Your recovery from an eating disorder has been going strong. Perhaps you’ve been making strides in facing “fear foods,” are opening up in therapy, and learning how to use new coping strategies. Then, for some reason or another, you find out your current weight, which often causes “the eating disorder self” to start freaking out. Suddenly, you may find yourself faced with loud “eating disorder thoughts” and a desire to go back to your disordered behaviors.
For some people with eating disorders, recovery can bring about body changes. Not everyone’s eating disorder causes weight loss. However, for those whose eating disorder kept them below their natural weight range, recovery will help your body to get back to its set-point weight.
What is Set-Point Weight?
Our set-point weight is a range (typically consisting of 10-20 pounds) that our body will biologically fight to maintain. The same way that we cannot choose our eye color, or height, we cannot decide our bodies natural set-point weight range. Body diversity is real and thus our set-point weight range can vary from person to person.
When we try to suppress our body below our set-point weight, our appetite and metabolism will adjust to try to maintain our set-point. If we are below our set-point, our bodies may try to conserve energy by stopping our period, turning off our temperature regulation, or slowing our metabolism. Our thoughts will start to turn more towards food, as our body wants to ensure that we are taking in enough nutrition.
The idea of set-point can feel scary to people in recovery. However, it can also be comforting to know that when we provide our bodies with adequate fuel and engage in gentle movement, our bodies will take care of regulating our weight.
What if I Understand Set-Point and Am Still Struggling to Accept my Natural Weight?
As an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland, the following are a few of my tips for accepting body changes in recovery.
1. Practice Self-Compassion
The first element of self-compassion is mindfulness. It’s important to acknowledge and notice that you are suffering. You might also pay attention to any emotions that are coming up for you and where you feel them in your body.
The second element of self-compassion is the idea of “common humanity.” Many people in recovery struggle initially with accepting body changes and their natural body size. It’s important to note that you are so not alone in how you are feeling. Additionally, you are not “vain” or “shallow” for focusing on your weight and body. Rather, you are struggling with a serious mental illness. However, full recovery is possible.
The third element is being kind to yourself and treating yourself the way you would a loved one who was struggling. Beating yourself up for having unhelpful thoughts about your body will only serve to make you feel even worse.
Instead, try acknowledging how brave and strong you are for working on your recovery and for sitting with these unpleasant feelings. You deserve to treat yourself with the same kindness that you would give to someone you love.
2. Ask yourself what you are really hoping to feel or gain through attempting to change your body.
It’s important to ask yourself, “what do I feel that having my “ideal body” or “being thinner” would bring me? No one desires to have a certain body type simply for the sake of acquiring that body type. Rather, often we desire to look a certain way because of what we believe it will bring us. For instance, diet-culture (and eating disorders) try to convince us that “thinness” will give us a sense of self-worth, love, health, and acceptance.
While it is true that weight discrimination exists and that people in larger bodies are often unfairly judged in our society, the reality is that we cannot control our world, other’s opinions of us, or our ability to be loved through our weight. Every day people of all shapes and sizes find love, achieve success, and feel joy and happiness.
Once you ask yourself, what you are really hoping to gain ( i.e. confidence, a loving relationship, etc)- you can then look at some ways that you can actually work towards those things, without trying to change your body.
3. Make a list of all the other things that have changed in your life through recovery.
Your eating disorder may try to convince you that you were so much happier when you were in a smaller body. However, this is just another way that it is attempting to control you. While for many recovery can bring weight changes, it’s also important to look at what other changes have occurred in your life as a result of your recovery.
Living with an active eating disorder is a miserable place to be. If you’ve gained weight in your eating disorder recovery, what else have you gained? Maybe you’ve gained the ability to laugh with your friends, to enjoy dinners out with family, to pursue your passions, and to feel engaged in your life in a meaningful way. These things, are a billion times more important than any number on a scale or pants size (no matter what your eating disorder is telling you).
Ultimately, what do you want to be remembered for? No one writes in someone’s obituary, “she was so thin,” or “I’ll remember her for her 6 pack.” Eating disorders often will isolate you from loved ones and take your mental energy away from focusing on what truly matters. Work to shift focus to the things in your life that are actually meaningful and in alignment with your true values.
4. Practice radical acceptance.
It’s ok if you aren’t at a place where you are in love with the appearance of your body. Ultimately, our bodies are meant to change as we age. Therefore, putting your self worth into your appearance is a recipe for discontent.
It can be helpful to work to practice a dialectical behavioral therapy skill called “radical acceptance.” Acceptance does not mean that you must love your body, rather it means that you work to accept it. Fighting against your natural weight is not serving you. Accepting your natural size will enable you to strengthen your recovery and take better care of yourself.
Additionally, it’s important to note that in recovery you may have periods of intense body-image distress. However, these periods are only temporary. Thus, it’s critical to practice “leaning into the discomfort” of the emotions and continuing to take recovery actions-no matter what you mind is telling you. No feeling lasts forever and if we can sit with them, they will naturally rise and peak on their own-much like ocean waves.
The Bottom Line
I encourage my clients to get rid of their scales and if they must be weighed to be doing “blind weights.” Scales, clothing sizes, and the BMI chart, ultimately tell us nothing about our value as people-or anything else of significance.
If you are struggling with urges to use eating disorder behaviors, it’s so important to reach out to a professional, friend, or family member for support. Learning how to turn to people rather than your eating disorder, can be a crucial aspect of strengthening your recovery.
Despite what your eating disorder may be telling you, I know this to be true. You are not more valuable if you take up less space. Further, your worth is not found in your body size or shape.
Your true value is found in the sparkle in your eyes when you laugh, the way that you pursue your passions, how you help others, and in your relationships. You are enough, and you are worthy of love and belonging, just as you are.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer specializes in helping adolescents and adults struggling with anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, and body image issues. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD, accessible to individuals in Potomac, Bethesda, Olney, Germantown, and Washington D.C. Connect with Jennifer through her website: www.jenniferrollin.com
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.