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  • Helly Barnes

Eating Disorder Recovery Need Not Be a Tug of War (Part 2)

In part one of this two part series, the analogy of eating disorder recovery feeling like a tug of war was explored, in which the person in recovery is on one side of the rope with the eating disorder on the other and both sides are pulling away, trying to over-power their opponent. In the first post, I explained that when eating disorder recovery does feel like you are fighting hard in that tug of war, leaving you mentally exhausted and increasingly anxious, then you are very likely making the recovery process much harder for yourself than it needs to be. If you put the ropes down and walk away from the eating disorder's games, determined on and committed to your recovery course of action, then there are really very few inner battles to be fought. You will also find that taking that path is less exhausting and actually creates lower levels of anxiety. Please see part one if you haven't yet to better understand this analogy!

In this post, some common recovery scenarios are provided to help clarify what engaging in the recovery tug of war looks like and what it takes to put the ropes down, turn your back on the eating disorder and just walk (or charge at speed!) towards fully overcoming the eating disorder and finding your ultimate freedom.

A Typical Tug of War Between a Person in Recovery and the Eating Disorder

Firstly then, let me clarify what the typical tug of war between a person in eating disorder recovery (you) and the eating disorder will look like.

In a nutshell, the tug of war is ongoing mental gymnastics and negotiations over what you will eat, when, how much, considering factors such as what you are doing or planning on eating later or what you have done or eaten already that day to determine what you do or eat now. It is allowing more food or rest but only with fixed rules; eating more but only if you compensate / purge in some form... The tug of war typically manifests as never ending and exhausting mind games in which you are trying to do a bit more for recovery on one side but the eating disorder is on the other still setting rules or boundaries as to how far you are 'allowed' to go.

Here are some more detailed examples of this:

  • Compromising with the eating disorder.... "I will have the McDonalds but will eat 'healthy foods' for the rest of today and tomorrow and go for an extra walk" OR, "I will eat with much less restriction and rest but only until my weight is at this point and then I will just eat enough to keep my weight there and ensure I don't gain anymore".

  • High levels of anxiety because you are constantly negotiating, fearful of how the eating disorder will 'make you pay' later if you eat or rest more now and engaging in the disordered thoughts and the threats it is making.

  • Eating more, resting more, convincing yourself that you are 'in recovery' but then letting feelings of guilt, greed, shame and regret get the better of you and resorting to old behaviours to appease those feelings.

  • Starting recovery action, gaining a bit of weight and then allowing thoughts and beliefs that you will 'lose control' or 'become obese' to overcome you and so you resort to old disordered habits to control your weight again.

  • Allow yourself to eat more and gain weight but only if that weight gain is at or below a certain rate each week or month and so you are constantly trying to control it.

  • 'Doing recovery' but having an invisible line or barriers that you will not cross... e.g. you will allow yourself to eat 10,000 calories a day in recovery but not 11,000; you will tolerate gaining 100lb in weight but not 105lb... (and I don't recommend anyone weighs themselves anyway!).

  • Giving up one set of disordered rules or beliefs but exchanging them for others (from it is wrong to eat bread more than twice a day to I can eat bread more than twice a day but it needs to be granary or wholemeal).

  • 'Doing recovery' by eating more but only in a way that still feels safe with a meal plan or to a rigid set of routines and rules and believing yourself to be incapable of stepping out of that false comfort zone.

  • Using the 'I will eat more if...' compromises. Examples can be, if my partner has a pizza tonight then I will too; if it rains later at my usual walk time then I will definitely stay in but I'll still walk if it stays dry... This is ultimately leaving your recovery decisions to fate.

  • The delaying compromises. This can look like, I will definitely fully commit to recovery and start eating unrestrictedly when I have finished these exams, when there is less pressure at work, after the holiday next month, when the stars are perfectly aligning!

  • Allowing your recovery work to only happen when someone else in your life either says the right thing at the right time, also eats the same as you, tells you what to do, offers the right support (well right support in your eyes, even if they might not know what that is at any given point in time!).

  • Giving the green light to the eating disorder to gain strength over you until after a medical appointment, a weigh in, a therapy session, starting to work with a new coach or dietician...

  • Using the words, 'I'll try to,,,' or 'I might..' e.g. go to the Mexican Restaurant for dinner tonight. When the eating disorder hears that slight doubt or hesitancy in you, it knows that it only needs to give one sharp tug on the rope to win that game!

  • Ultimately, still allowing the eating disorder to keep a hold on you in a one foot in, one foot out dance of recovery and not finding freedom.

When you are going through recovery with constant games of tug of war with you fighting for your recovery and the eating disorder at opposite ends, it is still possible to make some progress in recovery. When you do something that is recovery positive, despite the constant games, such as eating that slice of chocolate cake in full when you wouldn't have done so before, then that is a step closer to where you need to be. But the fact that eating the chocolate cake came with the compromise with the eating disorder that you would not have dessert with dinner, does negate the full progress that could have been made. At the end of the day, full recovery will never be yours if you can only eat more or change routines and disordered habits with conditions attached to them!

