The Use of Self-Compassion in Eating Disorder Recovery
Self-compassion can be a foreign concept to people who suffer with an eating disorder, especially during the early phases of recovery when one’s self-concept has already been hijacked by self-critical and judgmental thoughts, challenging emotions, and self-harming behaviors. Often, what is left instead is a great deal of self-loathing. As a clinician or a loved one, it can be very difficult to watch someone suffer in this way.
I have learned—after many years of specializing in working with this population, and through my own personal journey with recovery many years ago—that self-compassion allows individuals to come out from the darkness that created isolation and despair and eventually allows them to re-connect with self and others once again. With this skill, people who have suffered from an eating disorder can return to living life in joy and freedom—never to forget the limitless possibilities they possess when they see and hold themselves in compassion.
Early stages of recovery: Finding relief in embodiment
I’ve found in my work with those recovering from eating disorders that the self-loathing we commonly see is really just a thick layering covering the self-compassion that lies inside and awaits awakening. This awakening is not easy though, as often the self-loathing blocks any attempts at self-kindness. This blockage can be seen very clearly in the beginning stages of recovery when one is still struggling with self-harming behaviors that offer daily reminders of this self-loathing.
I have found that to awaken this deeply buried internal compassion, I need to work slowly around it. Self-compassion is more readily accepted when I introduce it first through an embodied experience, such as through the MSC practice, “Soles of the Feet,” or another grounding practice such as “Feet, Spine, and Seat,” a practice from my book that draws attention in a neutral way to the body and offers a grounding experience in the moment. Another practice I use is a simple guiding of the breath called “Equalizing the Breath,” where one simply breathes in for the count of three and exhales for the count of three. All of these practices help to center and ground an individual in the present moment, thereby guiding the mind away from self-critical thoughts.
In this way, these practices offer a sense of temporary relief in a body that knows nothing but suffering and is perceived as the enemy. These embodied practices introduce what being away from self-loathing and self-criticism can feel like for a few moments, along with what it feels like to—what I call—“befriend the body” for just a few minutes.
Another way to describe this is the allowance of inhabiting one’s body—once again, in a new, non-threatening way. I encourage my clients to deeply sense the experience they feel in their body, an experience which teaches them what it feels like to have a moment free from the eating disorder.
Often, they report back in terms of freedom or clarity, saying:
“It feels free.”
“I feel centered.”
“My head is clearer.”
“My eating disorder wasn’t here.”
I then use these moments to plant the seeds of self-compassion, saying, “Do you realize that you just experienced a moment of giving to yourself? You just experienced what it feels like to offer yourself and your body care once again.”
I also say: “You just experienced the development of self-compassion from the inside.”
I have learned through this very gentle, slow introduction to self-compassion that together, we can awaken the buried seeds.
Mid-recovery: Replacing self-harming behaviors with compassion
Working in this gentle manner reminds me to be self-compassionate as I slow down, breathe, and remind myself how hard it is to hold the suffering of another. I am also reminded that when someone lives in a world of harshness for so long, the thought of taking away the eating disorder can feel threatening. This is a challenge when working with this population and explains why there is such a high percentage of people who do not recover. After all, the eating disorder has served a purpose in their lives for so long. While it is so damaging to the self, it has often also become a harsh, critical friend, and so I compassionately hold this understanding in mind as I move through treatment.
Together, we learn how to cultivate self-compassion in ways that support all phases of recovery in order to slowly allow the release of self-harming behaviors. In the beginning stages of recovery, self-compassion is applied through the body as we awaken embodiment together and help to free the self-harming behaviors.
My clients learn that in order to let the disorder go, they have to stop shaming and condemning themselves for having had it in the first place. Rather, they come to compassionately understand and forgive it. They learn through self-compassion to accept and face the suffering it has caused, and then to hold themselves in a new self-protective way in order to let it go. Over time, as self-compassion grows, so does the strength to let the disorder go.
Final stages of recovery: a new way of being
Toward the end of recovery, when self-harming behaviors have ceased and they have learned how to hold themselves in a compassionate way each day, they come to understand that self-compassion helped them grow from self-loathing into self-love; from self-harming into self-protection; and from disconnection into connection within oneself and with others.
With the skill of self-compassion, people who have suffered from an eating disorder can return to living life in joy and freedom—never to forget the limitless possibilities they possess when they see and hold themselves in compassion.