Self-Compassion in Eating Disorder Recovery: Dealing with that Pesky Internal Critic

Who Needs Self-Compassion? For those with an eating disorder, where anxiety levels tend to be elevated, a harsh internal critic can make recovery harder. That’s because a cruel or catastrophizing voice maintains a state of anxiety, isolation and hopelessness. Self-compassion provides a bridge out of this state. For carers, self-compassion tops up our ability to nurture our loved ones: you can’t pour from an empty glass. What is Self-Compassion For? When things are hard, or when our body is under stress or malnourished, our nervous system registers a threat and throws us into a state of fight, flight or freeze. You might not like it, but it’s a good survival mechanism. It allows our body to mobilize all its resources to protect and defend itself against attack… even when there is no actual attacker. In everyday life, the problem is that while we’re in fight, flight or freeze, we are not fully ourselves. We are in knee-jerk mode. We have little or no access to our intelligence and we’re not in conscious choice. Our body is affected too: if we are in this state for long periods of time we suffer from the effects of stress and anxiety. What can be done about difficult emotions? How can you buffer yourself against suffering? How can you recover from all the arrows that hit you throughout the day? The evidence points to self-compassion as the best tool for regulating our emotions. When our nervous system detects kindness, it gets the message that the threat is over, and we return to a fully functioning state where we operate on all cylinders again. We reconnect with our true self and regain our power, wisdom, our ability to act from choice. Self-kindness moves us out of the misery we create for ourselves many times a day as we react to life’s imperfections. Kindness is also useful when bad things happen and there isn’t a compassionate person to hand. While self-compassion is necessary to our wellbeing, don’t turn it into an exercise in self-sufficiency: human beings thrive on connection and you must get kindness from others too. Be Kind to Your Internal Voice We humans come with a negativity bias. We catastrophize, we judge others harshly and when it comes to ourselves, we can be shockingly cruel. So many of us have a core belief that we are unloveable. Or, that our existence is only justified if we accomplish all kinds of feats. That creates so much suffering, and you can’t combat that with logical self-talk. Nor can you prop yourself up for very long with a boost to your self-esteem. Whereas self-esteem tends to rely on performance, achievements and comparison with others, self-kindness, with its emotional and somatic qualities, brings us back to our full self. Is Self-Compassion Self-Indulgent? Because self-compassion moves you to your full, powerful self, you find yourself in a state where you are energized to engage with your passions and to contribute to your world. You’re working with yourself, not against yourself. How to do Self-Compassion Self-compassion is simple. Be kind and accepting to yourself. If you need more handholding, the following elements have been found to make it most effective:

1. Pause and notice

Get into the habit of catching cruel, judgemental thoughts before they take over. Notice the jolt of fear or shame or grief as it runs through your body. Most of us have learned to avoid or overlook these calls for our attention. Do you worry that if you dwell on something unpleasant, it will only get worse? Quite the contrary – if you are kind to yourself.

2. Kindness

Be your own friend. Think, “I’m sorry you’re suffering, and I love you”. Use physical touch – a hand on your cheek, on your heart – as this sends a biological signal to your nervous system that you are safe. If you persist in being harsh on yourself, bring to mind the kind presence of somebody (real or imaginary) who cherishes you and loves you unconditionally.

3. Allow

Instead of arguing with your nasty or scary thoughts, instead of blocking your emotions, make space for them, allow them. When you catch yourself telling yourself you “shouldn’t” be the way you are, remind yourself that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable. Recognize that this is a moment of suffering, that it’s hard. Create an intention to be kind to yourself.

So many aspects of ourselves and of our lives are not of our choosing, but instead stem from countless factors from our genetic makeup, life events, and our environment. Accept “what is” instead of judging yourself for it.

4. Our common humanity

One way your internal critic will beat you up is to tell you you’re weird or bad. With self-compassion, you kindly remind yourself that your reaction is normal. It is normal that, as a human being, you should regularly fail and suffer and have the reactions you dislike so much. You don’t need to take it so personally – you are in good company.

Expand your awareness to the wider world, to our shared human experience. So many fellow humans would wish you well if they were with you right now and knew your story. Bringing to mind our common humanity counteracts our natural reaction to close ourselves off from others (and possibly see everyone as an enemy) when our nervous system is under threat.

5. Nurture

Self-compassion will make distress pass, but don’t rush it. Don’t force yourself to feel good. Instead, notice if something bubbles up as a wish, something you miss, that you long for. Makes space for it. “I so long for … (what?)”.

When you acknowledge what really matters to you, suffering tends to transform into empowerment. You can give yourself – and the wider world – a wish, a prayer, a blessing: “May I have….; may we all have…”

Self-Compassion in The Space of One Breath Self-compassion need not take a long sit-down session. In the time it takes for one long exhale, you can feel one hand in the other, soften with kindness, and tell yourself, “It’s OK darling, this is hard, please may it pass.” The more often you do it, the more it becomes your new normal.    

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    Additional Reading: For more on self-compassion, why it works and how to do it, see the many free resources produced by the expert on the matter, Dr. Kristin Neff. In Chapter 13 of her book ‘Anorexia and other Eating Disorders – how to help your child eat well and be well’, Eva Musby, the author of this article, guides you through self-compassion in more depth. Challenging and Changing Eating Disorder Thoughts Quiz For Self Esteem Identity and Self Esteem Written by Eva Musby, 2019