Eating Disorder Recovery: Inner Critics & Relapse
In the last part of our interview, eating disorder expert Susan Schulherr – author of Eating Disorders for Dummies and a valuable blog on ED recovery – talks about how readers can quiet their inner critic.
Plus, she shares her insight on relapses while on the road to eating disorder recovery.
If you didn’t get a chance to check out the other parts of our interview, you can read Susan’s insights on overcoming the challenges of recovery and providing real support to someone who’s struggling with an ED.
Q: We all have an inner critic in one form or another. But the voice of an eating disorder can be especially brutal and deeply entrenched. What are some ways individuals can quiet that voice?
A: The inner critic is a perfect example of a personality part that intends to help you and instead ends up undermining you. Inner critics originally develop when we’re very young, as we try to internalize the often unspoken rules of the families we live in.
Your critic wants you to abide by these rules as s/he understands them, so you’ll be loved and not abandoned. The stakes are high. The rules are carried forward to apply to the world beyond your family.
Critics always operate on the unfortunate belief that you have to be kicked around to keep you in line. So when you stray, your critic berates you, calls you names, and tells you al the terrible things that are going to happen to you as a result.
Your critic also believes you have to be perfect to be safe. A healthy conscience acts as a wise guide, whereas the critic is a perfectionistic tyrant and a bully.
Often the critic immediately shrinks a bit in size and impact when people begin to understand what it’s trying to do for them.
But don’t get me wrong. The critic commands a lot of power and this is because, as I mentioned earlier, the stakes seem so high: whether you will be accepted and respected by others or shunned and abandoned.
Undermining the critic’s power usually involves lowering your sense of what’s actually at stake. It can be very helpful to remember that although your critic feels very big, it’s actually very young and is sizing things up from the viewpoint of you as a child.
Your critic needs to be challenged with a more updated view of your place in the world, and of the less than do–or–die consequences of your missteps and imperfections.
It’s often an eye–opener for people to realize they don’t hold others to the exacting standards to which they hold themselves. This can be an important gateway to updating and softening the rules and the voice guiding you through your rule system: What would I think of my best friend if she did that? How would I speak to her if she were having this problem?
It’s extremely important to experiment with small, manageable changes in the way you set standards for yourself and the way you respond to mistakes and setbacks.
The critic believes even a little straying will lead you to ruin. It needs to discover you can be flexible and imperfect and still be just fine. This kind of experimenting takes courage and usually requires lots of support.
The critic represents another example of an automatic response: it will only become more entrenched with repetition but can gradually be updated to a wise guide if the old ways are interrupted and the new ways practiced.
Q: Recovering from eating disorders is a process. What would you like people who’re struggling in their recovery or who’ve experienced a relapse to know?
A: What comes to mind when you ask this question is something I read in a book by Daniel Siegel about mindfulness training (The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration, Norton, 2010).
Siegel draws on the work of a guy named Daniel Coyle who’s studied how people learn new skills and become expert.
Coyle’s studies show that mistake–making is a mandatory part of the skill–acquisition process. The study of and learning from mistakes, often over and over again, is how those new brain pathways develop to replace the old automatic circuitry of your eating disorder.
“The struggle,” Coyle says, “is not optional—it’s neurologically required…you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must teach your circuit” (Siegel, p. 221-2).
Imagine embracing mistake–making as necessary! Your critic’s not in Kansas anymore!
Just to wrap up the subject, I can’t resist passing along the end of Coyle’s quote. All the struggles to learn from your mistakes, he says, “end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it” (p. 223). How cool is that?
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about eating disorder recovery?
Here are a few themes that come up over and over when I ask people to share with others new to recovery: You’re not alone…It can be done…Be patient with yourself…It’s worth the effort.
I’m so grateful to Susan for her thorough and thoughtful interview!
Stay tuned tomorrow for Elizabeth Short’s guest post on recovery.
What do you think about Susan’s words? How do you overcome the inner critic? What would you like people to know about recovering from eating disorders?
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). Eating Disorder Recovery: Inner Critics & Relapse. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 28, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2011/02/eating-disorder-recovery-inner-critics-relapse/