Is the Eating Disorder “Shoulding” on your Recovery?
Author: Katrina Wilson M.A. RPC
The eating disorder loves expectations. Particularly unrealistic, unattainable, and rigid expectations. It knows no bounds when deciding what you should strive for and what it would take to be “good enough” at something, showing up in all areas of life. It’s no surprise that it would also create expectations and perfectionistic standards about how you should be doing in your recovery - how long it should take, when you should be able to achieve certain food goals, how you should feel, how much you should struggle. The list could go on and on.
These expectations work solely for the eating disorder, because they are designed to make you feel like whatever you are doing in your recovery, you are not doing enough. It diminishes any progress you have made, wanting you to focus instead on what you still have to work on to achieve full recovery. It forgoes how much energy and effort it takes to dedicate yourself to recovery, convincing you that it should be easy and struggle-free. These experiences create feelings of discouragement, hopelessness, and the feeling of “why bother?”. This is one of the main motives of the ED in popping these thoughts – to get you to give up, to abandon recovery because you aren’t doing it “right”.
The all-or-nothing mindset of the eating disorder shows up in this way. We know that recovery is a fluid, non-linear experience that the eating disorder tries to sabotage and make rigid with these unrealistic expectations and beliefs. This just creates frustration, anxiety, and pressure to perform, all of which you do not need as you work on your recovery.
Recognizing when the eating disorder is coming in with unrealistic expectations is important, and you can use the same techniques to address these thoughts as you do with other eating disorder thoughts. Labelling them as coming from the eating disorder, and reframing them using a more realistic, flexible, and compassionate perspective can help keep you from getting hooked on the thoughts and acting from the fear and frustration they create. Here are a couple of tips for reworking your expectations around recovery:
Choose to look at recovery from a values-based perspective, alongside the more traditional goals-based perspective. Think about how you want to approach recovery and the challenges that come along with it. Do you want to be honest and authentic with your team, practise showing up in your recovery, and put into action the coping skills you are learning? This perspective can help you to see the strengths you have in your recovery, even during moments of struggle.
Acknowledge that you are doing your best, and that this may look different depending on what is happening for you in the moment. Your best will change on days you are struggling with body image from days the ED is quieter. Your best may change from morning to evening. Allow that to be ok.
Focus on the progress you are making, rather than the perfection that the ED thrives on. Think back to how things looked for you when you started your recovery journey and highlight what has changed since then and the effort you have put into making those changes happen. Yes, you have more work to do, but this does not negate all the work you have already done.
Make your own “recovery expectations” list, one that is based on what you know realistically about the recovery process. Include things like “I expect to struggle and do the next best thing”, or “I expect recovery to take time and practise”. Steer clear of language that promotes all-or-nothing thinking (ex. Always, never, can’t).
Finally, remember that your recovery journey is just that – yours. It has no timeline, no markers that show whether you’re doing it “right”, no “shoulds”. It is fluid and personal. There is no room for unrealistic expectations, which just fuel the ED and make recovery harder for you. Allow yourself to drop these expectations, and focus on doing the next best thing.