It is therefore crucial in recovery to always aim to put the ropes down and walk away from the tug of war with the eating disorder when it starts up in your head, so that you are walking into full recovery action with no conditions or negotiations attached!

Dropping the Ropes in the Tug of War with the Eating Disorder

When you are in recovery and you choose to stop engaging in the ongoing mind-games, negotiations, compromises and hesitancy, drop the ropes in your internal tug of war with the eating disorder and walk towards your recovery, it can feel like the more terrifying option... But when you do it, you will soon find it is actually the easier path and ultimately, only when you do take that control yourself, do you ensure full rewiring for your recovery can happen.

Putting the ropes down in the tug of war is to take full control of your recovery with commitment and determination, fully owning the process. Here are some examples of what this looks like in practical terms:

  • Being determined that you will eat without restriction to all hunger, all the foods you want, when you want them, in the quantities you want and with no need to think about what came before or what will come later... AND doing it!!

  • Giving into all the hunger and exhaustion which is likely to look like a lot of food and a need to rest fully for a while (this can be for a year or more).

  • Allowing the mental hunger and the extreme hunger in, listening and responding in full, KNOWING it is the right thing to do.

  • Trusting that your body will tell you when it has had enough food at any point in time but you have to keep eating to trust and understand this is true for you.

  • Listening to your body and all the messages it has been trying to send you for all the years or decades that you have been unwell but that the eating disorder stopped you hearing.

  • Being absolutely adamant and determined that you will not engage in unnecessary movement or in any purging behaviours no matter what!

  • Allowing your body to gain weight at the rate it needs to gain at, not attempting to manipulate or suppress it and allowing it to become the weight it needs for your optimal health (and it will know when that is if you trust it).

  • Choosing to embrace the new curves and belly rolls with positivity, rather than watch them develop with disgust and dread.

  • Recognising the emotions that arise of guilt, greed or disgust are all part of the recovery process and sitting with them while you keep eating and allow yourself to learn that those emotions are not appropriate.

  • Adopting a 'feck it' attitude to eating, resting and recovery action. "Will I eat that burger even though I have just had five donuts? Feck it, why not, the burger looks good!".

  • When the inevitable mental gymnastics do try to come back in, going back to your basics of, 'I am eating all I want, resting and embracing my growing body', then distracting yourself from the disordered mind games with another tub of ice cream.

  • Holding onto a vision of the recovered, free and fabulous person you want to be in your future, identifying as that person now so that you become that person now!

  • Accepting it won't feel right all the time, in fact it will feel quite shitty, emotionally messy and chaotic at times but that you will keep going anyway...

  • No matter what others around you do or say, or don't do or say, staying true to what you know you have to do for YOUR recovery.

  • Allowing yourself to finally feel that exhilaration when you know that you have had genuine steps forward in your recovery and that that work to achieve them came from you!

  • Choosing to take on every new and wonderfully terrifying food, eating situation or recovery 'challenge' with positive energy, recognising the good parts, while accepting that sometimes food isn't perfect and that's ok too!

  • Using words like, "I will!", "Nothing will stop me" and "Feck it, Yes!" when it comes to recovery action, no matter how hard they might seem.

  • Making space in your life for recovery and putting your recovery and your future to the top of your daily priorities, being curious as to what recovery wins you will make happen.

  • Deciding that if you are going to do this recovery thing, you are going to do it YOUR WAY and that is without hesitation, doubt or permission seeking but with determined, full on hunger crushing action!

  • AND always feeling pride in all you are achieving and all you are still determined to achieve because you and every other person out there facing down an eating disorder every day is a bloody super hero!

When you put the ropes down and calmly walk away from the eating disorder's attempts to engage you in mental gymnastics, negotiations and compromises, you will find that the anxiety can significantly drop, as can the fears over small changes. This is because you are finally committed and you have decided that you KNOW you are doing the right thing (even if your brain does still create some strong and difficult emotions here and there).

As I said in post one, this is eating disorder recovery we are discussing and so I think we all know that there are still going to be ups and downs and detours on that journey to full health and ED-free life.

Therefore, there will be days (hopefully!) where you are doing great things and you manage to avoid picking up that rope and engaging in the eating disorders mind games and tug of war. However, there will be inevitable times when you do find that you have started to negotiate with the eating disorder again or allowed it to manipulate your thoughts or actions in very sneaky ways. When this happens, recognise it has, attempt to identify what it was that led you to pick up the ropes again, the methods the eating disorder used to re-engage you in the games and then once again, put the rope down and get back to your determined recovery process. You just have to keep recognising when you have started to play that tug of war again each and every time and keep walking away. As you go through recovery, you will find that you are better at avoiding the eating disorder's attempts to lure you back, wiser at recognising when it has got you playing mind games again and faster at dropping the ropes and walking away until one day, the games will be up (i.e. you will have fully overcome the eating disorder and be free!).

**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!**


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