Yesterday, we discussed recovering from eating disorders. I shared my interview with Carolyn Costin and excerpts from her book, 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder: Effective Strategies from Therapeutic Practice and Personal Experience, with co-author Gwen Schubert Grabb.
One of the topics we talked about was feelings. Learning to tolerate your emotions in a healthy way is important for recovery – and for living life. But many of us, whether we have an eating disorder or not, have a tough time identifying and processing our emotions.
Interestingly, our perspective can make or break negative emotions. As Costin said: “Your emotions are your body’s response to your thoughts.” Or, “What you tell yourself affects your emotional state.”
We run into trouble when our thoughts are inaccurate and self-critical but we see them as pure fact. These are called cognitive distortions. Psychologist and eating disorder specialist Sari Fine Shepphird, Ph.D, defines cognitive distortions as “a biased way of thinking about oneself or one’s environment, including one’s body image, weight or appearance” in her excellent book 100 Questions & Answers About Anorexia Nervosa.
Cognitive distortions exacerbate disordered eating and undermine a positive body image. And it becomes one bad cycle: You have a negative thought, which makes you feel like crap. Which sinks your mood and triggers more negative thoughts and criticism. Negative thoughts also can fuel anxiety and depression.
Shepphird provides a list of cognitive distortions in her book. I wanted to share these with you, because, again, these thoughts can do some serious damage, without us even realizing what’s going on. Being aware of these cognitive distortions can help you better understand the inner workings of your disordered eating or negative body image. Once you can identify these insidious thoughts, and how they impact you (lead you to binge or purge; ignite anxiety symptoms), you can work through them, and start to move forward.
Here are some of the problematic distortions from Shepphird’s book.
- All-or-nothing thinking. Many of you are probably familiar with this one. It’s the idea that things are either black or white, right or wrong. There are no shades of gray. Shepphird’s example is “I am a failure because I ate too much today.” In other words, you’re either good because you restrict, or bad because you had a second helping. Or you either diet or binge. (Some “health” magazines perpetuate this type of thinking by telling us that if we don’t diet and abide by strict food rules, we’ll become ravenous beasts and inevitably eat everything in sight.)
- Catastrophizing. Here, you assume the worst in a situation. For instance, Shepphird writes, “If I binge again, I have no hope of getting better.” Another example would be “I feel so bad about my body today; I’m never going to have a positive body image.” Basically, you create a mountain out of a molehill.
- Mind reading. You assume you know what people are thinking. If you remember, I talked about this in my post on not fitting in at the gym. I pretended to be a psychic who could read every gym-goer’s mind. I knew they thought I was some impostor and didn’t belong. (Of course, I didn’t know that but I convinced myself that I did.) People with body dysmorphic disorder often mind-read. They believe they know that others are thinking negatively about their appearance (e.g., “I just know that person is disgusted by my big nose.”)
- Personalizing. This involves reading into others’ behaviors. You assume that someone’s actions are in response to you. Shepphird gave this example: “He went out with his friends because he thinks I’m dull.” Or “My boyfriend didn’t hug me because he thinks I look horrible today.”
- Shoulds, musts and have-tos. Like all-or-nothing thinking, this cognitive distortion is all about rigidity. Shepphird shares several quintessential examples: “I should not eat the other cookie,” or “I have to be the one who gets straight A’s.”
- Comparisons. So many of us compare ourselves to others, whether it’s their supposedly magical life, personality or appearance. How often have you assumed that someone didn’t finish their meal because of their powerful willpower? I have! Shepphird gives that scenario as an example. She writes, “She didn’t finish her plate; she must have more willpower than I do.” Other examples: “She’s in much better shape than I am.” Or “She was able to recover from her eating disorder must faster.”
Which of these cognitive distortions do you relate to most? How have you been able to overcome these thoughts? What helped you?