One of the hardest parts of recovering from an eating disorder is learning what to do with the constant “Ed” thoughts that stream through your mind anytime you’re anywhere. For those of you who haven’t heard of “Ed” before, this is simply a shorthand way that some people find helpful to refer to their Eating Disorder (E.D.). And for anyone who has ever met Ed personally, you understand the feeling of having your thoughts dominated by an unwelcome, critical, and never-satisfied voice:
- “You’re fat.”
- “Your legs are too big.”
- “That food has too many calories for you.”
- “You can’t pull off that outfit.”
- “You need to skip lunch and double your run.”
Changing Our Thoughts Is Not That Easy
When someone is struggling with such thoughts, a common approach in treatment has been to attempt to change, “fix,” and learn to control those thoughts. In fact just get rid of those thoughts all together and replace them with positive thoughts. Sounds good, right?
And it would be, if only it worked. But in my experience it just is not that easy. Not because people who struggle with eating disorders have less control over their thoughts than other people…but rather because they have exactly the same amount of control over their thoughts as everyone else, which is not a lot.
Surprised? So was I. Let’s try an exercise to see what I mean: Whatever you do in the next five seconds, do not think about chocolate chip cookies.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
How did that go? My guess is that somewhere in your mind you pictured a chocolate chip cookie in the last five seconds. Even though I told you not to and you tried not to – you just did. The same thing happens when we tell ourselves not to think a specific thought … it just pops into our head anyway. We can distract ourselves from it or numb, drink, purge, or exercise it away … but then there it is again, that same old pesky thought. Not only is it still there, but we are also worse off for our attempts to get it to go away.
So if control is not working, what can we do?
We Can Change How We RELATE to our Thoughts
Just because you have a thought does not mean that thought is true, helpful, or worth your time … especially when it’s an Ed thought. Yet, as humans we sometimes give these thoughts the power to define who we are and what we do. For example, the thought “I am ugly” turns into a statement of identity – that this is who I am, Ugly. In fact, I might as well change my name to Ugly and go around introducing myself that way – that’s the kind of power we give these thoughts. We tend to give this kind of power to thoughts that carry emotional weight and significance, perhaps something we’ve been bullied about or something we particularly fear. It is important to note that just because a thought has emotional weight, doesn’t mean it’s true or worth your attention.
Instead of trying to control and get rid of “I am ugly,” and instead of giving it the power to define you, try a different approach. Go ahead. Pick a negative thought or self-statement that carries some weight for you, something with which you struggle. I’m using the example of “I am ugly,” but you can use any example you like– just substitute your statement wherever you see “I am ugly.” Then give this a try:
- Think to yourself “I am ugly.”
- Now say to yourself, “I am having the thought ‘I am ugly’’”
- Now say, “I’m observing that I’m having the thought ‘I am ugly.’”
- You can really get as extreme with this as you want: “I’m aware that I’m observing that my brain is producing the neural firing patterns that are resulting in the thought ‘I am ugly.’”
Gaining Distance From Our Thoughts
Does this seem kind of silly? Maybe so. Notice whether you gained any sense of distance from the thought “I am ugly” in this process, and whether that thought became more of an object or a happenstance, rather than an automatic truth about who you are.
What is the point of all this? The point is that when we try to control, change, or fix our thoughts, we often end up arguing with ourselves and attempting to reason away thoughts that aren’t very reasonable in the first place. In my experience, taking this approach with Ed thoughts in particular can lead to discouragement and self-blame. The better approach is not to seek to control, change, or fix, but to relate differently to those things that pop into our head/We can:
- Recognize them for what they are — thoughts, not truths.
- Accept that the thoughts are there versus arguing with or running from them.
- Reduce the power these thought have over us by gaining distance from them and not letting them define us.
- Learn to live our lives based more on what we value and less on what we think.
Strangely enough, the result of such a relationship with our thoughts can lead in time to a decrease in the frequency and loudness of our unhelpful thoughts, which is our goal.
Christian Counseling Can Help You Deal with Ed Thoughts
If you experience overwhelming and repetitive self-critical thoughts or if you’ve experienced discouragement trying to control and fix your thoughts, consider reaching out to a professional Christian counselor for help. A trained therapist can offer guidance as you work to reclaim your life from Ed or any other source of negative self-talk. I can’t help but end in the words of Paul:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” Philippians 4:8 (NIV)
The ideas and examples presented in this article are based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), for which there are many good resources. A helpful introduction to ACT can be found here: http://www.thehappinesstrap.com/about_act
Images are courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net: “Nervous Woman Stock Photo” by David Castillo Dominici; “Wet Beach Pebbles Stock Photo” by Simon Howden