‘fun’ you used to have when you were engaging in the disordered life and surely that wasn't so bad?

  • Persuading you that you won’t know who you are without the eating disorder in your life and that you won’t cope without it.

I think that you get the picture.

The eating disorder will try every trick it can to get you to re-engage in the tug of war games or better yet, to just lure you back to its full control.

The Tug of War Resumes

At the end of the day you are human and recovery is bloody hard and so you know what, sometimes the eating disorder and the methods it uses to lure you back into those tug of war games will get you and you will pick up that rope again.

And there might even be times in which you don't even tug very hard at the rope but just let the eating disorder overpower you once more.

Because there will very likely be moments when the eating disorder gives a sharper tug on the rope you have just picked up and you will feel too tired and drained by its taunts and seemingly persuasive arguments in that moment to keep pulling back. You will find yourself much closer again to the eating disorder reclaiming full power which can even feel a relief for a while because you are no longer having to put up a fight or face its taunts.

However, at some point, you will look around and realise what has happened with a frustrated gasp of exasperation and a, "Not again!" This is when you pull on some strength and decide to determinedly give the rope a sharp tug back in the direction of your recovery and then just as you did before, you drop the rope and walk away from the eating disorder and its games.

This pattern could go on for some time during the recovery process. Engaging in the tug of war games, tugging at the rope, dropping it and walking away, being lured back, tugging again, walking away again.

But each time you walk away, you will reflect on what lured you back to the eating disorder's games and become much better at resisting its taunts and quicker at recognising when you have picked up the ropes again, so ensuring you are faster at dropping them back down and staying on your determined recovery path.

Initially in this process the eating disorder is going to become increasingly louder at attempting to manipulate you to come back to it and more sneaky in the methods it uses to get you to pick that rope up but each time you resist it or stop engaging in the game and put that rope down, it will also realise that it is losing its power, ultimately making the eating disorder weaker.

The Games Finally End

One day you will put the ropes down in a final tug of war game because the eating disorder will realise it is defeated and so decide to let you go… and this is when you find your full freedom.

I appreciate that this has been a long analogy but I hope it makes sense.

In the second part of this 2-part post, I will use some real recovery scenarios to clarify what engaging in the recovery tug of war looks like in practical terms and what it can look like if you do put the ropes down and just walk (or run, up to you!) towards your FULL recovery and ultimate freedom.

**This post is a transcript of a podcast episode on my series,

'Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery',

which you can access for free here or wherever you usually listen to podcasts!**


bottom of page