The Voice of an Eating Disorder & 7 Ways to Shut It Up
One of the toughest parts of recovery for many people is separating themselves from their eating disorder and, more specifically, hearing their own voice, not the mean, manipulative, vicious, callous voice of ED.
Andrea Roe talked about the ED voice in her Q&A last week. Andrea said:
One of the biggest aha moments during my recovery process was really getting and feeling that I was not my eating disorder. For the longest time, it actually felt like I was my eating disorder and my eating disorder was me. It felt like “it” was my identity. I didn’t know who I was without it. I had forgotten.
And whenever I heard the voice in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough, needed to lose weight, etc. … I’d ask myself if that was the “real me” that was talking, or if it was the eating disorder speaking to me. I had to learn to separate these two voices — mine and the eating disorder voice. And when it was the eating disorder talking, I had to learn to fight back, talk back and disobey its commands. I had to learn to take control back over my life — after all, it was MY life, not the eating disorder’s.
Trying to drown out the voice of ED also resonated with several readers. Melissa wrote:
The idea of being totally free is very motivating but I guess I am still at a point of being skeptical. I feel like these voices will always be there. I will just get better at not listening and having a stronger voice myself. I’m glad to hear that someone has done it though. It really makes me try that much harder, even just for today, to have a healthy day.
Another reader, guest, wrote:
I, too, struggle with separating the ED voice from my own, and have not yet been able to do it completely. It is inspiring to read about someone who truly knows what the struggle is like, who overcame it and is happy and healthy. Thanks, Andrea, for sharing your story!
Shannon Cutts also writes about the eating disorder voice in her book, Beating Ana: How to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder & Take Your Life Back (see yesterday’s review here and learn more about her pro-recovery organization, MentorConnect, here). She discusses how she finally separated ED’s voice from her own. Today, I want to share some of her techniques – in addition to others’ – in hopes that they’ll help you start to silence your ED voice and hear your own, loud and clear. Shannon writes:
I got a point where the eating disorder spoke to me at every moment, in every hour of every day. I was never allowed a moment’s peace. At this point, I began to realize how invalid the eating disorder voice’s comments were and how pointless it was to listen to anything it had to say. I realized none of its commentary was helpful, accurate, or based in reality, because even if it did have something of value to say, I could not hear it through the emotional paralysis caused by its alternately vicious or poisonously kind tones.
1. Create a new voice. The ED voice may be so pervasive that you’ve forgotten what you even sound like, what your voice truly is. In a Q&A for Weightless, eating disorder survivor Kate Thieda said:
By the time I got treatment, I had been fully entrenched in eating disordered behaviors for over eight years, and that can’t be undone overnight. I had no voice left—my life was completely dictated by my eating disorder, and everything I did was to satisfy what it told me to do.
Shannon suggests creating a new voice that’s strong, resilient, reassuring, empathetic and kind, a voice that picks you back up when the ED voice rears its ugly head. “You may have to literally create the voice from scratch, using your imagination about how you would like to be treated (not how you think you deserve to be treated or how the eating disorder voice tells you that you deserve to be treated) or how you would treat someone else who was suffering like you are.”
2. Eat. Eating is one of the toughest parts of eating disorder recovery. “Don’t eat that, you’ll get fat!” or “No one is home, you can throw up.” These may be the messages your ED voice shouts every time you sit at the table to eat, every time you feel the pangs of hunger in your stomach, every time you’ve finished eating.
But eating helps to feed your brain and restore normal function. And it helps shut up the ED voice. It helps you get smart, as Shannon calls it. As she writes, you start to refeed your brain “with accurate information about the origins, causes, and possible solutions for overcoming the disease so that when the ED voice speaks we are less likely to listen and react.”
Still, you may be thinking that the ED voice is too strong. So was Shannon’s.
Because her ED voice seemed omnipotent, she started to silence it in subtle but key ways. She developed a system. First, she bought books on the nutritional benefits of food, and would read them every time she ate. After much practice, her thoughts turned to food’s benefits and eating healthfully. When it was time for lunch at work, she also picked a “food model,” a person whose eating habits she would follow. She had two requirements for her model: 1. a person she genuinely admired for her heart and who inspired her to recover and 2. a person Shannon knew didn’t have an eating disorder and whose weight remained stable.
3. Parent your mind. Shannon used this practice while eating, too. Any time the ED voice told her to starve, binge, purge or to do something else unhealthy, she’d turn to a healthy coping mechanism.
In another section of Beating Ana, she recommends creating a list of five healthy coping behaviors. This is similar to creating an inspiration box. Next time your ED voice tells you to engage in something unhealthy, go straight to your list. Shannon’s mind would then focus on picking out which coping strategy to do first.
4. Name your feelings. When the ED voice starts ranting and raving about feeling fat, instead of listening and agreeing, think about what you are really feeling. Instead of “feeling fat,” are you angry, frustrated, upset, disappointed, hurt? Identify your feelings. So the next time that ED voice says you’re just feeling fat and disgusting, delve into what’s actually going on.
