The Importance of Self-Reflection in Recovery - How This Simple Practice Can Steer Us in a New Direction
Self-reflection is a really important skill to develop in recovery (and life for that matter). It allows us to think deeply and carefully about where we are and where we might want to be; to critically analyze our automatic thoughts, urges, and actions and to build capacity towards replacing those automatic responses with new, more thoughtful ones that better align with your core values.
Self-reflection can be practiced in all areas of our lives and when it comes to recovery from an eating disorder, it can be practiced in a general sense around the behaviours and thought patterns that the disorder consists of that are individual to each of us, but also in more specific ways. In this blog post, I’d like to explore some of the more specific ways we can practice self-reflection by exploring certain examples.
Social Media & Sharing Our Stories
Social media is an ever present feature in our present-day lives. It can be a way to connect with others, share our stories, and create discussion around stigmatized issues such as mental health and mental illness. However, social media can also be unhelpful for us in our journeys as it can create harmful comparison, present limited stereotypes, and keep us stuck in unhelpful patterns. It’s important to remember that social media is a limited snapshot of people’s lives and frequently doesn’t feature the messier, unfiltered, raw parts of life.
Often times what is featured on social media (especially in recovery communities) is what feels safer and more acceptable, for people to share. In terms of eating disorders, this tends to be restriction, underweight bodies, and physical compromise. Quite often anorexia nervosa is the dominant struggle showcased and discussed on social media platforms, but anorexia nervosa is actually the LEAST common of all eating disorders (while binge eating disorder and otherwise specified feeding and eating disorders make up the most and second most common eating disorder diagnoses respectively.) Thinness and restriction feel easier to share because they are more favourably viewed in our general culture: restriction is still frequently associated with self-control and thus viewed favourably. It’s important to note that restriction is not just an issue persons with anorexia nervosa struggle with, it frequently underlies other eating disorder behaviours. What people often don’t realize is that different eating disorder diagnoses are truly not that different from each other and restriction mindsets often underlie all types of behaviour (including bingeing) because restriction is much broader than simply not eating. When we hold the mindset that we must punish ourselves for eating, restrict food groups, or skip meals and snacks, regardless of what happens next, we are restricting ourselves and our bodies.
The issues with sharing these more accepted and stereotypical views of an eating disorder is that it makes it seem as though that is all that an eating disorder ever is and if people do not fit the stereotype, their struggle is not valid. But eating disorders are mental disorders NOT weight disorders and we are worthy of recovery whether or not we fit a simplified stereotype. Unfortunately much of the pain and struggle of an eating disorder is not visible and we are still a society with approaches to healthcare that rely heavily on objective features of illness to ascribe validity. When we ask people about their pain, we ask for a number (on a scale of 1 to 10…) because that number gives the healthcare practitioner something objective to chart which helps them have an agreed upon version of reality (of pain in this case) and legal backing for their next action they take to treat the pain. This is an important approach, but it does have consequences in that we do tend to prioritize the measurable and physically demonstrable as the more real, more acute, more worthy of support. But many people never have demonstrably physical illness and this doesn’t make their struggle any less real or valid. Things like blood work, physical symptoms, weight, other measurements (like heart rate, etc.) are simply tools healthcare professionals use to try and understand what is going on in the body, but they are limited as they only reflect a brief snapshot of the way physical illness may show up in some individuals bodies. (Some studies have shown that even in stereotypically ill patients, lab values often do not reflect physical compromise accurately.) Again, eating disorders are mental disorders first and foremost and getting too caught up in physical symptomatology leads people to believe they don’t deserve help.
The focus on physical illness leads to sharing of simplified and single experiences of eating disorders which makes it seem like that is all there is. People are more comfortable discussing restriction, sharing struggles with weight loss or details around poor physical health, showcasing underweight bodies and body-checking photographs, images of hospital admissions, IV fluids, and nasogastric/feeding tubes. What is most important to hear is that whether your weight has changed or not during your eating disorder. Whatever behaviours you struggle with (and whether you transition through experiencing different behaviour). However long or brief a period of time you’ve struggled. Whatever underlies your struggle with an eating disorder. Whether or not you’ve ever sought professional help or even received a diagnosis. YOU ARE WORTHY OF RECOVERY. We all deserve to live our most authentic lives.
While we cannot necessarily control what others share, we can control what we share and what we surround ourselves with and sharing our own stories presents us with the perfect opportunity to practice self-reflection. Many of us have shared content that is potentially triggering to others and reflects our own struggles in recovery and state of mind (trapped in disordered thinking). I don’t mean these words to shame anyone for doing these things, rather the intent is simply to gently encourage self-reflection which is such an important skill to learn and develop in recovery.
When you feel the urge to share an image whether it’s of food, fitness, or a photo of yourself that might have more to do with body checking than with sharing, check-in with yourself and your intentions. Is this helpful for your own healing? Is this helpful for others to see? It’s an opportunity to explore what underlies your motivations for sharing which is often a search for external validity and the struggle with not feeling sick enough (we have some previous blog posts on these topics including - The Not Sick Enough Phenomenon and Raising Awareness Without Further Feeding Into Stereotypes). The important, but challenging thing to remember is that there is no sick enough, there is only having enough of being sick. External validation can be supportive, but it’s important to keep in mind that we will likely not ever feel entirely validated by others because only we can truly grant that to ourselves and decide we’re worthy (which is not to say having external reminders of this isn’t important too).
The Community You Surround Yourself With
Having a community of others (whether online or in-person) who understand the often stigmatized struggles we’re going through can be incredibly powerful and healing, but it’s also another critical opportunity to practice the skill of self-reflection and ensure that we’re protecting and nurturing our own growth and not holding ourselves back.
Is this healing or hurting me? Does it add to my recovery? Does it lift me up or weigh me down? These are important questions to ask ourselves again and again as we progress or even when we’re standing still in how we’re doing.
Even if you don’t feel ready to create space between yourself and others in recovery (or maybe you do feel like it is supportive), try leaning towards surrounding yourself with positive social media influences - there are many! Individuals and groups on Instagram and Facebook like bodiposipanda, recoverywarriors, and beatingeatingdisorders. Reading books like “The Body Is Not An Apology” or “Health At Every Size.” Listening to podcasts such as FoodPsych and The Eating Disorder Recovery podcast (among others listed here.) Checking out supports like the Looking Glass Foundation and NEDIC.
In summary, whether it’s in specific ways or a more general sense, self-reflection can help us build the capacity to create change by allowing us to pave new pathways for ourselves. This is challenging but critical for true healing.
Remember that our eating disorders are a well-worn pathway in our brains; they are what seems natural because they are a habitual route. Change is the discomfort of paving new neural pathways. Change is the discomfort of doing something differently this time. Every little suggestion our eating disorders make that steer us back towards that familiar pathway is an opportunity for self-reflection and trying something new (whether in small ways like watching how we share our stories and paying attention to the communities we surround ourself with to more general ways like engaging in behaviours). Each little moment that our eating disorders suggest themselves as the better option or “just-this-one-time-won’t-hurt…” is a chance to take a different route. The little moments are significant because they add up to something more (that includes the moments you might potentially fall down because it gives us the chance to get back up again and do something differently.) We are quite literally paving a new pathway in our brains that strengthens each time we choose it: it becomes easier by doing. It takes time to recognize the voice for what it is and feel strong enough to say “no, I’m doing something else.” But eventually it’s not a question or a hesitation, it’s just the new normal.