Exploring your feelings may bring about more pain, but it’s better than bottling them up or not feeling anything, and having them explode with ED behaviors. And, as Therese Borchard said in her interview, “Or, if I can, I just try to put a name and face to the voice (Ed, standing for eating disorder), and tell him to go to hell.”
5. Learn about yourself. Another way to silence the ED voice is to know the real you, to start building a strong sense of self. Shannon writes: “Creating and maintaining a strong self-identity apart from the eating disorder is a surefire way to set your mind on a firm path toward saving your own life, as you really get to know the new you, who has so much to offer, who has so much potential and promise, and who is so worth saving!”
Shannon includes a list of questions you can ask yourself, from the basic to the thought-provoking. You can start with basics like asking yourself what you like, your favorite music, your hobbies, and work toward more thoughtful questions, like asking yourself about your goals, your dream job, your dream life.
Kate did something similar, too, as she explains in her Q&A. She said:
Something else that helped me was to make two lists: “Who and What I Am” and “People Who Love Me Just the Way I Am.” For the first one, define who you really are, such as “good friend,” “animal lover,” “writer,” “Cubs fan,” etc., instead of labeling yourself as your eating disorder. The other list should be obvious. Think hard and include everyone. The list will be much longer than you think. Add to both lists as new ideas come to you.
I may have stinky-thinking sometimes, but those thoughts do not hold the power they once had over me. In the end it comes back to me being accountable and a driver in my own recovery. I recently went to NY and was at a restaurant where there were caloric postings. This had an extreme reaction in my head. I was actually surprised at my negative reaction to the menu. My first thought was “oh shit I can’t eat anything on here.” I have no control over that first instinctual thought. But I do have the ability to not listen to that voice and know it’s lying, and ridiculous. I was able to move on and enjoy the meal after some initial anxiety.
7. Talk to your ED. To really hear yourself, have a conversation with the ED voice. This helped Kate. She said:
A few weeks into this semester, I began wearing clothes that I had not worn since last spring, and my pants were on the snug side. The latent eating disorder voice piped up and said, “Oh, no problem—I know how to take care of this,” meaning that I should restrict my food and increase my exercise, and the weight would come off. My voice, however, said, “No, I’m not willing to do that,” and I called my dietitian, whom I hadn’t needed to see in over a year, and set up an appointment. Ultimately, we decided that I didn’t need to do anything—that my body was settling at a new set point, and that I was not willing to “diet” just to make my clothes fit. My dietitian was amazed at the change in attitude from the person she had started counseling two years prior.
A technique that one of my therapists taught me to use when I was being plagued by distressing thoughts was to write dialogues between me and the eating disorder. This can be a tremendously empowering exercise, as it helps you to separate out what you want versus what the eating disorder is trying to make you think you want.
In response to readers’ comments on her Q&A, Andrea wrote the following about the ED voice (how inspiring!):
Thank you for your comments and kind words. I know what you mean, I have been there myself. I really wanted this toxic voice to go away but wasn’t sure if that was even possible. But the eating disorder voice will actually grow weak from neglect.
The less we listen to it, obey and pay attention to it, the stranger it will feel when it speaks. Over time this voice will feel “sick” and out of place. And eventually, it will fade away.
It is important to nurture your real you, your real voice. In the beginning it can be difficult to tell these two voices apart–yours and the eating disorder one. That’s why it’s important that whenever you hear your own voice speaking, to embrace it, celebrate it, believe it and give it room to grow. It’s one day at a time. Baby steps. But these small steps add up to making a HUGE difference. Each of these baby steps brings us closer to recovery and a life free of ED.
All the best, Andrea
I know that shutting up the voice of ED is far from easy, but I hope the above can help you in your recovery. Remember you are not your eating disorder. It is separate from you. An eating disorder is a disease. Not an identity. The ED voice is a liar. And, while you might still hear it talking, you don’t have to listen to it, and you can tell it to shut up.
By the way, though I haven’t read them yet, I’ve heard nothing but great things about Jenni Schaefer’s two books, which focus on eating disorder recovery and also address separating yourself from ED and its voice. See more on her website.
Also, here’s a list of other helpful resources from women who’ve recovered from eating disorders.
Can’t sit still,
Need to be re-active,
Got to stay on my feet,
Calories unconsumed left to cheat,
New thoughts swirling – left to greet,
Why can’t I just let go of the will
That path results in a dying girl,
perched on a middle court sill.
Trust the program all logic cries so clear,
Trust ME Kate, I’ll always be here,
Screams a familiar voice lurking in my ear
You LIE all the time about your games
If I listened to you I’d wind up insane,
Drown out your poisonous voice,
I’ll stand firm ignoring the noxious noise.
How will you work to silence the ED voice? Do you find these techniques helpful?
Tartakovsky, M. (2010). The Voice of an Eating Disorder & 7 Ways to Shut It Up. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 13, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2010/03/the-voice-of-an-eating-disorder-7-ways-to-shut-it-up/